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HomeRants > Goodbye documents, hello objects! > Outlining electronically > How outlining went electronic




Creating the first outlining tool

Theorists wrestle with the new tool

Word processing arrives, trailing outlining software

Writing textbooks drag their feet

Grudging acknowledgement

Why this contempt for electronic tools

Suffering in comparison with hypertext tools

The impact of the medium

The responsive medium

The document is always unfinished

Experimenting with different organizations

Word processing transforms the process

And within word processing...outlining

The process of editing software

Writing within the framework

Why textbooks scorn electronic  outlining

How outlining went electronic

(Adapted from Chapter 4, Outlining Goes Electronic).

Writers have produced outlines since the days of papyrus. But when software came along making it possible to create an outline electronically, we gained a new perspective on the process of arrangement. We got a great tool for organizing content, and a new perspective on the process.

But outlining first went electronic as a programming tool.


In 1958 John McCarthy, a computer scientist, and Marvin Minsky, a mathematics professor, started the M.I.T. Artificial Intelligence Project, and working with a number of graduate students, began creating a programming language called LISP, which has several unusual features.

  • Instead of doing calculations with numbers, LISP can manipulate symbolic expressions, such as those of IF-THEN conditions and Boolean logic.
  • Better yet, LISP can accommodate a string of reasoning, in which the symbolic expressions are represented as a list,.
  • Within that list there can be multiple levels, so the content of one statement can easily be expanded by adding subtopics.
  • Lists can be chained together with other lists. i
  • Items can be inserted or deleted.

With the addition of an interpreter on a time-sharing system, the language gained the ability to handle these manipulations without first recompiling a program, and then running it--making it possible to edit a list on the fly. (McCarthy, 1981).

Later developers came up with an editor which would display the indented hierarchical lists as a programmer created them, to make the evolving structure clear, as it grew.

Creating the first outlining tools

In the mid 1970s, Dave Winer, a student at the University of Wisconsin, saw a hierarchic program editor for the LISP language, and, inspired, created a similar tool for Pascal programmers. Winer (1988) recalls,

This embryonic outliner could dive and surface, displaying one level of the hierarchy at a time. Programmers could edit the structure of their programs directly. … This very early piece of software met the two criteria that make something an outliner: you can control the level of detail in the display of information, and you can reorganize according to the structure of the information.

Winer (1988) went on to develop several versions of outlining software that a consumer could use

  1. VisiText™, funded by and then canceled by Personal Software, the makers of the original spreadsheet, VisiCalc™
  2. bulletin board system that used outlining to keep track of messages and threads, and, in 1983
  3. A consumer product called ThinkTank™ for the Apple II™ computer, in 1983, ported to the IBM PC and the Macintosh computers in 1984.
  4. Adding organization charts, bullets, slide shows, a calendar maker, a phone dialer, and graphic pizzazz, Winer and his brother Peter released a new version of ThinkTank called MORE™ for the Macintosh in June 1986.

"I look back on MORE as the perfect product," Winer (1988) says. "It took outline processing, which was still a very spacy sort of category in 1986, and transformed it into a business application"

Indeed, ThinkTank™ and MORE™ were then imitated and popularized by more than a dozen of the most popular and successful word processing programs, presentation packages, idea processors, and complex document processors.

Going beyond a view of the document as running text or formatted pages, outlining software offers a structural perspective on the evolving document. As a "view," then, outlining software has become a component within the most widely used office programs in the world.

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)


Theorists wrestle with the new tool

Bolter (1991) welcomed these outlining tools, saying:

"It is no accident that the computer can serve as an outline processor. The machine is designed to create and track such formal structures" (p. 19), including hierarchies of programming structures such as lists, stacks, and branching trees, which are themselves outlines.

Heim (1993) raised the question, "What happens when computers supersede the printing press, when the outline is computerized?" (p. 46).

His answer, in part, is that we evolve from a modern to a post-modern sensibility.

Where the paper outline expresses an urge arising in the Renaissance, to "organize things visually in logical schemes" (p. 46), the electronic outliner shifts the focus from a fixed product to an ongoing process.

"The spatial anatomy of an ideational sequence now turns fluid, dynamic, unconstrained, and users sense the difference immediately. People familiar with grammar-school outlines lose their bias against outlining, their reluctance giving way to a feeling that computer outliners support their personal thought, fitting it like a second skin" (p. 47).

