Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Outlining tools

In my last post, I talked a lot about the need for outlining. If you're the sort of writer (like me) who needs some sort of outline, you have a lot of options on how to do it. Until recently, I generally just wrote most of my plans using MS Word. That was fine when doing linear chapter plans, but less suitable when trying to map out central details about characters, settings, etc. Especially bad for quick checking between the characters/settings/data and the chapter plan.

To complicate matters, I was jotting down all sorts of things in a spiral notebook, too. That was convenient, because I could easily work outside in the sun on my back deck, or jot down notes from bed while I was half asleep. I often found myself coming up with a lot of ideas on the commute into the office, but I would quickly jot those down in an email to myself when I got to work, and then integrate those notes into my electronic files when I got home.

That approach worked all right during the course of writing THE GUARDIAN, but by the time I was ready to start working on the sequel, it was becoming unwieldy. This past weekend, I checked and I had five MS Word outlining-related files on my computer that contained over 45,000 words of content. Holy cow! I was introducing some new characters in the sequel, and having a really hard time cross-referencing them and their place in my story plans. Plus, there was still older content in that spiral notebook (50 pages front and back, and I write reasonably small). Something had to be done.

I started looking into some sort of software specifically for doing outlines. As a software designer, I've used numerous tools for planning out software architecture (Visio is my favorite), and I figured there had to be something of that sort that was more suitable for writing. At first, I mostly came up with a lot of old-as-the-hills programs, most dating from pre-95, and one nice-looking one that is only for the Mac (which I don't have). There were a couple of more recent ones that I found, but they were either expensive or strangely complicated (I'm trying to make this task easier on myself).

Finally, I stumbled upon what I felt were a couple of viable options. Here are some of the features common to many of the programs:
- Tree-based left sidebar for easy organization.
- Ability to add cross-reference links between one topic and another.
- Built in Rich Text Editor.
- The ability to link to external files (like documents or emails or whatever, if that's important to you).
-Compression that makes the outlining database take up much less space than the original MS Word files (30% less disk space, in many cases).
- Spell Check.
- Cross-topic search and replace.
- Topic bookmarks.
- Word Count.
- Mouse-based and keyboard-based commands.

The first program is Treepad. It's very simple on the surface, it's cheap, it's fast, and I've ported all my MS Word files into it (A manual process, I must warn you. It took me some four hours to do this). This program has a wealth of options that was unmatched by any of the other programs I looked at. The formatting of most anything can be adjusted, including icons and colors, etc, for the tree nodes. This was also the only editor in which I noticed a tabs and indents control bar like in MS Word (you must turn on Advanced Mode for this to appear). It also has a handy little backup option that doesn't require you to shut off the program to make a copy of your database file.

On the downside, Treepad's word count feature only works in the current article you are looking at, and the ability to drag-and-drop sections from one location to another is a little buggy. The drag and drop works, but it takes me a several clicks sometimes. At least this isn't something that I need to do very often. Also, the spell checker is only available in their Business version or higher. That's only $20 more expensive than their Plus version, so I don't see this as really being a big issue. Some of the other programs still cost a little more than the Business version, anyway. Finally, topics can be cross-linked via making a literal link inside one topic to another (it's very easy), but there isn't a way to add a "virtual node" on the sidebar that is actually a link to another topic somewhere else. That's a feature I really liked in some of the other software.

The second program, ActionOutline, is also pretty good. The interface is certainly prettier than Treepad, for what that's worth, and the program also has a better "feel" to it. It just felt better when I was clicking around and doing things. The drag-and-drop feature for moving topics around in here is really easy, which is nice. A lot of the features of Treepad are also found here.

However, it doesn't have any sort of a word count feature (and hey, I like to quantify my planning for whatever reason). Also, changing the icons of the nodes just isn't as easy. You can define all new node types, but then it takes extra clicks to be able to use them. I'd much rather just use the Insert key, and adjust the icons later at will if I need to. The Rich Text Editor here is beautiful to use, very easy, but a little simplistic. But even these things can be worked around pretty easily. The main killer for me is the lack of a spell check here. There also doesn't seem to be any way to add cross-reference links between different topics in the database, but honestly that's a feature I doubt I will be using much. The tree view is just too useful for me to bother with the cross-links yet.

A third option is WhizFolders, which just didn't rub me the right way from the get-go. It has cool features like file linking, spell check, and even full word count support, but it's design is perhaps best described as "fidgety." It's always doing the not-quite-right thing as I click around and add topics and such (and I'm not one of those people who double-clicks everything. Their software is just set to do operations such as rename on way too short of a time interval with clicks). But, you can also do cross-links between topics using "virtual node" urls, which is a really nice touch (I must say). I'm not sure that I would use that feature much, since these outlines are really just for my own personal use (but I might in the future).

It's strange, because their software is a mix of really bad and really good design, in my opinion. The virtual nodes concept is awesome, and their Rich Text Editor is pretty darn good. But the way the windows are handled (one "listing" window has to be open in the background at all times, for instance) is just crazy. Give this program a try, and if you can look past it's quirks you might find you really like it a lot. I was very, very tempted, but ultimately decided to go with Treepad's much more solid-feeling design. Treepad still has more options in general, anyway.

Ultra Recall
The final good option that I found is Ultra Recall, which is really more for business users who want to keep track of what they are doing. It's got great journaling features and calendars and all sorts of file-linking options, but it's not what I would call a convenient outliner. It has loads and loads of features, but that's just not quite the sort of thing I found I was looking for. But if you're looking for an everything-organizer, this looks like it might be pretty good for that!

In the end, as I've already mentioned, I settled on Treepad. It had the right blend of features-to-sanity that I was looking for. I've sent them a note requesting that they fix the issues with the drag-and-drop, and asking if they would consider adding more comprehensive word count functionality. I haven't heard back yet (I sent it two days ago), but that's not entirely unsurprising. I'll let you know if I ever hear anything there.

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