You must, must, must use outlines

Must you bollocks. Fast Company has a good feature on creative discipline, this business of creating things in the haphazard crazy way we do but simultaneously being focused and actually finishing things. I like a huge amount of the piece but its thing about must, must, must outline is making me twitch.

I do use outlines on certain jobs – I’m contractually required to often enough and there are times when it is definitely a quick route to a goal, just not necessarily the best one. I’m pretty much as addicted to OmniOutliner as I am to its sister app OmniFocus but I use it with care, I use it with wariness. Because exploring on the page, writing something to see where it goes and being willing to throw it away afterwards is still what I believe to be right for me.

See what you think:

Outlines are the tool of fast and productive writers. They help you say what you want to say, before you’ve figured out what it’s going to sound like or you’ve wasted time and energy writing about the wrong things. Outlines help you see if your plot makes sense, if your arguments stand up, or if your blog post is going in the right direction.

Before you start your next writing project, take five minutes to create a writing outline. For example, if you’re writing a blog post, break it into five or six sections and an introduction and a conclusion. Each section should contain three to five bullet points corresponding to a point you want to make. If you’re writing a book, write an outline for each chapter using headings and bullet points. For larger projects, write your outline on index cards. Laying these out on your desk or on a wall will give you a visual overview of your work that you can rearrange.

8 Essential Lessons in Creative Discipline – Bryan Collins, Fast Company (11 June 2015)

I like that he’s clear about what it does, I’m not keen on the certainty behind it. But he has other advice that I’m less precious or prejudiced against, so do read the full piece.

OmniPlan and OmniGraffle now run on iPhones

The Omni Group’s excellent project management application OmniPlan and its impressive graphics software OmniGraffle have both had major new releases with many new features. Dwarfing them all, though, is that the two can now also run on iPhone.

Previously… there was a Mac version and an iPad one but no iPhone. Now that the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus have big screens, the Omni Group has been moving their apps to the phone.

That’s obviously good: even the bigger screen of the iPhone 6 Plus is not as handy as an iPad or Mac but you always have your phone with you so the usefulness is high. What’s nicer still, though, is that if you already have these apps for iPad, you’ve now got them for your iPhone. For free.

It’s the same app in both cases. Just go get them from your Purchases section in the App Store. That’s still true even if, like me, your iPhone is the older, smaller type, an iPhone 5.

I’ve not been on the beta tests for either of these but I have for the other two Omni Group apps are that coming to iPhone very soon. And I can tell you that having OmniOutliner available on my iPhone has been a huge boon. I don’t have to tell you that having OmniFocus on my iPhone is superb.

Of these four apps, only OmniFocus was already on the iPhone – but it was there in an iPhone-only edition. That was good, I used that thousands upon thousands of times, but now that’s gone and instead we get the iPad edition turned universal. That means we get features that were previously only on the iPad. And yes, that means Reviews. We finally get OmniFocus’s reviews feature on iPhone.

I have been using this lots. Lots.

A tease about the new OmniFocus, sorry

Oh, the pleasure I get from great software: it’s immeasurable and terribly surprising. Today the Omni Group released a new beta of OmniFocus and I shouldn’t talk about it. Not because I’ve signed anything, not because of spoilers, but because it is a bit mean of me when you can’t get the new version yet.

You will soon. You will.

But I’ve been waiting for one feature in this beta and was taken by surprise by another one.

The one I was expecting was that when this comes out in the next few days or weeks, we will finally be able to do a Review on the iPhone. Previously, Review was a feature of the Mac and iPad versions of OmniFocus but not the iPhone one. I’ve said this before and lamented it before and scratched my head before, but no longer.

It is weirdly freaky seeing such a familiar feature in an unfamiliar place. But then I’m also beta testing OmniOutliner which is coming to the iPhone for the first time ever. That is seriously odd, just seeing the icon my iPhone home screen. Mind you, it’s only odd in that one way. In every other way it is fantastic to have this app on my iPhone and it went straight onto my home screen.