 Word processing arrives, trailing outlining software

The history of word processing begins with the electric typewriter (Price & Urban, 1984).

  • In 1964 IBM brought out the first reusable storage medium for a typewriter--magnetic tape--on their MTST (Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter).
  •  In 1969 IBM introduced MagCards--magnetic cards that were slipped in a box beside the typewriter. The operator typed on paper and the keystrokes were picked up on the card; the next time the operator wanted to send the same letter, the card could be used to recall (and retype) the text automatically.
  • In 1972 Lexitron and Linolex added video displays, so users could edit text before committing it to paper-avoiding endless retyping.
  • In 1973 Vydec added floppy diskettes, which could store the electronic version of every document, for reuse.

For the next ten years, companies selling standalone, "dedicated" word processor machines did a great business.

But as the personal computer emerged, with the Apple II in 1978, the IBM PC in 1981, followed quickly by many imitators and the Apple Macintosh in 1984, people realized they could do more than just word processing with a machine costing much less. Unable to adapt, companies like Wang plummeted to bankruptcy.

From early computer programs like WordStar, XyWrite, AppleWrite, and MacWrite, the market moved to word processing modules in "integrated packages" such as AppleWorks, Microsoft Works, and ClarisWorks (all stemming from the same original), and then stand-alone applications like Word or Word Perfect within "office suites" (not as tightly integrated as the beginner-level Works packages, but still able to exchange data with a spreadsheet, database, and slide-making program).

Beginning in 1985, with Aldus PageMaker, Apple's LaserWriter printer, and Adobe's page-description language PostScript, the desktop publishing trend swept through publishing, along with cold type, electronic graphics, networking, and electronic mail. In response, vendors expanded the capabilities of word-processing products like Word so that they have links to email packages, include a little drawing program, format better than the early desktop publishing programs, and dominate the office market. By the late 1990's, Word has become the lingua franca of business documents.

Writing textbooks drag their feet

Only in the 1990's, some twenty years after word-processing technology began to reach the general public, do textbook authors acknowledge that some of their readers are using word processing software.

And even then, some authors reveal an extremely narrow, and often out-of-date understanding of the electronic medium and word-processing tools.

Lester (1990), for instance, talks of dedicated word processing computers five years after those manufacturers had been driven out of business by the surge of personal computers. He seems to think that all word processing software has the commands he remembers from one of those old machines: he has, unfortunately, extrapolated from too narrow experience.

Your notes can then be moved around easily within the one document by BLOCK moves, which will also help you transfer them quickly into your TEXT document.....Write each note as a separate temporary file so that each can be moved later into the appropriate section of your TEXT file by a COPY or READ command. (p. 106)
Even as late as 1994 Hacker talks as if writers were using dedicated word processing machines (p. 60).

Bell (1995) includes the antique and rarely used WordStar in his list of "word-processing systems," just as if the year were 1983, and WordStar were a combination of hardware and software, not just an application.

Gaffes like these suggest that some of these authors have not taken the time to study the computer as a medium, and word processing as a tool, or that they consider the choice of medium and tools irrelevant to the main purpose of their textbooks.

Grudgingly acknowledgements

And what about outlining software?

During the 1990s, some textbook authors begin to mention outlining software, as a feature of or alternative to word processing software (Alred et al., 1992, p. 116; Bell, 1995, pp. 88, 90; Brockmann, 1990, p. 24; Hacker, 1994, p. 60; Johnson, 1992, pp. 142-3; Oliu et al., 1995, p. 26.).

  • Johnson (1992) envisions the student taking notes in one file, keeping that open on screen, and creating an outline in another file, then keeping that open while drafting the document in yet another window (pp. 142, 159).
  • Brockmann (1990) recognizes the usefulness of the outliner for large-scale movement of text during revision (p. 24).
  • But Alred et al. (1992) argue that the outlining software is so crude it can only be used to analyze the logic of an existing draft, not for "creating logic out of chaotic bits and pieces of information" (p. 116). Of course, Alred et al. (1992) quote an article from 1987 as proof that outlining software is "still in its infancy" (p. 116), although by 1992 outlining software was at least eight years old--mature, in terms of software.

Most of these authors simply acknowledge the existence of outlining software, usually as a subset of word processing software, and fail to explore the radical impact of these tools on writing itself, and outlining in particular.

