A guide to outliners: programs that put a new twist on an old idea
by Robert C. Eckhardt
I remember how much I hated learning to outline, back in junior high. I rated outlining up there with sentence diagramming as a technique designed by teachers to make writing as unpleasant and difficult as humanly possible. I used to copy and recopy outlines to get them right -- and then dismiss the whole exercise as futile once I'd written a paper that bore little relation to my hard-fought plan.
But outlines, and my attitude toward them, have changed now that my pencil and piles of cast-off outlines have been replaced by a Macintosh and an outliner program. And the change is partly because the outlines I create now hold the potential to be far more than just skeletons for future writing projects. Outliners can serve, among other things, as simple databases, appointment books, automatic-dialing phone books, and storage bins for pictures or stray text.
So before you dismiss outliners as just updated versions of an old torture technique, consider what this burgeoning area of Macintosh applications can do for you.
All outliners perform the same basic job: they provide an easy way to create classic outlines (with subordinate topics nested under general topics) and to move, rearrange, temporarily hide, alphabetize, and otherwise organize all the topics. Similar though they may be at heart, however, outliners come in many different forms, from desk accessories or minor segments of major applications to full-scale applications replete with extras. Which kind of outliner is for you depends on how you intend to use it, the amount of RAM in your Macintosh, and several other factors.
You can call up desk accessory outliners like Acta, Voila, and Outlook (included in SideKick) at any time from almost any application-whether you're using a 512K Macintosh or running with a full MultiFinder set.
But because they are desk accessories, these programs lack many of the special features that application outliners offer. And although they are small by application standards, desk accessory outliners can still add considerable bulk to your System file-from 40K for Acta to 113K for Outlook.
Application outliners, such as ThinkTank and MaxThink, work with other applications under MultiFinder, but only if you have enough memory. Running ThinkTank, for example, with only one other program requires at least one megabyte of RAM. If you don't have enough memory, you must quit your current application, open the outliner, save your outliner work, and finally, reopen your application. Since outlining is rarely an end in itself, using an outliner in this way largely defeats its purpose. If you can spare the memory, however, an application outliner such as ThinkTank used under MultiFinder is just as convenient as a desk accessory, and more powerful.
As outlining catches on, more application outliners are combining full-powered outlining with other useful functions. The best known of these high-powered models is MORE, which can convert outlines into presentation graphics, create appointment calendars in outline form, and even dial the phone for you. MindWrite doubles as a basic MacWrite-like word processor. In both MORE and MindWrite, the outliner and the other parts of the program work together to make a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
The outline view in Microsoft® Word 3.0 is an example of the final type of outliner: a minor outlining facility resident within a major application. Unfortunately, Word's outline view seems more stuck-on than built-in. Although switching between outlining and writing views is quick and easy, the outline facility is awkward at best, and the interaction between the two views is often confusing and sometimes frustrating. Perhaps by the time you read this, built-in outlining facilities will be more numerous-and more useful-than Word's solitary and sorry example.
The operating style and features of outliners on the market vary considerably. Differences range from which key command performs a function to the way outlines are exported to other programs. Some of these discrepancies may seem minor, but they, can significantly affect the usefulness of an outliner. For example, if the procedure for moving outline topics seems counter intuitive to you, the program may drive you crazy long before you derive any benefit from it. Or if you need to create elaborately styled outlines, a program that permits only rudimentary use of Style commands won't be much help.
One basic difference between outliners is the amount of text permitted within a single topic. In Voila the maximum number of characters allowed in a single topic is 80, while in MORE the maximum is 127. With either program, if you have a lot on your mind (suppose while outlining a paper, you're inspired to type an entire paragraph), you must put the overflow text in a special window appended to the topic. With Voila, this means that you can't see the entire outline as a unit, since overflow text windows obscure the underlying outline.
In Acta, on the other hand, a topic can contain an unlimited amount of text. Acta even allows multiple paragraphs within a single topic. To make the outline easier to navigate and view, you can shrink topics so that only the first line is visible. If you use outlines as precursors for written work, and write by building on your outlines paragraph by paragraph, outliners that force you to put long sections of text in special windows can get in the way. In such a situation, it makes more sense to use an outliner like Acta, which allows you to keep all your text in the outline window.
A related issue is whether topics wrap to a new line when they hit the right side of the screen, or sail right into space, requiring you to scroll to see the text that runs off the edge. If you regularly write lengthy topics, scrolling to read an entire topic gets tiresome quickly. In both SideKick's Outlook and MORE, topics run off the edge of the screen. Acta's topics break to a new line when they come to the edge of the window, no matter how wide or narrow the window may be. And MindWrite text breaks either according to the margins set by the ruler or at the edge of the window, depending on which option you choose.
Outliners also vary in their text-editing and formatting capabilities. In MindWrite, for example, you can double-click on a word to select it, but you cannot extend the selection to neighboring words by dragging (although you can in most other outliners and word processors). On the other hand, MindWrite has an editing feature I believe is unique: if you want to turn a section of your outline into a separate outline, or to reorganize what you have, you can select any combination of noncontiguous topics and cut, copy, or move them.
Differing text styles and sizes can do as much to make an outline communicate quickly and effectively as indents, numbers, and letters can. Some programs, such as ThinkTank, provide only a limited number of fonts, sizes, and styles to choose from and require you to treat the entire outline the same way. Others, such as Voila and Acta, permit you to select the font, size, and style for headlines of a given level, or for a selected topic and its subordinates, or for some other portion of the outline, but not for individual words. MORE, Word, and MindWrite are the most versatile, permitting unlimited formatting of characters, words, and topics.
