Outliner

Outlinely 2.0 – a quick review

Outlinely 2.0 sports a new user interface, which includes a pretty typical library panel.

Outlinely 2.0 sports a new user interface, which includes a pretty typical library panel.

Updated April 28:

Outlinely is a simple, but elegant outlining application for Mac OS. I have written about the app before, here. Version 2.0 was just released. The big feature addition is the library, which looks like a fairly standard organization panel where you can tuck your outlines into folders. This isn’t the most sophisticated “library” panel you will find, but it looks as if it will be handy.

It is not immediately apparent how to add folders to the library, but if you hover the cursor over the location (iCloud or On My Mac), a plus sign appears. Clicking this creates a new folder. You can’t nest folders, however.

One thing I found a little disconcerting is that the current document remains open in the editor window when you select another folder — it won’t change until you select another document. Consequently, you can be at a loss for which folder the document is actually in. See the screenshot below for an example:

In which folder is this document categorized? Can't tell from the user interface because I navigated off the Website folder.

In which folder is this document categorized? Can’t tell from the user interface because I navigated off the Website folder.

This document is in my Website folder, but there is no way to tell that from the data on screen. This could be a big deal if you have a lot of folders and a lot of outline documents. A breadcrumb trail at the top of the document editor would solve this.

But all in all, Outlinely is a nice application. It feels like a standard text editor, but with a fairly powerful outline engine under the hood. At $14.95 (U.S.) some folks might find it a little pricey. But I was weaned on applications that cost hundreds of dollars, so it seems like a good deal to me. Update: The developer is offering a version without the library feature for free. Check it out at the App Store. It’s called Outlinely Express.

Outlining with Tinderbox 6 (6.2 to be precise)

The Outline View in Tinderbox may be the software's most under-appreciated feature.

The Outline View in Tinderbox may be the software’s most under-appreciated feature.

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
  • Outline
  • Chart
  • Timeline

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.

Outline View

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.

Outlining 101

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.

When you create a new document, Tinderbox presents you with open tabs for Map View and Outline View. I've closed Map View for this example.

When you create a new document, Tinderbox presents you with open tabs for Map View and Outline View, and it gives you some helpful hints about just what to do next. I’ve closed Map View for this example.

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.

Outlining 201

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).

Notes

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.”

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.

Click the plus sign in the notes pane to add key attributes to the note.

Click the plus sign in the notes pane to add key attributes to the note.

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…

If you try to create a key attribute that is not already an attribute, Tinderbox gives you the option to create it and select the type of data it will hold.

If you try to create a key attribute that is not already an attribute, Tinderbox gives you the option to create it and select the type of data it will hold.

Columns

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.

Adding columns to your outline is easy.

Adding columns to your outline is easy.

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.

Aliases

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

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.

This screen detail demonstrates the two ways you can include checkboxes in your outline. Of course, you would never need to use both.

This screen detail demonstrates the two ways you can include checkboxes in your outline. Of course, you would never need to use both.

Badges

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.

Separators

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.”

The Properties tab in the Inspector allows you to set a note as a prototype, template or separator.

The Properties tab in the Inspector allows you to set a note as a prototype, template or separator (or leave it as none of the above). You can also assign a prototype to the note with the drop down box.

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.

Prototypes

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.

Selecting a prototype for the note, applies the properties of the prototype to the note. In this case adding key attributes for Age, Hair and Sex.

Selecting a prototype for the note, applies the properties of the prototype to the note. In this case adding key attributes for DueDate, Responsible, and Checked — this is a hypothetical outline for managing a project.

Agents

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.

This agent has a simple query that looks for all the notes in my outline that have the scene prototype applied to them.

This agent has a simple query that looks for all the notes in my outline that have the scene prototype applied to them. (Note, I usually add the prefix “Proto:” to my prototypes, just to make it easier to identify them. This is note required.)

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.

I can use an agent to help me see in one place all the notes of one type (in this case, scenes), where I can also customize the view to see meta data relating specifically to those types of notes.