Even after the advent of typing and word processing, authors diplomatically discuss outlining as if it were all done with pen on paper, and even with word processing available to most students in college, the authors tend to refer to it as an alternative, or extra option, not a routine tool.

Why this contempt for the electronic tools?

Why the long silence, followed by half-hearted, incomplete, and even inaccurate information?

Perhaps some of the authors ignored the emerging technology out of a feeling that many of their colleagues were experiencing--media resentment.

The composition folks do, after all, live within English departments, as do many of the technical communications authors. During the 1970s and 1980s, the humanities area as a whole feared the invasion of the computer, and many instructors put off learning anything more than the minimum about word processing software, carping at the personal computer as a glorified typewriter (Kaplan & Moulthrop, 1993; Landow, 1992; Lanham, 1989; Slatin, 1990; Tuman, 1992).

In 1985 Daiute says "Many humanists believe that interacting with machines stifles creativity" (p. 13), and she acknowledges this general anxiety:

Computers are often portrayed as controlling, dehumanizing, and alienating entities. ... One controlling computer feature that many people resent is its demand for precision. ... People also fear that as we program computers to do more and more for us, they will make humans superfluous, and that those uniquely human virtues of unpredictability, creativity, and soul will no longer have value in a machine-dominated society. (p. 7)

Some composition, literature, and rhetoric theorists consider word processing a matter of prettying up the text.

  • Halio (1990) argues that the graphic user interface of the Macintosh somehow led students to write less disciplined papers.
  • Tuman (1992) sees the biggest threat from word processing coming from its graphic options, which he sees undermining the students' effort at critical inquiry in an essay.

Tuman believes that graphic design cannot possibly reflect critical thinking or a complex personal vision, bringing together a series of thoughts in a single, coherent document. Of course, Tuman here dismisses the distinguished work of many graphic designers, and the emerging field of document design, so well articulated in Schriver (1997).

Tuman seems to think that if there is no printed text, there is no unity. "Indeed, with electronic conversations and different forms of online documentation and electronic presentations, there is no printed form, no document, no unified text" (p.4). We should note that online documentation presents a coherent document, whether one looks at the table of contents, or moves through a section using a Next button. Also, the design of hypertexts, as well as the design of onscreen page layouts, involves a great deal of critical thought, in part because they take users beyond the traditional layout of a dozen or so typed pages, paperclipped together as a report.

Suffering in comparison with hypertext tools

Other composition and literature theorists have dismissed word processing as relatively unimportant, compared to other software that seems so much more demonstrably an electronic publishing medium, producing a web of documents with structures and sequencing that cannot easily be captured on paper--hypertext authoring tools, electronic conferencing software, networks, and electronic mail (Barton, 1994; Hawisher, 1991, p. 47; Tuman, 1994, p. 4).

Ulmer (1989) laments the decline of the novel and the essay: "The two principal forms of high literacy, invented to exploit fully the specific virtues of the print apparatus... are disintegrating in the culture of electronics, creating a reservoir of simple forms available for new combinations reflecting the capabilities of the new apparatus" (p. 45).

Although the computer can be thought of as a mechanical apparatus, it constitutes a new medium, and all of these applications are tools for shaping the medium for communication.

Intrigued by the wonderful tools that produce materials that go way beyond paper, some scholars have focused on hypertext authoring packages and the documents created with them.

And some forms of hypertext have been staked out as intellectually exciting, because they seem to embody the theories of Barthes and Derrida. (Barthes, 1974, 1982, and 1986, particularly pp. 57-62; Derrida, 1973, 1981, and 1986; Landow, 1992; Moulthrop, 1989, pp. 20-21). Perhaps the authors of writing textbooks, working with and writing for so many people who dismissed word processing as unimportant, decided to downplay the impact of the computer medium and the outlining tool, in a gesture of solidarity.

The textbook authors evidently did not believe that the choice of medium and tools would have any significant impact on the quality of the thinking, writing, and discussion in the classes using their books.

The impact of the medium

I disagree, and I would like to take a moment to review some theorists' thinking about the impact of the computer and word processing, and then to explore what else electronic outlining offers--functions regularly ignored or treated casually in these textbooks.

The computer as a medium offers several advantages over pen and paper.

