Outlining in Plain Text

Sometimes, pulling your thoughts and ideas together isn’t easy. There are too many possibilities, too many threads. Your brain just can't sort through all of that smoothly or logically.

That’s where an outline comes in handy. For writing projects large and small, I’ve found that creating an outline can help me work out a piece of writing that refuses to cooperate. But outlines aren’t just for writing. No matter what you do, an outline can be a good way to organize any thoughts and ideas. Which explains the popularity of tools like WorkFlowy.

You don’t need a fancy application to work with outlines. All need is a text editor. Here’s a look at one way in which you can outline using only plain text.

(And, yes, Emacs folks, I know that you can use your editor of choice and org-mode to outline. I’ve done that in the past. But not everyone uses, or wants to use, Emacs and org-mode. This article is for them.)

Getting Started

Fire up your favourite text editor and create a new document. At the top, add the name of what you’re working on. That can be, for example, the name of a project or the title of something you’re writing.

Next, add a few words to describe an idea or a section of what you’re working on — for example, a part of a presentation you’ll give or a section of an article. What you type is like a heading. It should be short and descriptive.

Continue to do that for all the ideas or sections that come to your mind. Don’t worry about order in which add ideas or sections. You can move them around by cutting and pasting later.

When I work on an outline, I usually turn what’s on the page into a bullet list — an asterisk or dash acts as a bullet. You don’t need to do that, though. If you’re not creating a bullet list, make sure there are spaces between your headings.

Here’s an example of the beginnings of an outline for one of my books:

The top level of one of my outlines

Adding More Information

You've got the start of an outline, but headings only tell part of the story. You should add more detail to the outline.

To do that, add a line below a heading. Then, indent that new line two or three spaces. Type something that expands upon the idea of the heading. Make what you type as short or as long as you want or need it to be. I write in sentence fragments, which gets the general idea on the page quickly. It's also useful when I go back to expand on or use the outline later.

Feel free to nest more information below the indented section. I often go down one or two more levels. And, again, I use asterisks or dashes to denote items.

Here’s an example of a shorter, though nearly complete, outline for a blog post I wrote a while back:

A completed outline

Remember that the items in your outline can be fluid. You can shuffle them around, chop and change them, and delete them as you need to.