Do some outlining. Then outline some more…

I once more had to realise that when the writing is not going well, it might be because I haven’t figured out what I wanted to say, meaning that I probably need to do more outlining. So here is my freshly rediscovered rule of thumb: “when you’re stuck, when you got the writer’s block, just do some outlining. And then outline some more. And then some more.” And then you will know what to write about and how to organise your thoughts. In fact outlining is not only about developing the content but also deciding the order in which the content is going to be presented, i.e. the flow of logic, the order of presentation, and the structure of the content. All the more reasons to do some outlining, and then outline some more.

Using Natara Bonsai with WorkFlowy

Natara Bonsai has long been my favourite outliner, but in the last couple of years it has been gradually displaced in my daily use by WorkFlowy, mainly because WorkFlowy syncs automatically and seamlessly across all my devices using different platforms, which is very useful for capturing notes and todos and having them always available.

Nevertheless, there are situations where Natara Bonsai is still my go-to choice. For example, when I need to organise, analyse, sort and resort large lists, or when I need to hierarchically structure some complex information, where it helps that different hierarchical levels can be displayed in different colour, to guide the eye.

Fortunately it is very easy to get information from Natara Bonsai back into WorkFlowy. All you need to do is install the OPML export template from the CarbonFin website (instructions available there), then export the Bonsai outline as a .opml file, open the .opml file using your favourite text editor (for this task I like to use Notepad++), and simply copy and paste the contents of the .opml file directly into a WorkFlowy bullet point. WorkFlowy will not only preserve the outline hierarchy but it will also display any Bonsai outline item notes as inline WorkFlowy notes.

Here is a Bonsai outline (the final bullet point has a note, displayed in the pane on the right):

Natara_Bonsai_12_03_2016

And here it is after having been pasted into WorkFlowy (note the inline note under the last bullet point):

WorkFlowy_screenshot.png

Addendum:

Frank Degenaar points out in the comments section that it is possible to add colour to a WorkFlowy outline as well, using the “Painter for WorkFlowy” Chrome add-on and some stylesheets using the “Stylish” add-on. That is definitely true and I do make use of those tools in my WorkFlowy all the time. It would only take me a minute or two to reconstruct the colour scheme of the above Bonsai outline in WorkFlowy, and the two would look fairly similar (especially if I change the dark WorkFlowy theme to a light one).

However, the colouring-in capability of Natara Bonsai works quite differently from that of WorkFlowy and serves a different purpose. You can set up Bonsai so that it automatically colours in your outline items according to the outline level position they occupy. This means that if you promote or demote an outline item, its colour will change accordingly and automatically.

While it is possible to retrospectively colour in a WorkFlowy outline by adding a colour tag to each item individually and manually (which would be time-consuming in the case of very large and multi-level outlines), these colours will not change when you demote or promote these items, as their colour tags will travel with them.

The  key point here is that when using Bonsai, the colour scheme has already been set up as default (using the procedure I described earlier), so I don’t have to pay any attention to the colouring-in, it just works automatically as I type away and keep promoting and demoting items. In contrast, with WorkFlowy the colouring-in needs to be done manually, individually for each item, and retrospectively, after the item has been added, and it does not change, if I move the outline items, thus breaking the logic of the “colour by hierarchy level” scheme.

This difference becomes significant when you want to work on large and complex lists and you want to pay attention to the text, rather than be disrupted by the mechanics of colouring-in. Bonsai just allows you to work faster, without having to make decisions about and fiddle with every single item, as you would have to in WorkFlowy.

By the way, as I have already explained in that earlier post, it is possible to use other criteria for the automatic colouring in Bonsai, such as category, priority or due date.

Natara Bonsai downloadable from the Internet Archive

I still get visitors coming to this site looking for the outliner Natara Bonsai almost daily, as I mentioned it occasionally that it was one of my alltime favourite pieces of software. Unfortunately the Natara Bonsai download page went down sometime in 2014, never to come back again. There is now only a placeholder page for the main Natara site that points to the Natara blog (the last post on which dates 6 June 2013).

