5 free Web tools to organize your thoughts
You’re full of good ideas, but putting them in writing is easier said than done. Maybe you like to start from the end. Maybe you work from jumbled notes, gradually polishing them into a cohesive piece. No matter what your workflow, a good outliner can help.
Much like mind maps, outliners are thinking aids. But while mind maps appeal to visual thinkers, outliners are great for working directly with text. Both are hierarchical: In a mind map, a main idea branches out into sub-ideas, which then branch out even further. In an outline, a master topic has sub-topics, each with its own sub-sub-topics. And, just as it is with a mind map, what you do with an outline is up to you: You can use it for drafting text, but it also works well as a to-do list for a project.
The best outliners stay out of your way, letting you focus on your text without thinking about the interface. Some outliners even let you forget about the computer you’re using: Cloud-based versions are accessible using any computer, as long as you’re using a modern browser and have an Internet connection. The four cloud-based and single browser-based products reviewed here are useful, but their appeal varies depending on your level of commitment to outlining. Each one starts out free.
The Outliner of Giants
Many Web apps go for the Google approach. They try to impress with a sparse homepage decorated by a large leading image. Not The Outliner of Giants. Its homepage features a wall of monospaced text offset by an orange banner, and one single button (“Sign in with Google”). This no-nonsense aesthetic sets the tone for The Outliner of Giants: It takes outlining seriously.
It’s easy to get started with The Outliner of Giants. You don’t even need a new user account: Just log in with your Google credentials. Clicking the top-right corner leads you to an Outline About Outliners, a document covering the history and process of this useful task.
The Outliner of Giants uses key commands for many basic features: Enter adds a new node; Space edits the current one; Tab and Shift-Tab indents and outdents nodes. One feature that’s sorely missing, however, is Undo. I once accidentally converted a single node into its own outline (i.e, “tore it out” of an existing outline) and was unable to revert the change.
Because an outline is a rigidly hierarchical document, it’s important to be able to tag your nodes. This allows you to easily look at all of your nodes that involve a certain character in a story (for example), no matter where it appears in the plot. The Outliner of Giants supports tagging, but not via simple, Twitter-like hashtags: You need to hit Ctrl-T and fill in a dedicated tagging field.
In general, The Outliner of Giants feels powerful and robust—perhaps a bit too robust for casual outliners to use. Its crisp, retro aesthetic is enjoyable, and you can customize it in many ways, from the theme to the syntax you wish to use in your notes (Textile, Markdown, or a rich text editor). The free plan limits you to five outlines, but the paid one ($10/year) offers unlimited outlines, as well as more space for files, more collaborators, and other perks.
Fargo feels decidedly more modern than the Outliner of Giants. It links with your Dropbox account, and it saves any changes you make to your outlines into Dropbox as OPML files (a format commonly used for exchanging information between outliners). Unlike The Outliner of Giants, Fargo is entirely free.
Fargo lets you make text bold or italic using keyboard shortcuts (Ctrl-I and Ctrl-B, as you’d expect), but oddly enough, it does not include a keyboard shortcut for creating a link (it does offer a button for this). You can also use the keyboard to reorganize your outline, promoting, demoting, and moving nodes around as needed.
Fargo offers somewhat limited support for formatting your text using Markdown, but it will render only when you export the file. Until you do, any text you marked as bold will just show surrounded with two asterisks, even once you’re done editing the node. This feels inconsistent, because if you use the toolbar button or Ctrl-B to make text bold, it immediately renders as bold.
One feature notably missing from Fargo is text search. There’s no way to search through your outline. If you’re working with a large outline that is mostly collapsed, that could leave you blindly rummaging through the outline looking for the node you need. There is also no support for tagging nodes, or any sort of filtering, making Fargo useful mainly for smaller outlines in which you won’t easily get lost.
Checkvist is a fast, mature, polished outliner with innovative keyboard shortcuts. Where most outliners (and applications in general) use Ctrl-key combinations, Checkvist uses Vim-like keystroke sequences. Want to add a note to a node? Hit ‘nn’. To open the actions context menu, tap ‘aa’, then use the arrow keys to navigate it.
Unlike Fargo, Checkvist lets you easily undo operations with a quick tap of Ctrl-Z, or by clicking a button on the screen. You can also filter your outline according to tags, keywords, or due dates. Search is live: Just start typing, and the list filters down to whatever you’re typing. If the node you need is collapsed, Checkvist will automatically expand it and highlight the string you’re typing. And despite all of this power, Checkvist is very responsive and fast.
Checkvist supports its own text-only syntax for including links, and you can use HTML tags for making text bold or italic, or adding images. Markdown support is available, but it’s switched off by default. You can enable it in the settings.
Checkvist’s free version offers more than enough functionality for most users. If you need full HTTPS support, file attachment, repeating tasks, and task assignment options (for collaborating with others), the paid version costs $3 per month.
Oak Outliner is as simple as it comes. Think Notepad, only in your browser, and with some outlining features. It lives in your browser, but not in the cloud, so it does a couple of things a little differently from what you’d expect from a native application or even a cloud-based service. Most notably, it saves the outline as HTML5 local storage, automatically and in the background. Also, you can’t edit more than one outline at a time in the browser. Within these minimalist confines, however, it gets the job done.
Like any outliner, Oak Outliner lets you collapse nodes, indent and outdent them, and shuffle them around. You can also format text using Markdown. That’s about it.
It doesn’t offer a way to filter nodes according to tags, search collapsed nodes, or an explicit way to save your work. There’s no export functionality, either. While most outliners let you export to OPML, Oak Outliner’s export features are limited to copying and pasting your work into another document.
What you gain with Oak Outliner is simplicity. There’s practically nothing to fiddle with: It’s just a page with text. It doesn’t require an Internet connection, and it has no user accounts. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes sophisticated software can get in your way rather than help you get things done. Not Oak Outliner, which is about as bare bones as it gets. It’s also entirely free.
WorkFlowy is an outliner that wants to change the way you manage information. It starts out as a single master document, but it encourages you to create an ever-deeper hierarchy, starting with two overarching topics, “Work,” and “Personal.” From there, you can begin outlining and journaling your entire life.
Yes, it’s ambitious, and I’m not saying you have to use WorkFlowy this way. But WorkFlowy just might be polished enough to pull it off. Its interface uses animations in a simple, non-distracting way that makes everything feel more engaging. It features excellent keyboard shortcuts, and you can use it as a to-do list and mark items as completed.
As befitting a product that prides itself on supporting a deep hierarchy, WorkFlowy lets you tag items using both hashtags and people (@name), and it smoothly autocompletes your tags based on any tags you’ve created before. It also has live search, for quickly and effectively filtering your outlines. And to help you use its power, documentation is offered as a series of short, no-nonsense videos demonstrating every aspect of the product.
What really makes WorkFlowy special is how it handles scoping. Many outliners let you zoom in on a specific node and make the rest of the outline disappear. But there’s something about the WorkFlowy interface, and the animation used for zooming, that makes a zoomed-in node feel like its own document. If you do use WorkFlowy to outline your entire life, you’d likely have to upgrade from the free version (which is limited to 500 monthly documents) to the $5/month plan (which supports unlimited outlines and includes Dropbox sync).
Craft your writing with an outliner that thinks like you do
It doesn’t take long to decide which outliner works the way you do. Just pick one of these five—they’re all free to start—and see where it takes you. No matter which you end up choosing, or even if you outline using just a regular text editor or Microsoft Word (which has an outlining mode of its own), creating an outline of your ideas is a great way to overcome writer’s block and say what you have to say.