Outlining vs. Formatting

Dave makes a profound distinction in his post this morning titled Outliners and Word Processors. For the first time I not only grok what I already knew about outlining, but why it’s so much better as a way to write than word processing ever was.

The distinction is a bit hard to see because Word — the word processor that approximately everybody uses — has a “view” called “Outline.” That view has made lots of writers hate outlining, for a good and ironic reason: it was never about outlining, so it botched the job. Dave explains,

What they called outlining was more like outline formatting. Putting Roman numerals on the top sections, capital letters on the first level. Numbers on the second and so on.

Word is a word processor. Its primary function is writing-for-printing. The choices the designers made make it a relatively strong formatter and a weak organizer.

Design choice is the key point. Dave again:

Word is a production tool — good for annual reports, formal papers, stories, books. Fargo is an organizing tool, good for lists, project plans, narrating your work, presentations, team communication. You could organize a conference with an outliner. The slides would naturally be composed wiht an outliner.

An outliner is designed for editing structure more than it is for editing text. The text is sort of “along for the ride.” Or you could see an outliner as text-on-rails. Outliner text is always ready to move, with a single mouse gesture or keystroke. You enter text into an outliner so you can move it around, like stick-up notes on a whiteboard.

…Word processors are good at selecting words, sentences and paragraphs. Outliners select headlines and all their subs.

This makes me think that Word should have been called a “format processor” from the start. We already had text editors. Word processing was actually about how things looked. Still is. See, when you write in Word, you are in a land called “styles,” no matter what. All styles format text, in countless ways. The default, called “Normal,” comes pre-set with font, size, justification, line spacing, paragraph spacing and so on. If you make changes to it, those get added as well, until you concatenate a long list of formatting variables, which get carried forward by copy and pasting, often in bizarre ways, conditioned on whatever other style choices may or may not have already been made in another part of the text.

For a long time I wrote entirely in an outliner called MORE, which was created by Dave and friends back the 1980s. As a writer I found MORE a far better tool than Word, especially for long pieces, because its structure-first design made it easy for me to move around whole sections, and to jump from one section to another. Fargo works the same way. Take this outline, for example:


  • Geology
  • Astronomy


  • Chemistry
  • Weather


  • chemistry
  • bodies


  • Material
  • Temperature

Writing that in WordPress (which I’m doing now) is a chore, because all the choices are formatting ones, not outlining ones. Let’s say I want to move Water above Fire. I need to copy and paste it, and then hit the HTML tab so I can un-screw whatever happens under WordPress’ very thin covers, and the formatting elements of HTML reside.

In Fargo, I just hit hit Command-U (or Control-U on Linux or Windows computers). Everything under Fire moves up. I can do the same with the subheads, or with the paragraphs under the subheads. (I would illustrate that here if the HTML hack weren’t so arduous.)

When I was writing The Intention Economy, I wished every day that I could have written it in MORE, because it would have been so much easier than it was in Word. MORE really was text-on-rails.

At its peak, The Intention Economy was 120,000 words long. The finished book was about 80,000 words. The outline view: four main parts and twenty-seven chapters. If I had been writing it in MORE, I could have collapsed the whole book to just the top-level (the four parts), expanded just to the chapter level, and then edited text within any of those, while seeing the whole outline in collapsed form above and below. I could have moved whole chapters or subchapters forward or back, and I could have promoted or demoted parts, chapters and subchapters, again with keyboard commands. I could easily have managed writing the whole book with an ease that Word simply would not allow, except to the degree that I could master working in its awful outline view.

(To be fair, there have been improvements in Word that make something like real outlining possible. I bring this up in case you’re writing a book and need easy navigation in Word. What you want is Document Map Pane under Sidebars in the View menu. That makes an outline pane appear to the left of the text. If you are using Word’s default outline and text formatting, you can expand and collapse subheads and text, and move about your document by clicking on the heading or subheading you like. It’s a huge help, though nothing as useful as what we lost when MORE went away a few years ago.)

