My minimalist writing environment

…with research question permanently displayed

As I’m writing up my PhD dissertation, I am continuously striving to streamline my writing process and simplify my writing environment. For this reason I have been drawn to minimalist writing applications that reduce unnecessary distractions, such as too much chrome and colourful menu buttons in applications. I use different software for different writing situations. Currently I am writing up a chapter for which I have detailed notes organised in an elaborate Freeplane mind map, which I keep in my right hand monitor.

My central monitor is where I do the actual writing. Currently, this consists of a WriteMonkey window that takes up most of the left and centre of the monitor area, while on the right I have a Notepad2-mod window open to take some ad hoc notes and organise them into a quick outline prior to writing. To do the actual writing, I use Dragon NaturallySpeaking to dictate directly into WriteMonkey, while looking at my Freeplane mind map, which I check off gradually, as described in this post.

Notepad2-mod is a recent discovery for me. It is a replacement for Windows’ own Notepad. I have learnt about it at the Donation Coder forum, where you can find instructions on how to turn it into a very simple plain-text-based outliner. I like to use it in conjunction with WriteMonkey, as it is easy to copy and paste unformatted text from one to the other, and I also find it distraction-free enough. I also use Notepad2-mod as a scratch pad area, to work out ideas quickly, before dictating them into WriteMonkey.

There’s one more screen element that has become an important part of my setup. As I was writing my chapters, I continually wished that I was able to view my main research question at the top of my screen, so that I would be reminded of it at all times, in order not to lose my main focus. However, I had a hard time finding a solution that would display a single line permanently at the top of my screen, without there being any chrome around it, and without it being obscured by maximised windows.

Eventually it was another of Mouser’s brilliant little solutions that allowed me to do this. It is a very simple little application called DesktopCoral, which lets you reserve an area of your screen and prevent other software from covering it. Besides other uses, you can also select a .jpg image file to be displayed within it. So all I had to do was to take a screenshot (using Mouser’s excellent Screenshot Captor) of my research question displayed in a single line in WriteMonkey, and insert it into DesktopCoral’s docking bar, which I docked to the top of my screen. It takes up just a tiny sliver of it. As you can see (exactly because you cannot actually see it!) from the screenshot below, the DesktopCoral bar blends into my screen environment seamlessly.

WriteMonkey, Notepad2-mod, DesktopCoral, Winsplit RevolutionTo achieve this effect, I also needed to enlist Winsplit Revolution, which I used to position the WriteMonkey window into the centre-left area while in full-screen mode (otherwise WriteMonkey would cover up the DesktopCoral bar, as full-screen mode is different from maximised-window mode). (By the way, I’m not bothered by my Windows taskbar at the bottom of the screen. It allows me to quickly switch between applications with the mouse, and I don’t find it too distracting.)

If I did not need the Notepad2-mod window, then I could just centre WriteMonkey in full-screen mode (again, with Winsplit, in order not to obscure the DesktopCoral bar), and the research question area at the top would simply look like it belongs to WriteMonkey itself, except that it is permanently there, and it does not disappear when I scroll up or down, or indeed do anything else: it remains visible even when I close WriteMonkey and switch to other tasks.

At the moment nothing is more important to me than remaining mindful of my research question, therefore I do not mind at all that it is always in my face. I could imagine that other people might find this solution useful for pinning important reminders—or even inspirational quotes—to the top of their desktops to permanently remind them what is important.

The most amazing thing is that, with the exception of Dragon, all of the above tools are free– though their developers do welcome donations, and they deserve them, too. I just love these tools to bits—or should I say, to bytes?

P.S.

If this is just not minimalist enough for you, you could always 1) turn off the numbering in Notepad2-mod, if it’s too distracting, or 2) instead of Notepad2-mod just use another instance of WriteMonkey and position it on the right with Winsplit Revolution, and 3) make the Windows taskbar autohide. With 2) and 3) it would be truly just a single-coloured background with a single-coloured font, and nothing else to distract you. Here is what the screen would look like then (the file name, word count, and time info in blue at the bottom is optional, as is Winsplit’s little floating tool in the bottom right corner):

WriteMonkey with DesktopCoral and Winsplit RevolutionP.P.S.