I can use an agent to help me see in one place all the notes of one type (in this case, scenes), where I can also customize the view to see meta data relating specifically to those types of notes. In this case, the date the scene takes place and the location.

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.

OutlineEdit is on sale this week — a brief review

There is no shortage of handy outliners for Mac. One which came on the scene more recently is called OutlineEdit. I have been intrigued by the app since first seeing it, but I tried to demonstrate a little restraint by not purchasing it. Then I learned it was on sale this week at 50% off, and that was all the rationalization I need to go ahead and buy a license.

OutlineEdit's main screen with a few feature callouts.

OutlineEdit’s main screen with a few feature callouts.

While OE operates like most outliners, it does have two less than usual features which I believe I will find useful.

The Marker

OutlineEdit Marker is a Safari add-in that allows you to mark selected text on the web and bring it instantly into your open OE document. Basically, it saves you a couple of cut and paste steps. Handy, but not going to change your outlining life, unless you do a lot of cut and paste from the web.

Nice Window Management

The OE feature that most interests me is its ability to dock or float a document window so you can reference another document (whether an OE outline or any other type of file), while working in your outline.

The docking feature in OutlineEdit will keep the current document open on screen while you switch between other apps or documents.

The docking feature in OutlineEdit will keep the current document open on screen while you switch between other apps or documents. Here it is on the right, with an Outlinely outline open on the left. As you can see, Outlinely is generally more elegant, while OutlineEdit is — in my view — more utilitarian.

Standard Outlining Features

Of course, OutlineEdit has many of the typical features you’d want from an outliner:

  • Folding. Using the disclosure arrows on the left side of the window, you can choose to show or hide sub-topics for any topic. Pretty typical.
  • Checkboxes. You can include checkboxes in your outline, but you turn them on or off for the whole outline. You can’t selectively use them for sub-topics. This matters to me because a checkbox is an indicator that there is something that needs doing. My outlines are rarely composed entirely of tasks. I would like to be able to give a quick scan of my outline to see which items need attention. If all of the items have checkboxes beside them, then I have to read each individually to see whether or not the item is indeed requiring action. Checking the box, grays out the topic.
  • Notes. You can add notes to any topic. (A note in an outliner content text which is attached to the topic and moves around in the outline when you move the topic. This makes it different than sub-topics, which are associated hierarchically with the parent topic, but can be promoted or moved to other topics.)
  • And building, restructuring and navigating your outline is pretty standard and easy to learn and adopt.
This screen zoom shows how checkboxes work in OutlineEdit.

This screen zoom shows how checkboxes work in OutlineEdit.

A Few Other Features of Note

OutlineEdit does a few other things, which are not so important to me, but may be to others:

Metrics

OE provides some handy metrics for measuring your work in the program. These are:

  • The number of topics
  • The number of levels (which the developer refers to as layers)
  • Character and word counts
  • And, it has a stop watch type feature for tracking the amount of time you work on a document.

Categories

With OE, you can create up to five categories for classifying the topics in your outline. What’s potentially powerful about this feature is that you can filter your outline to see only those topics that have a certain category. This works from the point of the selected topic, so you can filter individual sections.

Once you’ve filtered your outline, you have an option to export just that material, or create a new outline with just the filter-selected topics.

Export Options

OE only exports to as PDF and OMPL file formats, but you can also copy an outline as tabbed text to the clipboard. This should cover the needs of most users, I would think.

Some Limitations

OutlineEdit is missing some higher-end outlining features. For example it does not provide a hoist operation. Nor does it having cloning of topics. You can’t adjust the font, though you can bold, italicize or underline text. And you can’t adjust the label style.

The Bottom Line

If you’re happy with your current outliner, there probably isn’t a need to add OutlineEdit to the lineup. However, since it is on sale for $8, it can’t really hurt. I got it mostly for the floating/docking window feature, which I expect to prove useful to me.

A look at a new favorite iPad app — Mindscope

The other day I learned about a new app for iPad called Mindscope. It sounded intriguing so I installed the free version and quickly decided to spend the $2.99 to upgrade to the full version.

