Adumbrating in Word

Whenever I used a word like adumbrate, my Grandmother would say, “Your high ejaculations are too copious for the low dominion of my comprehension.” Gran always had a wicked sense of humor. She ran a beauty salon for decades. One day, a customer, who apparently hadn’t had a very good day, plopped down in Gran’s chair and said, “I’ve had such a bad day, I don’t know which end is up.” To which Gran replied, “Well, you’d better figure it out soon, because I have to shampoo one of them.”

I’ve had some recent requests and discussions about outlining in Word, and quite a few people have said that they find Word’s outlining feature to be more than a tad bit inscrutable. That’s a shame, because, as a tool, Word’s outlining feature is really quite powerful. So much so, that I find I use it on a regular basis.

Before I discuss outlining, though, I’m going to digress a bit to talk about Word’s fundamental purpose, which is to be a writing tool. Nearly everything we’ve done with Word, and nearly everything we continue to do with Word, is designed to relieve the user of having to think about the mechanics of writing, thereby allowing her to focus on the content. Don’t want to worry about common spelling errors? Let Word do it. Don’t want to have to type in long paragraphs of boilerplate text? Let Word do it. Don’t want to worry about line breaks and page breaks? Let Word do it. Want to have successive side-by-side paragraphs align at the top with each other yet not have to figure out how much vertical space to add beneath the shorter paragraph? Drop in a table, and let Word do it. Don’t want to bother with counting spaces in order to center a title? Let Word do it.

Now astute denizens of the Web might be quick to point out Adam Engst’s discussion of the hypothetical WriteRight, in which he points out that there is no good word processor for professional writers. And, I should add, Adam is absolutely correct on that score. There is no word processor, including Word, that’s perfectly suitable for professional writers.

So, Rick, if Word’s supposed to be a writing tool, why do professional writers curse it so much? Well, professional writers represent only a small portion of the overall market for word processors. The majority of people who use Word have a primary job function that includes having to do some writing, yet where writing isn’t the core of their work.

The needs of most Word users aren’t the same as the needs of professional writers. A great example of this is the word count feature, over which reviewers like Adam Engst, who happen to be professional writers, have been knocking Word for quite some time. Most Word users don’t really care about word count. For the sake of those users, and not for the sake of getting rave reviews from professional writers, we didn’t spend a great deal of time trying to make word count faster. We spent time working on improvements that would be more relevant to our more common users. It’s a shame that Adam doesn’t understand this; hence his reaction to the snickers he heard when we mentioned that we’d sped up word count.

But, I’ve digressed enough to make the point: Word’s purpose is to be a writing tool. If we want to really understand Word’s outlining feature, we have to look at it from this point of view. In particular, we have to look at it terms of the workflow of someone who’s writing certain kinds of documents for which outlining is a useful step in the process.

This, I think, is one of the reasons people find Word’s outlining feature to be inscrutable. We didn’t implement it as a tool for creating outlines—i.e. a document that looks like an outline when you switch from outline view to page layout view. Rather, we implemented it as a way to organize your thoughts as you work on a document like a report or a lengthy essay.

Word’s outline view offers a number of tools for direct manipulation of entire sections of a document. For example, if you click on a heading, the heading and any items that fall under that heading are selected as well. So, if you drag that heading to another location in the document, everything up to, but not including, the next heading of the same level gets dragged along with the heading you drag. You can expand or collapse headings by double-clicking on the hollow “plus” sign in the margin to the left of the heading.

Because Word’s outlining feature is geared toward creating documents that are not, in and of themselves, outlines, the feature is tightly coupled with Word’s styles. Each of the pre-defined heading styles has an associated outline level. Indeed, I find it helps to think of Word’s outlining feature as really nothing more than a more direct way to apply heading styles to specific paragraphs within my document. Demoting a paragraph applies the heading style associated with the next lower outline level. Promoting a paragraph applies the heading style associated with the next higher outline level.

The nice part about this coupling between styles and outline levels is that it makes creating a table of contents almost trivial. Once you’ve finished your document, you simply place the insertion point where you want the table of contents to appear, and select “Index and Tables…” from the Insert menu, click on the “Table of Contents” tab, select the format you want, and click .

