Outlines and inline notes

Nearly a year ago, I wrote an article about using Tinderbox as an outliner. My conclusion was that the outline view in Tinderbox is a terrific outline application. Just about the only feature it lacked is inline notes. The conversation that cropped up today about this feature prompted me to think about how I might implement a workaround in Tinderbox that would at least approximate inline notes. Before I get to that, I first want to talk a little bit about my opinions regarding inline notes.

This feature mostly only matters in single-pane outliners. That is, those outliners where all the relevant information is presented in one pane. Why it matters is that you want to see the notes relating to a topic displayed “inline” with the topic and not in a separate pane. This allows you to view the notes for all the nearby topics at one time. A little more about why this is important a little further down.

I feel like inline notes are an under appreciated feature of a sophisticated outlining application. That’s probably because most people have never actually been able to use an outline that handled inline notes. Either the app doesn’t have inline notes as a feature, or the feature is rudimentally implemented.

Two definitions before continuing:

  • Heading or topic – Each individual item in an outline is a heading (or call it a topic). That is, if it has a bullet or an alphanumeric label, it is a heading.
  • Note – In some outliners, the note is merely additional meta data. In a small number of other outliners, it can be the main text that describes the heading under which it is associated. Every note is associated with a heading.

OmniOutliner is one of the more fully featured outliners on the market, including the ability to add notes and view them inline. Its approach is pretty standard, so it will serve as a good example of the current state of inline notes.

These screen shots demonstrate how inline notes work in OmniOutliner:

Sample OmniOutliner Document.
Sample OmniOutliner Document. Don’t confuse those long paragraphs as inline notes. They are each a separate heading.


To add a note to an OmniOutliner topic, click the note icon.
To add a note to an OmniOutliner topic, click the note icon.


By default, the inline note is made to have a lower-level of importance by appearance.
By default, the inline note is made to have a lower-level of importance by appearance.


The note now appearing in the note pane. You can toggle this action.
The note now appearing in the note pane. You can toggle this action.

Notes in OmniOutliner are clearly intended to be meta-data and not the substance of the heading the notes are associated with. This is a fine approach for a lot of purposes, but it is not ideal for writers. I suspect anyone using OmniOutliner for writing will take the approach demonstrated here; which is to just write paragraphs in the headings instead of using the notes for the content.

Grandview’s take on notes

The best application of inline notes that I have ever seen or used was that of Grandview, the DOS outliner I wrote about here. With Grandview you created your outline headings and could associate a full-text document with each heading, as demonstrated below:

Document text viewed "inline" in the GrandView outline
Document text viewed “inline” in the GrandView outline

Grandview treated notes as full-fledged documents in their own right, but allowed you to view them in the outliner or not, as you chose. If you wished, you could isolate the text of the document to focus solely on composing. Like this:

Dedicated document window in GrandView
Dedicated document window in GrandView

Here is what I had to say about why I feel this is important for writers:

An important point here is that this text is not a separate headline or node. It is directly associated with a headline and can be viewed inline, in its own window, or collapsed and not visible in the outline. This visual flexibility is a powerful feature for writers, because it allows you to switch from a focused view of your writing to the big picture. You can work on getting each section of the text right, then make sure the entire work flows smoothly with appropriate transitions. Two-pane outliners… force you to keep your writing in separate, discrete blocks. To this day, no other application has matched GrandView for providing this combination of powerful outlining tools AND single-pane, inline text. I have yet to find any outliner that matches Grandview for handling these this inline content.

I wrote that over six years ago, and it is still true. (I hope someone out there can show me I’m wrong.)

An inline notes workaround for Tinderbox

So my Tinderbox inline notes workaround. You can add columns to an outline view in Tinderbox. The columns can display any of the attributes for the headings in your Tinderbox outline. One of those attributes is “text”, which is the notes content.

Tinderbox with outline view selected. I have only populated it with a few notes.
Tinderbox with outline view selected. I have only populated it with a few notes.

If you’ve read my article about Tinderbox as an outliner, you know that you can add columns to the outline view, and fill those columns with data from any of the notes’ attributes. The text within the note is the “text” attribute, so you can add that as a column. So you can minimize the notes pane and view the text in the outline view as demonstrated in the screenshot below:

Outline view in Tinderbox with the "Text" attribute displayed in the outline as a separate column.
Outline view in Tinderbox with the “Text” attribute displayed in the outline as a separate column.

