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.

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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

Academic writer’s block cure

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

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

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

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

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

VUE_concept_map2

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

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

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

Recursive outlining and writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modelling process workflow for thesis writing

Recently I’ve been finding that whenever I’m stuck in my odyssey towards writing up my dissertation, modelling my process flow in a concept-mapping software (such as VUE) usually helps. In this (hopefully) final stage of my PhD project there are so many resources scattered around in various software and folders on my computer that I need a formal “concept map” (if that’s the right term) to pull them all together and work out the relationships and interactions between them.

Here is for example my last concept map that I’ve knocked up when I was unsure how to proceed with writing up the first four chapters of my dissertation. There is nothing particularly scientific about this map and it probably doesn’t follow any of the conventions of process workflow modelling. But who cares: it did the trick and allowed me to plan out the next stages of what I need to do.

Actually at least 2 or 3 days of deliberation are captured in this chart. First, I needed to decide whether I was going to use ConnectedText or something else for doing the actual writing. Through trial and error I established that it’s better to use another software because however much I love working in CT, it does have some limitations. One of them is that you can only have one instance of CT running and only one edit/view window open. Since I’ve decided to use CT as my database for my reading notes, I need to use another software, so I can be writing in one software in one monitor, while referring to the CT notes in the other. Also, there isn’t an easy way to track the word count of your document while writing in CT.

I had considered WhizFolders briefly as an alternative, but I find its interface too busy to be able to concentrate on the actual writing. So I settled on Scrivener for Windows, which works well both as a two-pane outliner and as a writing tool with decent word-count tracking.

As the sequence of the process flow is not apparent from the chart, let me describe it briefly. I start with importing my master outline with inline notes from Outline 4D (via Word). The reason I created my outline in Outline 4D is because it is a single-pane outliner that allows you to have inline notes, which you can also view in an index card view on a corkboard. Then I use Scrivener to break up the imported document into a 2-pane outline using Scrivener’s handy “Split with Selection as Title” command. As I start writing the actual text (I’m working on the first 4 chapters of my thesis, which need to be contextualised within their respective literatures, namely the Introduction, the Literature Review, the Conceptual Framework, and the Methodology), I begin to review my existing reading notes.

Over the years I have read all kinds of things that are no longer relevant. Therefore I need to deploy some kind of a filtering process to select the most important notes, as well as any new reading that still needs to be done. To consolidate my final reading list (a list of bibliographic references), I use a Natara Bonsai outline. First I import into Bonsai an existing outline document that contains some of my selected references that I have kept on my iPod/iPad in CarbonFin Outliner. Then I go through my old conference papers and other writings to extract references that are still relevant and which are kept in Word files and an old Scrivener project.

Simultaneously to this process I have also designed a ConnectedText project for keeping my final reading notes and quotes, using a similar model to the one I have developed for my empirical analysis. As my old reading notes and quotes are kept in a WhizFolders database, I will need to review those and transfer them one-by-one to the CT database (I deliberately don’t want to import them en mass, as I need to separate the wheat from the chaff). I will also use the CT project for recording any new reading I still need to do. I am designing this CT database not simply just for this writing project. Very likely it will become my main database for all my future readings for years to come. This is just an opportune moment to get started with it, as I no longer want to use WhizFolders for this.

Getting back to the chart, there are basically two important elements to it: 1) the big blue Scrivener rectangle which represents my writing, and 2) the big green rectangle below it which represents the CT reading notes database. If we look at the arrows pointing to the latter, we see mostly the data that needs to be transferred (by carefully sifting through) from my old files, as well as new reading notes that will be created in iPad.

As for the arrows coming in or out of the Scrivener project, those have to do mostly with referring to external sources. In the end I won’t need Excel for planning the word count because Scrivener has good enough tools for that. I will also use Dragon NaturallySpeaking for dictating, whenever I feel the need. Sometimes it’s easier to write without it, other times it speeds things up. As for EndNote, it is simply the central database for my references, which are linked to the PDFs that may need to be read for the first time or reviewed.

But my main point here is that it was the creating of this concept map that was crucial for getting me started with the whole writing stage. Without it I would have probably sat in front of a blank page with a writer’s block for days. Now I feel fairly confident that I know what I need to do next.