  • The keyboard helps the user catch up to the speed of thoughts, as it did on the typewriter.
  • The screen and the printer offer far more expressive layout and design, so the user can employ all the techniques of book design such as font, color, and layout to articulate the hierarchical relationships between elements, emphasize the significant, and lead the eye through the argument, in pursuit of the meaning. As Johnson (1997) says, "It's clear that the graphic interface played a crucial role in creating today's colossal market for word-processing applications, a market drawn not only to the functionality of the products but also to their look-and-feel." (p. 142).
  • At the core of the medium are the electrons playing inside the central processing unit, setting switches inside the random-access memory, lighting phosphor dots on the screen, or signaling dot patterns to a printer. Electrons, pixels, and dots all seem quite insubstantial compared to a pen in hand, and a piece of paper.

As Bolter (1991) says, "In the electronic medium several layers of sophisticated technology must intervene between the writer or reader and the coded text" (p. 43).

 In the same way, Johnson-Eilola (1994) reflects that a hypertext, "because it is electronic, is never completely physically 'there,' never able to be completely located in physical space because it is simultaneously located in the phosphor images on the computer screen; magnetic configurations of volatile silicon computer memory; more permanent floppy, hard, or optical disk storage; and sometimes electrical impulses in phone lines" (pp. 208-9). Of course, such virtuality is true of any electronic document, whether it is a spreadsheet, drawing, or outline.

Thanks to electrons, too, the activity of data entry is separated from the activity of display and both are separated from printout, so when one keyboards a sentence, one is not stuck with ink on paper; the letters appearing on the screen are "just" electronic, and one can change them quickly. Because input is separated from output, any document (text, mathematical formulas, art) can be revised quickly (Price & Korman, 1989, pp. xvii-xviii).

As a result, all electronic data--not just text--seems extraordinarily fluid, when compared to handwritten letters, typed notes, or photocopied materials. (Balestri, 1988; Baudrillard, 1983, p. 115; Bolter, 1991, p. 21; Costanzo, 1994, pp. 11-12; Heim, 1987 and 1993;, Landow & Delany, 1993, pp. 8-12; Tuman, 1992, p. 57). In fact, the document is freed from our unconscious association with paper; in effect, we no longer think of the document as "a paper."

We can now conceive of the document as a single intellectual communication, moving through a number of media environments, from our screen to the paper in the printer, to another person's screen, a thousand miles away, and, perhaps, to the film printer at a production house, then to book or journal pages, and finally, photocopies.

The responsive medium

Another unique capability of the computer is its responsiveness. The user moves the mouse, then clicks a hot spot on the screen, and it changes color, momentarily, then switches the information displayed on the screen.

  • Daiute (1985) says that some people use the computer "as a tool for writing. This means not only using the computer in much the same way as we use pencils and typewriters, but also exploiting its interactiveness" (p. 17).
  •  Costanzo (1994) elaborates: "The computer's responsiveness, its ability to perform quickly on command, to check spelling or suggest alternatives, to recast whole paragraphs in different arrangements for a fresh perspective--all contribute to the sense of a collaborative presence when one is writing deep into the night" (p. 16).

With the advent of the word processing tool, we see additional advantages for writers, most notably the ability to make editorial changes quickly without recopying the rest of the text (e.g., Bernhardt, Edwards, & Wojahn., 1989; Card, Moran, & Newell, 1983; Johnson, 1997; Kellogg, 1994).

When handwriting, students may see the opportunity for an improvement, but hesitate, because they are just making more work for themselves. Daiute (1985) says, "Each time they decide to make an improvement, they pay the price of incorporating the change into the text--recopying" (p. 116).

And, comparing word processing to typing, Daiute (1985) points out how hard it is to back up on the typewriter, apply correction tape or fluid, then restrike (or retype the whole page) compared with the ease with which you can use the Delete or Backspace key on the computer keyboard, to glide over the mistake, eliminating it (p. 35).

The ability to change without recopying allows students to draw up lists of concepts, then move them individually or in clusters, making sense out of the topics by organizing them. These lists form the basis for an outline, whether the student ever turns to the outline view or not. The electronic advantage over paper is, again, that the student can move faster to consider new orders, new groupings, without getting a sore hand.

The ability to avoid "time-consuming recopying or retyping" (Daiute, 1985, p. 36) also encourages students to "act more like experienced writers, who revise extensively" (p. 37). The changes possible include

  • Cutting
  • Moving
  • Inserting
  • Finding a word and replacing it
  • Copying a passage and using it in another location or another document.

