Outline 4D for drafting and reverse outlining

In my previous post I mentioned that Outline 4D (formerly known as StoryView) has become an integral part of my academic writing workflow, as my tool of choice for writing the first draft. O4D may sound like a surprising choice for this, and its emergence as such was unexpected for me as well.

O4D is primarily known as a scriptwriting tool or an outliner targeting creative writers. It is quite old and it no longer seems to be developed. Originally I thought I would be using ConnectedText, Scrivener for Windows, MS Word 2010 or LibreOffice for writing up my PhD thesis. But through a trial and error process Outline 4D has emerged as the winner.

The main reason for this surprising development has to do with the fact that Outline 4D is a single-pane outliner with inline notes capability and with a wide range of visualisation options, which make it particularly suitable for both writing (as in developing sentences and paragraphs) and for reverse outlining (structuring the developing draft into a logical hierarchical structure). There are surprisingly few single-pane outliners with inline notes. I’ve tried them all and O4D is the most versatile in terms of visualisation and the speediest in terms of writing and reverse outlining operations.

Why not use a dual-pane outliner and writing tool such as Scrivener or a word processor such as MS Word or LibreOffice with navigation pane enabled? The main reason is that in a dual-pane tool you can’t just collapse and expand an arbitrary selection of sections and hierarchical levels to make only a particular part of the outline structure visible and still be able to work on a section of your choice for which that particular view is relevant.

Also, it’s just more helpful to be able to view the “headings” (“titles” in O4D) within the same pane, rather than have to look for them in a second pane. I will provide a screenshot below to illustrate how this is done in Outline 4D. Before I get to that one though, let me just walk you through the main options for visualising your developing draft in O4D.

First, let’s take a look at the plainest view. You have a classical single-pane outliner with inline notes here. O4D allows you to customise the font and the background of each hierarchical level of the text. Each outline item or text snippet (called “event” in O4D, reflecting its scriptwriting origins) consists of a title and the inline note (called “content”). Both are optional, i.e. you don’t need to have a title if you don’t need one, and you don’t need to add content to the title if you don’t want to.

Outline 4D - plain viewThis text can be viewed (in  the main “Outline View,” as opposed to the “Timeline View,” which I’m not going to discuss here) in four different ways, which I find extremely helpful. The first one can be seen in the screenshot above, which shows both “Titles and Content (Ctrl+Shift+8).” This is the most complete view, i.e. all the textual content is visible.

However, if you’d like to view the underlying logical structure only (as marked up by the various headings and sub-headings), you can click on “Titles Only (Ctrl+Shift+9),” and you get the following skeletal view, which hides all the inline notes (content):

Outline 4D: titles only

I like to add a heading or sub-heading to every single paragraph that I write, so that the above two views provide me with an overview of my entire logical argument and content. With a large document (10,000 words is a typical length for a PhD thesis chapter), this may at one point become overwhelming and you may just want to view the text itself, without all the headings and sub-headings. This can be easily achieved by hitting the “Content Only (Ctrl+Shift+0)” button. All you see here is the content of your paragraphs:

Outline 4D: content onlyIf this was not enough flexibility for viewing your content in different ways, there is still the “Custom Visibility (Ctrl+Shift+7)” option. It allows you to individually customise every single item (title + content, which for me equals a paragraph and its topic) in your document, so you can hide for example meta commentary that is not strictly part of your text.

The beauty of O4D is that these views are not just there for visualising the text differently on your screen but you can also print or export your text as an RTF file in the selected view. Even the word count tool allows you to exclude event titles or only include selected “events” (outline items). Here is an example of a custom view. I hid the contents for level 1 titles and I hid the titles for level 3 and 4 content.

Outline 4D: custom visibilityAnd there is more. There is also something called the Level Selector, which allows you to select text residing at a particular hierarchical level in the outline to be displayed on its own. Here I deselected all levels except Level 4:

Outline 4D: Level SelectorAnd this is what “Level 4 text only” looks like:

Outline 4D: Level 4 onlyI haven’t used this feature yet for my current project but I could see it becoming useful once large texts become available and let’s say I’d only like to see the Level 1 text, which would be all the introductions to various sections, thus giving a quick overview of the overall project, allowing me to check for logical consistency, ease of comprehension and transition between sections.

Until now I have kept colour out of this discussion, as I didn’t want it to be a distraction while discussing the above features. But when it comes to outlining, I’ve always found the ability to colour in an outline on the basis of hierarchical level very useful, as it just makes the navigation of the outline and comprehension of its logical structure so much easier. (This is one reason why I love Natara Bonsai so much. Sadly Bonsai doesn’t have inline notes.)