Each workspace in Mindscope is called a board.

Each workspace in Mindscope is called a board. You can adjust the color scheme to suit your tastes.

Mindscope is a terrific app, elegant, easy to use, and incredibly useful. The developer calls it a “multi-level magnet board for your brain.” While that’s a perfectly accurate description of the app, it hardly does it justice. Mindscope has elements of a mind-mapper, outliner, personal wiki, and white board. Basically, you write short entries — from single words to phrases — and place these where you like on the screen via drag and drop. If you tap on a phrase, you drop into that topic where you can add sub-topics. This would be like a “hoist” in outliner parlance. (It is also reminiscent of how the much more sophisticated map views in Tinderbox work.)

So you can build complex outlines with Mindscope. But there’s more. The developer has included the ability to build grids on screen, which you can use to visually organize the topics at any level.

Add grid lines to your boards to organize your thoughts.

Add grid lines to your boards to organize your thoughts.

Because you can add lines and direction connectors between entries, you can build simple diagrams. You have to manually create each link, so this isn’t the most efficient platform for doing complex diagramming, but it is certainly satisfactory for down and dirty diagrams.

Create simple diagrams using Mindscope.

Create simple diagrams using Mindscope.

What makes a Mindscope diagram more powerful than some other diagramming apps is how each entry in the diagram can be the rabbit hole to another level, which can be a diagram, a table or just a list.

The export options are still a little rudimentary, but those that are available work well. To me the most important is getting the text out in a usable outline, and that works just fine. The export function works from any board and includes only that board and any sub-boards. The output is a nicely indented outline.

I used the copy command under the export menu in Mindscope to make a copy of the "Example" board above. Then pasted the result in NoteSuite.

I used the copy command under the export menu in Mindscope to make a copy of the “Example” board above. Then pasted the result in NoteSuite.

The developer includes a list of upcoming features and invites suggestions. Here are mine:

  • Add navigation keys to the keyboard to make it easier to edit an entry.
  • Allow users to save boards as templates for quickly setting up subsequent boards. For instance, if you set up a SWOT table with your own layout, you might want to use that over and over again without the hassle of setting it up each time.
  • Allow for distinguishing entries in some way other than just text size. For instance, with a little icon or with a color different than other entries in the same board. (Right now you can change color on a board by board basis, but not on an entry by entry basis.)

I’m sure there are other improvements that will become apparent as I use Mindscope, but I have to say that for a version 1 app, it is remarkably mature. Kudos to the developer. I look forward to using Mindscope for a number of different purposes and projects. In the meantime, if you’re interested, check out the video on the developer’s website, as it does a much better job of demonstrating how the app works than I’ve been able with my simple screen grabs.

Refreshed review of Outlinely — a new outliner for Mac

[Due to the major hash I made of my previous review of Outlinely, I have decided to start over with a (mostly) new review.]

Thanks to the eagle-eye of one of the folks over at outlinersoftware.com, I was recently made aware of a new outlining application for Mac known as Outlinely (requires OS 10.8 or higher). Aside from the name, there is a lot to like about this nifty little app. The introductory price of $5 makes it a real bargain. If this application were for Windows, it would instantly be one of the top outliners on that platform — which, admittedly, is more of a commentary of outliners for Windows than accolades for Outlinely. Nevertheless, Outlinely is equal parts slick and simple, and looks like a nice option for cranking out notes and gathering thoughts.

Outlinely is a new option for people (like me) who use outlines for writing, planning, thinking, tracking, note-taking and more.

Outlinely is a new option for people who use outlines for writing, planning, thinking, tracking, note-taking and more. (The note-style text is easier to read than it appears in this screenshot.)