And the changes need not be permanent, thanks to the Undo feature. Daiute comments on this aspect of deletions: "One advantage of electronic erasing is that it is not permanent. Text on paper that is crossed out or painted with correction fluid is no longer visible or usable. In contrast, erasing text on the computer is like putting it in a valise-the buffer. The text can be taken out of the valise and reinserted in a new location in the text" (p. 37).

The document is always unfinished

In a document open to continuous change, users lose a sense of closure. One draft blends into the next, without clear distinctions; the document itself is never really finished, and a printout simply indicates its current stage (Kellogg, 1994; Bernhardt et al., 1989; Daiute, 1985; Hawisher, 1987).

What Johnson-Eilola (1994) says of hypertext is true of any interactive software, including word processing: "In one sense, hypertext brings to the surface the resistance to closure, the infinite deferral of a single, univocal "meaning" in the text, concepts that are sometimes difficult to teach with print texts" (p. 211).

Word processing not only encourages change, it encourages reconsideration, comparison, testing of different approaches, each of which appears in well-formed type on the screen, looking like "final copy" even though it is still in the middle of transformation.

Experimenting with different organizations

One of the most important opportunities we get when word processing is the chance to experiment with different organizations. Daiute (1985) points out that the software allows a writer to try out several different organizations of ideas without retyping.

"By experimenting with alternative organizations or paragraphs, a writer might discover a new idea or a new relationship between the ideas already expressed" (p. 38).

But on a typewriter, the writer might well stop experimenting after one or two retypings, which take a lot of time, and wear out wrist and fingers. Even Kellogg, who does not believe that word processing improves quality, agrees that "Planning and reviewing are qualitatively different when drafting on a word processor. Moreover, a clear quantitative shift in cognitive effort occurs. The writer plans and reviews more intensely on a word processor" (p. 159).

Clean text onscreen and in immediate printouts give writers distance on the text, compared to the personal "feel" of their own handwriting. Bazerman (1994) points out that the text becomes an object to be inspected, in any writing situation.

"In this complex interactive process, text emerges. That text itself becomes an element in the process as something to be inspected and used, as a framework for continuing action" (pp. 14-15).
With word processing on screen and instant printouts, the writer can look objectively at the text more often than with handwriting or typing.
  • Costanzo (1994) argues that the distancing effect of the screen and printout decenters writers from their own texts by "altering the text's appearance through various formatting or fonts."
  • Fitschen (1986) says, "Decentering is the process of stepping back from one's own writing in order to see it afresh before revision" (p. 105). And the computer allows one to do that many times, whereas, for most people, the typewriter limits one to two drafts, or at most three.

In exploring one's own text, the writer takes advantage of word processing's functions to move around quickly within a document

  • Jumping
  • Scrolling
  • Paging from one location to another
  • Searching for a name or phrase
  • Displaying several documents open at once, within close proximity, for comparison and study.

Of course, skimming is more difficult on screen than on paper, in part because the resolution is so much fuzzier.

Close editing, too, suffers from the blurs onscreen, when a comma inside an italic phrase gets lost underneath its slanting neighbor, and a typo does not jump "off the page" to our attention.

The computer, though, is not just the screen--the printer is another key component, even though programmers call it a peripheral device.

So the computer allows writers to get instant printout, at four to eight times the screen resolution, because printed paper is a more precise medium.

Unfortunately, most theorists ignore the printer, treating it as some kind of typewriter add-on; they then complain that browsing and editing is tough when using the computer, when what they really mean is, on the screen (see, for instance, Costanzo, 1994, p. 12).

Word processing's formatting options offer the opportunity to go beyond script or block lettering by hand, and beyond the Courier or Elite fonts most typewriters are limited to, so writers learn to take advantage of font, size, leading, kerning, and color, to indicate differences in emphasis, relationship, and completion (Fortune 1989). Documents are no longer just texts; they are an interweaving of the visual and verbal (Bernhardt, 1986; Hawisher, 1991; Kaplan & Moulthrop, 1990, p. 100, and 1993, p. 262; Landow & Delany, 1993, p. 5; Ruskiewicz, 1988). Not entirely approving, Costanzo (1994) asks, "What does it mean when we spend more time attending to the visual texture of our words than to their content?" (p. 15).