When it comes to adding colour, one is spoilt for choice in Outline 4D. First, O4D allows you to customise your font colour on the basis of the hierarchical level, so you can have different colours for both the title and the content for each level. This works automatically, every time you add a new section. Here is an example with different font colours for item contents:

Outline 4D: text colour by levelPersonally I don’t use this feature in O4D, as I find it too busy for viewing inline notes (although I use it a lot in Bonsai for a regular outline without inline notes). Instead, I prefer to colour in the background of the outline items. There are several options for that. Similarly to the font colour, you can customise background colour per hierarchical level (but there are other options as well).

A discreet and quick way to turn on a partial background view is by clicking on the “Toggle Structure Column” button, which brings up the Structure Column that shows the hierarchical relationships between the outline items and shows a bit of their background colour:

Outline 4D: structure columnIt is also possible to colour in the entire background of the outline items (these obviously change automatically when you indent or outdent an item):

Outline 4D: coloured backgroundIt depends on the stage of the writing and the particular writing or editing task whether I opt for a distraction-free all-white background or I turn on a partial or full background-coloured view.

Here is a screenshot I promised at the beginning of this post to illustrate why I find O4D better for reverse outlining than dual-pane outline setups like Scrivener, WhizFolders or MS Word 2010 with navigation pane. Here I collapsed Part I and Part III completely, so I can focus on Part II. Even within Part II, I can selectively collapse or expand particular sections, depending on whether I need to see them during the writing process.

Outline 4D: collapsed eventsHere I’m working on the section entitled “Ut enim.” You can see that the body of the active section has a white background, which makes it easier to see where you are and also to indicate that work is being done here. I have written three paragraphs already, so the next step would be to do the “reverse outlining,” which would involve splitting off these paragraphs into their independent sections, giving them a title that summarises them, and indenting or outdenting them according to how they fit into the overall train of thought logically.

Finally, it is also possible to mark up the inline text with a limited selection of rich text formatting. There is yellow highlighting only, bold, italics, underlining, and you can also change the font colour further. It is possible to designate URLs and email addresses as such, but they would only become functional after the text has been exported as RTF.

Outline 4D: rich text formattingI don’t tend to bother much with formatting my text because here I want to concentrate on writing, not on word processing. Outline 4D is not compatible with citation software either but that doesn’t bother me, as I find using EndNote referencing during writing distracting anyway. Instead, I just type my references manually such as (Smith 2010: 345), and then I replace them with EndNote references once I’ve exported the completed draft into Word.

Another useful characteristic of O4D is its multiple document interface (MDI). This means that you can open and display multiple O4D documents within a single window. This becomes useful when you want to compare multiple documents (e.g. different versions of a draft) and edit them simultaneously. Here is a view of eight O4D documents tiled vertically across two monitors:

Outline 4D: eight windows tiled

The downside of MDI is that you can only run one instance of O4D, which makes it a bit awkward (but not impossible) to view a set of O4D documents in one monitor and write another O4D document in another monitor. I get around this restriction by doing the writing in StoryView, which is an earlier (and 99% identical) version of O4D. If you decide to buy O4D, it’s worth asking the developer or the retailer whether they can also give you a licence for StoryView.

I hope I have managed to demonstrate why I think Outline 4D is an excellent writing environment for drafting and reverse outlining. As I mentioned it in my previous post, this stage for me comes after the note-taking and outlining stage, for which I prefer to use ConnectedText and Freeplane.

The next step would be to export the Outline 4D document as an RTF file, convert it into a .docx file in Word, add my EndNote references, convert the O4D headings into Word headings in order to produce a table of contents, and add any further rich text formatting necessary (which would mostly consist of adding italics for emphasis). Then it’s off to the printer.

If you decide to give Outline 4D a try on a Windows 7 machine, make sure to run it in Windows XP mode and as an administrator (right-click on icon, choose “Properties” and click on “Compatibility” tab). Even then I needed to disable “User Account Control” (UAC), to stop the annoying Windows pop-up.

I did come across one bug: it crashes sometimes if you change some options in the “Outline 4D Options” window while in “Timeline View.” So make sure to save your work before changing those options. Having said that, I haven’t lost any work in O4D so far. But I do save my work often (there is even an automatic reminder you can set to save after a given period) and export it into RTF daily, just to be on the safe side. It’s an old piece of software after all.

It’s an oldie, but a goodie!

——

Addendum (14/01/2013)

I’ve just realised that there is yet another relevant view of the outline that I forgot to add. If you select all items and click the “Summarize (Ctrl+[)” button, Outline 4D provides you with a summary view of your outline, consisting of all the titles and the first line of each content section. There is also an “Unsummarize (Ctrl+])” button to revert to the full outline. This summary view is an interim step between the “Titles Only (Ctrl+Shift+9)” view and the “Titles and Content (Ctrl+Shift+8)” view. It can be useful for skimming your document and getting an overview of the general flow and coherence of the text.

Outline 4D: SummarizeOf course there is still the “Timeline View,” but that is such a complex feature that it would take several blog posts to do justice to it. It’s like having yet another completely different piece of software, although it is intrinsically linked to the “Outline View” in some very ingenious ways. Hats off to the original developers, wherever they may be!

