Tinderbox is such a remarkably versatile tool for managing information in great part because it provides you with several distinct views of your notes:
Map view is probably Tinderbox’s claim to fame. I know of no other application that gives you such a flexible digital canvas for displaying/organizing/managing your notes. In fact, Map view is so extraordinary that it can easily overshadow the other views offered by Tinderbox. Today I want to look more closely at Outline view, not in context of how it complements Map view, but in and of itself. In other words, just how good an outliner is Tinderbox?
Note: This overview is using Tinderbox 6.2.
When Mark Bernstein, Tinderbox’s mad genius, took the application to version 6, he changed the entire user experience. Where in previous versions you would need to open a note to see its content, now Tinderbox looks, at least superficially, like most other two-pane outliners. It has the outline tree (Outline view) in the left pane, and the note contents in the right.
Note: In this review I use the terms note, headline (or heading), topic and item almost interchangeably. All refer to the text that makes up each node of the outline. When I’m talking about the information in the note, I will use the term content or note text.
In this overview, I will be pretending that the other views in Tinderbox don’t exist. That’s silly, I know. But I’m interested in conveying just how good Tinderbox is as an outliner.
I’ve listed on this site in the past a set of criteria for judging outliners. The first of these is just how easy it is to bang out an outline. I want the application to “disappear” when I’m outlining. I don’t want to think about anything but the project at hand. That means I should be able to create headings and move them into their proper place in the hierarchy without removing my hands from the keyboard, and the strokes needed should be intuitive and easy enough to use that I don’t have to think about them. That’s the first test Outline view must pass. So let’s start by creating a new document.
Create outlines with ease
Tinderbox 6 uses a tabbed interface. When you create a new document, two tabs are created and open: Map view and Outline view. Map view is selected by default, so the first thing you need to do if you want to make an outline is switch focus to the the Outline view. Tinderbox indicates the view type with an icon and the word “Map” or “Outline,” which is a good thing because before you add anything to either view, they look identical — though version 6 does include some helpful hints in these otherwise empty spaces. For this article, I’m closing the Map view tab. Now, I can create my first heading just be beginning to type it. When I’ve finished, I press ENTER and Tinderbox suspends editing mode. When I press ENTER again, I get a new topic and am in editing mode, so that I can type the title. I continue this process as needed. If a topic should be a child of a previous topic, I just demote it with the TAB key. Change my mind, use SHIFT-TAB to promote the topic. Nothing extraordinary, but this is exactly how I want an outliner to behave. You can create sub-topics to as deep a level as you need.
Reorganize quickly and easily
Outlines rarely are created with exactly the structure I want, so I will need to re-organize the topics. Moving a topic up and down within its current level simply requires the UP or DOWN ARROW key in combination with the COMMAND key. I need to promote it before I can move it to a new parent topic. And, of course, I can use drag and drop to move headings around freely in my outline.
Familiar disclosure triangles
Tinderbox also features the familiar triangular disclosure buttons, so you can collapse and re-expand the various levels in your outline. While there is nothing unique about Tinderbox’s tools for building an outline, it is also surprising how often developers of outliners make it so much more difficult than this. Tinderbox passes this first test with flying colors. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be writing about any of the rest of the app’s outlining features.
Sophisticated outliners have advanced features. Tinderbox 6 has many of these, but not all of them (specifically, it is missing inline notes — that is, you can’t view the content of the note in the outline tree itself).
Before delving into Tinderbox’s slightly more sophisticated outlining features, I need to add some background about the software. Bernstein calls Tinderbox the “Tool for Notes.” Keep that in mind, because it explains how everything in the program centers around collecting, gathering, writing, managing and accessing notes. Most of the items you create in your outline will be notes (although you can also create agents and separators — more on these shortly). An understanding of just what makes up a “note” in Tinderbox is necessary for understanding how to get the most from Outline view. To get “notes” you have to get “attributes.”
Pretty much everything in Tinderbox is made up of attributes — think of this as the DNA of your information. Just like every living creature has unique DNA that makes them look and behave in specific ways, so to the attributes that compose Tinderbox notes dictate how they look and act. You don’t have to concern yourself with most of these attributes. Some of them you will manipulate without even knowing you’re doing so, such as the position in the outline, the content of the text of the note. Tinderbox automatically records these attributes, as well as information such as the date of the creation of the note. All the attributes that are by default a part of a note are called system attributes. You can also create your own “user” attributes, so that you can customize Tinderbox documents to your specific needs. Attributes matter for this discussion when you choose to make them “key” attributes. A key attribute is one that you select to display within the note pane along with the text of the note. In effect, these become database fields. So, for example, you can add a DueDate (system attribute) to your notes, or create a user attribute for holding a reference URL and make these a part of the ecosystem of your outline. If you’re sketching out a novel, you can make key user attributes for location or character features.