WriteMonkey’s developer tells me that it is also possible to display the research question with WM’s own Corkboards plugin. And it turns out you may not even need full-screen view + Winsplit to get rid of WM’s Windows chrome: you can just CTRL+right-click with the mouse on the right side of WM’s window, and the chrome disappears. Here is his screenshot of the Corkboards feature:

WriteMonkey with Corkboard plugin

Taking reading notes with Freeplane

For some time now I’ve been using Freeplane as my reading-note capturing application. I would be reading a book at my desk, in front of my computer monitor(s), and use Dragon NaturallySpeaking to dictate my notes and quotes into DragonPad first, and then paste them into Freeplane. In the case of electronic materials, mainly journal articles in PDFs, I would convert the PDF into a Word file with ABBYY FineReader (so that I preserve word-wrapping and formatting while copying), and then would paste the quotes into Freeplane.

What are the advantages of this method? Firstly, it allows me to reverse-outline the book’s argument by organising the quotes and notes into a hierarchical mind map. Such a reverse outline helps with reconstructing and understanding the main train of thought of the reading, as the hierarchy records logical relationships between ideas. Here the mind map format has an advantage over a traditional vertical outline, as the individual nodes are easier to see and comprehend when distributed across a wide monitor in landscape form.

Secondly, each node can have a title and a note, and the latter can be seen inline (as opposed to being separated into another pane, as in most dual-pane outliners). Also, Freeplane can preserve rich text formatting (unlike let’s say Natara Bonsai). You can use icons and different styles to mark important notes. It is easy to restructure the outline by dragging and dropping nodes and branches around.

Thirdly, it is easy to convert a Freeplane mind map (which uses Freemind’s .mm file format) to other file formats. I use iThoughtsHD on iPad as my Swiss-Army Knife converter of mind map formats. I usually convert it into OPML, in order to import it into Bonsai, if further organising and analysis is needed, or simply to convert it into RTF, so that it can be imported into my main database, ConnectedText, which is the final destination of all my notes. I also link to all the different formats of a file (.mm, .opml, .otl, .rtf) from the final CT document, so I can easily find them later.

But Freeplane is useful not only for capturing and organising my reading notes into a hierarchical outline. It also comes in handy when it’s time to write up the notes for a chapter or article. I start a new Freeplane file as my outline for the new piece of writing, and I can simply copy and paste selected nodes and entire branches of quotes and notes from other Freeplane files, thus gathering relevant information for one author from let’s say five other mind maps with notes for five books by that author. (It is useful though to have two monitors for this, to take full advantage of the landscape orientation of mind maps.) Then as I write the final piece, I use a big red X icon to mark off the nodes and branches that have already been discussed.

Freeplane reading notes

I hear people complain about Freeplane not being pretty or visual enough. To me that is an advantage. I find pretty colour schemes distracting. All I want is black font and a white background. I do like the automatic colouring-in of the lines representing the branches, as that guides the eye and helps comprehension. But otherwise I want to be the one who decides when to apply additional colour or an icon to introduce new visual information. And I only do that to highlight important nodes, so I can quickly pick them out from a complex mind map. I thank the developers for keeping the main interface simple.

By the way, don’t be confused by the screenshots on the Freeplane website. Obviously, the developers are trying to show off all the different features. However, pretty much all the colour noise can be switched off, and you can use it as a minimalist, almost black-and-white (or whatever colour-combination you like) note-taker and organiser.

 

Gingko app reviewed in The Chronicle

Natalie Houston, associate professor of English at the University of Houston, discusses Gingko app on the ProfHacker blog at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Write in a New Way with Gingko

I’ve been using Gingko for a couple of weeks and really like it. I find it’s especially valuable for collecting ideas and notes about a topic and then developing more structured pieces of writing from them. As a spatial thinker, I often write ideas or paragraph stubs on index cards or half-sheets of paper and move them around on a table; this tool lets me integrate the same kind of planning with my writing process. I already do a lot of my work in plain text format, so I appreciate the ease with which Gingko exports files and integrates in to my existing workflow. Finally, although I certainly could (and often did, before finding this app) simply create a lot of individual text files as virtual “cards” on my desktop, the clean visual display that Gingko offers really appeals to me. This is the first digital tool that offers mindmapping-like features in what is for me a truly intuitive design. I’m going to continue using Gingko for my own work and look forward to its continued development.

