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HomeRants > Goodbye documents, hello objects! > Outlining electronically > What electronic outlining tools can do for you




Reorganize continuously, letting the software do the dirty work

Reorganize your content to reflect what you discover

Articulate the structure of your content with meaningful headings

Create useful menus

Collaborate with other writers

Learn what we are writing about

What electronic outlining tools can do for you

Electronic outlining helps you restructure content.

Reorganize continuously, letting the software do the dirty work.

The software applies a distinctive format to each level, automatically, so you can drag and drop items, without having to cut, paste, and apply a different style. The software automatically applies whatever style you define for each level--font, size, color, indentation, even labels if you want them. So reorganizing goes much faster with electronic outlining software.

You can:

  • Insert and delete items
  • Select an item with all its components, at one click.
  • Drag individual items (or whole sections) up or down within a sequence
  • Promote an item to a higher level, or demote it to a lower level (just by clicking a button), allowing the software to reformat for you, so the item matches all the others at its new level
  • Display all the subtopics under one topic, or hide them all.
  • Reveal all the running text under a particular heading, then hide it.
  • Open the outline to a particular level, hiding everything below that.
  • Divide a rambling section in two, creating two items out of one.
  • Combine several related items into one.
  • Eliminate duplicate or redundant items.
  • Disassemble a group of subtopics, scattering them among several larger topics.
  • Collect several subtopics that belong together, under a larger topic.
  • Rewrite related topics to show similarity and differences.
  • Rewrite all the topics in a group to reveal why you have organized them in this way.
  • Verify that similar topics have similar subtopics.
  • Confirm that you have all the topics you expect (completeness)
  • Append notes that can be shown when needed, but otherwise hidden.
  • Create the entire document in the same file as the evolving outline, because the outline is simply one view, like the Print Layout view.

In the process, then, you can try out one organization, then another, seeing "what if."

You can analyze, experiment, compare, and revise the arrangement of topics much longer than anyone could stand doing with a series of pen-and-paper outlines (where each revision means recopying the whole thing by hand), or, for that matter, with regular word processing.

Outlining software offers us a structural view of our content--and tools for exploring that structure, modifying it, and, along the way, understanding that content better than we did before.

These strategies overlap and intersect. Creating the structure is an iterative, messy process. But the software gives you the tools for thinking, testing out various models, reworking the components.

  • You see the problems with your earlier organizations, and as you learn more about the topic, you revise to approach the truth, as you understand it that day.
  • Trying to understand the structure of the information, you learn; and as you learn, you articulate a better structure.

So outlining is partly research, partly brainstorming, partly writing. It is not a preparation for writing; it is the core of writing, and accommodates full drafts, note-taking, musings, right along with restructuring.

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)





Reorganize your content to reflect what you discover

As you uncover new facts, get a new understanding of the material, you can use the evolving outline to clarify:

  • What is more important, and what is less important (hierarchy)
  • What comes before what (sequence)
  • What items belong together in a group
  • What items provide the same kind of information, about different topics (similar items)

Articulate the structure of your content with meaningful headings

  • Compare content to headings to make sure the headings accurately describe the content
  • Compare headings, without intervening content, to make sure all the headings are distinct
  • Make sure that the sequence of headings, without any intervening content, sums up your argument
  • Make sure similar pages have the same structure, so that users who get used to that organization can move quickly through the other pages.

Create useful menus, offering users clear choices

  • Create a whole series of menus
  • Clarify the difference between options on a particular menu
  • Make sure that menu items accurately predict the content of the individual pages they point to
  • Make page titles that work as previews of the content of their pages, and as items in various menus (pointing to the page)
  • Ensure that the menu, as a whole, accurately models the way you have organized the content in the section that the menu points to.

Collaborate with other writers in developing structure.

When you are working together with a few other people, sharing the keyboard, you can see your ideas immediately onscreen, argue about the right order, revise the headings, learn as you go.

Outlining software is fantastic for:

  • Brainstorming (get all those ideas down quickly, without truncating or editing them)
  • Polishing the structure (getting multiple perspectives, getting rid of idiosyncratic organization)
  • Editing as you go (while one person writes, the other reflects; then you switch control of the keyboard)
  • Abandoning ownership (after you have both gone back and forth a few dozen times, no one recalls whose words these are).

Learn what we are writing about.

Our long-term memory for textual information is organized hierarchically.

Essentially, in our mind, we have a bunch of outlines.

So when you are exploring a new subject, creating an outline is a way to learn.

You present yourself with an external model of the information, analyze that, see if it matches what you know so far, expand it, revise it, and then go back to finding out more.

As you learn a new fact, you go back to the outline and figure out where this new information belongs.

You have a familiar organization into which you can fit the new. Of course, after adding a few new items, you realize that your whole concept needs to be changed, and that leads to a reordering, one that you hope more closely matches the reality you are describing.

You are building your own synapses, making your own connections, building your own understanding, by interacting with the outline as it grows.

Tip: For in-depth reviews of outlining tools, and other software that can help inspire you, see Innovation Tools.

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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