Writing anything – whether it be a book, or a short story or an angry letter to your boss – is substantially more than starting from the first idea moment of inspiration and continuing to the final draft. Rather, writing involves a fair number of idea fragments, fleeting moments of inspiration, and a tremendous number of dead ends.
It is incredibly unfortunate that most writing software, however, is geared to organizing and structuring the document after most of the hard work has already happened. It simply assumed that most of the planning and layout has already happened and the author is ready to string words together. Unfortunately, this assumption overlooks one important truth: ideas are best defined as they are expressed. Thus, it’s usually about the time that the a writer sits down to compose the draft, that the document’s true structure becomes apparent. In my own case, this often leads to a flurry of reorganization. And it’s during the restructuring that the real battle begins.
When in full creative passion, I am typically working with three or four different programs all at the same time: OneNote is open so that I can access my ideas, Word is there to start collecting the somewhat finished text, and I’ll also probably be using a MindMapper so that I can see a visual representation of the document structure. The tools are separate and don’t communicate with one another. Thus, a change made in one place needs to be made everywhere. And all too often, that I end up fighting the word-processor and the notetaker, and the mind mapper. It is tremendously frustrating to battle the tools of your adopted trade. Luckily, I am not alone in my frustration.
In the past everal years, a number of programs have become available that leave the linear model of writing behind. On the Mac platform, one such tool looms above the others: Scrivener. Central to Scrivener’s function are two important metaphors: that of the outline and that of the corkboard. And it works really, really well. There are just a few minor problems. First: Scrivener is only available for Mac and Scrivener’s lead developer has made it clear that there won’t be versions for other platforms. Second: Scrivener was really designed with creative writing in mind. Thus, while it can be used for long and complicated documents, this is a slightly less than straightforward process. Last, to create said fancy documents, Scrivener requires the raw use of a markup language (and all of the associated headaches that come with it).
The document processor, LyX, however, excels in many areas where Scrivener falls short. It is built upon the mature and robust underpinnings of LaTeX, the typesetting language of choice in the science and engineering. And more importantly, it is easy to use (where LaTeX most decidedly is not). But it fails in the same way as Microsoft Word and other word processors, it is a linear writing tool and doesn’t offer a great deal of work-flow flexibility. That is where LyX-Outline comes in.
LyX-Outline is a marriage between Scrivener’s organizational tools and LyX’s typesetting tools.
Looking for Flexibility
While you can download and play with LyX-Outline, please reember that is still a forthcoming add-on to the LyX. And while you find it useful, this release is an alpha level technical preview. Right now, you can view the structure of your document at a glance in the corkboard, move things around, poke about in the outliner, and even jot your winded thoughts with the very basic plain text editor.
But even though some of the functionality is lacking, you can start to explore. And as you do so, one of the first things you might notice is that LyX-Outline has been designed with flexibility in mind. Nearly all of the tools can be docked, ripped away, or hidden if they are not needed. The work environment should adapt to your work habits, not the other way round. Whenever the writer needs to adapt to the environment, a moment of productivity and a spark of life has been lost.
A Quick Overview
The main interface consists of three main elements. This includes the document map, the editor pane, and the dock tools. As described above, the document map and the dock tools can be relocated, docked or left free floating (depending on your preference). And if you don’t find them useful, they can quickly be hidden.
The document map lets you see a hierarchical list of every item in your project. Selecting one of the items displays its content’s in the editor pane. The editor pane is the main text processing portion of LyX-Outlineand can be toggled between a text editor (plain text only at the moment) and a corkboard view.
In addition to the main editor and corkboard, there is an additional corkboard and outliner tool available as a dockable widgets. Just as in Scrivener, you can view the pieces of your documents in many way. Every item is a document, and an index card, and an outline point. They are intimately tied together and any change made to the order or content of one will be reflected everywhere. The document map is used to navigate the content of the main window.
The dock tools, however, can be controlled separately. You can view the entire document, or filter to a specific level in the hierarchy via a drop-down menu. In the future, filtering by search term, keyword, document structure, or tag will also be possible.
Item Summary and Organization
The health of any written work can also be greatly improved by connecting a simple synopsis to a larger chunk of text. This makes it much easier to check the flow of your work at a glance . A summary can easily be added to any individual item in the collection by double clicking on it’s index card in the corkboard or the synopsis column in the outliner. The summary text is independent from the full text and can include pertinent information that helps you structure the document. For now, the synopsis must be entered by hand; however, future versions will allow for automatic generation of the synopsis from the text.
Of Outlines and Index Cards
Scrivener (and LyX-Outline as it’s dedicated clone) utilizes multiple metaphors. The Corkboard may be useful in some instances, but will be less helpful in others. Ditto for the outliner. Either way, it is important to know that both the corkboard and the outliner display sub-items. If you are using the main corkboard, these sub items will be connected to the active item in the document map. If you are using the dock tool, they can be filtered via the drop-down menu. From the corkboard, you can then edit items by double clicking on either their title, or their summary. You can reorder them through drag and drop. From the outliner, you can add new items or sub items, or delete them from the document. You can also change their order (by using the up or down arrow buttons) or change their indentation level (with the left and right arrow buttons).
Minding the Potholes
And that is a very quick tour of the Outline modules for LyX. As noted above, this release of LyX-Outline is a prototype and it is still very far from its intended target. Thus, if it doesn’t meet your needs right out of the box, please be patient. The mantra of OpenSource is “release early, release often.” In this case, I have erred on the side of early and as you might suspect, there are some dangerously rough edges. These include:
- Unfinished interfaces. Most of your manipulation will probably need to happen in the outliner pane. This includes adding or removing new document nodes, as well as indenting or un-indenting the document selection. The final version will include ubiquitous drag and drop.
- A crappy editor. The current editor is plain text is a placeholder only. Ultimately, LyX-Outline will be integrated with the LyX editor and have access to all of it’s very powerful features. It is important to keep that future in mind.
- No export option. While you can save and open past documents, there is currently no way to actually get them out of the program.
In it’s current incarnation, this prototype is valuable for pecking out thoughts and playing with the organizational tools. I am releasing it so that people can see how the tools might look in their final form and provide feedback. Please do so. Download the source, use it as you can, and let me know what you think. What things work? What things don’t? What features would you as users like to see?
Update: You can download the source code and find installation instructions on the LyX-Outline project page.