Outliner 101

What is an outliner?

Outliner is a type of software to outline things, where you can create hierarchies to contain whatever you're working on.

You might be thinking, "pftt, I've had enough outlining back in high school when I was required to outline my essay."

I hear you. Outlining in an outliner is different though, because it's all electronic. Adding, deleting, and reorganizing things are super easy.

It's much harder to do that same on paper because you can't predict how much space you should leave out, which is why many people finish the essay first and then write the outline—outlining on paper is terrible.

Why bother?

"Creating hierarchies", sounds complicated, eh?

Yeah, but it's worth it.

You see, at some point in life, things get too complicated for a text file to handle.

You may be writing your master's thesis. You may be working a demanding job with a project on the side. You might be writing your first book.

You need to keep all the information, tasks, and notes somewhere so you can retrieve them and be reminded of them when needed. That usually means a long and unorganized todo list with a bunch of Word documents. And that usually means hours wasted in finding and organizing things.

That's where outliners come in. If you naturally think of things as consisting of smaller things, using an outliner is a no-brainer. Generally speaking, you can use an outliner to contain any information—it does not assume what's being put into it. That makes it quite flexible and suitable for almost organizing anything.

We'll look at why outliners make it easy to look at and find stuff next.


You start an outline by creating nodes. A node is equivalent to a bullet point in the traditional sense. In some outliners, you can attach a note or some attributes to each node, but that's not important. 

Subnodes are the children of a node. Each subnode is also a node, so each subnode can have subnodes, etc., etc.

For example, here "outliner" and "word processor" are two subnodes of the node "productivity software":

  • productivity software
    • outliner
    • word processor

Indentation is how you can tell a node is the subnode of some other node.

Having extra space to the left means a node is under the previous node. If the left end of two nodes align, they are on the level level.

This is where the magic begins.

Now, unlike your word processor which only knows about pages and paragraphs, the outliner knows that which nodes are the subnodes of other nodes.

That way, if you collapse an node, its subnodes can be temporarily hidden. This is usually because they are not needed at the moment. For example, let's say you're working section 2 of your essay. The title of section 1 might help, but you certainly don't want to see the details under there.

Expand is the reverse operation of collapse. If you want to quickly reference something in section 1, you can expand it.

Hoist (aka. zoom)
The magic continues!

Hoisting is a more advanced way to hide information. Out of sight, out of mind, they say.

Collapsing only hides a portion of the current outline, whereas hoisting completely changes the context.

This allows you to zoom in on a node and see nothing else. Recommended if you really want to focus on something.

Collapsing and hoisting together makes it a lot easier to look at complicated information, because the information becomes dynamic and you can change what you see based on what you're working on.

Outliner benefits

We have explained how collapsing and hoisting can help it easier to look at your stuff.

How does outliners make it easier to find stuff?

First of all with an outliner you can put everything together. Todos, research notes, drafts, random ideas, all in one place. This way you can search once instead of everywhere, if you don't remember where you put it.

Another reason is that the structure of an outline makes it easier to find something without a keyword. We all had times where we want to search up something but can't quite remember any keywords. 

The reason is that you can look at top-level nodes and quickly determine where the node belong. Rinse and repeat, you'll quickly find the node you're looking for. If you have dumped everything without structure, it's impossible to do the same.

Interested in using an outliner to organize your life now? Learn the Dynalist basics.

Further reading

Outliner - Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outliner

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