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

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.