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It is not the hand that creates; it is the brain. Most of you would agree that our brains are a chaotic mass of intercrossing thoughts at the best of times. What it needs is a bit of organization. Even before we sit down to create anything from a shopping list to the next plan for world domination, we need a structure. An outline is that general plan which creates not only the foundation, but the structure of steel girders for our big work. The fill-in details are the mortar.
An outline is nothing but a hierarchical breakdown of what you plan to write or create. Arranged according to levels of importance and flow, and marked by numbers, roman numerals, headings-subheadings, indentations, or any other format. Think of them as breadcrumbs for your creative inspiration.
Some might argue that outlining ideas kills spontaneity…some say it is not a very organic process for creativity…but I would argue that at some point in your creative process, outlining is necessary to not only tie together everything but also to remove the superfluous.
Getting Started with Outlining Ideas: The Benefits
Some call it pre-writing. But “outlining” sounds more apt. To notch up a few points on the outlining versus not-outlining debate, here are a few benefits that can come from making this a regular habit.
- It helps to clarify ideas.
- It saves time if done correctly.
- It is a simple exercise in thinking and focus.
- It helps to show gaps where further information may be required.
- It shows the creator if all essential points have been covered.
- It helps to break down larger projects into manageable parts.
- It is a logic roadmap to follow from start to end.
- It helps to break writer’s block.
Among the cons, you can say that it throttles creativity and spontaneity. But I think a good outliner that allows you to easily demote and promote ideas can be a very effective brainstorming app as well. Yes, it might not be for everyone. So, I always say – do the best with the tools you have. If you are in favor of outlining your thoughts and ideas before you start work on your creative project, say aye and move on to these tools which can help you outline effectively.
Staying on the Desktop
Basically any note-taking application can be set up as an outliner. But using tools with outlining capabilities gives you more hands-on control, especially if you use the process regularly. Features like hiding specific elements, or promoting and demoting your outlined points are only possible in tools with more advanced features.
MS OneNote is probably one of the more under-rated programs out there. The tips covered in the aforementioned link should make you give it a second look. Another of its unappreciated features is its outlining abilities. Actually, it is almost an invisible feature because every note we take is part of an outline. Anything we type into OneNote is within a container. All formatting for an outline is within this. We can use the handles to move the container around within the note.
MS OneNote key features:
- Hide levels of your online with a double-click on the grab-box.
- Rearrange the order by dragging an outline with the grab-box.
- Select specific child nodes. On tablet PCs, you can use the lasso tool to make freeform selections.
- Use shortcuts to quickly apply formatting and styles. E.g. various bullet styles and numbering options can be selected.
The MSDN blog has a detailed page on using OneNote for outlining. Do check it out.
I had written a detailed post on How To Create Outlines & Organize Document in MS Word 2007. The Outline view is still very much a part of further versions of MS Word. In MS 2010 (and 2013 as far as I know), you can click the tiny Outline button located on the bottom-right of your MS Word screen. The Outlining tab gives you full control over your document. All of the features explained in the aforementioned article hold true.
The outlining features really come into their own when you have a long document and need to restructure it quickly. One of the more productive features of using outlines in MS Word is that you can easily export them to PowerPoint and create your point-based slides in a flash.
Creative artists and writers could have a leaning for minimal interfaces. Some web applications are perfectly suitable for this and their outlining needs.
Oak Outliner is a minimal writing app that helps you create quick outlines using nothing but keyboard shortcuts. A right-click context menu gives you more options to structure your document.
Oak Outliner key features:
- Oak Outliner recognizes Markdown syntax to format your outlines.
- Oak Outliner has specific outlining commands that allow you to move, promote, demote, and delete parts of your text.
- Oak Outliner gives you tags to link together different items that are spread across outlines and bring them under a common head.
- You can ‘fold’ sections of text to hide the details of your outline and see the big picture.
- Outlines are saved in the browser’s cache. You can copy-paste it to use it in another.
- Export outlines as OPML files.
Angela did a thorough review of WorkFlowy a couple of years back. The noteworthy thing about WorkFlowy is that it looks remarkably simple from the onset, but as Angela said then – WorkFlowy has the nifty ability of looking and acting much like a regular to-do list, while secretly behaving more like a project management tool or a mind-mapper. And as the site says: make lists, not war.
WorkFlowy key features:
- Expand and collapse outlined items to focus on one level at a time.
- Notes can be attached to the outlines and filled with more details.
- Though not useful as much for outlines, listed items can be marked off as complete.
- You can zoom into and out of your list items and create the hierarchy of your outlines quickly.
- To import, paste any list or outlines from the web and similarly export your outlines as formatted or plain text files.
- Tagging allows you to manage large and complicated outlines and assign tags to common items.
- Star important WorkFlowy pages or the ones you use regularly to access them quickly.
- WorkFlowy lets you share and collaborate on your outlines with others.
WorkFlowy has a free and a paid version. The free version allows you to make 500 lists per month which I think should be sufficient for most users. Pro users get other benefits like unlimited lists, Dropbox backups, a library of themes and fonts, password protected collaboration, and offline editing which is expected soon. WorkFlowy also has a free iOS app which works offline. An Android app is available which works like a proxy for the web app.
The Outliner of Giants (TOG) is a feature rich outliner that can handle large, complex documents easily. You can log into TOG with your Google account and this can be trusted to be secure as it works over a HTTPS connection. The web app has a free and pro account. TOG also has a Chrome extension.
The Outliner of Giants key features:
- It has a rich text editor (WYSIWYG) with theme support.
- The Outliner of Giants supports Markdown and Textile syntax.
- Attach your own files to individual nodes. Images and video embeds are supported.
- Organize nodes under parent nodes with drag and drop. Nodes can also be promoted and demoted.
- Apply labels and tags to distinguish your outlined points and make them easier to access.
- Sort nodes according to data, priority, or checked status.
- Free account allows for three collaborators.
There are quite a few tools which can be used as outliners. But a good outliner should have these basic features:
- You should be able to promote and demote nodes.
- You should be able to hide a node you are not working on.
- You should be able to collaborate with others on your outlines.
- You should be able to copy nodes from one outline to another.
- You should be able to import an outline from another application. E.g: Maybe as an OPML file.
- You should be able to export and backup your outlines.
- You should be able to search within your outlines.
Wikipedia has a page that lists quite a few outliner applications out there. Some outliners like Thinklinkr and Knowcase were not accessible at the time of writing. So, as we come to the end, let me ask you — which is the best outliner you have used (a pen and paper maybe!)? Did you use it for a creative purpose or for merely creating simple lists? Fire away in the comments.
Image Credit: Laptop with blank notepad via Shutterstock