Word processing, then, transforms the process.

"The truly interesting thing here," says Johnson (1997), "is that using a word processor changes how we write--not just because we're relying on new tools to get the job done, but also because the computer fundamentally transforms the way we conjure up our sentences, the thought process that runs alongside the writing process" (pp. 142-3).

In sum, word processing makes it easier for the writer to carry out a whole range of activities that the textbook authors have always tacitly recommended, but which the earlier media and tools made difficult.

  • Making extensive changes to the draft (without massive recopying or retyping)
  • Experimenting with style and organization (picking and choosing the most effective out of several alternatives)
  • Getting more distance on the document so it can be viewed with more objectivity (by removing the personal flavor of handwriting)
  • Turning out fast and multiple publications, for one's own review, or sharing with a group
  • Moving around quickly within documents, to ensure consistency, and development
  • Formatting expressively, for easier viewing, browsing, and understanding

Authors like Hult & Harris (1987), and theorists such as Moberg (1986) and Schwartz (1985) have also recognized that word processing makes easier and more visible "the recursive nature of writing, an activity that loops back on itself" (Hawisher, 1991, p. 49). Costanzo (1994), for instance, points out that word processing software "supports theories of composition that regard writing as a recursive process of discovery, elaboration, and revision" because the programs encourage writers to "move back and forth among the stages of generating, developing, organizing, editing, and reconceptualizing texts"(p. 17).

In addition, word processing makes visible many ideas that were, in a pen-and-paper world, fairly hard for writers to grasp:

  • The virtuality of text
  • The deferral of closure
  • The fact that a creator alternates rapidly between being a reader and a writer
  • The openness of text in process.

Many of these ideas have been found "externalized" (Smith, 1994, p. 280) in hypertext (Balestri, 1988; Johnson-Eilola, 1994; Joyce, 1988;Landow, 1992; Landow & Delany, 1993). But any interactive document, including those being created in word processing, can be taken as a case in point, an object to think with, an exhibit on which to base discussion.

And within word processing...outlining

When we turn from word processing to its subset, electronic outlining, we find special additional features that highlight the fluid and evolving nature of the document's structure--capabilities such as

  • A dramatic visual display of the structure
  • The automatic formatting of any item when it lands at a particular level
  • The ability to promote or demote topics at a click of the mouse, or to move a topic by dragging it to a new location
  • The ability to show all the headings of a certain level, while hiding intervening text
  • The automatic placement of correct labels, whenever a topic is invented or moved to a new location
  • The ability to append notes, and write full text, within the outline itself.

As Bolter (1991) remarks, the outliner sets the traditional outline in motion, treating each topic as a movable unit, where a word processor does the same to individual words. The writer is looking at a visual schematization, putting structure in the forefront. (Compare Streitz, Rizk, & Andre on hypertext, 1990).

What all these outlining functions do is allow the writer to analyze and construct many different organizations more easily than with an ordinary word processor, and a lot more easily than with a typewriter, or pen and paper (Waern, 1989, p. 156). Landow & Delany (1993) point out that print tends to fix the text in one form, making it difficult to work with. "No single arrangement of information proves convenient for all who need that information, and since print, like writing, fixes text in a specific physical form, it causes difficulties for all who do not wish to concentrate on the features emphasized by that particular form" (p. 6).

The writer, I would say, is the first one who needs to be able to consider the information from many different perspectives, weighing alternative organizations. Bolter (1991) points out that

"The computer makes visible and almost palpable what writers have always known: that the identifying and arranging of topics is itself an act of writing. Outline processing is writing at a different grain, a replication on a higher level of the conventional act of writing by choosing and arranging words. The symbols of this higher writing are simply longer and more complicated "words," verbal gestures that may be whole sentences or paragraphs."

Hypertext pioneers talked of the immense value of alternate views of the same material (Carmody, Gross, Nelson, Rice, & van Dam, 1969, pp. 288-300; Engelbart & English, 1988, pp. 81-105; Meyrowitz & van Dam, 1982, p. 405; Nelson, 1967, pp. 193-5). As Coombs, Renear, & DeRose (1987) say, talking of similar functionality offered by the outline within Standard General Markup Language editors:

"The author can easily have the outliner display the outline to any desired depth of detail, the lowest level of detail being the full text, or, perhaps, the text with annotations and alternative versions. … One may also employ editing utilities to move hierarchical components of the document, as displayed in an outline view, and have the overall document structure adjust accordingly" (p. 110).