By the way, on the production side, MORE actually did some things that Word still doesn’t do, such as giving you the choice of putting the saved date and time in the header or footer, rather than the current date and time. This is extremely handy for matching printed drafts with saved drafts on the computer. I believe MORE did that because it came from outline designers rather than format designers. It showed respect for the need to organize, and not just to format and produce.

The assumption with Word, even today, is that you will be printing the finished thing out, rather than publishing it on the Web. While Word does have a Web Layout view, and will produce HTML, it’s the gawd-awful-worst HTML the world has ever known. (Look up Word + HTML in a search engine and you’ll find lots of links to fixes for Word’s hideous HTML.) Again, this is a design legacy from a time before the Web, and we are still forced to live with it today.

Outlining is a much better fit for writing on, and for, the Web.

Consider this old writing aphorism: What you say matters more than how you say it. Outlining respects this by giving you a way to shape and re-shape what you say. As it was originally conceived, so did HTML. Although it did markup, which was formatting, HTML was as simple as possible, leaving particulars such as fonts and sizes up to the reader’s browser, rather than up to the writer’s word processor. This has changed over the years, as HTML has become far more complex, and design along with it. Right now, for example, I’m coping with designing a couple of new WordPress blogs, and the choices I face are all between different piles of complexity. If you want to color outside the lines of whatever themes you choose — or hell, just to choose a theme you can work with — you’re going to need professional help, or to spend a lot of time learning and re-learning how to write on the Web. That’s because the choices of how you say it have totally overrun those of what you say.

By coming from what you say rather than how you say it, Fargo is both an antidote to the complexities of writing for the Web today, and a throwback to the original design graces of HTML, and of the Web itself.

So I highly recommend to serious writers that they get on board and learn outlining, as Dave and his team at SmallPicture iterate Fargo toward whatever it will end up being. Hey, it’s still new. And what better time to get on board than when you’re new to the whole thing as well.

Bonus link: Outlining solves syncing and sharing, by Chris Wolverton.


  1. jonathan peterson’s avatar

    Years ago, I took a structured writing class designed around creating job guides, technical documentation, business requirements, etc. from  informationmapping.com). It came with a toolbox of Word macros and templates that greatly enhanced Word’s oulining, but the important thing was learning to work at a structural level with organization of concepts and out of the weeds of formatting and grammar. It was absolutely game-changing for me personally and professionally, and I’ve been recommending similar training to technical people who need to write ever since.

  2. Bradley’s avatar

    Microsoft would say that OneNote is an outlining tool in the manner you describe. I use it to take fast notes and avoid worrying about formatting.

    I prefer to use Freemind when writing. It’s a mind mapping tool that is more graphical than text based and can export to text when you’re finished. It’s quite an old tool and is GNU General Public Licence.

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Bradley. I’ve used Freemind, but not OneNote. Good as it was, Freenote seemed to work much better for authors than for readers or viewers (on a projected screen, which is how it is sometimes used).

    Something I tried to get across here is that outlining at its best carries 90% of the work, rather than 10% up front. Or even 50%. This is why it’s better (for some of us, at least) to have an outliner that’s a decent word processor than a word processor that happens have outlining as one of its “view” options.

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, jonathan. Great account there. Wish structural writing was better taught in general, but alas.

  5. Nitin Badjatia’s avatar

    Some years ago, while working on a knowledge management project, my customer uttered the following words, “Remember folks, Microsoft Word is a destination tool.” Boy, that was an epiphany. The context for the comment had more to do with how .doc files were spidered (they are not easy to index), but my takeaway was more along the lines that you talk about. Think about it, “word processing” is a function of a typesetter, not an author.

    “Word processing,” I think, got even worse with the arrival of GUIs. I remember WordPerfect’s application being a nicer environment to write because so many of the “processing” elements were not explicitly evident.

    Outlining was one of those useful tricks that we were taught in high school (the senior term paper couldn’t have been submitted without first submitting an outline), but the notion of “word processing” lulled us into the illusion of efficiency.

    Only recently have I returned to outlining (sometimes mind mapping) concepts, and then writing. I’ll have to check out Fargo, but of late I’ve been quite pleased with Workflowy.

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