A few months after the Bonsai site has disappeared, I stumbled upon some kind of a mirror site at http://64.226.29.51/Bonsai/Download.cfm where it was still possible to download the software from. I was very happy to share that link, and I got a few emails from Bonsai fans thanking me for it. Apparently Bryan Nystrom, the owner of Natara Software, Inc., was kind enough to sell them a licence.

Alas, a few months ago this mirror site has also gone down. It seemed that Natara Bonsai was well and truly gone. I was kicking myself for not having taken some screenshots of that site at least, just as a keepsake (yes, that is how much I love this software). Then one day it occurred to me: what if there are some archival pages of the Natara site on the Internet Archive? And lo and behold, there indeed are a number of such pages. And not only that: the Bonsai files can still be downloaded from there! Here is one such link for instance: http://web.archive.org/web/20110519183308/http://www.natara.com/bonsai/Download.cfm

I cannot vouch for the safety of these files, so download and run them at your own risk. But chances are they might just be the original Natara Bonsai files. So fellow Bonsai fans, rejoice!

Natara_Bonsai_Internet_Archive_2011_05_19

Latest enhancements to my ConnectedText ‘ecosystem’

Actually I’ve used these tools for some months now, I just haven’t had a chance to mention them on this blog. I use the two in conjunction with each other, so it makes sense to mention them together.

The first tool is a software called TaskSpace. The need arose for this one with the introduction of the floating windows feature in ConnectedText v. 6., which allows you to open an unlimited number of CT ‘topics’ (documents). If you work with a multi-monitor setup (and even if you don’t), there comes a point where you might have several floating windows open, which you would need to move around individually (in my case from one monitor to another), which quickly becomes a hassle. Moreover, floating windows come into focus every time you have the main CT application in focus, meaning that the floating windows would obscure whatever other app window you might want to look at in the other monitor while looking at the main CT window.

TaskSpace solves both of these problems. Firstly, by using the handy CTRL+SHIFT+M combination, you can send individual CT floating windows to a single TaskSpace window, where you can further organise them into rows and columns, and then move them around the various monitors as a single window. It is also possible to create tabs within TaskSpace, so you can add as many CT floating windows to it as you like. Secondly, the paid-for version of TaskSpace also gives you the option to change the behaviour from “always on top” to “normal” etc., which I presume would disconnect the floating windows from the main CT app, making it possible to view them independently (and hide them from view at will). I say “presume” because I’ve never tried that feature. I use a comparable feature that comes with Direct Folders, where you just right-click on the close button of any window (except Chrome, with which it doesn’t work for some reason), and the window changes from “normal” to “always on top” and vice versa.

Here is a screenshot of a TaskSpace window with three CT floating windows docked:

TaskSpace_with_CTThe second tool is a piece of hardware called Boogie Board Sync, which I use almost exclusively with ConnectedText, by creating handwritten notes, syncing them via Bluetooth to my PC, converting them from PDF to .PNG files in PDF-Xchange Editor (which allows you to semi-automate the process by setting up the file names and desired image resolution), and dropping them into CT. Then I use TaskSpace to view these handwritten notes as CT floating windows in one monitor, while working away in CT in the other monitor. I use Boogie Board Sync mainly to capture ideas concerning my main writing project quickly (especially when my PC is not turned on), and then I tick them off in CT eventually, once the work recorded in the BB Sync file has been done.

BB_SyncIf you are a CT user and you are still looking for a Christmas present for yourself, I can highly recommend the BB Sync. But make sure to read the Amazon USA etc. reviews about it to understand its limitations. Many customers seem to have unrealistic expectations about it, and then they complain that BB Sync didn’t meet them. However, if you read carefully what BB Sync offers, and you’re happy with those limitations (such as the inability to recall notes on the device itself – saved or deleted notes need to be synced with the PC to be viewed), then BB Sync can become an invaluable tool for getting handwritten notes into a PC quickly, and into ConnectedText in particular. There are of course many other possible use case scenarios, such as e.g. using BB Sync to write handwritten diary entries and then using the date topics feature in ConnectedText to build a handwritten journal.