Going gung-ho with Gingko, the horizontal outlining app

I’ve tried a wide range of outlining and writing tools for Windows over the last few years, in preparation for the big task of writing up my doctoral thesis, so I managed to surprise even myself when after all that careful consideration I chose a web-based tool that I have only found out about barely a month ago. But when push came to shove, and I had to start writing according to a regimented writing schedule, I opted for the newcomer called Gingko app over my old-time favourites oft discussed here.

It is actually not that easy to describe with one concept what type of an application Gingko is exactly, as it cuts across a number of categories (which surely must be a sign of greatness:). What is special about Gingko is the way these disparate features are brought together. As I’m primarily interested in academic work, and more specifically in outlining and writing, for me Gingko is an outliner and a writing app. But even before I began to use it as such, I was already using it as a project planning and task management app. This might give you an idea of its versatility.

Let me focus on Gingko’s outlining and writing capabilities for now. It allows you to outline your writing in virtual index cards, in which your text can be as short or as long as you like, and which can be joined together vertically and horizontally to form columns and rows. The cards can also be freely rearranged on a virtual and more or less infinite ‘corkboard.’

Gingko app

Creating your first card in Gingko

Gingko app

Adding more cards to Gingko horizontally and vertically

Now you might say that there are some other index-card-based software out there, such as those targeting fiction writers, or that there are other virtual corkboard software where you can freely position your notes and even link them with arrows and such. Or you might say that these rows and columns sound and look just like MS Excel or tables in Word.

But this is where Gingko’s magic kicks in. It doesn’t just connect these cards in the manner of a spreadsheet or a table. Gingko in fact is a horizontal outliner. This means that e.g. when you attach a new card to an already existing card horizontally, together they are starting to form a branch within a hierarchical outline. The card on the left becomes a parent, and the card on the right becomes the child, and so on, ad infinitum.

Gingko app

A single branch of a simple horizontal outline in Gingko

But it gets even better. If you now add another card below that child, within the same column, the new card becomes a sibling of the card above, and another child of the aforementioned parent.

Gingko app

Horizontal and vertical hierarchies in Gingko

Now you might wonder: how do multiple clusters of cards connected across both columns and rows can possibly fit in the same space, if they have a different number of cards all connected in different formations? After all, outlines don’t usually have the same number of children and siblings under each parent. This is where the second bit of magic happens. When you click on any of the cards, the card and its entire cluster of parents, grandparents, siblings, children and so on rotate into view through an ingenious mechanism that works a bit like a “fruit machine” (if you’re reading this in British English), or like a “slot machine” (if you’re reading this in North-American English). The same happens if you are navigating with the keyboard arrows. It’s an incredibly clever way to navigate such a complex arrangement.

Gingko

Clicking on “Parent 1 item” rotates its branch into view and centres it, highlighting all connected offsprings

You might still ask: but what is the advantage of writing in such an application? A horizontal outline after all is just like a vertical outline, except it is laid out horizontally… But Gingko is not only a horizontal outliner. As it utilises Markdown, you can add six levels of headings anywhere in the text, which means that you can also do ‘vertical’ outlining, by promoting and demoting the text within a card (or the card itself) without having to actually move the card anywhere. E.g. by adding a Level 1 heading to a card, and a Level 2 heading to its sibling connected from below, the second card now also becomes the child of the card above (while remaining a child of any card to which its “sibling-parent” is connected on the left).

Gingko app

Using Markdown headings to create a vertical hierarchy in Gingko

I put ‘vertical’ above in quotation marks, as—and this might sound a bit confusing initially—you can also apply this parallel or ‘vertical’ hierarchy horizontally, across the columns.