Although all outliners use indentation to indicate the topics and subtopics of an outline, every program has its own way of marking individual topics and indicating hidden subtopics and text. Most outliners use symbols of one sort or another-bullets, pluses and minuses, open and closed triangles-as topic markers. Word's outline view is a notable exception; unless you select the Renumber command, the topics in a Word outline contain no markers at all. Instead, Word uses ellipses and underlining to indicate collapsed subtopics and hidden text. There's little to recommend one symbol system over another; only Word's lack of marker symbols is clearly inferior.
Many outliners allow you to change the topic markers to one of several traditional outline-numbering schemes. Some, such as Word, MindWrite, and MORE, let you view the numbers on screen. Others, such as Outlook and Acta, number the outline only when you print it or save it as a text file. For creating technical reports or documentation that requires traditional outline-numbering schemes, you'll probably want to use an outliner that can number (and renumber) topics on the screen while you work.
Possibly the greatest advantage of outlining on a computer is the ease with which you can move topics and subtopics from place to place and promote or demote them. But here again, outline-editing methods differ from program to program. With most outliners (Word's outline view is a notable exception), you can use the mouse to drag a topic up, down, left, or right. And while all outliners have keyboard commands for left and right movements, only a few (such as Voila and MORE) have keyboard commands for moving topics up and down. So if you prefer to work from the keyboard, be sure to get an outliner that has a complete set of outline-reorganization keyboard commands.
Since you will often want to copy an outline to another application, an outliner's ability to export outlines with formatting intact is an important consideration. Since both Word's and MindWrite's outliners are meant to be used within their own programs, they can export outlines only as plain text with no structure.
Most other programs are more understanding. Acta, for example, can create either text or MacWrite files that not only preserve their outline structure but also include labels or bullets for every topic (if you prefer, you can create a file with no topic labels at all). MORE does even better: its Export command creates outline files with nearly all the formatting intact in Word, MacWrite, Jazz, and plain text formats, And if you are in MORE's Tree or Bullet Chart mode, the Export command creates a PICT (Draw) file containing the current tree or bullet chart.
A final difference in operating style has to do with how various outliners handle graphics. Some, such as Acta, place graphics directly in an outline. In programs such as Voila, however, you must place each graphic in a special window, which means that only one graphic can be viewed at a time. If you want to be able to scroll through an outline and quickly view all the graphics it contains, be sure to use an outliner that can handle the task.
III. Beyond Outlining
While not all outliners are equally capable, all of them can do more than just make outlines. Put another way, electronic outliners have transformed the outline format into something more than just a way to organize your thoughts. MORE outlines, for example, can generate bullet charts and other types of presentation graphics. But everybody knows that. What everybody doesn't know is that outliners can be used in many ways and in many situations, some of them obvious, others not so obvious.
For example, in addition to helping you organize thoughts, outliners enable you to organize almost any kind of list, alphabetically or numerically. If you create lists in a word processor and sort them by hand, using an outliner instead will save you time and frustration. All outliners can sort-alphabetically from A to Z and numerically from small to large. Some can also sort backwards, and some sort dates or times. MORE, for example, does all these things.
The way outliners sort numerical lists is often less than intuitive, however. In some programs, such as ThinkTank, all numbers to be sorted must contain the same number of digits, so you must add one or more zeros before smaller numbers. Other outliners, such as Acta, sort only integers and ignore any numbers to the right of the decimal point.
Because all outliners have at least a rudimentary Search command, outlines can also serve as simple databases. You could, for example, put your phone and address list in an outline, keep expense records in an outline, or create a reference outline of area codes that lists their location and time zone. The more sophisticated capabilities of some outliners can greatly increase the utility of such database outlines. More clearly provides the best example. It has time and date stamps that make entering time information for such things as expense records much easier. MORE's search and-gather and math functions enable you to sort an expense: list by type of expenditure and then determine the sum for each type. And once you locate a number on your outline phone list, MORE can actually dial it for you.
Outlines can also serve as storage bins for stray graphics and text. Desk accessory outliners, for example, work well as replacements for the Scrapbook. And since an outliner, unlike the Scrapbook, can create and open many files instead of just one, you have a lot more flexibility for organizing material. You might store images in one outline and text in another, say, or create separate outlines for different subjects and put images and text together. To find images quickly, you can type one or two descriptive words in the topic to which the graphic relates and then later search for one of the words.
An outliner can also serve as a replacement for the Notepad desk accessory. Again, outliners have the advantage of being able to open more than one note pad/outline file. And even the simplest desk accessory outliner has more sophisticated text-editing and formatting capabilities than the Notepad.
Desk accessory outliners can also be used to create custom help files for other applications. You could create a help file with instructions for features and commands you find a little too complex, or for others who use your computer and need a helping hand. Acta makes such a project especially easy with its Acta File feature, which opens a specified file automatically every time you select Acta.
On-screen appointment calendars are another function for which electronic outlines are well suited. Although you can create one by hand with any outliner, MORE's Calendar command automates the process. And a calendar feature can serve other purposes as well. For example, it can transform a whirlwind schedule of parties and dinners into a sobering expense report -- like Cinderella's glittering carriage into a dusty pumpkin -- as future engagements become fond memories.
It should be apparent by now that outlines have changed since my junior-high days. With all the advantages of on-screen editing, outlines are no longer a chore to create. Even the most basic outlining program serves a wide variety of functions. And with high-powered outliners such as MORE, the number of purposes outlines can serve is greater still. If you've been put off by memories of the outlines of your youth, now's the time to look again and see how much outliners have to offer.
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