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Reflexive outlining with several outliners

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Posted by Dr Andus
Oct 18, 2011 at 07:45 PM


In case this triggers any interesting suggestions or comments: I’ve just begun outlining my doctoral thesis (in the social sciences), and as it’s going to be a complex piece of work (8-9 chapters, 80-100k words in total), I found that using several outliners across two monitors allows for a reflexive process of outlining that seems to be the most effective in helping me clarify my thoughts.

The process and setup is as follows: in Scrivener (for Win) I begin by using the index card (corkboard) view to develop the overall structure, while also using the hierarchical outline in the binder view. I may even do some ad hoc writing as I go along. From time to time I switch to Natara Bonsai, where I’m constructing a bare-bones equivalent of the exact same hierarchical outline. At times the Bonsai outline moves ahead, then I go back to Scrivener and update it, or vice versa. It’s a reflexive, mirroring process. The benefit of this is that Bonsai allows for a single-pane view of the entire outline, which is not possible in Scrivener, as it doesn’t allow you to see what’s inside a “document” (an item on their outline view or corkboard).

More or less simultaneously to the Scrivener-Bonsai mirroring, I’m constructing yet another version of the exact same outline in Storybook, which allows yet another way of visualising the outline. The most helpful is the “chronological view” which allows you to see multiple “strands” (or storylines) side-by-side, which I’m using to separate different levels of analysis which belong to different disciplines but which are mixed up or even simultaneous at times in the text itself. Also, the “chapters” view is very useful because it allows me to see all the “documents” (scenes in Storybook or index cards in Scrivener) in all the chapters in one single view, which is not possible in Scrivener because it only shows the index cards of the particular hierarchy that you are viewing.

Basically all three software provide a totally different view of the text, its elements, and its overall structure. Obviously if these were available in a single software, I would have gone for that, but being able to open three iterations of the same outline in different views would be crucial.