Developing a final outline

The problem with developing a final outline for a PhD dissertation chapter is that it is difficult to know when the outline is really final. It will be final of course when you are confident enough that it is of the requisite quality. The difficulty is how to identify the boundary between the conceptual development stage and the stage of writing-up for presentational purposes.

For academic writing it is the former that is the main headache, i.e. coming up with the content, rather than putting it into its final shape. It happens all too often that you think you are in the second stage, only to discover that you have more conceptual development and clarification to do, and you are thrown back into stage 1.

For now I can’t seem to find a better answer than to push on with aiming to reach a final outline, even if it turns out to be an interim stage of conceptual development. Then I just start developing a new “final” outline, hoping that it will really be the final one. As part of this process I am constantly switching between software tools, in search for specific features more suitable for the particular tasks in the subsequent stages of development.

This reflexive and recursive process of dealing with multiple outlines in multiple software tools eventually reveals an arrangement of outlines in an arrangement of software tools, and a shape-shifting process flow that adjusts itself continuously. It is like an experimentally assembled moonshine distillery for the purpose of abstraction to be achieved by routeing ideas (textual content) from one vessel to another, until they acquire sufficient clarity to be bottled and labelled and sold to a discerning public.

Here is a slightly revised graphic (following on my previous post) showing the current distillery and the process flow. Its shape has become slightly clearer to me.

writing-up process flow

On  the left we start with the notes database in ConnectedText. It is the base, the alpha and the omega. It contains the fruits of my research work. However, I now need to extract the spirit and the flavours with my distillery apparatus. Initially I extracted and organised the main conclusions in Natara Bonsai outlines. Bonsai is the fastest tool I have for organising lists into meaningful hierarchies and then drawing ‘final’ conclusions from these conclusions.

Parallel to this I have been developing a chapter outline in Outline 4D. I have also used O4D to summarise some ConnectedText meta topics which were already extractions of important findings (as opposed to the summaries of specific articles that have been analysed in Bonsai). As O4D allows for inline notes in its outlines, I have also pasted in selected quotes (from CT, which came from the original readings) to support particular outline items (my observations).

I also have a 7000-word draft in MS Word that I wrote at an earlier stage partly as an effort to break out of the circular outlining process and force myself to finish this stage (the target is a 10,000-word chapter). However, the draft writing process just turned out to be another stage of the distillery, as I have found some gaps in my conceptual structure. It felt like Word was a laboratory where I tried to assemble the parts but the trial failed and I needed to get back to the drawing board.

VUE was the drawing board, and concept mapping was the process of drawing out the issues for my conceptual apparatus and reorganise my argument. VUE was a kind of an experimental space, a sandbox. It is placed at the top of the diagram because it is an overview of everything that is going on. First I created a reverse outline of my Word draft, to get a better understanding of my argument so far. Then I also developed an outline (well, more of a concept map) for the next stage of writing.

I should mention that I also have an overall outline for the entire thesis kept in a Scrivener project, which contains some relevant material for this current literature review chapter as well. I will need to review it as I embark on constructing my “final” outline.

I have settled on a Freeplane mind map as a way of constructing my “final” outline, which would hopefully lead me through the final – presentational stage – of writing up. In the past I didn’t quite see the point of formal mind maps, as I preferred the freedom of concept maps. But now I see that a mind map – combined with Freeplane’s functionalities – is an excellent way to develop a final outline.

First, a mind map forces you to define a final hierarchical order between sections, ideas and paragraphs, which the final draft needs to have. Secondly, a Freeplane mind map is very economical with screen space, allowing you to cram a lot of information in and be able to navigate it and visualise it easily. Thirdly, it allows you to switch between a mind map and an outline view. Fourthly, it allows you to add notes to items, which can be chosen to be displayed inline, effectively operating as a single-pane outliner with inline notes (of which only a handful exist in the world).

Fifthly, it allows you to export into RTF file format in such a way that the inline notes get displayed below their items, and the items are assigned headings according to their hierarchical level. So for example in Word or LibreOffice, items can be viewed as section headings in the Navigator window, a set-up that can be used as a dual-pane outliner. Also, the headings can be used to create a table of contents.

