When I’m not writing this site or teaching high school students, a large portion of my time is given over to fiction. After several years’ work, I have a novel (possibly two, depending on what one considers appropriate length) which I’ve been shopping around to agents for the last six months or so.
In writing said novel, I primarily used three1 applications. Two of these I could hardly consider writing another book without. One is Scrivener. No review I could write would do that program justice. Let it suffice to say that Scrivener is the tool for serious writers. It has a significant learning curve, but the capabilities are well worth the investment of time and laughably small (relative to its utility) amount of money.
The second app essential to my fiction writing process is OmniOutliner. And though Scrivener has an outline function that I also use, sometimes a tool built for a specific task is just the right choice no matter how good your all-purpose tool is. With the recent release of OmniOutliner 4, now seems like a great time to give a recommendation.
Some minds think linearly while others are more spatial. I’m a linear thinker. If you’re anything like me, you’ll likely find OmniOutliner an indispensable application. Take a look at the last piece of fiction you wrote. Sure enough, there’s likely a timeline in the notes. Whether it came into being as the words flowed onto the page or was painstakingly constructed before the drafting process began, every story has a point A from which to begin and a point B at which to end. OmniOutliner helps writers plan the spaces between.
Essentially, OmniOutliner is a program that creates topics and subtopics. Like most well-made software, it boils down easily to its primary elements. Why would you want a tool that seemingly does so little? Well, as ever, it’s all in the details.
Navigating lists and topics happens quickly and fluidly. The new version leverages many of the graphical bells and whistles of modern OS X applications, though never just for the sake of the flourish. Sub categories slide in and out of place, aiding the user in visualizing hierarchy and order. Controls for customizing the look and feel of each item and sub-item do everything from color code for organization to stylize for print or electronic publication.
The entire list system is drag and drop friendly. Just click an item and place it anywhere within the outline at any hierarchical level. In fiction, this is an incredibly useful feature. For every planned story beat, a half-dozen more sprout up as the characters move through their journeys. In such cases, a quick drag and drop reorders the events and helps to visualize areas of the story that drag or are unnecessary. Sort, resort, collapse, expand. Everything is smooth and serves the purpose of the writer.
OmniOutliner surprises as note-taking application as well. Items can even be assigned check boxes for task-oriented users. In addition, any list item can take on an attachment: an image if you happen to have a photo or video to take the place of a description, even an audio note recorded on the device or attached from elsewhere. Personally, my outlines are text only, but the app allows much to be done by those who would utilize all of its features.
And though it’s been a pleasure to use, and a tool I’d rather not write without any time soon, there are some shortcomings. The Omni Group’s applications tend to stay fairly close to the Apple defaults; Outliner is no exception. Unfortunately that means window placement is only stored and refreshed if the user has opted to restore all windows from the previous session in the OS preferences.
I use OmniOutliner for fiction primarily, but I also have a handful of documents that I use in my job as a teacher. Restoring from last session is useless for me, causing far more grief than convenience. So I turn it off. Then, when the weekends come along and I have more time, I open up my writing environment (which an Automator script handles as there are a number of applications and files). Before version 4.0, I was able to keep my several Outliner windows positioned such that I could easily switch between current story outline, timelines, character spreadsheets (in Numbers), and others. Now that positioning has to be laid out each time I sit down to write. It’s an annoyance more than anything, but a seemingly unnecessary one. Even Apple’s own iWork apps remember window state. It’s an extra inconvenience for the user, and a company as good about user experience design as The Omni Group should recognize this.
Despite this, and a few other lesser quibbles, OmniOutliner is still an excellent application and downright essential for writers who think and write well in a classic category-sub category format. Pick it up for $49.99 in the Mac App Store2.