The application has a clean interface that does feel a lot like a word processor, which is one of the goals stated by the developer. Like most outliners, it allows you to show and conceal sub topics. Focus mode is a hoist function for zooming in on one topic and its sub-topics. Add notes to a topic, which serve more as annotations, as you can’t export those with your outline at present. And, speaking of export, after cranking out your outline, you can output your work to a number of file formats, which include:

  • OPML
  • PDF
  • HTML
  • RTF
  • DOC
  • Markdown (it adds the markdown code for you — see the screenshot at the end of this article for an example)
  • Plain text
With Outlinely you can focus in on one topic. You can also change the font, the font size, and the color theme.

With Outlinely you can focus in on one topic. You can also change the font, the font size, and the color theme.

You can toggle topics between “done” and not done using the keystrokes command-D. Topics marked done are grayed out and have a hashline through them. You can also alter the font, text size and color theme to your liking. You can’t change the font or size selectively, just universally for the current outline, but you can selectively apply bold, italics, and underlining.

Currently you need to use keystroke commands to reogranize your outline — there is no drag and drop. You can demote or promote a topic with the TAB and SHIFT-TAB keys, or COMMAND-[ (for indent) COMMAND-] (for outdent). Add the OPTION key to those combinations to move topics up and down in the outline. (Update: As of April 9, 2014 Outinely does have drag and drop functions for reorganizing the outline.)

You can’t select or change the bullet/labels for the outline. In fact, bullets only appear for topics with sub-topics. Otherwise the indication that the text is part of a separate topic needs to be inferred from the slightly larger space above it. I’ve found that when topics run on for several lines, and you have a few of these together, it isn’t instantly clear where one topic ends and the other begins. This is a small price to pay for the editor which is refreshingly clear of bullets and symbols. If you’re creating a formal outline, however, you may have to export to another app to provide the numbering/labeling style you prefer. (If labeling of an outline is important to you, you might want to try Scribe.)

If you read my previous snake-bitten review of Outlinely, you will know that I had a major problem running the application. I sent the developer an e-mail and received a response with a fix (the problem was a corrupt extension database or some such thing), that solved the problem. It also allowed me to open the help file (which is simply an Outlinely outline), and that allowed me to answer a couple of other riddles that I had (like how to create a new topic under another topic with a note attached). Needless to say, I was impressed by the responsiveness of the developer.

This is the Outlinely document shown in the above screen shots, exported as markdwon then opened in Ulysses III.

This is the Outlinely document shown in the above screen shots, exported as markdwon then opened in Ulysses III.

Some people never need the bells and whistles of a full-featured application like OmniOutliner, and others, like me, often want a quick, hassle-free app for creating outlines for project planning, brain storming, and outlining an article or process. Already Outlinely has stepped up as the best option for that role. I wish there were a version for Windows and the iPad.

New outliner for the Mac is slick but needs work

[Important note: Because this initial “review” of Outlinely was so riddled with errors, I decided to write a whole new review, which you can find here. I’ve decided, at least for now, to leave this review here, since some other websites point to it.]

Warning: Do not buy this app! See the update at the bottom of the review!

(See new update at the end.)

(I’ve also updated a few inaccuracies I had with my original post. Thanks to the Taking Note blog for pointing out my errors.)

Thanks to the eagle-eye of one of the folks over at outlinersoftware.com, I was made aware today of a new outlining application for Mac known as Outlinely (requires OS 10.8 or higher). I’m not so crazy about the name, but for the most part, I like this app a lot. The introductory price of $5 makes it a real bargain. If this application were for Windows, it would instantly be one of the top outliners on that platform — which, admittedly, is more of a commentary of outliners for Windows than accolades for Outlinely. Nevertheless, Outlinely is equal parts slick and simple, and looks like a nice option for cranking out notes and gathering thoughts.

Outlinely is a new option for people (like me) who use outlines for writing, planning, thinking, tracking, note-taking and more.

Outlinely is a new option for people who use outlines for writing, planning, thinking, tracking, note-taking and more. (The note-style text is easier to read than it appears in this screenshot.)

