Five Rules For Using Google Docs for Outlining

How to use Google Docs for Rapid Thought Capture.

Five Rules For Using Google Docs for Outlining

Rule #1: Never touch the mouse.

Rule #2: Never indent your text.

Rule #3: Write your headings first.

Rule #4: Judiciously use use italics and bold.

Rule #5: Limit your blocks of text to what fits on your screen.

The Worst Part of This Exercise

Everyone is always wishing for the perfect outlining tool. There isn’t one and everyone’s preferences (insane, petty, or whatever) drives the launch and design of thousands of outliner applications. But a cloud-based word processor can be abused in just such a way to make a decent outliner if you restrict your use of its features instead of relying on the bells and whistles of an application. If you like Markdown, look at this as being the in-between of WYSIWYG and just using plain-text.

Don’t waste your time making outlines and fiddling with styles while you’re thinking and brainstorming with these simple rules.

Rule #1: Never touch the mouse.

You see that thing to the side of your keyboard? It’s poison. Don’t touch it.

Just about everything  you need to do for functional outlining can be done with your keyboard. If you need to do something with your mouse, chances are, you’re about to commit a thinking error involving styling your text. Change a font? Are you kidding? What are you doing? Does that font make your thought more pertinent? Of course not! Concentrate on your text first, and you’ll get your thinking done in less time.

You’ll be learning various keyboard shortcuts to apply when you need some semantic oomph, but the first one you’re not going to learn is TAB. Like this paragraph? You know how you get a paragraph? You hit enter, twice. Done.

If you think you can’t navigate your text without the mouse, well, you’re wrong. The keyboard has HOME, END, CURSOR and modifiers like CONTROL and SHIFT that do magical things with the cursor and your text. Learn them.

Rule #2: Never indent your text.

Don’t touch your TAB key. Indenting your text is just a different way of styling it. Not even for quotations.

Oh, I know, outlines are all about indenting. Screw it. Once you fall into the text-indenting trap, you’ll fight with indents when and wherever you move your text around in your outline. You have a quotation? Well, use a fine keyboard invention called “quotation marks.” For example:

Man, I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who've ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.”

Respect your quotation marks. Use paragraphs. Stop arranging deck chairs fighting with indents when you can be writing your thoughts.

Rule #3: Write your headings first.

Fill in your thoughts after you use the headings to define their containers.

In the Google Docs hosted version of this document the table of contents is built exactly from the headings and provides you an excellent summary of what your document is about. Hey, look, you can even click on them to navigate inside your document.

Control-Alt-1 is Heading 1

Control-Alt-2 is Heading 2

Control-Alt-3 is Heading 3

(ARE YOU SEEING THE PATTERN?)

Control-Alt-6 is Heading 6.

You get six different sizes of headings. If you’re going deeper than that and require a smaller, 7th heading, you’re confused and you’re not organizing your material effectively to summarize your content.

Rule #4: Judiciously use use italics and bold.

There are a couple things you can do with text that is stylish from the keyboard. Don’t go crazy with it and reserve their use for selected tasks.

Reserve italics for emphasis and summary. Use bold for popping concepts out inside of your text when they’re not a needed heading. Don’t bother combining them or you’ll find yourself fighting with whether you intended to have bold italics or not and wondering if you mean to emphasis or describe at the same time. Maybe you can handle that, but in general don’t overload text like this if you can help it, it’s less work and simplifies writing.

Rule #5: Limit your blocks of text to what fits on your screen.

Where the headings are labeling, some selective italicized text summarizes, your textual meat should fit on screen.

You’re outlining, not writing a novel. Don’t write a novel between your headings. Make your point succinct.

The Worst Part of This Exercise

Is using the HTML exporter from Google Docs, which fantastically avoids using the semantic elements of I and B for representing italic and bold text. So if you’re going to live with Google Docs, you should stay within Google Docs.

Now, if only Evernote and WordPress had Control-Alt-# shortcuts for headings...