Finally, (building on the fourth and fifth point), you could construct a complete sentence outline in Freeplane by using items as topic sentences and notes as the evidence to support the topic sentences (e.g. quotes or other details). Even a simple “copy and paste” into Word creates a bullet-pointed hierarchy, which then can be transformed into a draft (although with this export method you don’t get the headings formatting preserved – but that may be preferable in some situations).

I am planning to do the final writing in Outline 4D though (which will require importing the RTF file with the headings and notes), in recognition of the possibility that this “final” Freeplane outline may not turn out to be entirely final, and rather than create yet another reverse outline or concept map to keep track of the underlying and implicit conceptual structure, I could just use O4D’s outlining functionalities to keep track of the evolving implicit outline of the draft. This could also be done in Word, simply by modifying the headings that get displayed in the Navigator (as a dual-pane outliner set-up). However, I find O4D’s single-pane view more conducive for this simultaneous writing and real-time (reverse) outlining, as O4D has many helpful alternative visualisations of the text and the outline.

Do I worry that I get carried away with playing around with software tools instead of doing the writing? You bet. Although there is definitely a ludic aspect to this, in the end the distillation process is real and necessary. I would need to carry out the abstraction process somehow in any case. I am hoping that by constructing a sophisticated distillery I will be able to extract and construct a higher quality final product.

Could I be wrong about that? Yes, that is a distinct possibility. However, academic research is by definition an experimental process and experiments (and experimenters) can fail (and they often do), perhaps even more frequently than they succeed (which is why so many PhD students never complete their theses). All I can do is carry on and hope that my experimental process and set-up produce a satisfactory result.

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5 thoughts on “Developing a final outline

  1. Pingback: Academic writing workflow with ConnectedText, Freeplane, and Outline 4D | Dr Andus's toolbox

  2. Ha! Reading the post above felt like someone had read my mind. I could have written the post above almost PRECISELY (replacing iOS references with Windows references). I, too, have settled upon Freeplane (though I use it within Docear) for PRECISELY the reasons you mention.

    Also, I too stay concerned about such things as whether my journey to figuring out the the toggle-back-and forth between the mind map view and outline view could have been better spent just writing. (It was a long journey of trying all sorts of strategies, including writing too soon!).

    All I know is that NOW I have a way of being more accurate about knowing when an outline is sufficiently “final” to write from it. That is a huge gain: Doing a ton of writing from an inadvertently wrongly-ordered outline or not-truly-complete outline is a lot of work and can CREATE a lot of new work, especially if you didn’t consider yourself to be freewritng or raw drafting and thought you were producing a final.

    I, too, keep a pretty stable outline in Scrivener while I’m working things out in Docear (using Freeplane). Instead of Outline 4D for me it’s Citavi. Because Citavi (a) opens up inside of MS Word, (b) contains an an outline with my quotes and notes and thoughts and images attached to the correct place on my outline, and (c) builds my bibliography dynamically based on my citations, I don’t foresee EVER abandoning Citavi. It’s a dream. For me the trick was to learn to initially hold off on doing a whole bunch of work in Citavi and instead work in Docear (using Freeplane).

    Instead of doing early work in Citavi, I capture notes and raw drafts in Scrivener using the document notes feature, the scratch pad feature, and/or the snapshot feature. This has helped me to jump off of that circular hamster wheel that can truly be an emotional downer, and worse, render making a deadline near impossible.

    Thanks for posting!

  3. Hi Mickey,

    thank you for stopping by and sharing your process. I watched your Citavi video and it does look like a very good tool. What’s stopping me from considering it more seriously as an alternative to my current system (which is somewhat different now from the one discussed in this post) is that at its heart, material in Citavi still seems to be organised in a hierarchical tree form. While this might be fine for a single project like a PhD, I found that once a database of notes grows beyond a certain size, the hierarchical system of organisation becomes increasingly less efficient in terms of understanding the structure of the database, the relationships between items, and finding what one is looking for. This is why I switched from a hierarchical system to a desktop wiki system (ConnectedText), as wikis allow for some less hierarchical ways of organising stuff, such as linking notes directly to each other. It just seems to me that a Zettelkasten type approach a la Luhmann is better suited for maintaining a notes database for the long run (hopefully for the rest of my academic career).