Here are some of the features I like:

  • Clean interface that does feel a lot like a word processing editor, which is one of the goals stated by the developer.
  • Versatile export file formats. I haven’t tried them all, but the ones I did worked well. See below for a screenshot of the markdown export I opened in Ulysses III. Here are the options:
    • OPML
    • PDF
    • HTML
    • RTF
    • DOC
    • Markdown (it adds the markdown code for you)
    • Plain text
  • Can focus in on one topic at a time (see screenshot below).
    • You can focus on a topic by pressing command-return.
    • Unfortunately, there does not appear to be a keyboard command to unfocus. You’ve got to mouse over to the little magnifying glass in the bottom left corner and click.
    • It is a little strange that the developer suddenly relies on mousing, when other common mouse-type actions (like drag and drop) are absent. (Note, there is a command to unfocus while in focus mode, but it appears under the EDIT menu, which is a strange place for it. Or you can tap the ESC key.)
  • Toggle a topic as “done” or “undone” using command-D keystrokes. Done topics are grayed-out and crossed out.
  • Topics can have notes.
    • Notes are not included with the export.
    • There is one major issue with notes… see below.
With Outlinely you can focus in on one topic. You can also change the font, the font size, and the color theme.

With Outlinely you can focus in on one topic. You can also change the font, the font size, and the color theme.

LIMITATIONS AND AREAS FOR IMPROVEMENT

Outlinely has a number of quirks and omissions. Some of these may be intentional to keep the app simple. Some may be errors. And some may be simply that the developers haven’t gotten around to them yet. Here are the ones I’ve uncovered, in no particular order:

  • No drag and drop for re-organizing topics.
    • This isn’t so bad, but some people might miss it.
  • Supposedly you can add hot links, but I can not figure out how to do so, and since the help file is not up and running yet, I can’t learn the answer without turning to the developers. (Note, there is a help file in the form of a native Outlinely file. It didn’t originally open for me due to the same problem I was having regarding the corrupt extension database.)
  • Can’t select or change the bullet/labels for the outline. In fact, bullets only appear for topics with sub-topics. Otherwise the indication that the text is part of a separate topic needs to be inferred from the slightly larger space above it. I’ve found that when topics run on for several lines, and you have a few of these together, it isn’t instantly clear where one topic ends and the other begins. I do like the fact that the editor window isn’t cluttered with bullets, however.
  • Can only change the font for the entire outline, not word for word or topic to topic. You can, however, bold, italicize, or underline selectively.
  • When you hit RETURN at the end of a topic, a new sibling topic is created. This is expected behavior, but if you have already created a note for a topic, then, hitting RETURN creates the new sibling topic between the first topic and its note. This seems like a bug. The new topic should be created beneath the first topic AND its note.
    • In fact, I’m not sure how you create a new topic after a topic that has a note attached. The only way I’ve found to create new topics after a topic with a note is to create them after some other topic without a note, then move them to their rightful place.
  • I am not crazy about the fact that the bracket symbol keys (in conjunction with the option and/or command keys) are required for moving topics around the outline.

Beyond this list, there are clearly some pieces that are not finished yet. The “show toolbar” and “customize toolbar” selections under the VIEW menu remain grayed-out and inactive. Clicking “Outlinely Help” under the HELP menu achieves nothing.

This is the Outlinely document shown in the above screen shots, exported as markdwon then opened in Ulysses III.

This is the Outlinely document shown in the above screen shots, exported as markdwon then opened in Ulysses III.

Clearly, the developers have a bit more work to do. Outlinely does not and (I hope) never will compete with a full-featured outliner such as OmniOutline. It lets you build structured documents quickly and easily, and gives you the tools to export your work to a bunch of other formats. I like it now as is. Once the developers add a few missing features and fix the “notes” issue, it will be a terrific little app.

Update: This app is seriously flawed. As I was running my little test on it, I never bothered to try to close the file and re-open it. I mean, why would you worry about that? Well, with this app you need to, as it won’t even re-open files that are supposedly in its own file format.

When you save a file, you have two choices: Outlinely Document and OPML. Well, saving the file in either format results in a warning when you try to re-open it that the program can’t.

Outlinely failing to open its own file!

Outlinely failing to open its own file!