Adding and creating key attributes for your notes is easy. Just click the “+” button in the upper right of the notes window. Type in the name of the attribute you want to add as a key attribute. If it exists, it will automatically show up. If it doesn’t exist, you’ll get a dialog box asking if you want to create the attribute — you can then tell Tinderbox what kind of data it will hold: string, number, date, boolean, URL, etc…
Attributes will stick with your notes no matter which view you are in. You can add columns to your outline to display attribute values for each note, sort of spreadsheet-style. Select “Use Columns” from the VIEW menu and you’ll get a column management bar just above your outline.
Just press the plus sign in this column management bar to add a column. Press again to add a second… as many as you need. By clicking on the column title (which by default just says “attribute”), you can type in the name of the attribute you want to display. This makes it a lot easier to compare values across your notes.
One of the limitations with using an outline for organizing data is that a note often belongs under more than one heading. Tinderbox allows you to create aliases of your notes, so the same note can appear in multiple places. Changes made in one of the aliased copies, will be reflected in all of them. Tinderbox distinguishes between the original note and the alias by making the alias title italic. In many outliners, this feature is known as cloning.
Checkboxes in an outliner are not a high advancement, but not every outliner has them, so I want to make sure to mention that Tinderbox does. Just select “Use Checkboxes” from the VIEW menu. The implementation isn’t too sophisticated, however, as you can’t apply checkboxes to individual notes… it’s the whole outline or not at all. This is a small, but legitimate issue, I think. A checkbox in a list is a handy way of indicating what is a “task” and what is not. If every item has a checkbox, this doesn’t work so well. There are other ways around this, though; for instance creating a prototype (more on prototypes below) note called “task” which would have a different color value or badge (more on badges below) than the other notes. As with so many aspects of Tinderbox, the application has an interesting wrinkle relating to checkboxes. Every note has a “checked” attribute. If you create a column for “checked”, you can run your checkboxes in a straight column, instead of along the left side, among all the other little icons. This can be cleaner and easier to view.
Another nice feature of the Tinderbox Outline view is that you can choose from several different badges — specialty icons — that appear just to the left of the note title. For example, select a red flag badge for urgent items. You can see the red and yellow flag badges in the screenshot above.
Special Tinderbox Features
Tinderbox is jammed with features. I’m going to mention a few here that can turbo-charge the outlining experience.
A very useful feature of Tinderbox’s outlining function is the ability to add Separators. A Separator is a special note you create to act as a fence separating different sections of your outline. If you’re planning a novel, say, you may use separators to create sharp visual divides between your plot outline, your character list, your location list, and your research notes. Any note can become a separator, but you’ll probably want to create notes just for this purpose. After you create a new note in your outline, open the Inspector Window (command-1). Select the properties inspector tab (the number 4 in a box), then check the option for “Separator.”
When you mark a heading as a Separator, it takes on a special look in your outline (and disappears from any other view in your document — so you won’t see it if you switch to Map view — and you won’t see any of sub notes of the separator). The screenshot at the top of this article shows separators in use: Characters, Research and Prototypes & Agents.
Open in new tab
Hoisting in an outline means you can select a heading and its sub-heads and make the rest of the outline disappear. This is an especially useful feature with large and complex outlines, and ones that have deep hierarchy. It gives you the ability to focus on the section you happen to be working on, without the distraction of the rest of the document. Tinderbox does not have a hoist function in its Outline View (though the Map View works specifically by hoisting to different levels). But it has something even better. It lets you select a heading and choose to open it in its own tab. (Select the option from the pop up menu when you right click over the heading.) Now you can select that tab and work on that section of the outline, but you can also click back over to the tab showing the bigger picture for reference.
Correction: Alerted by Mark in the comments section, I see that I missed that Tinderbox does have a dedicated hoist view. Per Mark:
In the view menu, Focus view hoists the currently selected container (you can’t hoist a note with no children) in the current view; Expand view ‘un-hoists’ one outline level, reversing the process.