Horizontal and vertical outlining in Gingko

Markdown headings used to create a hierarchy both horizontally and vertically

The Markdown headings are the same thing as headings in MS Word, and if you export a Gingko tree (as a Gingko document is called) as HTML and copy and paste it into Word, the headings will be automatically converted into Word headings. There is another bit of Gingko magic to exporting: horizontal and vertical hierarchies and the Markdown headings (as long as you’ve used them consistently) are all neatly arranged into a single, classical (yes, vertical) hierarchy of headings in the exported document.

Gingko Markdown export

Gingko tree exported as Markdown with horizontal hierarchy converted into a vertical hierarchy

Gingko HTML export

The same Gingko tree exported as HTML, with headings now formatted

Gingko imported into MS Word

The same Gingko HTML export pasted into MS Word, with headings correctly recognised

But I still have not mentioned the killer feature of Gingko. Although the cards are horizontally connected through the “slot machine” mechanism, you can also ‘deactivate’ this hierarchical connection by simply scrolling away to any note in the other columns, while carrying on writing in your centred index card in your focal column. It is immensely useful to be able to call up a note that otherwise might be connected to an entirely different and distant part of the hierarchy, and view it side-by-side with the index card you happen to be editing. If you were using a traditional vertical outliner, you would have to abandon the text you are writing to scroll up or down and drill deep into branches to look for your note, losing both your original place in the outline and your train of thought.

Gingko app

While the edited card remains centred in column 2, the cards on the left and the right are “scrolled up” to be displayed alongside it for reference

There is a lot more to say about Gingko, but I’ll keep that for another post. In the meantime, do check out Gingko’s blog and their Youtube video, as they offer many other user case scenarios.

Update (14-Oct-13):

In response to a reader’s query, here is how to emulate a footnote using the superscript tag with Markdown,

<sup>1</sup>

and the Level 6 heading with Markdown, which produces small font suitable for a footnote:

 ###### 1

The footnote area is separated from the body text by the horizontal line:

---

Here is a screenshot of the card in view mode:

Footnote in Gingko

Emulating a footnote with Markdown in Gingko

And here is the same card in edit mode (the English spellchecker in my Firefox went a bit crazy with the Latin text :):

Footnote in Gingko

The same card in edit mode, showing Markdown syntax

Using colour in outlining

I was glad to see that the latest version (3.6.3b) of Noteliner now supports “unlimited colors for lists, note highlighting and sections of text.” For me colour has always been an important factor in outlining. There seem to be two main approaches.

Noteliner exemplifies the approach whereby you are given complete manual control over changing the colour of the foreground (the font) or the background (highlighting text). This approach comes in handy when you want to mark up an existing outline in different colours to emphasise particular meanings or functions. The downside is that it is a manual process, so in the case of a long outline it would be rather fiddly to be changing every item to a different colour.

This is where the alternative approach excels: outliners that provide an automatic colouring-in option using some kind of a template. Natara Bonsai 5 (Desktop Edition) — my favourite single/dual/triple etc.-pane outliner — does this very well. If you choose Outline > Text Color from the main menu, you are presented with four options.

Natara_Bonsai_edit_colorsYou can colour in your outline automatically according to each outline item’s category, priority or due date, assuming that you have added these values to the outline items.

My favourite feature is the fourth option, “By Level,”  which means that each outline item will be coloured in according to its place within the hierarchy (available up to 16 levels). You can even select a custom colour for the completed items, in case you opt to have a check box in the outline.

Natara_Bonsai_color_by_attributeBelow is an example of such a coloured-in outline. I like this feature because it makes it so much easier to analyse a long, complex outline and comprehend the relationships between concepts at different levels of the hierarchy.

Natara BonsaiAlso, under View > New Outline Defaults you can set up a colour scheme for any new outline, whether created from scratch or imported or pasted in from elsewhere. The colouring-in options are saved thereafter for each new outline.

The downside of this approach is that (at least in Bonsai) there isn’t a way to do ad hoc highlighting or colouring-in of font (as there is in Noteliner). It would be nice if one could still mark up an automatically coloured-in outline with additional highlighting.

Other outliners I’m aware of that can do some colouring-in are StoryView/Outline 4D, Inspiration, BrainStorm, and UV Outliner.

Update (26/07/2013):

There is also Redhaven Outline, which has an interesting implementation of colours (see their Youtube video on that).

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

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

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.

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