Just for the record, I never opened or saved the file using OmniOutliner. I experimented with other files and got the same result, so it isn’t just one corrupt file. How could someone sell an app with this problem, and how can Apple sell it through the App Store? I’ll be contacting the developer and will post a resolution here, if and when it comes.

Update 2: I wrote to the developer and received a response within an hour and a suggestion for how to fix it. Turns out the problem resided in a corrupted associations database on my MacBook. The developer gave me a fix and now Outlinely indeed opens its own files. In six years of computing with Macs, I’ve never encountered this problem before.

A CRIMPer’s New Year Resolution List

With a new year upon me, I’ve put together my list of new year’s resolutions relating to my addiction to information management software, or what we call CRIMPing on the Outliner Software forum.

This list is one-part “how do I take advantage of my CRIMP malady to improve my productivity” and two-parts “how do I keep my CRIMP malady from destroying my productivity.”

  1. Refine and settle on my work flow. Because I have CRIMPed for much of the past decade or so, I have a long list of software already installed on my computer. Clearly I do not need all this software, yet I am still trying to find the right formula to manage the variety of information that comes my way, and for which I need access to do my job, as well as my volunteer work. I’ve got to pick a work flow and stick with it.
  2. Resist purchasing (or even downloading and trying) new software. This isn’t quite as hard as it used to be, since there is less new software being introduced than there used to be. I have no hard, empirical evidence for this. It just feels this way. In fact, it seems as if the choices may be dwindling, because so many apps that used to be part of the CRIMPer’s arsenal have become moribund. Still, there are enough temptations out there that it is important to have some self-restraint. This leads to the next resolution:
  3. Resist re-installing older software that I’ve already rejected at least once before. Maybe because of the fact that there are fewer new apps coming into the market, I’ve found myself in the past year or so convincing myself to give that old piece of software another go. That led to me buying a copy of Black Hole Organizer this past year when it was on sale, re-trying Ariadne Organizer, etc…
  4. Remove from my computer software which I’ve decided can’t help me. I resist removing software from my computer which I never use, because of sentiment and the fear that one day I would discover that in fact it IS the perfect application for the task at hand. For example, I’ve always kept a copy of PersonalKnowbase on my computer because I have affection for it. But I never use it… Still, it seems like it could be useful. No, stop that!
  5. Remember what it was like BC (before computers) to put this in perspective. I have to keep telling myself that when I was in college writing papers on an old Royal manual typewriter, how much better my life would have been just having a DOS computer with Wordstar, or a basic Windows machine with just a plain text editor/organizer like Notetab.*

This is a triply hard list to commit to, given I’ve got a Windows PC at work, a MacBook for my personal computing, and an iPad Mini. All need some software, and the more they can share data seamlessly, the better. And that, I’m sorry to say, still requires a lot of experimentation. So here’s my sixth CRIMPer’s resolution:

  • Reject the first five resolutions and wallow in CRIMPer paradise.

* Did you see that version 7 of NoteTab is now available?

Outlining in ConnectedText

This is the long-awaited review of the outliner in ConnectedText. I’m not going to actually make this part of the OneNote Smackdown, because it has been too long since I was in that mind frame and I can’t reproduce it well enough to do an accurate comparison. But outlining in CT is interesting because there are some unique wrinkles, so here we go.

Really there are two ways to outline in CT. I’m going to start with and concentrate on the dedicated outlining window, but I’ll cover the second way within this context toward the end of this review.

Open the outlining window (via the View menu), you’re presented with this unassuming little window:

The unassuming little outline view with a new outline.

The window can be free floating or docked to the main window and opens in the position it was in when you last closed it.

Use the CTRL-Enter key combination to create your first item. Type your heading then press Enter to end editing. CTRL-Enter again creates a sibling entry; SHIFT-Enter creates a child entry.

Move entries around with the combination of the CTRL key and appropriate arrow key.

Building an outline is pretty fast in this nimble outliner.

You can hoist an entry using CTRL-PageUp; likewise CTRL-PageDown de-hoists the selection. And you can individually apply check boxes to entries.