Addendum 2 (17/01/2013)

There is yet one more colouring-in option for Outline 4D. You can also choose “Draw Event Frames,” which is more subtle than “Draw colored event backgrounds,” as it only draws the borders of the “events” in the background colour that was selected for each hierarchical level:

Outline 4D: draw event framesP.S. Although above I linked to the developers’ (Write Brothers) website, where you can download a 5-day trial version, if you are interested in purchasing this software, it is worth shopping around. E.g. currently the download version is $89.95 at Screenplay.com, while at the Writers Store it is $79.00. But occasionally you can get it even cheaper from Amazon (the boxed version) or from small retailers outside the US, or if you catch a promotion at Screenplay.com (it was $65.00 back in November 2012).

Addendum 3 (30/01/2013)

I have discovered yet another cool feature in Outline 4D (not sure what took me so long). If you find that your outline is getting too big and you’re finding it difficult to get a sense of the overall document, or if you need to look at two (or three or more) different sections of the outline that are far away from each other and can’t be viewed simultaneously, you can always open two or more versions of the same outline and tile them vertically. This way you can get two (or more) live views of the exact same document, meaning that changes are updated to all open windows. This is how you do it: go to Window > New Outline Window and then choose “Tile Vertically.” Here is an example:

Outline 4D dual viewAddendum 4 (31/01/2013)

Although I said I wouldn’t mention Outline 4D’s Timeline View in this review, the previous visualisation gave me the idea that if you do the same trick with the Timeline View (i.e. go to Window > New Timeline Window > Tile Vertically), and then choose “View > Fit to view” for the index card version of the outline item you want to edit, you can emulate – and to some extent even improve upon – BrainStorm‘s famous “aerial view” or the much missed “document view” of GrandView. In the following screenshot you can see an example where an outline item is being edited as a standalone piece of text in the left window, while you can have any of the aforementioned 11 visualisations in the right (Outline view) window:

Outline 4D timeline with outline

P.S. In fact this feature can turn O4D from a single-pane outliner into a dual- or even multi-pane outliner. You could have a top-level outline open in the left pane, a more detailed outline in the next pane to the right, and then the single-note (document) view in a third pane (which would make it into a three-pane outliner).

P.P.S. Here is a screenshot of Outline 4D as a three-pane outliner. The left pane is “Titles only” view; the middle pane is “Summary” view with first line of content showing, and the right pane is in “Timeline view” with “Fit to view (Ctrl+3)” on, only showing one item in focus.

Outline 4D three pane outliner

Advertisements

Academic writing workflow with ConnectedText, Freeplane, and Outline 4D

A large part of the academic writing process has to do with taking notes, collecting quotes, analysing and evaluating them, coming up with your own interpretation, then developing an outline, and finally writing up the material into a draft. I’ve experimented with various set-ups to tackle this process in the past that involved a lot of different pieces of software (see here and here). However, recently I’ve come up with a simplified workflow that ‘only’ requires three pieces of software: ConnectedText, Freeplane, and Outline 4D (aka StoryView).

  1. I import quotes and notes into ConnectedText (CT) as I’ve described elsewhere, using my latest reading notes template.
  2. As I am reviewing the document, I identify key quotes and notes that I would like to consider as material for the draft. When I come across an important or interesting quote or note, I select the text and type CTRL+ALT+/ to activate Manfred Kuehn‘s “copy to new topic with link” AutoHotkey script (see below), which copies the selected text, creates a new CT topic with it, and also inserts a link under the original text to this new topic.
  3. Simultaneously to this process I create an outline for the intended draft using CT’s own Outline tool. Whenever I create a new topic with a quote or note using the process described in point 2, I add a corresponding item to the outline and drag and drop this new topic on it, which creates a hyperlink between the outline item and the selected quote or note. Clicking on the outline item opens the corresponding quote.
  4. I export the CT outline as a Freemind (.mm) file and import it into Freeplane (a mind map application). The CT outline has been thus transformed into a mind map. Nodes with links remain clickable, which means that clicking on a particular Freeplane node with a link opens up the corresponding quote or note in CT. I can add further notes using Freeplane’s own Notes functionality and develop and restructure the outline, if I wish.
  5. When I’m finished with outlining and am ready to begin to write the draft, I tile Freeplane and CT vertically in my second (22in) monitor, so I can look at both the mind map (i.e. my outline) and the corresponding quotes and notes in CT. Effectively Freeplane and CT have been integrated to form a funky “dual-pane” outliner, where the first pane is a mind map, and the second pane is the viewer for the note/quote attached to individual mind map items.
  6. In my main monitor, I fire up Outline 4D (aka StoryView) and start writing my draft, while also using O4D’s outlining functionalities for almost real-time reverse outlining, i.e. as soon as I write a larger chunk of text, I add headings and sub-headings to it to crystalise the final implicit logical structure (outline) of the emerging draft. All the while I’m following and ticking off the branches of the mind map and copying across selected quotes and notes from the associated CT topics.