In effect, by "exploiting the natural hierarchical structure of text," (Coombs et al., 1987, p. 110), electronic outlining allows one to switch the scale at which one views the material, zooming from a very high-level overview down to minutia, while ignoring as much of the rest of the document as one wishes.

What Lanham (1993) calls "this transformatory power of scale-change" (p. 45) allows quick analytical comparisons, confirming that, say, the minor details do indeed belong in a larger section, or that the phrasing of the higher topic genuinely reflects its contents, down to the lowest level.

The ability to ignore is at least as valuable as the ability to view, when one is trying to adjust one's focus.

One saves time, too, (no more scrolling too far and scrolling back), and that encourages further examination of structure.

One can also open two related passages, and close all the intervening text, for easy comparison.

The document's genre may dictate a certain sequence for the text elements, but that may separate two topics that are related, in one's mind.

So the outlining software allows the writer to get above the relentless flow of word processing text, to look at the related sections, juxtaposed. (Coombs et al., 1987, p. 109). Coombs et al. (1987) say this kind of "structure-oriented" editing (p.110) "enables authors to address their documents at a level of abstraction appropriate to their authorial role" (pp. 111-112), minimizing cognitive demands such as recalling the rest of the structure when working on a particular section (compare Britton, Burgess, Martin, McLeod, & Rosen, 1975, and Kellogg, 1988, 1994), and helping authors focus on content.

Kellogg (1994) says that in this sense, the outliner acts as a funnel because it hides distracting information, selectively displaying what the writer is working on, at different levels of the structure:

For instance, to plan the main ideas of a document, without concern for translating or reviewing those ideas, the writer could collapse the outline and display only its superordinate levels, hiding all subordinate ones. The subordinate levels might prevent the writer from giving full attention to the superordinate one. Thus, in the example, outlining programs encourage the writer to concentrate on high-level planning. Alternatively, to focus on translating a specific subordinate idea, the writer could hide all superordinate levels and expand only the subordinate point of interest at the moment. Once this subordinate point is completely translated, it could be selectively displayed for reviewing as well." (pp. 166-167)
The process of editing structure

During such structure-oriented editing, the user alternates between being reader and writer, trying in both roles to discern a recognizable order, whether it is the conventional structure of a set genre (Beaugrande & Dressler, 1981; Mandler, 1984; van Dijk & Kintsch, 1983, pp. 55-59) or an unconventional, new, and personal structure.

As readers, users "understand and learn most easily from texts with well-defined structures that clearly signal shifts between parts," according to Charney (1994, p. 207). She could have been talking about viewing a document in an electronic outline.

Considering and reconsidering structure, in whatever ways one wants, also deepens one's understanding of the relationships involved, improving the depth and sophistication of one's thought. Charney, summarizing work by Lodewijks (1982), says that readers who get to regulate their own searches through material by using a structural overview end up with "better recall and better recognition of relations and inferences among the concepts than any of the teacher-provided sequences" (p. 252).

 Naturally, when the "reader" encounters confusing sequences, the "writer" steps in to clarify, if possible, acting to suture together the chunks, as Johnson-Eilola (1994) suggests writer-readers do when jumping from one hypertext node to another (p. 212), closing what Harpold (1990) calls "the gap in language by the subject's assumption of the place of the gap," binding up the "body of the text" (pp. 177, 176).

Writing within the framework

In addition to reorganizing the outline, one can write within its framework.

Starting with the headings, one can add paragraphs of explanation, exposition, argument, example, or citation, then hide them from view to look around, and get one's bearings.

Such a use of an outline fulfills one of the dreams of some scholars, that the outline can serve as a map, keeping the writer on track. Daiute (1985) argues that the outline helps the writer learn and remember the overall structure, reminds the writer to include necessary sections, and keeps them to the point. "While free-writing brings up the unexpected, writing with outlines ensures that the expected is included" (p. 81).

In fact, as we have seen, the electronic outliner, by adding structural editing to regular word processing, allows writers to break loose from the lockstep procession of stages, and, instead, work a little on some notes, then step back and see how that new information affects the overall structure, then, inspired, write a few sentences explaining the new vision, then go back to reading another source.