The unfamiliar feature, the one that took me by surprise, was that the Omni Group has revamped how the iPhone and iPad handle Notification Centre. Previously, even just a few days ago, I wrote a piece for MacNN about Notification Centre and how To Do apps were using this. At that time, OmniFocus was doing okay with this thing: whatever you’re doing on your iOS device, just swipe your finger down from the top and you get Notification Centre. Within that, OmniFocus showed you the most urgent To Dos on your list.

Or it did. Now it can show you that or it can show you other things that you decide within the main app. I expect to be fiddling for days and I expect to be using Notification Centre more.

And every time I do, I promise I’ll feel rotten for saying there’s this great OmniFocus update and you can’t have it. Not yet. Not quite yet. But soon. Honest.

Review feature coming to OmniFocus for iPhone

This made me sit up. The Omni Group is revamping its productivity apps and bringing ones to the iPhone that have only ever been on the iPad – and that now includes OmniFocus.

OmniFocus is a To Do app that has long, long, long been on iPhone and I’ve used it pretty much hourly for the past three years. But when there were three versions of the app – one for iPhone, one for iPad and one for Mac – it used to be that they each had differences. Each were best for certain things. The iPhone one, for instance, was best for adding new tasks on the go and looking up the next thing you needed to do.

It specifically lacked a feature called Review where you go through every task in every job and make decisions about whether to keep them, whether to do them, whether you need to do anything else. This is a fairly quick thing to do but you tend to do it when you’re in a fairly reflective mood and don’t have new tasks flying at you from everywhere. So the Review feature was on the iPad and the Mac versions of OmniFocus and it didn’t exist at all on the iPhone one.

“That’s a really important feature and I think a big omission from the iPhone OmniFocus” I said back in September 2014’s If you can buy only one OmniFocus, get the iPad version. Not anymore.

The Omni Group recently announced that it was bringing all its iPad apps to the iPhone and like anyone else, I didn’t think of OmniFocus because it was already there. I am keen to see OmniOutliner, that’s the one I was looking forward to and in fact I am beta testing it right now. But otherwise there is the project planning app OmniPlan and a diagramming tool called OmniGraffle, that’s what I assumed was coming to iPhone.

Today the company announced that OmniFocus is coming too. All of the company’s apps are coming to iPhone and they’re coming in Universal versions which means:

Since all of the apps in the Omni Productivity Pack will run on both iPad and iPhone, there will no longer be any need to purchase a separate app just to run OmniFocus on iPhone. The price for the new Universal app will be just $39.99 (a savings of $9.99 compared to the current two-app pricing for customers using OmniFocus on both devices)—and it will be a free upgrade for anyone currently using OmniFocus 2 for iPad.

Omni Productivity Pack coming to iPhone in Q1, 2015 – blog post by by Ken Case, Omni Group (8 January 2015)

I’m not honestly fussed about the pricing because this stuff is so useful to me that it’s now just a mandatory purchase. But:

Customers who want to upgrade from the iPhone app to the Universal one can simply pay the difference in the prices by taking advantage of a $20 Complete My Bundle option we’ll make available. Of course, we’ll continue to update OmniFocus 2 for iPhone, but Pro features such as custom perspectives will only be available in the Universal app.

I have all three versions of OmniFocus available today and I use them all, all of them, constantly. So for me I’ll just be using a new version of OmniFocus for iPhone some day shortly. Which I realise means I will actually delete the old iPhone-only edition. That’s not something I thought I’d be saying to you: I’m actually going to delete a version of OmniFocus.

That’s practically a Dear Diary moment. Not sure when it will be but as I say, I am on the beta test for OmniOutliner for iPhone so it’s well along and I’m expecting the shipping products to be out in the next couple of months.



OmniOutliner 2 for iPad revisited

I wrote here about how good this app was when it first came out a few months ago but today ran a new piece of mine about how great it is after you’ve been using it for those few months. It’s an outlining application and I am not naturally a guy who likes outlines but what I wrote includes this:

This is one of those apps where the feature list doesn’t tell you what you need to know. All outlining software lets you slap down some headings as you think of them and then fill in details or shove thoughts around until everything looks sensible. The difference between these apps is in how little they get in the way of your starting, how much they help you as you go along, and then how much you can do with your outline at the end of it.