StoryView

This workflow could of course be further simplified, as you could simply use CT’s Outline pane and its view pane as the dual-pane outliner in steps 4 and 5, altogether leaving out Freeplane. However, the benefit of using Freeplane is that it gives an airier spacial view of the outline and it also has its own inline note capability, which CT’s Outliner doesn’t have.

As for step 6, you could use any old word processor or editor to complete the writing. However, I find that the draft usually develops its own implicit logical structure which won’t be identical to the one in the mind map. To put it differently, there is still abstraction and conceptual development taking place during the writing process and not everything in the mind map will make it into the draft. New ideas may emerge from the draft as well. Hence it’s necessary to engage in reverse outlining to keep track of the emerging logical structure.

I did try to use MS Word 2010 with its navigation pane for this (by using headings), however I found that Outline 4D as a single-pane outliner with inline note capability was better suited to the task of real-time reverse outlining, thanks to its multiple options to collapse different sections or view only headings or only text or a custom-mix of both.

Here is Manfred’s AHK script. If you haven’t used AHK before: 1) download, install and run AutoHotkey_L on your PC; 2) create a new text document in Notepad (or your favourite text editor – I use NoteTab); 3) copy and paste the script below; 4) save the text as e.g. “copy_to_new_topic.ahk” on your desktop; 5) run it by double-clicking its icon; 6) use it by selecting the desired text in CT, typing CTRL+ALT+/ and then naming and saving the new topic.

By the way, you could also just use CT’s own built-in “cut to new topic”  (CTRL+ALT+N) command, which does not require AutoHotkey and which also leaves a link behind in the original topic. However, I prefer to use this “copy to new topic” AHK script because I want to preserve the integrity of the original document (which e.g. could be the full text of an academic article).

;---------------------------
; Copy to new topic         |
;---------------------------

^!/:: ; copy to new topic

clibboard =
Send ^c
InputBox, OutputVar, Topic Title, Enter the title of the new topic:
if ErrorLevel <> 0
{
     MsgBox, You cancelled
     return
}
else
{
     WinActivate, ConnectedText
     SendInput {Right}%A_SPACE%
     SendInput `[`[%OutputVar%`]`]
     SendInput !t
     SendInput %OutputVar%`n
     IfWinActive, Confirmation
           return
     else
           SendInput ^v!e
     return
}
return

Update (24/01/2013)

Here is a visual representation that summarises my academic writing workflow with the associated tools. It should be read in light of my additional comment below (i.e. there are two different types of outlines and sets of evidence represented). I have also included the tools that I use for note-taking (step 1).

academic writing process

Analytical process flow for reading notes in ConnectedText

Currently I’m working on my literature review. Here is my analytical process flow for importing data, analysing it, and outputting information using ConnectedText (CT) and a variety of other tools. This process flow is just a snapshot, it’s not set in stone. It keeps changing as my needs change and as I gradually develop approaches that better suit the creative process of analysis, evaluation and synthesis.

