All writers use outlines

5 Tools for Outlining Ideas for Writers and Artists

It is not the hand that creates; It's the brain. Most of you will agree that at the best of times our brains are a chaotic mass of intersecting thoughts. What it takes is a little organization. Even before we get together to create something from the shopping list to the next world domination plan, we need a structure. An overview is the general plan that creates not only the foundation but also the structure of steel beams for our great work. The details to fill in are the mortar.

An outline is nothing more than a hierarchical breakdown of what you want to write or create. Arranged according to degree of importance and fluidity and identified by numbers, Roman numerals, headings, sub-headings, indentations or another format. Think of them as breadcrumbs for your creative inspiration.

Some may argue that outlining ideas kills spontaneity ... some say it's not a very organic process for creativity ... but I would argue that outlining is necessary at some point in your creative process in order not to just tie everything together but also to remove the superfluous.

Getting started with outline ideas: the benefits

Some call it "pre-writing". But “outline” sounds more appropriate. In order to outline, and not be able to outline, some points in the debate, we have some benefits that may come from regularly becoming a habit.

  • It helps clarify ideas.
  • If you do it right, you will save time.
  • It's a simple exercise in thinking and focusing.
  • It helps identify gaps where more information may be needed.
  • It shows the creator whether all essential points have been covered.
  • It helps to break larger projects down into manageable parts.
  • It's a logical roadmap to follow from start to finish.
  • It helps break writer's block.

Among the disadvantages, it can be said that it throttles creativity and spontaneity. However, I think that having a good outliner who can easily downgrade and promote ideas can be a very effective brainstorming app. 5 different ways to generate ideas using brainstorming apps 5 different ways to generate ideas using brainstorming apps Learn more. Yes, it can't be for everyone. So I always say - do the best with the tools you have. If you are committed to sketching out your thoughts and ideas before you start working on your creative project, say aye and move on with these tools that can help you sketch effectively.

Stay on the desktop

In principle, every note application can be set up as an outliner. Using outline tools gives you more control over the practice, especially if you use the process regularly. Functions such as hiding certain items or promoting and demoting items are only possible in tools with advanced functions.

Microsoft OneNote

MS OneNote 10 Awesome OneNote Tips You Should Be Using All The Time 10 Awesome OneNote Tips You Should Be Using Microsoft OneNote is just as good as Evernote. OneNote is the digital equivalent of a portfolio and gives you more organizational control. We'll show you effective notes that you'll love. Read More The tips covered in the link above should take a second look. Another unrecognized trait is the outline skills. In fact, it's almost an invisible feature as every note we take is part of an outline. Everything we type into OneNote is in a container. All formatting for an outline is included here. We can use the handles to move the container within the note.

Main features of MS OneNote:

  1. Hide the layers of your online network by double-clicking the grab box.
  2. Rearrange the order by drawing a border with the grab box.
  3. Select specific child nodes. On tablets, you can use the lasso tool to make the freeform selection.
  4. Use shortcuts to quickly apply formatting and styles. E.g. different bullet styles and numbering options can be selected.

The MSDN blog has a detailed page on using OneNote for outline. Look at it.

Microsoft Word

I had written an extensive post on creating outlines and organizing documents in MS Word 2007. How to Create Outlines and Organize Documents in MS Word 2007. How to Create Outlines and Organize Documents in MS Word 2007 Read on. Outline view is still a part of other versions of MS Word. In MS 2010 (and 2013 as far as I know), you can click the little Outline button at the bottom right of your MS Word screen. The Outline tab gives you complete control over your document. All of the features described in the above article are deemed to be applicable.

The outline functions come into their own when you have a long document and need to quickly restructure it. One of the more productive features of using outlines in MS Word is that you can easily export them to PowerPoint and create your point-based slides in lightning speed.

go online

Creative artists and writers might be interested in minimal interfaces. Some web applications are perfect for this and your needs.

Oak outliner

Oak Outliner is a minimal writing app that lets you create quick outlines with just shortcut keys. A right-click context menu gives you more options for structuring your document.

Main features of Oak Outliner:

  1. Oak Outliner recognizes the Markdown syntax to format your outlines.
  2. Oak Outliner has special outline commands that you can use to move, promote, demote, and delete parts of your text.
  3. Oak Outliner gives you tags that allow you to link different elements together that stretch across the contours and place them under a common head.
  4. You can "fold" sections of text to hide the details of your outline and see the bigger picture.
  5. Outlines are stored in the browser's cache. You can copy and paste it to use it in another.
  6. Export contours as OPML files.


Angela did a thorough review of the WorkFlowy Zen-Style Listing and Project Management with WorkFlowy Zen-Style Listing and Project Management with WorkFlowy a few years ago. The remarkable thing about WorkFlowy is that it looks remarkably simple from the start, but as Angela said at the time, WorkFlowy has the nifty ability to look and act like a normal to-do list while secretly acting more like a project management Tool or a mind mapper. And as the site says, make lists, not war.

Main functions of WorkFlowy:

  1. Expand and collapse outlined items to focus on one layer at a time.
  2. Notes can be attached to the contours and filled with further details.
  3. Although not so useful for outlines, listed items can be marked as complete.
  4. You can zoom in and out of your list items and quickly build the hierarchy of your outlines.
  5. Paste in a list or outlines to import from the web, and similarly export your outlines as formatted or plain text files.
  6. Tagging allows you to manage large and intricate outlines and to assign tags to frequently used elements.
  7. Mark important WorkFlowy pages or the pages you use regularly for quick access.
  8. With WorkFlowy you can share your contours with others and collaborate.

WorkFlowy has a free and a paid version. The free version lets you make 500 lists per month which I think should be enough for most users. Pro users get other benefits such as unlimited lists, Dropbox backups, a library of themes and fonts, password-protected collaboration, and the upcoming offline editing. WorkFlowy also has a free iOS app that works offline. An Android app is available that acts as a proxy for the web app.

The outliner of the giants

The Outliner of Giants (TOG) is a feature-rich outliner that can easily process large, complex documents. You can log into TOG with your Google account. This can be trusted as it works over an HTTPS connection. The web app has a free and pro account. TOG also has a Chrome extension.

The main features of the Outliner of Giants:

  1. It has a rich text editor (WYSIWYG) with theme support.
  2. The Outliner of Giants supports markdown and textile syntax.
  3. Attach your own files to individual nodes. Images and video embeds are supported.
  4. Organize nodes under the parent nodes using drag and drop. Nodes can also be promoted and demoted.
  5. Apply labels and tags to distinguish the outlined points and make them easier to access.
  6. Sort the nodes by data, priority, or checked status.
  7. The free account allows three employees.


There are some tools that can be used as an outliner. However, a good outliner should have the following basic functions:

  • You should be able to promote and demote nodes.
  • You should be able to hide a node that you are not working on.
  • You should be able to collaborate with other people in your contours.
  • You should be able to copy nodes from one outline to another.
  • You should be able to import an outline from another application. E: Maybe as an OPML file.
  • You should be able to export and save your contours.
  • You should be able to search within your contours.

Wikipedia has a page that lists some outliner applications. Some outliners like Thinklinkr and Knowcase were not accessible at the time of writing. At the end let me ask you, what's the best outliner you've used (maybe pen and paper!)? Did you use it for a creative purpose or to make simple lists? Fire in the comments.

Image credit: Laptop with blank notepad via Shutterstock

Learn more about: text editor.