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What a good Outliner should have

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Posted by Stephen Zeoli
Mar 7, 2010 at 02:12 PM


I agree with Cassius and Hugh. There is a substantive distinction between an outliner and a tree-based information manager or what I’ll call a personal knowledge system (PKS). The truth, of course, is that all applications fall somewhere along a spectrum. Take a solid tree-based PIM like the old Treepad (which is still a great little application). You can surely use it for outlining, as well as information management.

So why bother with the distinction? I think it helps one choose an application if you can imagine how you want to use it. An outliner, in my view, is primarily a thinking and writing tool. As such, it should facilitate the capture of your own thoughts and ideas, allow you to explore them with quick, easy re-organization tools. It should allow you to change the scope of the view of your information quickly, zooming in on details or zooming out to get the bigger picture.

A PKS, on the other hand, should facilitate the capture and organization of information. It should provide tools for categorizing that information and finding it later. It should help you establish connections between various bits of data. It should make extracting that information easy. It should have powerful search functions. And, in this day and age, should synchronize across multiple computers and PDAs.

I don’t believe you will find one application that can perform really well as both an outliner and a PKS. Some come close—Whizfolders might be an example, or Brainstorm (if you don’t need text formatting and image-capture).

Most writers, I think, will want to have two applications. One for outlining and one for managing their research. Scrivener for the Mac is an interesting application to study in this regard. It has a fairly robust tree-based system for organizing writing, but it also includes an outlining function, demonstrating that at least this developer sees a distinction between how you organize your writing and how you think about it. And most Scrivener users also use a separate PKS.

In the end, however, all that matters is finding what works for you. I’m just suggesting that thinking about outlining and knowledge management as separate activities may help you find the right system for you.

Steve Z.