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Digital tools for writing: OmniOutliner
posted in Software on September 15, 2014 by Alex
This is the first in a series of articles looking at some of the digital tools I use to get work done.
Many writers swear by Scrivener, the all-singing, all-dancing application for writing longform documents. Scrivener has an enviable selection of tools, and I used it for over a year before deciding it was simply too complex for my needs. You see, Scrivener aims to take over literally every stage of the writing process. If you work the way Scrivener works then it’s fantastic.
Unfortunately, if you work against it then it quickly becomes an exercise in frustration. I realised that I didn’t want an application to take over all aspects file management, writing, and organisation: for my needs, the Finder and a good text editor suffice perfectly well for the first two.
What I wanted was a software tool to help me create structured documents. Scrivener does that rather well, but after my Scrivener divorce I needed something else to take over that duty.
OmniOutliner for Mac
I discovered OmniOutliner just over a year ago. It isn’t free software. A standard license costs £34.99 at the time of writing, but in my opinion it’s worth every penny. It’s also available for the iPad.
The description in the Mac App Store states that OmniOutliner is “an amazingly flexible yet lightweight program for creating, collecting, and organizing information.” Yes, it’s an outliner — but as someone who never saw the need for an outliner before, it has transformed the way I work.
OmniOutliner allows you to create canvasses for recording and structuring information. It’s completely customisable. You can set up documents however you want, from complex spreadsheet-like structures to basic lists. Its support for stylesheets is also excellent.
At this point you might be scratching your head and thinking, “What has this got to do with me? Sounds a bit vague.”
The power of outlines
As a writer, you are almost certainly aware of outlines. Many authors use them to track their story scene-by-scene, but since using OmniOutliner I have come to appreciate the value of using dedicated outlining software. I’ve also found numerous other uses for them.
The main benefit of using proper outlining software — rather than, say, a list in a text document — is that you can show or hide different levels at will. This allows you to create large, complex documents that are easy to navigate. While working on one section you can minimise the others and focus on what you need.
My style guide. It’s a work in progress.
For certain writing and editing tasks, this is a big deal.
Say, for example, you decide to create character files as outline documents. Not every writer needs to write detailed character files, but I like to keep a document on every character containing information such as physical characteristics, biographical details, motivations, mannerisms and so on. I used to keep these as plain text files, but they can actually get pretty cumbersome after a while. My longest character file weighs in at over three thousand words.
I use these documents for reference all the time when writing. As a lump of text it was a pain to wade through when looking for a specific item of information, but as an outline it becomes a simple, navigable document. When I open it, I see only the headers and can click on the section I need to access the information instantly.
A classic scene outline is, by nature, hierarchical information — so it is a perfect fit for outlining software. My hierarchy goes something like this:
> Chapter No. & Title
> > Scene No.
> > * Contents of scene
Each section can be expanded and collapsed at will. It makes the final document so much more flexible when you come to use it in the all-important editing stage of your novel.
OmniOutliner also allows you to enter notes on each record. Notes are shown in a different text style and can be hidden or shown at the touch of a button.
The outline for my current project.
Other possible uses
OmniOutliner excels at creating hierarchies of information, but it can be used for so much more. As an editor, I’ve recently started to use it for creating manuscript critiques for my clients. I create a working document for every project in which I can store a variety of information:
A full scene outline. This includes running notes on issues I pick up on. A file for every character, containing everything the reader learns about them in the book. A list of conventions used in the text. Pointers on writing style.
These documents can be massive while I’m working with them, often in excess of ten thousand words (although the final document I send to the client is usually much shorter). Using an outliner instead of a word processor makes the information lean and manageable.
A flexible user interface
Most computer users don’t give two hoots about user interface, which is great because in OmniOutliner’s case it can be almost completely switched off. As standard, it comes with a sidebar (containing navigation and styles) and a configurable toolbar.
A window with sidebar and toolbar in view.
I prefer getting rid of these UI elements and setting the app to display nothing but the document. I know most of the keyboard shortcuts so the various toolbars are little more than screen cruft.
Configured this way, OmniOutliner does what software should do: get out of the way and let the user focus on creating and manipulating information.
You’ve probably guessed that I absolutely love OmniOutliner. It’s the most versatile software tool in my arsenal and as indispensable as a good text editor. Even if you’re a Windows user and can’t use OmniOutliner, plenty of other outlining tools exist, and many of them are free. All versions of Microsoft Word include an outlining mode which, although clunky compared to OmniOutliner, will certainly get the job done.
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