If you prefer a UI approach, double click the icon to the left of a container to hoist/focus it. To un-hoist/expand use the breadcrumb bar that shows at the top of hoisted views in the View pane (the left pane of the document window). Clicking on any breadcrumb un-hoists the current view to that level.
Thank you, Mark.
Icons convey information
You’ve probably noticed the little rectangular icons that live between the disclosure triangles and the text of the heading. These icons approximate the amount of text contained within each note. An empty square is a note without text. A rectangle with lines, means there is text in the note; the more lines, the more text. These icons will also tell you if the heading is an agent, by putting the heavier line at the bottom of the square, instead of at the top, as it does with notes.
I mentioned prototypes earlier. These are very handy for mass applying to many notes attributes you set up for one note. As an example, say you’re creating character reference notes, you might want to have key attributes for age, sex, and hair color. Create a “character” note and give it those key attributes. Then open the inspector window, on the in the properties inspector tab check the “prototype” option (see the previous properties inspector screenshot). Now, whenever you create or edit a note that is about a specific character in your story you can apply the “character” prototype (selecting it from the options in the pull-down menu in the properties inspector tab). Voila, it too will have those key attribute fields.
I hesitate to mention agents, because now we’re dipping our toes into a little more sophisticated Tinderbox functionality. Yet, an agent can be really handy for helping you get a grip on your outline, and you don’t need complicated routines. Agents in Tinderbox can perform all kinds of cool things, but I’m only going to suggest the most basic use in this outline-centric article. Let’s get back to our novel project. In the outline, I’ve got scenes organized by chapter, but I want to see the list of scenes in a flat view and I want to see the dates these scenes take place to make sure my timeline makes sense. I’ve already created a prototype for scenes and applied it to all my scene headings. So I can create an agent that finds all the scenes for me.
Now I can choose to open just this agent and its newly gathered scene aliases in a new tab, where I can display a column with the dates the scenes are to take place.
Agents can do more than just collect other notes. They can perform actions on them. So, for example, if your outline relates to a project, you could create an agent that looks for any note that has a prototype of “task” AND a checked attribute value of false, and assign it with a red flag badge to make it clear which jobs are yet to be completed.
New export options
One of the things that used to hold me back from using Tinderbox for outlining was the baffling process for exporting notes. It involves creating a template for the way you want the notes to look after export. Tinderbox wizards don’t seem to have trouble with this, but I never could really get my head around the process. Fortunately, the latest version of Tinderbox, edition 6.2, includes more pre-made options for exporting your whole document or just parts of it. Here are the options:
- HTML – which still baffles me. It creates a bunch of files like a website, but when I try to open them it says it can’t find the template. This lack of understanding is definitely a failing on my part to work very hard to get it. I’m sure the solution isn’t very complicated.
- Outline – which exports just the headings in a hierarchically formatted text file.
- Text – which allows you to export the whole file or parts of it in one of several different formats, including RTF, OPML or Scrivener.
The Text export option is the one that I find useful. In fact, I’m writing this article in Tinderbox and exporting it as a plain text file to import into WordPress.
The Bottom Line
On my 11” MacBook Air, the tiny screen real estate available to me makes the Outline view far more useful than Map view. That’s what has prompted me to write this exploration of Tinderbox as an outliner. I’d hardly recommend you spend the money just to use Tinderbox for outlining (although, back in the day, a great outliner like GrandView cost more than Tinderbox does today, so it is all relative).
I was going to end this overview by saying that Tinderbox is not the world’s best Mac outliner. But I’ve changed my mind. I think it is the best, when you consider all it has to offer — and I don’t mean Map view (that’s a whole additional benefit, like cosmologists discovering multiple universes). Most two-pane outliners have nice editing windows for writing your notes, but usually have rudimentary outline functions in the tree-pane. Dedicated outliners have strong outlining capabilities, but crude note-taking features at best. Tinderbox combines a powerful dedicated outliner with a good note-taking editor AND throws in database features. This makes Tinderbox unique.
Does this mean it is the best choice for everyone? No. If you’re looking for a lightweight, efficient tool for creating simple outlines, then you may be happier with the nifty OutlineEdit app (which has some terrific features, and more on the way). If you love the column feature in Tinderbox, OmniOutliner does it better. But no other outliner I’m aware of does what I can do with Tinderbox. Oh, yeah, and then there’s Map view.