    I guess I try to emulate the Citavi function you mention by linking nodes in my final Freeplane outline to specific quotes, notes etc. in ConnectedText, so they can be brought up with a single mouse click. As for the final writing process, these days I write in plain text with Markdown in WriteMonkey, and paste in my references as raw EndNote code, as I’ve found that I used to spend too much time messing about with references in MS Word, and the more references there were, the less responsive Word had got. Now I only export the text to Word at the very end of the process, and then run it through the EndNote add-in to format the bibliography etc. I like WriteMonkey for its minimalistic environment, and everything is a lot faster in plain text than in Word.

    Thanks again, and best of luck with your project.

    • Makes sense! Thanks for sharing. And thank you: I’m enjoying the project but time is short!

      I just want to be sure to share that there is no need to use hierarchy at ALL in Citavi (hierarchy in Citavi is created by using “category” tags instead of keyword tags). It is entirely possible to tag notes with Citavi keywords, which do not work hierarchically.

      At first I was using Citavi only to write and not too much as a knowledge management tool, so I wasn’t even thinking about doing too much keywording for future use. But . . . if you maintain a long term master Citavi file (or a master Citavi file for a subject), you want to keyword. This whole system — of being able to BOTH keyword AND categorize is awesome for several reasons. You build up a knowledge base (using keywords) that you can easily use to write papers (by looking up quotes, thoughts, and notes by keyword and then adding the ones you like to your current project’s outline (using categories).

      I have learned to name my keywords in such a way that subjects and topics and subtopics are connected. It’s basically creates an index of all your quotes and notes by subject and topic and subtopic. I learned the hard way to leave the attaching of codes to a hierarchy (which can be your paper’s outline) until JUST before drafting, and to let initial tagging of quotes and ideas and notes and paraphrases be done via keywording (non-hierarchically).

      My tips to a new Citavi user would be: Maintain a master Citavi file. When it’s time to write a paper, either make a copy of the master file and create your categories (outline) in the copy . . . or open a blank Citavi file and export from the master Citiavi what you need. Use keywords for knowledge management. Use categories in many ways, such as to comprise an outline of your paper. Attach your notes, quotes, paraphrases, thoughts where you want them on your outline (category system). Then open up Citavi within MS Word, and draft. Or if you are using another editor, use Citavi’s other way of facilitating citation.

      It is easy to export things from your master Citavi file to specific Citavi project files. When you export a source, subset of sources, or entire collection of sources from one Citavi file to another, you have the option of exporting the sources’ quotes and notes and the quotes’ and notes’ categories and keywords (and so much more). The search function — for all those quotes and notes and thoughts captured over the years — is great. Capturing/creating a quote is a cinch: Highlight the text in the article preview in Citavi, right-click, select what you want to do with the text from the pop-up menu (such as capture it as a quote), add whatever labels you like (keyword, category, gist, etc.), done. If you are reading the PDF in Adobe Reader opened from within Citavi, in Adobe you can send a quote to Citavi and it will place the quote with the correct source.

      You can write an entire paper and save all of your “Citavi citation adding” until the very end if you want. Get your paper into MS Word, and with the Citavi Word Add-in sitting in a pane right within your document, you have very intuitive, visual access to your keywords, categories, outline, quotes, notes, thoughts, images, sources, etc. Adding them to your paper is just a double-click! Reference list is built dynamically, and you have a lot of flexibility with all of that. Typically now I create the draft in Scrivener and then transport to MS Word where, to add citations I place my cursor just before a sentence’s end punctuation, double-clicking on the source in the Citavi pane reference list. Voila: Citation done and reference added to the reference list.

      I just want to make sure that Windows users are clear on the features of their choice! Citavi does not force hierarchy. You’re right: That might be a deal breaker. 

      Take care!

  4. Thanks for the clarification, Mickey. Sounds interesting. I will definitely revisit Citavi in the future, but first I’ll have to finish my thesis with the tools I’ve already got–as I’m very much prone to becoming distracted by new software tools. ;)

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