Outliner howto

What is an outliner?

An outliner is a text editor that organizes information in a hierarchy, allowing users to control the level of detail and to reorganize according to structure. Your notes can have full detail, yet be organized so a casual reader can get a quick overview. Outlining is a great way for teams to organize work.

Paul Ford, an early user of our software, said: "What Google Maps does for geography, outliners do for ideas." Map software lets you zoom in at any level of detail. Same with outliners.

Practice outliner

The box below contains a live outline. You can expand and collapse headlines, move things around with the mouse or keyboard. All the operations described on this page work. You can't do any harm. If you mess up the outline, just refresh the page.

When you're ready to use an outliner, try Fargo. It's a very simple app, runs in a web browser, and saves through Dropbox.

The bar cursor and text cursor

A picture named states1.gifIn an outliner are two kinds of cursors, a bar cursor, which is black, and covers a whole headline, and a text cursor, which is a vertical line, also called a caret. The text cursor flashes slowly.

Each headline has a wedge, displayed to the left of the text, a small triangle that's either gray or black. If it's black that means there's unexpanded text below the headline.

There are two modes, structure mode and text mode. To go from text to structure mode, click once on a wedge. To go from structure to text mode, click on any character inside the headline.

To expand a headline, double-click on the black wedge. To collapse, double-click on the wedge of an expanded headline.

The headline the bar cursor points to is called the bar cursor headline. You'll see that term used in the docs below, because many commands apply to the bar cursor headline. In the screen shot at the top of this section, the bar cursor headline is the United States.

What is an outline?

An outline can contain many headlines that are organized in a hierarchy.

A top level headline is called a summit. An outline can have many summits.

Underneath a summit are more headlines, which in turn contain headlines, many levels deep.

Headlines can also have attributes such as a creation date or a serial number. Headlines are often called nodes in this context.

The whole thing, a hierarchy of headlines with attributes, is the outline.

What does Cmd mean?

If you're using a Macintosh, when we say Cmd-X that means hold down the Command key, the one with the ⌘ on it, and press X at the same time.

If you use Windows or Linux, when you see Cmd-X, think Control-X. We use this short-hand rather than repeating this equivalence every time we talk about a Control key.

How do you enter text into an outliner?

To create a new headline, put the cursor on the headline above where you want the headline to appear and press Return.

Type as you would into a text editor. When you want to create another headline, press Return.

If you want to move the headline in by one level press Tab. To move it out by one level, press Shift-Tab.

You can bolden the selected text with Cmd-B, and italicize with Cmd-I. To un-bolden or un-italicize, just repeat the Cmd key.

How does expand and collapse work?

A picture named states2.gifIf you want to expand a headline, to see what's underneath, double-click on its wedge.

This only works if the wedge is black. If it's gray that means there's nothing underneath to expand. So you can see from a distance where there's hidden text.

To the right is a screen shot that shows the Midwest headline expanded. The Michigan headline has a black wedge, that means there are unexpanded items below it, entries for the cities of Flint, Detroit, Ann Arbor.

To collapse a level, double-click on the wedge next to its parent.

You can expand and collapse using the keyboard with Cmd-, (comma). If the bar cursor headline is expanded it is collapsed. If it's collapsed it expands.

Can you explain how the arrow keys work?

When you're in structure mode...

moves to the previous headline at the same level.

moves to the next headline at the same level.

moves flatdown -- to the next headline, regardless of level.

moves flatup, to the previous headline, regardless of level.

When you're in text mode...

and move to the previous and next character.

and move to the next and previous headline, regardless of level.

How do you delete a headline?

You can delete a headline and all its subs by placing the bar cursor on the headline, and press the Delete key.

How does Undo work?

If you do something that you want undone, press Cmd-Z to Undo.

How do I reorganize an outline?

Suppose we decide to reclassify Arizona as a Far West state (it's currently in the Southwest).

To move it using the mouse, first expand Southwest by double-clicking on its wedge. Then click on the wedge, and hold the mouse button down, and move the mouse pointer to the wedge in front of Far West, and while continuing to hold the button down, nudge the mouse to the right until the arrow points down and to the right. Let up the mouse. Far West expands and Arizona becomes the first item under Far West.

To move it using the keyboard, expand Southwest and click the wedge in front of Arizona. Press Cmd-L, then Cmd-U repeated until it's just below Far West. Then Cmd-R to move it under Far West.

The keystrokes for moving are Cmd-U for up, Cmd-D for down, Cmd-L for left, and Cmd-R for right.

Tab does the same thing as Cmd-R and Shift-tab is the same as Cmd-L.

Either method works as well as the other, it's just a matter of preference or what's convenient.

Shift-click and Cmd-A

Reorganizing usually applies only to the bar cursor headline.

But you can select a group of headlines using shift-click and then use dragging move or the Cmd keystrokes to reorganize.

To select all the items at a level, Select All or Cmd-A.

Selecting all the text in an outline

A frequently asked question.

1. Click on one of the top-level headlines in your outline.

2. Click on the wedge to go into structure mode.

3. Press Cmd-A to Select All.

That's it, you've now selected all the text in the outline.

Return vs Enter

If you have a keyboard that distinguishes between Return and Enter (as the full Macintosh keyboard does), then the Return key will work as described above, and Enter toggles between text and structure mode.

Promote and demote

If you decide that a category is no longer necessary and want to move all of the former sub-heads out to the same level as their parent, that's when you need to promote the subs. To do so, put the cursor on the parent and press Cmd-[ to promote the subs.

Suppose you have a list of items and want to move them all under a new parent. That's called demote and is a little more tricky.

Create the new parent headline at the same level as the soon-to-be subs, and just before them in their list. Then press Cmd-] to demote.

Cut, Copy, Paste

The normal clipboard operations apply. To Cut, press Cmd-X, to Copy press Cmd-C and to paste press Cmd-V.

Wedges and attributes

Earlier in this document we talked about wedges, as gray or black triangles. But you'll see other wedges from time to time. They usually indicate that there are attributes attached to the headline. Attributes themselves are usually not visible.

When you're moving headlines by dragging with the mouse, the wedges on the target headline will change to an arrow, to indicate where the headline being dragged will be deposited when you let up.

Render mode

Sometimes your outline text will be published on web pages. You can enter HTML markup in your text, and it will correctly flow out to the OPML file.

A limited set of markup -- boldface text, italic text and links -- will be rendered if the outliner is in render mode.

When the outliner starts up, it is in this mode. If you want to see the markup and possibly edit it, you can go into non-render mode by pressing Cmd-` and return to render mode by pressing it again. It's a toggle.

One-line JavaScript code

If you enter a snippet of JavaScript code into a headline in the outliner, you can run the code by pressing Cmd-/.

The result is entered as a sub-head of the headline containing the script code.

For example, if you enter 12 + 12 in a headline and press Cmd-/, its sub-head will contain 24.

You can enter code as complex as you like, you can even call functions implemented by the outliner itself.

It can be useful, if you're a programmer, to keep a library of one-liners in a section of your outline, ready for you to Cmd-/ them.


In programming languages and some content management systems, you can "comment out" text, so that it isn't processed. This allows you to leave notes to yourself that don't get passed along, but are saved in the OPML file. The comments will still be there next time you open the file.

To comment a branch of the outline, press Cmd-\. To uncomment, repeat the keystroke.

When you comment an item, its wedge changes to a chevron, as well as the wedge next to all the items below it.

Posted: Monday, August 19, 2013 at 7:24 PM