Most recent process flow for academic writing

Just for the record, I thought I’d repost my comment here that I’ve just left on Christian Tietze’s blog concerning on how I go about outlining and writing on the back of Zettelkasten notes these days.

My latest process flow on Windows 7 for academic writing, using 3 monitors, so some of this software could be viewed simultaneously:

1) read the literature (usually PDF articles or books);

2) take reading notes (mainly quotes + interpretation) in ConnectedText as Zettelkasten;

3) use VUE to develop a concept map to make sense of the material, while reviewing the CT notes in floating windows (i.e. multiple notes can be viewed simultaneously);

4) develop an outline for the paper in a Freeplane mind map, building on the VUE concept map and adding hyperlinks to selected quotes and notes in ConnectedText, so they can be easily called up when writing about a given point;

5) write in plain text using Markdown in WriteMonkey (distraction-free writing software), while checking off nodes in the Freeplane outline as they get written up, and paste in raw EndNote code for academic references, where necessary;

6) paste draft into Outline 4D (single-pane outliner with inline notes) and reverse outline it, i.e. add a heading to each paragraph to see the overall logical structure and content of the paper, and edit it accordingly to improve coherence, eliminate redundancy etc.

7) Import into MS Word, do final editing, add final headings, table of contents, and convert raw EndNote code into formatted references and bibliography.

Alternative Natara Bonsai download site

My blog stats tell me that there is a steady stream of visitors looking for Natara Bonsai, ever since the main download site has disappeared a few months ago. It seems that there is still at least one site where Bonsai 5 Desktop Edition can be downloaded from (and there may very well be some others out there). I don’t know whether this site is legitimate, so download anything at your own risk, and make sure you scan the file for viruses. However, I know of at least one reader who has done so, and he sounded happy. Here is the link: http://64.226.29.51/Bonsai/Download.cfm. It seems to be some sort of a mirror of the original site, as it looks identical. If you do not have a license, you could try to contact the administrator of the Natara blog to find out if it is still possible to purchase one.

Natara Bonsai

Natara Bonsai is one of my old time favourites. While there are some other capable outliners out there, when I need to analyse textual data in long and complex lists, none are as easy and fast to use as Bonsai. The last version I have is v. 5.0.3 Build 3233. I run it on a Win 7, 64-bit machine, and it works perfectly.

Taking reading notes with ConnectedText

Recently I have developed a reading note-taking process with ConnectedText that follows the Zettelkasten method more closely and is an alternative to the note-taking process with Freeplane that I have described earlier. The main difference is that the earlier method with Freeplane produced one large mind map that contained all the reading notes in a single document and which tried to capture the inherent outline (logical hierarchy) of a book’s argument, while this new method produces many small index cards with quotes and notes, which nonetheless can be assembled into an overall outline at the end, to reproduce the overarching flow of the original text’s argument. The main advantage of this latter process is that it results in bite-size chunks of texts that can be connected and reassembled in many other ways, thus providing more versatility and ease of use during the analysis and synthesis stage, and throughout the life the Zettelkasten.

Here is my process flow (when reading a book in PDF format):