You can open OmniOutliner on your iPad and just get going: we’ve been testing it for months on assorted jobs and keep coming back to the very basic options for their sheer speed and ease of use. But one project was going to be for several different audiences who would need different amounts of detail. We just outlined as normal but added extra columns for these audiences, adding notes where we needed to and knowing that as we adjusted the outline, those notes would follow.

Hands On: OmniOutliner 2 (OS X, iOS) – William Gallagher, MacNN (3 January 2015)

Do read my full piece. Though I say full, I’d like to be fuller: there are options and features I didn’t get you. The one that’s on my mind to tell you is that I have a base outline now for a particular workshop I do and while I rewrite the presentation every single time, I can now start with this one outline and start shuffling. Once or twice while I’ve been presenting I’ve also tapped a button and had OmniOutliner record audio right into the outline too. That’s been invaluable when I’m revising the presentation and can simply hear how people reacted to sections where we were all talking and discussing.

I do like software and I do love software that transforms my working life. But there is a special place in my heart for software that changes my mind about something. I’m still not a natural outliner, I still like diving ahead and seeing where I end up, but more and more I’m using OmniOutliner to help me get jobs done well and faster.

If Omni makes, it’s worth a look

I don’t honestly know what OmniGraffle is for. Hang on:

OmniGraffle is for creating precise, beautiful graphics. Like website wireframes, an electrical system design, a family tree, or mapping out software classes. For artists, designers, casual data-mappers, and everyone in-between.

OmniGraffle – The Omni Group blog (XXXXXX)

Thanks. For some reason I read that, I understand it, but I forget it. And the next time there’s a new version of OmniGraffle, I get to wondering: what in the hell is OmniGraffle?

It’s not for me, that’s the other answer and it’s the explanation. I don’t need graphics like this, I don’t create them, I can’t create them. So in my productively-focused brain, it wouldn’t get into my head and it wouldn’t get a spot on The Blank Screen. But it’s by the Omni Group.

I am wedded to this company’s To Do software OmniFocus. If it ran on Windows and Android, I would skip a whole chunk of my workshops and just recommend OmniFocus to everybody. As it is, I recommend OmniFocus to everybody. Buy a Mac first, if necessary.

Then if I’m wedded to that, I’m having a fling with OmniOutliner. This is the outlining software that changed my mind about outlining. I used to do it solely when contractually obligated. Now I am still an explorer on the page but if I have to do anything quickly, I whack down some thoughts in OmniOutliner and let them grow until they find their own form. I’ve done books like this. Interviews. Events. I’ve done things where having juggled the outline around until I’m happy, I’ve then sent that outline directly into OmniFocus where it’s become a whole series of tasks.

I am now planning a lot more events and I’m toying with OmniPlan chiefly because it’s made by the same firm. So when the Omni Group announces a new version of OmniGraffle, I notice and am compelled to tell you about it. I’m just rubbish at actually telling you anything about it. So do go read the full piece on the Omni blog.

OmniOutliner, OmniPlan and OmniGraffle coming to iPhone

They’ll join OmniFocus, which I may have mentioned one or a thousand times before. There’s no timescale yet but the Omni Group is looking for beta testers for the apps:

Are any of you interested in helping us test our apps before they’re ready to submit to the App Store? We’re working on bringing all of our iPad apps to the iPhone, so we have a lot of testing to do! And with Apple’s new TestFlight Beta Testing program, we’re able to invite up to 1,000 of our customers to test our apps while they’re still under development.

Interested in testing Omni’s iPhone and iPad apps? – Ken Case, The Omni Group blog (7 November 2014)

There’s not a lot more detail in the full piece but it does include instructions on how to apply to be a beta tester. I think that 1,000 Apple-imposed testing limit will fill up very quickly so go take a look now if you fancy it. I’ve applied but I only really know OmniFocus: as much as I use OmniOutliner, I’d say I’m a very basic user of it. I’m looking at OmniPlan but haven’t even glanced at OmniGraffle.