  1. Importing reading notes into CT:
    1. I read and annotate academic articles in PDF form using GoodReader (if the text can be highlighted) or PDF Expert (if the PDF is a scanned image) on an iPad.
    2. Then I email the notes (highlighted text + my comments) and the annotated file to myself.
    3. On the PC I replace the original PDF file with the annotated one, re-link my EndNote reference to it, and copy and paste the highlights and the comments from the email into a new CT topic in my “Readings” project (CT database) under the ==Quotes/Comments== heading in my CT reading notes template.
    4. With printed books (i.e. not e-books) I take notes using a pen and a paper notebook, and when I’m finished, I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking to dictate the selected quotes and my comments into DragonPad, from where I copy and paste them into the CT template as described above.
  2. Analysing and evaluating reading notes in CT:
    1. I use CTRL+H to “search and replace” (also available from Search > Replace) the headings inserted by GoodReader/PDF Expert with either ===Quote: === (for highlighted text) or ====Comments: ==== (for my own comments).
    2. I review the text and extract the essence of the quoted text and comments and add it into the headings, such as ===Quote: cognitive functions are socially acquired===, followed by ====Comment: I agree with this====.
    3. I use yellow colour to highlight particularly important quotes and comments.
  3. Organising conclusions:
    1. If the CT topic is short, I can develop and record my conclusions immediately under the heading =Evaluation=. I summarise my main point in a final couple of sentences under =Verdict=, including them in the attribute [[Verdict:=My concluding sentences go here.]], so that they show up in the Infobox at the top of my CT topic.
    2. If the CT topic is long (i.e. it contains a lot of imported quotes and comments), then I need to use additional tools to organise the annotated headings.
      1. I remove the [[$NOTOC:]] markup from my template, so that the Table of Contents (TOC) becomes visible within the topic.
      2. I highlight the contents of the TOC, right-click, copy, and paste it into a blank Natara Bonsai document. In Bonsai I already have the new document template set up, so that different hierarchical levels appear in different colours, to aid the sorting of information.
      3. Using Bonsai’s outlining functionality, I reorganise the imported contents of the CT TOC into a meaningful hierarchy.
  4. Developing an outline for the draft chapter:
    1. The whole purpose of evaluating reading notes is to come up with my own interpretation, supported with evidence. The next (and parallel) stage is to develop an overall outline for the draft thesis chapter. Depending on the complexity of the material, it may require several tools still:
      1. I keep CT open to be able to view given reading note.
      2. I consolidate material (my main points supported by key quotes) in a final Outline 4D outline (which is a single-pane outliner that can have inline notes, in contrast to Bonsai.)
      3. During this whole process I use an overall VUE concept map to work out relationships between concepts and to develop an argument.
      4. I record the very final overall outline in the form of a Freeplane mind map.
  5. Writing up:
    1. to manage the final writing-up process, I use MLO to record to-dos as they develop.
    2. I do the final writing-up in an Outline 4D document. The advantage of using O4D for this is that it obviates the need for another application to do reverse outlining as the text grows, because it is easy to alter headings for multiple hierarchical levels and toggle them on and off, when you only want to see the text. I find this better than dual-pane alternatives such as Word with Navigation Pane or Scrivener.
    3. To add references, I simply type the reference such as (Smith 2008: 35), so as not to be distracted and disrupted by having to switch to EndNote every time (and it is not compatible with O4D anyway).
    4. I export O4D text to Word.
    5. I replace manual references with EndNote references, to build bibliography.

Here is a graphic just showing the latter stages of my writing-up process flow. I embed these types of process flow graphics in the home page (dashboard) of my reading notes wiki, so that they remind me every time I get stuck. Chances are that in a few days it will be replaced with a modified process flow, as I keep tinkering with it.

writing-up process flow

Updated ConnectedText template for reading notes

I’ve added two new headings to my ConnectedText template for my reading notes database.

=Full text=

ConnectedText Project OutlineThis is for pasting in the full text of a publication. I mostly use this for blog posts or other online articles that I don’t have a PDF for, as these could disappear or be modified any time. I could have printed them as PDF ConnectedText topic iconsand linked them to EndNote or added them to my web clippings in Surfulater instead; however, I might forget about them that way. As these are important to read, I can link these topics to my Project Outline in CT, as to-dos. I could even mark the relevant topics with full text with a different icon in the Topic List window to remind myself to read them later.

I have also added the following markup just below the =See also= heading:

=Info=

==Created on==
(($TOPICCREATION|LONG))

==Modified on==
(($TOPICLASTMODIFIED|LONG))

These are so-called “include macros” that display the time and date the topic was created and last modified on. This is what it looks like at the bottom of the topic:

ConnectedText infoBy the way, this information also gets displayed in the Summary pane (if I choose to keep it open), even without the “include macros”:

ConnectedText Summary InfoWhy is it important to know when a reading note was created and last modified? It is not all that important at the time when you are first working on it. But once you have hundreds or even thousands of notes in your database, you may get into a situation when it comes in handy to know when you had read a particular article or book in your academic career or during your research project. For citations of blog posts and other online articles, the “created on” date can also serve as the “date accessed” for your bibliographic reference.

Update (12-Dec-12):

Here is the bare-bones template, which can be copied and pasted into a CT topic and saved as a template (txt file) (a description of the individual items can be found here):

[[$NOTOC:]] 
=Summary=
[[$INFOBOX]]
=Reference=
==Cite as==
==File==
==Type==
[[Type:=
=Abstract=
[[Abstract:=
==Keywords==
=Full text=
=Quotes/Comments=
=Evaluation=
==Verdict==
[[Verdict:=
=See also=
=Info=
==Created on==
(($TOPICCREATION|LONG))
==Modified on==
(($TOPICLASTMODIFIED|LONG))
[[$CATEGORY:

And this is what it looks like in view mode (keep in mind it’s blank at the moment, so some features such as the Infobox, attributes and categories are not showing yet):

ConnectedText reading notes template

ConnectedText template for reading notes

Several people have asked me recently how to use ConnectedText (CT) for taking notes for academic research and for writing a literature review. I’m in the middle of writing my own literature review, and unfortunately I don’t have time right now to construct a sample database (my own is confidential) for a tutorial. I will definitely do it one day. In the meantime however here are a few pointers.