Outline hoisted to the Outer Planets heading with a couple of check boxes.

If this were the extent of the outliner in CT, it’d stand fairly well with some of the other outliners I’ve reviewed. However, the real value of the CT outliner is how it integrates with the rest of the application.

Let me back up a step here and note that outlines created in the outline window are separate, individual files. They are not a part of any of your CT projects (the CT term for a file or database). You can, though, link items in the outline with topics (the CT term for entries in the project) in the project with current focus. More than this, you can instruct CT to create a new topic linked to and with the same title as the selected outline item.

For example, I’ve get a CT project going where I’m writing this article, but also with parts of the Solar System example:

The outliner (right) docked to the main window.

If I want to create a topic “Venus” linked to my “Venus” outline item, I just select the Venus item in the outline, bring up the context menu by right-clicking, select “Topic” and then “Create links.”

Now, when I double-click the “Venus” item in the outline, ConnectedText automatically creates a new topic in the currently open project, and a hyperlink is created between the outline and the project.

Items in the outline can be linked to topics in the open project.

A note about the above screenshot: I added the text to the Venus topic, because unless you actually give a topic text, CT doesn’t end up creating it — although the link remains and you can always create it later. But you can see that there is now a Venus topic, and the Venus entry in the outline has a chain icon indicating that it is linked.

You can manually link the selected outline item to the currently open topic, and you can drag topics into the outline to create a new item.

Exporting Your Work

The export options are simutaneously interesting and limiting. The interesting aspect is that if you export to HTML you can choose optionally to include the text from linked topics.

You can optionally include contents from linked topics when exporting to HTML.

The results of an HTML export with linked topic content included.

The limiting part is that no such option exists for the plain text export, so you only get the barebones headings of the outline.

When exporting to plain text, you can only include the headings in the outline.

The other options for export are OPML and Freemind. This latter format, however, would not properly open in Freemind, instead giving me a main topic that reads:

javax.xml.transform.TransformerConfigurationException: Could not compile stylesheet

and nothing else. I didn’t have the time to try to resolve this issue. If you know the answer, please let me know in the comments.

Outlines of Outlines

I mentioned earlier that there are two ways of creating outlines in ConnectedText. The second way is by building a hierarchy of headings within individual topics.

Recall two things about ConnectedText. First, the Topic window has two modes: edit and view. Second, you use a specific markup language to format text (and a lot of other things), including creating headings, sub-headings, sub-sub-headings, etc…

Building structure within a topic using the ConnectedText markup. This clipping is taken from the topic when in edit mode.

Bracketing text in combinations of equal signs (“=”) as in the above screenshot creates a series of headings. This structure is reflected in the Table of Contents which can be viewed right in the Topic or in a docked Table of Contents window, both of which are reflected in the screenshot below:

The combination of the outline window (right) and the in-topic table-of-contents provides the opportunity to have an “outline of outlines.”

While this is not technically an outline, it can serve as one quite readily, at least for reference purposes. (See the screenshot at the start of this review.)

It should be noted that you cannot currently drag the headings around in the TOC.

The bottom line

Its flexibility and integration, together with the ability to build outlines of outlines makes ConnectedText intriguing as an outlining solution. The limited export options and lack of labeling are drawbacks that give some of the other outliners an advantage, especially for writing. As a task manager, the outliner in CT could be quite effective, given its ability to link to topics and the check boxes which can be applied to individual outline items.

The developer of ConnectedText has continually been improving the application. In fact, this review was done using the latest beta edition of version 6.0. If he adds RTF export to the outline (with the ability to include linked topic contents), ConnectedText will be a killer writing application. As it is, it is still excellent.

 

Noteliner Update

I’ve written before about a nifty, free outliner/task manager called Noteliner. I just wanted to note (pardon the pun) that the application has been steadily improved by its developer, Sam Hawksworth. It is a remarkably handy and well-thought out software tool, well worth checking out if you’re on a Windows PC. Sam introduced version 3.5 a few weeks ago, and he’s just released the second update to that version.