So for me the news here is that at some point soon we’re going to have OmniOutliner on iPhone and that’s big.

You have to suspect that this move is related to the bigger screens of the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus. I’m currently sticking with my iPhone 5 so I’m curious to see both how these apps work on that and whether their presence will change how I use the iPad versions.

Speaking of which, the iPad versions of OmniFocus, OmniOutliner, OmniGraffle and OmniPlan are available now. There’s also the iPhone version of OmniFocus and there are Mac editions of the lot too. Those Mac ones are available in the Mac App Store but I recommend getting them from the Omni Group’s official site.

Enough already: Omni Group also updates OmniOutliner

It’s a small update compared to the OmniFocus and OmniGraffle ones announced today but also I use OmniOutliner so I’m going to be getting this when it drops too.

Wait. Makes a mental note:

1) Get iOS 8
2) Get OmniFocus 2 for iPad
3) Update OmniOutliner for iPad
4) Update TextExpander for iPhone and iPad
5) Install TextExpander keyboard for iPhone and iPad
6) Update 1Password

I’d best get on with some work before iOS 8 drops then, hadn’t I?

For once there are no more real details about the OmniOutliner for iPad update: I found out via a tweet that just said it “will fix compatibility issues with iOS 8 and restore ‘Dark Mode'”. (Ken Case, @kcase, 17 September 2014). But you can read much more about OmniOutliner on my review covering the iPad and Mac versions or you could horse’s mouth it on the official site. With videos.

Review: OmniOutliner

I am still tickled that the one thing I am currently dragging my feet over is writing a review of the productivity tool OmniFocus 2 for Mac. I use this constantly. I waited a year for that to come out. But still I haver. I did write several thousands words about it but threw them away: I felt it wasn’t a review as much as it was a manual for using it. There are plenty of places that tell you how to use OmniFocus, I need to get my head straight over what I feel I can usefully tell you.

And getting your head straight is what OmniOutliner is for.

The clue is in the name – actually, the two clues are in the name. OmniOutliner is an outliner made by The Omni Group, the same company that does OmniFocus. They make many applications and, truth be told, the only reason I looked at OmniOutliner first was that I adore OmniFocus so much. It also helps that OmniOutliner is affordable where the other products are expensive. Well, the graphics package and the project planning one are cheap for what they do, they’re just expensive if you only want to play with them. I’d play with the trial versions but I know that before long I’d be convincing myself to buy it.

This is what happened with OmniOutliner. I got the trial of version 3 and before the end of the day had bought it. Before the end of the week there was a beta release of version 4 and I switched to that. Fortunately for my wallet, when version 4 came out officially, I was able to get it for free because I’d bought 3 so recently.

I am going to rave about OmniOutliner, I think there’s little chance you hadn’t twigged that yet, but it isn’t an unqualified hymn of praise and I think I am a very low-level user of it. I now use it extensively but, for instance, there are close to myriad options for doing outlines that look pretty. I don’t mean that dismissively: there are design tools that make outlines clear and easy to read even when they are swamped with information. I’ve had a play but I keep coming back to the plain and basic outline.

It’s just that I keep coming back to it for so much. I used to be a determined explorer, always writing to see where the writing would take me. I write Doctor Who radio dramas, though, and those require a treatment outline before you get the gig. And I wrote a 170,000-word book about Blake’s 7 which was the biggest single project I’d ever done and it needed support. I needed support. Then I had a project that required me to deliver ideas to a company. When I agreed to that I thought it would be a doddle but their definition of an idea was 1,200 words of fully worked out story. To do it and to hit the deadlines, I found I was slapping down a thought in OmniOutliner and then seeing how I could expand it. If the story had this, what would come after it? What do I need to get us to that moment? The story would grow from a thematic idea, a one- or two-liner thought into a detailed beat sheet that I would then follow as I wrote up the idea.

That’s the bit I’ve always loathed: having such a detailed plan makes me feel as if I’m not writing, I’m typing. The story is told, so far as I’m concerned. But in that case I fashioned stories faster, I groped toward them quicker. And then there was longform prose in Blake, I think I got into the habit of going to OmniOutliner.