  1. Think of CT as a traditional slip-box with index cards. Just drop your notes into CT (each note as a separate “topic”) and add some categories at the bottom or the top of the page, e.g. [[$CATEGORY:politics|Barack Obama]]. That’s it. You now have a reading notes database with two categories (“politics” and “Barack Obama”).
  2. You can create links between the “index cards.”
  3. You can create a bibliographical database in the background by adding “attributes” markup to key data such as [[Author:=Smith, J.]], [[Year:=1989]], [[Publication:=Journal of Sociology]], [[Abstract:=<value>]] etc. Clicking on any of these links will create a dynamic meta-topic that displays a list of topics with those values, such as a list of all the authors with links to the topics that contain those authors. Inserting [[$SUMMARY:]] into a new topic creates a table with your complete bibliography automatically.
  4. You can use the headings tags (=Heading 1=, ==Heading 2== etc.) to annotate your reading notes (e.g. quotes that you have pasted into the topic), which will be displayed dynamically (as you type) in the Table of Contents pane, giving you a quick overview of the contents of your note.

ConnectedText iconsBelow is a template I have created for my “Reading Notes” database in CT. You can copy and paste this into a text file and save it in the folder “My Documents/ConnectedText/Templates.” Then when you create a new topic in CT, select this text file in the “new topic” dialog box from the “Template” pull-down menu, tick the box “Always remember last used  template,” and select an icon to represent your notes (I have imported my own 16x16px icons that I’ve downloaded from the Internet, so notes, categories etc. all have their own icons). Similarly, tick the “Always remember last used icon” box. Icons are useful not only for visual browsing but also because you can filter topics in the Topic List pane by their icons.

You can of course alter this template to suit your own needs by using Notepad. If you haven’t used Categories or Attributes before, you may want to read up on those topics first in CT’s Welcome Project (Help file). By the way, the [[$INFOBOX]] markup will create a neat box that looks like an old style index card (assuming you have marked up the bibliographic data with attributes)! Very satisfying… :) (Obviously you will need to switch from edit mode into view mode to see what these markups actually do.)

[[$NOTOC:]]

=Summary=

[[$INFOBOX]]

=Reference=
### Paste reference from EndNote here

### Add attributes to Author name [[<Attribute name>:=<value>]], e.g. [[Author:=Smith, J.]]
### Add attributes to Year, e.g. [[Year:=1989]]
### Add attributes to Title, e.g. [[Title:=<value>]]
### Add attributes to Publication, e.g. [[Publication:=Journal of Sociology]]
### Add attributes to Publisher, e.g. [[Publisher:=Oxford University Press]]
==Cite as==
### Paste "raw" citation from EndNote here
==File==
### Drag & drop PDF or URL here
==Type==
### Add attributes to Type, e.g. [[Type:=journal article]]
[[Type:=

=Abstract=
### Paste journal article abstract here and summarise its main point as [[Abstract:=<value>]]
[[Abstract:=

==Keywords==
### Paste keywords associated with journal article here
=Quotes/Comments=
### Paste quotes from readings here
### highlight important information in yellow
==Quote 1: description==
### Annotate quotes with headings
===Comment 1: comment on quote 1===
### Add comments under own headings
=Evaluation=
### Draw conclusions, summarise key learning points here
==Verdict==
### Summarise key contributions and/or shortcomings of article as [[Verdict:=<value>]]
[[Verdict:=

=See also=
### Drag & drop related topic links, external files or URLs here
### Add categories below, e.g [[$CATEGORY:politics]]
[[$CATEGORY:

This is what a new CT topic with this blank template looks like in view mode. It would need to be filled in with content as discussed above for the attributes to spring into action and produce the Infobox, as well as for the Table of Contents on the left to display the headings as annotations. For now this is just a skeleton for a note (index card):

blank CT topic with template

ConnectedText for me is part of a bigger note-taking system that I don’t have time to describe right now, though it’s similar to the one discussed here. For further examples of how to organise academic reading notes and bibliography see Steve Zeoli’s example here and Glen Coulthard’s tutorial video here.

Addendum:

For me each “topic” represents a specific publication, such as a book or a journal article. I name the topics using the author’s name and the publication date, such as “Smith 1989″ or Smith & Tailor 1988” or “Smith et al. 1977.” If there is more then one publication by the same author, then I use “Smith 1989a,” “Smith 1989b” etc. For historically important books, I also record the original publication date in parentheses: “Smith 1989 (1886).”

This naming convention is helpful because the Topic List pane lists topics in alphabetical order, so it’s easier to find authors this way. Also, if you decide to write up your literature review in CT, you can just drag and drop the topics from the Topic List straight into the body of your draft chapter and they become linked references automatically: “According to some observers (Smith 1989a) …” In edit mode it would look like

According to some observers ([[Smith 1989a]]) ...

This note-taking approach can result in fairly long topics, if they contain summaries of entire books or particularly important journal articles that I have annotated heavily. For me there are benefits to keeping a particular publication in one topic. However, one could just as well pursue a more granular approach and implement the traditional index card format more literally, by breaking down notes about articles and books into much smaller chunks.

