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HomeRants > Goodbye documents, hello objects. > Outlining electronically



What electronic outlining tools can do for you

How outlining went electronic

How going electronic changes our idea of outlining

How electronic outlining aids collaboration

A new model of outlining: what a difference the medium makes!

A bibliography on outlining


Outlining electronically

Here are four reasons why you should use electronic outlining when creating or inventorying content for the web.

1. You should use electronic outlining if you have more than a few dozen web pages to create.

No one needs to outline a short page, but if you are responsible for a hundred pages, or a thousand, an outlining tool may be just what you need to create, update, and revise all that content.

As you learn new information, you use the outline as a view of your current content, climbing up and down the scaffolding until you find the right spot to insert your discovery. Then, as you learn even more, you realize: I must reorganize this, to reflect the real nature of the subject matter, or to come closer to the mental model shared by my users.

Outlining allows you to keep reorganizing as you go.

Outlining is a process. When we were in school, we struggled to produce a single document, known as an outline, that would match our paper; of course, most of us wrote the paper first, and then cobbled together a fake outline based on that. Reasonable workaround, if you have to use paper. But with electronic outlining software, we can go on changing and tinkering and expanding and contracting the outline, in a continuous process. In this way, outlining helps us learn, and articulate what we learn, as we go.

Related articles:

A history of outlining: From papyrus to electrons (PDF 699K, 104 pages, 12 minutes at 56K)

STOP: Light on the history of outlining

How electronic outlining can help you create online materials

Making your writing visible--with electronic outlining

Extending the collaborative conversation
 --with electronic outlining (PDF, 206K,
4 minutes at 56K)


You should use electronic outlining if you are building one or more menu systems with multiple levels.

A hierarchical menu system is an outline, and outlining software helps you analyze the menu items without any intervening content: just the headings.

Then, with a click of a button, you can look at the content underneath one of the items, to see what it really says.

You can go back and forth between the heading and the text it describes, polishing the heading so that it works as a menu item and as a description of the page.

You can make all the Number Two headings parallel, to make it easier for users to pick the one they want, without much hard thinking.

You can rearrange the order easily, to express your new understanding of the material, or to match their users' mental models.

The software makes it easier to perform all the tasks involved in menu-making: promoting and demoting items, reordering, grouping, eliminating redundancies, clarifying distinctions, building hierarchies within hierarchies.

You should use electronic outlining if you are inventorying or tracking content for a content management system.

An outlining tool lets you make notes, then hide them, record document titles, and, underneath those, the component elements--then, when you are finished describing the details, you can hide them all, at the click of a button. Up and down you go.

You can track thousands of items in a single outline, because you can keep most of them hidden.

When you print out such an outline, it may run to three or four hundred pages. But when you are using it, you view only the parts you are interested in; all the others can be hidden. The software makes this hide-and-seek easy.

Better than index cards, because you do not have to shuffle them, or wrap rubber bands around them.

Better than a database, because you can switch views so rapidly: from the top level to the components of one item at the top, and so down, and down, digging to the details. With a database, you can store and track all your information, but you have to design reports carefully to get the analyses you want.

With the same information in an electronic outline, you can crawl all over it, in ways you might never have predicted when asking for a report from a database.

You are, in a way, already using electronic outlining if you are working in software that generates XML.

The software itself imposes an outline on you, based on the Document Type Definition, or schema for that type of document.

You must think in terms of a standard hierarchy of elements, known to programmers as a tree structure, and to writers as an outline.

The software shows you the outline view, indicating where you are in the structure, and suggesting what you can do next. Like other outlining applications, these tools often allow you to hide and reveal subordinate content, but, because you are working from a template, you cannot arbitrarily reorganize the sequence or hierarchy. The software, then, imposes its outline on you.

Don't bother with electronic outlining if

  • You aren't writing more than a few dozen pages.
  • You are writing a poem.
  • You do not have to worry about the audience's mental model of the content.
  • You are not interested in improving the organization of the content, so people can understand it, and use it, more effectively.


Buy the book from Amazon:
Outlining Goes Electronic,
by Jonathan Price
Volume 9 in the series Contemporary Studies in Technical Communication, from the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing,
Ablex, 1999
177 pages
ISBN 1-56750-379-9






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