Outliners and Organizers

I do a lot of writing—policies, procedures, conceptual pieces, new initiatives, instructions for using software. I find myself falling back on using an outliner, specifically Inspiration 7.5. The new version has proven to a surprisingly enhanced product over 5.0, which I've had since 2000. I push the material as far as I can in outline format, and then switch over to Word or a webpage editor for the final draft. The shifted writing environment helps me apply a new eye to the material and adjust the formating in a way that's not confined by a tree hierarchy or I - A - 1 - a. There's also material that I jettison in the final draft mode becasue it was there for referencing.

I am now kicking myself for not having used Inspiration during my Master's studies. In the 18 months of writing papers, I never once opened it up. I did use some of the outlining features in Word, but I was always behind the eightball, schedule-wise. I wanted to get things down on paper so that I could hand it in, and I was concerned about the formalities of referencing the document so that I met the academic obligations.

But now I realize that I should have been using the outline format throughout graduate studies. It provides structure and channels through which you can flow your ideas, facts, quotes, and other pieces. For research papers, solid structure and clear organization are just as important as the research content. You still -- especially -- need structure when brainstorming.

My fascination with outlining goes back to my first PC, when I purchased a program called Ready. Back in the late 1980s, it was a hot item. I switched to Grandview, a really sophisticated piece of software for DOS, in 1991. I still have it installed on an old computer and have book and research notes in that format. I still have the manual in my bookcase. It was a great piece of DOS software, just like WordStar created a new model for wordprocessors. Symantec let GrandView die in 1993.

At Outliners.com you can trace some of the history of outliner and organizer applications. The site is actually one of the few places where you can find out what outlining products are still available. Now, it's mainly shareware and small companies that develop very focused products. It's definitely a niche market. The site's core interest is MORE, an outliner for the Apple that is available for free. Dave Winer, More's author, explains the history.

The outlining as a framework still holds storng sway over programming because the structure allows you to better understadn the hierarchy and structure of the gibberish of code. The other realm where outlining still holds sway is in PDAs. I use Shadow Plan for task organization and planning, hooked into my Outlook. Since I work with many people on multiple projects, I need a way of keeping track of all the balls being juggled. Although I'm not as on-top-of-things as I should be, it still is a useful discipline. Shadow Plan has also develped a nice Desktop extension for the PC.

General Resources

Using Outlines


Inspiration logoInspiration has its roots firmly in the educational field, and that has contributed to its survival for more than a decade -- aiding kids and adolescents to get their ideas organized. This foundation (probably a million licensed copies floating around in the world) means that there is plenty of tutorials and online support to get started. Version 4 came out 10 years ago, so just imagine the longevity of this product with no big corporate backing. Just do a Goggle search on "inspiration outline" and you will find many Word and Adobe Acrobat files from school districts around the country. Some of it is pretty basic guidelines, but it does help start using the program quickly. There are some interesting pages on brandstorming, mind mapping, concept mapping and other ideas. Don't be put off by the educational label.

I have selected below the most interesting online resources for Inspiration.

Most of the resources above will get you started and introduce you to most features. What intrigues me is that we arebarely tapping the surface of all the features available. In part, that's because I am driven by my work priorities -- get the job done.


Outliners and other thinking aids cannot turn you into a polished writer. If you're blinded by your material or burdened by excessive adverbs and adjectives, they are not going to clean up the prose or the thinking.