Using links, categories and attributes/properties would be much more important under the latter scenario, for threading all of the related notes together. With my approach it’s not a big deal if I forget to add categories or attributes because I can find the relevant publications by their topic names. CT’s powerful search facility comes in handy in both scenarios, as sometimes searching for a single word or phrase might be the quickest way to find something (yes, it’s your own mini-Google :).

Academic writer’s block cure

In my previous post I discussed how I turned to writing as a way to put a stop to my obsessive-compulsive outlining behaviour. Outlining is certainly an important part of preparing for writing, but not if outlines keep on begetting further outlines and there is no end in sight to the proliferation of outlines. The white space of the empty Word document acted as a laboratory or workshop where I could cobble together the various conceptual threads, while still keeping a reverse outline to monitor the emerging shape of the argument. This strategy worked fairly well for a while, and I ended up with about 3000 words that I’m reasonably happy with.

Then I got stuck. Now, I’m sure lots of things have been written about the writer’s block, and I don’t have time to read any of it. So apologies if I’m stating the obvious. But I’ve been finding that there are usually two reasons why I get stuck: either I haven’t worked out the content of what I’m going to say (the conceptual point) or I haven’t worked out in sufficient detail the practical steps (workflow) that I need to take. The two reasons are closely interrelated because usually I need to work out the practical steps to be able to develop the conceptual points.

At this stage of the game however I couldn’t fathom developing yet another linear outline in a traditional one-pane or two-pane outliner to work out the next steps. One reason why I’m finding linear outlines less helpful towards the end of my project is that this stage requires synthesis, which is about putting things back together, rather than laying them out in a line (out-line). Synthesis requires matrix-type tools, as there are at least two “dimensions” that need to be brought together (if we consider a linear outliner a one-dimensional tool).

There are a number of ways to create such a matrix effect. One could just use a table (Word) or a spreadsheet (Excel) or columns in a one- (Bonsai) or two-pane (myInfo) outliner. I particularly like to use TreeSheets for this type of matrix-outlining. However, this time I reached for my favourite concept mapper, VUE, again, as it was a lopsided matrix that I had in mind, where one axis had a lot more content than the other and I needed the ability to visualise the shape of the whole thing, no matter what size it grew to.

I am working on a literature review chapter and I needed to evaluate the work of a major author. I had to review my notes on seven of his works (kept in ConnectedText), extract the main points and organise them into separate outlines in Bonsai, and finally consolidate them into a single outline. It was this last step that I used VUE for. I ended up with a concept map that looks like this:

VUE_concept_map2

The matrix is constituted by the analytical lens on the right-hand side (grey nodes), which was applied to evaluating the rest of the nodes. When I started the mapping and review process, I thought I only had three sub-topics to write about. Conceptual development occurred as part of this mapping process, and I ended up discovering that I had three more important things to say. Finally at the bottom I drew some conclusions from the material.

The advantage of doing this in VUE (as opposed to a traditional one- or two-pane outliner) was that I didn’t need to worry too much about an overall hierarchy initially. Any node can be linked to any other node, and while there is a certain hierarchy here (the overall argument flows from top to bottom, and section arguments flow from left to right and down), working in a concept map feels more fluid and free than in a linear outline. It is just a matter of different visualisation, as all of this could have been done in an adequately equipped one-pane outliner as well.

So what are the next steps? Now that I know what I want to say in this part of my chapter, I can write an introduction that will state what is going to be said, with a thesis sentence that combines the topic sentences of the six sections and points towards the contributions that will be summarised in the conclusions. My plan is to keep this concept map open in my second monitor and use it as a guide while I dictate my text into Word with Dragon.

Recursive outlining and writing

I am in the middle of writing my dissertation, and I’m constantly experimenting with my writing process flow and set-up. I have two monitors, a 19 and a 22-inch one. The overall writing process appears to be a recursive process of  alternating between outlining and writing (though the two are not always clearly separable).

My actual writing started once I got to a point that I had so many outlines in different outliners that the only way out of that morass was to start writing them up. Let’s call that condition obsessive-compulsive outlining behaviour (OCOB), and the cure “writing.” The reason for the many outlines is that I use outliners as part of a distillation process, for extracting and abstracting information by translating ideas from one outliner into another. This is a fun and productive process until it gets out of hand and you end up with more outlines than you can keep track of. At that point I decided to start writing, so that the written piece be the place where all the information from the various outlines can be consolidated into a final train of thought.

To my surprise I have selected Word 2010 as my main writing tool. I considered Scrivener and DragonPad, but I found that Word trumped them by being compatible with the most software that I wanted to use during the writing process. For one, I could dictate directly into Word and all the Dragon NaturallySpeaking functions would work the same as in DragonPad, making DragonPad redundant. Scrivener on the other hand couldn’t handle direct Dragon dictation. But I also already had a detailed outline in Scrivener (using it as a two-pane outliner), so it seemed sensible to keep that open in my second monitor, while doing the writing in another software in my main monitor.