Daiute (1985) points out that "as such a report evolves, disorganized notes, semi-organized outlines, outline sections, and paragraphs of varying degrees of completion appear together" (p. 108).

Of course, one's aim is always a thoroughly fleshed out, immaculately reasoned document. But on the way there, one does not go through one stage, and then another-rather, one takes different perspectives as one creates.

Perhaps, instead of envisioning these stages as chronological phases, we might recognize that what the authors are grappling with when they talk of stages are simply different activities we engage in, as we move from raw idea to completed document.

Activities do not necessarily have to be done in a particular order; in fact, writers tend to do them over and over, in different sequences, depending on what seems most important at the time. Seen as a complex set of interlocking activities, creation is not neat. Writing is a wonderfully messy process.

Of course, working back and forth across the structure can occasionally be confusing, just as navigating hyperspace can lead to hypernausea. But in terms of the sense of place, electronic outlining offers more support for the user: where users often get lost in hyperspace (Johnson-Eilola, 1994, p. 210, for instance), users of an outlining package can quickly climb back out of the depths, to view their position in the overall structure.

Many of the virtues our theorists have discovered in hypertext also reside, in a different hue, in electronic outlining software. Indeed, an electronic outline can be seen as one view of a menu, and a hypertext view as another. The parallels suggest that these different kinds of document have a great deal in common: in fact, they may both belong to a larger class.

Both hypertexts and electronic outlines invite users to participate in reading and writing a document interactively. The electronic outline, like a hypertext, or even an ordinary word processing document, allows extensive interaction; one clicks and goes, in a hypertext, folds and unfolds in the outliner, and edits in the word processing view.

Each type of interactive document has aspects of the others, but foregrounds a particular set of functionality. In Microsoft Word, for instance, each type of interactivity offers a different view of the same document. Where one can manipulate a paper book, opening the index, flipping to a page, skimming a chapter, one interacts with these electronic documents, effectively changing the language, structure, and meaning as one goes, while the document itself responds, grows, and transforms itself on command.

Such a blurred role for the user--what Johnson Eilola (1994) nostalgically calls the writer/reader--goes one step beyond the neat categories most textbook authors take for granted. The textbook authors talk as if the person they address is learning to write, and, on that road, must occasionally read, but that the two activities are distinct. Once people acquire electronic tools, the distinction breaks down in a blur of interactivity.

The document becomes the focal point in a conversation, a temporary artifact that mediates the many dialogs that are taking place:

  • Between various identities of the writer
  • Between the writer and an objective representation of the writer's collected earlier thoughts (compare Halliday, 1987)
  • Between writer and audiences
  • Between the writer's documents and the documents of other writers.

Caught at any given moment, the document cannot be said to have a distinct, discoverable meaning. It just represents one turn in the conversation (Bakhtin, 1986), or, to be more precise, several turns in several overlapping conversations, none of which come to a conclusion, reach a decision, or prove any particular idea.

As Halliday (1978) suggests, the overall conversation, including everyone's documents and talk, can be considered a sprawling text, "not something that has a beginning and an ending. The exchange of meanings is a continuous process" (p. 136).

Why textbooks scorn electronic outlining

But textbooks are books, and their authors must have felt a deep commitment to the book as a medium, during the years they spent putting their masterpieces together.

Now books have a great interface, a lovely cultural history, and a design that's been developed to a high level of sophistication over hundreds of years, offering many conveniences not available with electronic documents. The reader knows just where the document starts and ends; the reader knows how big it is, just by weighing it; the reader can quickly browse by flipping pages, thanks to the high resolution text; a person can read it on the beach, or in bed; the reader can turn down a page for a bookmark; the reader can switch from one book to another faster than one can open a second window on the screen. But for all these wonderful aspects, a book is a book, and although it can be manipulated, it is not electronic, and so it can never be interactive in the way a document is in word processing, hypertext, or outlining software.

The early silence about electronic outlining, and the more recent casual mentions, may simply reflect the medium in which these textbook authors are writing, and its traditions, which, like blinkers on a horse, keep one headed down the road, without looking to either side.

Such media innocence, then, is not a mature virtue. It reflects a half-conscious decision to ignore a large part of the conversation in our overlapping communities. And, as a result, these textbooks give a distorted picture of the process of creation--a paper model.

Adapted from Chapter 4, Outlining Goes Electronic (Ablex, 1999). Citations appear in A bibliography on outlining.


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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