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Retrospective outlining

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Posted by Dr Andus
Mar 30, 2012 at 10:52 PM

 

I wonder if anyone else does this and if you use an outliner for this? I could call it “retrospective” or “reverse” outlining. Usually when we talk about outlining we mean a process that precedes writing or writing-up. However, I find that in the process of writing the structure of my text often changes and at the end it departs significantly from the original outline. Then I need to engage in “retrospective outlining,” i.e. drawing up an outline that reflects the new hierarchical logical structure of the now completed draft. The purpose of this is to get an overview of the argument and structure of a large document (10k+ word social science paper or book chapter).

In the past I just used Natara Bonsai and later on Noteliner to reconstruct the implicit outline. Then I discovered MS Word 2010’s navigation pane, which can display a retrospective outline (Table of Contents) if you apply headings. But I was never fully satisfied with that solution, as visually the hierarchy is not that clear and it takes up a lot of screen space to display complex hierarchies, not to mention that I may not want my document to have so many headings. So it’s a trade-off between having a ridiculous amount of headings or not having a detailed enough retrospective outline.

And this is where ConnectedText comes in. I have just realised that CT’s Table of Contents pane in fact can be used as a real-time outliner (i.e. it doesn’t even have to be retrospective). As I’m writing a text and creating hierarchical sub-headings, all I need to do is have the TOC open somewhere (usually docked on the left) and switch between edit and view modes for the real-time outline to be displayed instantly. This is extremely useful, as I no longer need to wonder about the nature of the evolving logical structure while I’m writing or have to reconstruct it afterwards.

Is anyone else aware of a similar “retrospective” or “real-time outliner”?

 


Posted by Alexander Deliyannis
Mar 31, 2012 at 04:59 PM

 

Dr Andus wrote:
>However, I find that in the
>process of writing the structure of my text often changes and at the end it departs
>significantly from the original outline.

For me outlining has always been a continuous two-way process in the way you describe and back again; I suspect for others here as well. The tools I use for writing support this way of working, though clearly some are better than others. I would note two aspects to what you describe:

(a) Bottom-up development of the outline; focus on the detail writing and the outline will build/update itself.
(b) Text re-organisation: I expect that when one looks at an outline developed from (a), s/he will become aware of possible weaknesses, e.g. over-emphasis on one argument and under-representation of another, in which case the top-down process would recommence, by adding/removing headings etc.

The way I see it, Connected Text seems indeed very well suited for (a); as Steve noted recently , you can start by creating ‘cards’ and think about the structure later, as connections between the cards develop. I know of many ‘visual’ tools that can do this, as well as (b), but most would be useless for texts growing to the thousands of words with tens of headings.

So, with this application in mind:

- For (a) I can think of two very powerful tools, namely Brainstorm and Sense; a separate post should follow sometime soon from my part on Sense, which is developing very nicely.

- For (b) I would think again of Brainstorm—JB has built a significant part of his Cyborganize system on Brainstorm’s powerful re-organisation features- Sense, as well as MaxThink.

 


Posted by Stephen Zeoli
Mar 31, 2012 at 08:32 PM

 

There is an application called Writer’s Blocks which may do this. The program has been around for quite some time, and had been stalled at version 3.0 for at least six or seven years. But recently, version 4 came out. I can’t speak for how well it does what it is supposed to do, but what it is supposed to do is pretty interesting. It may be worth taking a look at:

http://www.writersblocks.com/

Steve Z.

 


Posted by Dr Andus
Mar 31, 2012 at 09:48 PM

 

Alexander/Steve,

thanks for the suggestions. I can see that once we move to these more advanced aspects of outlining, the software that can do them are either the ones that take quite a bit of effort to figure out or the ones that cost quite a lot of money :)

 


Posted by Alexander Deliyannis
Apr 1, 2012 at 06:25 AM

 

Dr Andus wrote:
>I can see that once we move to these
>more advanced aspects of outlining, the software that can do them are either the ones
>that take quite a bit of effort to figure out or the ones that cost quite a lot of money :) 

Quite possibly, as with most ‘advanced’ things in life. I look forward to including outlining at the Khan Academy http://www.khanacademy.org/

But then again, the effort to figure out usually goes hand in hand with the power of the software that we employ here; it is quite possible that other tools that you already use can do such retrospective (I would prefer the term iterative) outlining. See below for an example.

Dr Andus wrote:
>So it’s a trade-off
>between having a ridiculous amount of headings or not having a detailed enough
>retrospective outline.

I expect that in Word you can set up styles that are identical in everything except for their outline level. So, for example, below level 3 subheading you could have several more paragraph levels that would be properly indented in the outline view, but without appearing as headings in the text. The disadvantage is that you would have whole paragraphs in the outline.

For such ‘micro-outlining’ I find that Sense is ideal; in the outline you can go down to paragraph level if you want, effectively having a bird’s eye view of the full text.

 


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