For times when I wouldn’t be using Dragon, I would want to use WordExpander to speed up the typing, and it turned out that it would display the pop-up menu of word choices by the cursor in Word but not in Scrivener. Finally, Word has an EndNote add-in, so I could directly be inserting references as I write, rather than using a more roundabout way of referencing in Scrivener by having to paste in raw EndNote code first, and then having to convert it once the Scrivener draft had been exported into Word. While Scrivener has strengths when it comes to tracking word count and to switching from an individual section view to a total document (Scrivenings) view, word count in Word is acceptable and I can use headings to navigate the document when the Navigation Pane is enabled.

So, Word is open in my 19-in monitor that is facing me and where I do the final writing up (dictating with Dragon or typing with WordExpander). I also have a little 4-inch (10 cm) of a NoteTab Light window open on the right of the Word window, where I type quick notes I need to refer to or text fragments I want to use a bit later.

In my 22-in monitor that I have on my right-hand side at an angle, I have a number of software windows open, though not all at the same time. At most there would be two open at any one time, arranged vertically.These would include my three main outlines which I have given up on consolidating into a single overall outline. They are in Natara Bonsai (a single-pane outliner), Outline 4D (a single-pane outliner with inline notes), and Scrivener (a two-pane outliner). Scrivener holds my overall outline for the whole PhD, for all 8 chapters. Outline 4D holds a detailed outline just for my current chapter.

The advantage of Outline 4D over Scrivener (as an outliner) is that it is single-pane, so I can see the entire text with its headings and sub-headings in a single window. Although Scrivener does have the “Scrivenings” view which combines all its documents into a single view, it is more of a ‘tape’ view than an outline view. Plus in Outline 4D you can select different colours and fonts for the different hierarchical levels, which makes navigating and comprehending the outline easier.

Finally, I have an even more detailed outline of just one section of the chapter in Bonsai. Bonsai’s disadvantage over Outline 4D is that it does not have inline notes (notes can be displayed in a separate pane to the right of the outline or at the bottom, which is just not the same). On the other hand Bonsai is faster to operate than Outline 4D, can cram more information into the same amount of window space, and it also allows you to colour in hierarchical levels.

Besides the outlines, I also need to have ConnectedText (CT) open, as it contains my reading notes. This information is more detailed than the one in the outlines. If I need even more detail about the particular source (usually an academic article), then I look at the corresponding PDF with the original article in PDF XChange Viewer (it’s called up by one click on the PDF link in CT). Finally, I also have Directory Opus open, should I need to look for a file that way; EndNote, so I can insert references directly into Word as I’m writing; and Waterfox, so I can look up things on the Internet, when necessary.

This describes the set-up of my outline-to-writing process. It’s a matter of gathering and weaving the information from the various application windows together into the written text in Word. However, the reason I called this “recursive outlining and writing” is because after I had written a reasonably big junk of text, I need to go back and outline some more. The reason for this is that the actual written text has its implicit outline of its own, which does not fully correspond to any of the original outlines. First, it already started out as an amalgam of the other three outlines, so it naturally can’t be identical with any of them perfectly. However, the work of outlining and conceptual development continues during the writing process itself. The writing itself is the workshop where some of the final ideas get eventually hammered out. The text has some new content.

In order to fully grasp the implicit structure of the argument that I have developed in the course of the writing, I need to re-create it in another outline. (It’s difficult to discern this structure easily in the written text itself, once you have thousands of words in a complex academic-type writing). Let’s call this step “retrospective” or “reverse outlining.” The perfect tool for this I found in VUE. I did try Noteliner first, but I found that using a visual concept-map worked better than yet another text-based outline.

I maximised the VUE window to the entire 22-in monitor, and starting at the top, flowing from left to right, and then downwards, I started to map out the core argument of each paragraph in the form of a concept map. When the screen filled up, I just continued scrolling down (there seems to be unlimited space). I also used colour to mark out important moments such as theses, propositions or key findings. Each major section of the chapter is represented by nodes in different colour. Arrows are used to represent logical relationships.

This is the overall shape of the concept map for the chapter that I’m currently working on, in a 25% zoomed-out view (text becomes visible at a 50% zoom):

This reverse visual outline helped me find gaps in my argument, as well as redundant sections. It also worked as an analytical tool, as it helped me discover new relationships and come up with new findings and interpretations. It also helps with developing a sense for what to write about next. This recursive process of outlining-writing-outlining (with the help of VUE as the virtual whiteboard where I sort all my conceptual issues out) is likely to become a permanent part of my writing practice. I am even considering printing these VUE maps out and pinning them on the wall. This would enable me to survey the entire line of argument from chapter 1 to chapter 8 of my dissertation, that represents a text potentially the size of 80,000-100,000 words.