  1. I read the PDF document.
  2. I copy and paste interesting passages into NoteTab (plain text editor) to fix the line breaks with CTRL+J and use CT’s markup to preserve formatting (mainly italics and superscript for footnotes), if required.
  3. I paste in the quote into a new “date topic” in CT. Date topics are CT documents with some special properties. E.g. they are prefixed automatically with the date and time of the creation of the topic and allow the topics to be listed in chronological order in the “Topic list” pane. Before starting to take notes for a section of the book (e.g. a chapter), I create a dedicated template (a plain text document) for that section. CT remembers the last template used, which means that whenever I create a new topic, I don’t need to worry about selecting the template again. The template contains all the major fields of a reading note you’d expect, such headings for “Quote,” “My comment,” “Bibliographic reference,” link to page in the PDF file, and “Categories.” The reference is already marked up with CT’s “attribute” tags, which allows for automatically gathering topics with the same attributes. In the “Categories” I would include any labels (tags) that will pertain to all the notes within that particular chapter (including the chapter’s title and the author’s name). I also set up a phrase with the “author date” format in PhraseExpander, so that when I create a new topic, I won’t need to retype that bit again. Here is the sub-process for creating a new date topic in CT:
    1. click on the “new topic” button in CT.
    2. click on the “add current date/time” icon in the “new topic” dialog box.
    3. start typing author’s name and select phrase from PhraseExpander’s pop-up, e.g. “Smith 2013”
    4. type a descriptive title for the quote. The final topic title will look something like this:
      1. 29/04/2014 10:34 Smith 2013 definition of scientific method
    5. click “OK” to create new CT date topic.
  4. paste in the quote from NoteTab.
  5. Add any comments, such as interpretations or ideas triggered by the quote.
  6. Use yellow and pink colour to highlight any crucial sentences in the quote (optional).
  7. Add the page number for the PDF page link (to be able to go back to the source page with one click).
  8. Add labels (tags) in the Categories section to characterise and categorise the quote.
  9. Save.
  10. After having finished reading a chapter, I drag and drop all the newly created date topics into a CT outline file (.cto) I  created for the whole book, and organise them into a hierarchical structure, thus recreating the underlying logical structure for the chapter’s argument (and gradually for the whole book). This is the process and mechanism that replaces the single Freeplane mind map with the previously described method. Should I still wish to see this outline as a mind map, I can export it into Freeplane, where each outline item would be a node, and each node would have a link that leads to the quote in CT, thus acting as a virtual dual-pane mind map/outliner.

 

Planning a PowerPoint presentation in Gingko

I have just discovered another great use for Gingko, the horizontal outliner: planning PowerPoint presentations. Why not just use PowerPoint itself? There are a number of reasons. While PowerPoint is very good for presenting the end result, it is not so good for developing the content itself. Sure, you could start adding the content straight into the slides; however, if you still need to develop the conceptual side of your argument, you will find that PowerPoint is not the best place to work it out in.

Firstly, space on each slide is limited. You could try moving some of the expanding new material into the notes area below the slide, but then soon you will start losing contact with the text, as it will disappear under the fold–not to mention that you can only view the comments for one slide at a time. This will inevitably prompt one to move content into a new slide, and the dangerous proliferation of slides begins.

However, presentation time usually is also limited, which means that it would make more sense to determine the maximum number of slides up front, and stick to it religiously. This is where Gingko comes in. Let’s take the example of a 30-minute presentation. If you apply a rule of thumb that one slide will take about 3 minutes to present and explain, then you should have no more than 10 slides.

As Gingko index cards look very much like slides, it is easy to set up 10 blank Gingko cards sequentially in a column. As you start developing the content and find that you have more material than you can present in a single slide, you can start moving the less relevant material to linked cards in an adjacent column to the right. Gingko allows you to add as many linked cards as you like, in as complex a hierarchy as you like, while preserving the integrity of the original 10 slides.

The reason this works well for conceptual development is because you can see all the material laid out in front of you (as opposed to the single slide view in PowerPoint), and it is easy to move text and cards around as you are abstracting, reducing, organising, and synthesising. No matter how messy and complex your working-out process is, at the end the original slides will contain the essence of your project, assuming that you have stuck to your guns and avoided the temptation to add more new slides.

Think of the top 10 slides as the tip of the iceberg that contains all the essential information that needs to be presented. Everything under the water level is still important as supporting material, but it does not need to be featured in the slides themselves, considering that there wouldn’t be time to discuss them in the presentation anyway. The end of the process is just a simple copy-and-paste job from Gingko to PowerPoint, although you could also use some of the other more sophisticated export options available (Markdown, HTML, .docx, impress.js, or json).