Navigating the Outline of a Messy Draft

I wrote previously about the benefits of keeping a file of topic ideas. Basically like a compost pile, a document where you can throw all sorts of material into and transform rough pieces into polished drafts.

Maybe that document sounds like it would be a headache to make sense of. A disaster waiting to happen. A bog where half-assed ideas fester.

Well, today I wanted to share a bit about how to make it easier to navigate that sort of document.

There are many ways.

Personally, I use emacs and org-mode to write, but I’m weird. I’m not suggesting that anyone abandon their fancy word processor of choice. I mention it here to give context and share my experience.

One of the things I love most about my writing setup is that it makes it easy to navigate text. When I write, I like to use the keyboard only, not the mouse/touchpad. In my setup, I can hop around the document pretty quickly this way and when I put the cursor on header text and press tab, it toggles folding or unfolding that branch of the outline. Basically what that means is that it makes all the body text disappear so that only the header is visible unless I toggle to make it show the text again. Even a really long convoluted document can be organized in short order because I can fold all the body text into whatever its header is. Once that text is folded, I can see a larger chunk of the rest of the document. I can see the headers, jump to a new one, then expand it and start reading or working on that section. For me, it feels intuitive.

So I wanted to share a bit about this way of working. You can do something similar in other text editors and word processors.

Use Scrivener’s outline mode to hop around your document

Scrivener has an outliner mode that shows the headings and synopsis material for a document. The outline mode doesn’t show the actual text of the document, but rather the stuff that’s in the synopsis (View –> Outliner Columns –> Synopsis)

Then of course there is the Corkboard, which presents the same material in a different way.

This approach can be ideal for some writers because it keeps the jotty material separate from the main text of the document. It allows all that stuff to be behind the scenes.

How to smoothly navigate text using Document Outline in Google Docs

Google docs has a great way to navigate an outline of your document.
Go to View –> Document Outline on desktop or Menu –> Document Outline on mobile

The gdocs outline tool displays in a pane on the left of the screen (or a hover-over on the right if using mobile). You can use the outline pane to efficiently navigate from header to header.

It sounds really simple but it can make a huge difference for navigating complicated or messy works-in-progress.

It even auto-detects logical divisions within your document so you don’t necessarily need to manually create headers to be able to use the outline.

Once you enable the document outline, you can add elements to the outline pane by selecting the text and changing the style to a heading. Or you can select the text, right click, and select Add to document outline.

To remove something from the outline, select it and then Remove from document outline.

What works for you?

So there are a couple of examples for ways to use some of the built-in features to make it easier to thumb through your work in progress. I rely heavily on these sorts of features to keep my draft, compost and cut files easy to navigate. Being able to fold text into an overview mode has been a big help for me.

I’d be interested to hear from you about outlining and organizational strategies that you find helpful, especially if they are as simple as these tools.

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