Most who know me and know Macs, know that I love software put out by the “OmniGroup”:http://www.omnigroup.com/. Their applications are smart, sophisticated, totally Mac-ified, user-friendly, and a host of other descriptive but over-used adjectives as well. Specifically, “OmniOutliner”:http://www.omnigroup.com/applications/omnioutliner/ and “OmniGraffle”:http://www.omnigroup.com/applications/omnigraffle/ are pretty much daily applications for me. In fact, OmniOutliner almost never closes. This article is a quick look at the different ways I use OmniOutliner.
h2. Outlining — It’s in the Name!
Right there in the name: outliner. Obvious usage, right? OmniOutliner has plenty of horsepower for this task. During my college and grad school days, I used OmniOutliner for that very task almost exclusively.
When it comes to note-taking, there is only one (hyphenated) word to describe me:
Before I was fortunate enough to have a laptop, I scrawled notes in a notebook, like most other people, and was always disappointed with how disjointed and disorganized they were. Though professors may not always speak in a perfect outline format, I felt that my notes should more or less be an outline of that day’s lecture. Structure was totally foreign to these notebooks. Drove me nuts. It doesn’t help that I am also very meticulous about notebook care. Example: the pages of an sbh* notebook should be either written in pen __or__ pencil, but never both. I couldn’t stand flipping through a notebook and seeing pen on some pages and pencil on others. Argh! OCD? Perhaps.
Summary of the above: Notebooks don’t work for me.
In January of 2004, heading into my final semester at the “University of Texas”:http://www.utexas.edu before heading off to Boston for “Harvard”:http://www.harvard.edu, I purchased a 12″ iBook G4 (which the wife still uses!), and my world changed. I now took the laptop to every class, and OmniOutliner became my constant companion.
h3. In-Class Notes
OmniOutliner excels for in-class notes. I can type a lot faster than I can write, so I could take down more and more information than I ever could before. In addition to this, OmniOutliner provided a structure to my notes that wasn’t before possible. Here’s how it broke down:
* Top Level: Lecture Date/Topic
** Second Level: Major Divisions
*** Third Level and Beyond: All the nitty gritty, hierarchically, painstakingly arranged.
In addition, I could add columns. So, I always had a column on the right-hand side for references. For example, if a professor made reference to a particular work, I’d jot that work and a section or page number if provided. This way, my notes were also cross-referenced to other works.
Further, each line had its own “notes” field associated with. I used this area to make my own comments about what I was hearing. Perhaps I didn’t quite buy what the professor was saying, I’d take note of that here. Or, maybe I had a question about this particular item that I wanted to ask the professor. I could take it down right here so that I wouldn’t forget it when the opportunity came for questions.
Looking back, my notes for various classes during my time at Harvard are often 70 pages or more. This is a lot of information, but really it’s only 4-6 pages of outline per lecture. When finals rolled around, these were invaluable resources. You never know, meticulous, well-structured notes might make you popular amongst the crowd when group studying for finals!
One final item to mention: the ability to embed files. Extremely handy. If you were to look at the beginning of all of my class notes, you would find the course syllabus in PDF or .doc embedded. This makes these files easy to reference anytime. In addition to this, you can also record sounds and have those embedded into the outline. I used to record whole lectures, but found I wasn’t using the audio, so I stopped.
All-in-all, OmniOutliner revolutionized how I organized information from class lectures and sessions, and, consequently, made me a much better student.
h3. Paper Outlines
In addition to class notes, outlines are also handy for the writing processor. Before I write anything of more than a paragraph or two, I start with the most basic of outlines. This blog post, for example, began with me laying out each section. It’s how I work.
OmniOutliner is fantastic for creating outlines for papers. Outlining keeps me organized, and OmniOutliner allows me to keep all kinds of information handy with my notes. I can link web pages or documents to it, take notes on my outline, etc., all from the same window.
When it came time to translate my outline into a word processor, this was easily done. I prefer to use Mellel for my paper writing needs. I could simply create my big headings in Mellel and work from there. OmniOutliner was always open and readily available.
h2. Information Repository
Beyond the nuts-and-bolts writing and note-taking processes, OmniOutliner can serve as an information repository.
Not only can you create outlines and notes, not only can you supplement those notes with hyperlinks and documents, but you can also add audio to them.
If you wanted to, you could turn OmniOutliner into your own little information repository. Sure, there are better programs for this. DevonThink for the academic, and Yojimbo for the creative-types. But, OmniOutliner can serve these functions if you’re looking for an all-in-one solution.
h2. How I Am Using It Now
Now that I am out in the real world, and no longer bound to the classroom, I am using OmniOutliner in a much different way. My need for in-depth notes and outlines for class is long gone, but it has been replaced by other, similar needs.
For the most part, I use OmniOutliner for my writing projects. I use Scrivener (see my thoughts on Scrivener) for most of my writing. While Scrivener helps me organize all of my projects into smaller units, OmniOutliner helps me organize all of my big ideas into categories.
I always have a OmniOutliner document open. This document is called “brainstorm.oo3.” This is where the magic happens. Within this OmniOutliner document I’ve got ideas for plots, characters, etc. When I finish a piece and want to start something new, the first thing I do is look at this document. When I’m reading or writing and get an idea about something else, into brainstorm.oo3 it goes!
OmniOutliner is a powerful, yet simple piece of software. If you’re a Mac, I suggest you give it a go.
fn1. I believe OmniOutliner is bundled with all new macs (not the “Pro” version, though). So, if you’ve got a Mac — get your OmniOutliner on!