As you can see, the result isn’t exactly “inline” notes. And, sadly, the text doesn’t wrap to multiple lines so you can only read the contents as far as you can stretch the column. But this does provide an overview of content in a single pane, so it might prove useful to some.

My conclusion, however, is the search goes on for a single-pane outliner that can handle inline notes effectively for writers.

12 thoughts on “Outlines and inline notes

  1. Hi Steve,

    >I have yet to find any outliner that matches Grandview for handling this inline content

    Having watched some videos on it a while ago, I vaguely recall that Org-mode might be able to emulate that behaviour. WorkFlowy also allows one to zoom in on a specific inline note (although I don’t find it conducive for writing long pieces of text, others have been known to write entire books in it). Gingko also allows one to make a single note full screen or filter out the others (in fact Gingko is unusal in the sense that it’s possible not to use a title at all, just the ‘inline’ text). Not having experienced Grandview directly, I don’t know if these solutions are anywhere as elegant.

    1. Dr Andus, thanks for bringing Org-mode, Workflowy and Gingko into the conversation. I’ve tried Org-mode a number of times and just can’t become comfortable with it. I usually have trouble following the instructions on installing Emacs. You’re right, of course, about Workflowy. It does a good job with inline notes. I’ll look at Gingko again. Thank you for the comment!

  2. Steve, the outline view in Scrivener does a pretty good job. It’s easy to toggle either the inline notes or just titles, right below the titles. Other data can also be shown or hidden in adjacent columns, including status of a note, word counts or targets, keywords (like tags), etc., etc.

    1. Hi, Greg. As I was writing this article, I was wondering if I should check in with Scrivener to see if some of this was possible. You’ve given me a good subject for a follow up article. Thank you!

      1. I don’t have one of my own Scrivener docs handy at the moment but just did a quick Google image search and this one by Ken McConnell shows a great example of stuff you can do with the outline view in Scrivener: http://ken-mcconnell.com/2012/05/22/use-scrivener-write-novel-part-two/

        What I like is that everything in that view is optional, including the various panes on both sides. You can work really fast to do an outline, drag and drop, can add a pretty wide variety of metadata, and what’s really nice is it’s all pretty easy to figure out. (I don’t really understand all the “courses” in Scrivener — it’s degrees of magnitude easier than some of the softwares you write about.) You can use it for pretty much anything, too…does not have to be used for writing books or whatnot. People use for project organization and journaling and blog prep and so on.


  3. Thanks for the interesting post.
    I never used GrandView, but, from your comments, it looks like it was a pretty advanced outlining tool for its time.
    I did use something more advanced though, in the shape of the DOS-based Ashton-Tate Framework version III, version IV, and version V. This was a superb tool for building documents, and a document’s outline and inline notes were built in frames. Frames could include seamlessly connected and/or nested frames consisting of text, or working spreadsheet cells, or graphs/charts (which latter were a bit kludgy) – i.e., 3 separate frame types. I think there was a 4th type which was a Clipper type database, but I didn’t need to use that so am not sure how useful it was..
    It also created its own dynamic TOC (Table Of Contents), which changed as the document was edited/changed.
    I have never seen anything quite as powerful since, though Microsoft OneNote comes close.
    However OneNote’s OLE (Object Linking and Embedding) features make it a bit cumbersome by comparison, though it is WYSIWYG and can include virtually any type of data you might require – which is why I use it now.

  4. Steve you could also use $Subtitle for an “inline note” — using $Subtitle in a column the same way as $Text. That way you don’t interfere with your $Text value.

  5. … sorry, clipped the rest of the thought … and you can set $DisplayExpression == $Name + “\n” + $Subtitle so that the $Subtitle appears in a normal (no columns) Outline tab.

  6. I guess inline notes just never seemed that different to me than a subheading item. That being the case, it is easier for me to just use the same method, even if inline notes are available in an app.

    The Grandview implementation seems great however. I’d love to see a modern version, for now I am pretty happy with Workflowy.

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