The day I realised I had a problem, though, was when I turned to it on a domestic project. Not writing, just something I needed to do. Usually I’d have done that in OmniFocus but I needed to think through the steps and I found myself writing it in OmniOutliner.

Then in the last 18 months I seem to have grown a new career in public speaking and in producing events. For both of them,  I rely on OmniFocus but I get to my task list through this outliner. Truly, my heart is still an explorer yet I can’t deny that outlining is helping me now with many events and I think a giant part of that is down to OmniOutliner. I’ve piddled about with outliners in, say, Microsoft Word, and it’s been a shrug. OmniOutliner has become a pal.

Last week I did a gig in a college, I took over a three-day writing course and it was an interesting combination of their existing course outline and what I could bring to it. The course outline was rather good, I thought, so I didn’t change any of that, I just worked to see what I could do that would fulfil what they needed and what the students wanted. I planned the three days out in OmniOutliner and you should see it. I can’t show you because so much of it is confidential and I’m just always wary of discussing any detail that’s to do with education and students.

But it started as a copy of the main headings and main times from the college’s existing plan. Then I prefixed it with questions for the college staff so naturally it then also included their answers. I have several writing exercises I particularly enjoy so I have those already outlined in other plans so I dropped them into this outline and moved it around. Added more, deleted bits. Made it fit. Then during the three days I wrecked that lot apart, moving things around, splitting things, adding, deleting. And making huge amounts of notes right there in the middle of the outline. About the one thing I didn’t do was record anything but I could’ve done. There is a button for recording audio. It’s right there.

And speaking of being right there, I did most of this on OmniOutliner for iPad as I ran around but I could also check it and change it on OmniOutliner for Mac.

That was flawless: the outline was just there, whichever machine I went to.

But I did get display faults on the iPad. I have a Belkin keyboard case that when you pop up the iPad in just the right way it links to the external keyboard and takes away the usual iPad one. I found several times that as I broke the connection to the keyboard, because I was folding it away to let me walk around, OmniOutliner would get confused. I wouldn’t get the Apple on-screen keyboard the way you would expect but I would get a toolbar across the middle of the screen where it would be if the keyboard had appeared.

I had no way to fix that in OmniOutliner, I would work around it by quitting and relaunching.

But I look at this outline now and it’s got that glorious feel of a book you’ve worked on for a term. It no longer makes any sense to anyone but me, it is crammed with details even I will forget. And those details meant I was able to write up the student feedback very, very quickly: everything I wanted to say about them I had already made notes about right there in the outline.

I was accused tonight of using too many apps and I think my considered response is just you try to take them away from me. OmniOutliner is now in the tool bag, it is part of what I do, part of how I do it. That’s quite rare: OmniFocus has a permanent place there too but I’m a writer and I haven’t settled on one word processor yet. So you don’t get in easily. But then you can’t take these tools away from me easily, hardily or in any way at all.

Here’s The Omni Group’s own video about OmniOutliner 4 for Mac:

Introducing OmniOutliner 4 from The Omni Group on Vimeo.

And here’s the firm’s video for OmniOutliner 2 for iPad:

Introducing OmniOutliner 2 for iPad from The Omni Group on Vimeo.

You can get OmniOutliner for Mac from the App Store but don’t. Get it directly from The Omni Group instead because that’s how you get major updates for free or cheap. On the official site, OmniOutliner 4 for Mac costs $49.99 US (equivalent to £28.90 UK). There are family and education discounts, see the site for details, but there is also an OmniOutliner Pro 4 for Mac that costs $99 US (£58.33 UK). I have no idea what the difference is with the Pro version but the site explains.

Then you have to get OmniOutliner 2 for iPad from the App Store where it is £20.99 UK or $29.99 US.

Free video tutorial for OmniOutliner for iPad

This is the product that turned me into an outlining user. Not an outline fan, but definitely a user and appreciating the value of the things.

And this is a free tutorial on using the iPad version. It’s from Screencasts Online which is normally a subscription service but does the odd freebie. I’m not sure this is their best but there’s a lot in OmniOutliner and I learnt from watching it: