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.


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,


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