The down side is that adding numbering isn’t all that straightforward. The best way is to modify the heading styles, but there is no way to apply outline numbering to all the heading styles at once—at least no way out of the box. You could add outline numbering to the “Normal” style, but you probably don’t want that. One work-around would be to use “Body Text” for “Normal” paragraphs, but that doesn’t work within Word’s outline view all that well.

Another way to add numbering is to change the based-on chain for heading styles. A very good tutorial on how to do this can be found here. If you find that you create numbered outlines often, then I highly endorse this tutorial’s suggestion to save these changes in a template.

A general tutorial on outline view, written by Word MVP Dave Rado, can be found on the MVP’s web site here (if you’re using Safari, you’ll need to reload the page after you’ve clicked on the link). The pictures show Win Word’s UI, but the functionality and keyboard shortcuts are the same for Mac Word.

I’d also recommend spending some time just playing around with Word’s outline view to see how it behaves. Once you’ve become comfortable with outline view, you might find yourself using it in creative ways. In fact, one of the ways I use it most often is when I’m taking minutes during a meeting. I’ll type in the agenda items at heading level 1, and add any decisions under those agenda items at body text level. When we’ve finished with an item, I collapse the item’s heading in outline view. If we suspend the discussion on an item until later in the meeting, then I leave the item open with a blank line of body text beneath it. That way, I can easily keep track of which items are open, the items for which we’ve made decisions, and those items we’ve yet to discuss.

So, paradoxically, Word’s outline view is primarily designed to facilitate writing documents other than outlines and not to be an outliner like, say, OmniOutline. Having said that, I should point out that it’s still possible to create an outline that looks like an outline when you print it out. In fact, it’s really rather easy. Just print your document from within outline view.



Comments (17)

  1. Mike Dimmick says:

    I’ve used the outline view for organising my thoughts before – and during – writing essays and technical reports. Define the headings, shuffle them around in the outline view until it seems like the right order, then write the contents for those headings. If I change my mind, it’s back into the outline view and I can reorder my existing document by picking up the headings. I’m a software developer by trade, but in a small company so I’ve written functional specifications and end-user documentation too.

    Do you have any statistics on the number of users who actually understand and use styles properly? I’ve seen maybe four groups: users who only use bold, italic, underline and the font and font size drop-lists, formatting the document by spaces and tabs; those who understand the left-, centre- and right-justify options; those who also understand how to define their own tab stops and how to use the paragraph spacing options; finally those who use the built-in styles and define their own.

    Recently I’ve been arguing that XHTML goes the wrong route by removing – and making illegal – the classic simple markup tags <b>, <i>, <u>, <color>, <font> and forcing stylesheets on end-users.

  2. Bruce says:

    I’ve used word since the original on an old Fat mac.

    Word has had its ups and downs inclding the abomination of 6.0. I called tech suport at MS and was told that the reason it initially came on floppies only was that they knew there were problems and did not want to burn the CD run until 6.01 was finished.

    Anyway, I digress. there are many hidden functions in Word for those who need features that are not present.

    I am talking about VBA (visual basic for applications) and applescript. I also use autocorrect instead of autotext for most circumstances. In fact, I use autetext solely as a repository for formatted text and tables to be placed later by macros.

    Most MS Office users are unaware that it comes with a built in macro language that is about 90% of the standard VBA package. About 1/30 or so things that are supposed to work but do not. There is also a built in bridge to applescript – I have worked around a few on the VBA issues by using applescript instead.

    Uses of the VBA macros include automatic formatting or switching between different templates that I am working on and error correction and table and text formatting of documents I am proofreeeding. I even have macros to electronically sign and time stamp and move files from one folder to another when proofreading is done. The latter is pure applescript.

  3. brianbec says:

    Evidently, the ancient "ThinkTank" outliner has not been surpassed for DOS ergo Windows users. Sadly, simple outlining seems not to be a popular activity. Even the new "OneNote" application for the Tablet PC is weaker than ThinkTank.

    BTW, I don’t use Word styles for the same reason I don’t use Outlook contacts or IE favorites or any other customizations of any kind, for that matter. If I can’t have all my customizations on every installation I will ever use, then I can’t use the customizations. I currently use six different PCs on a daily basis (office desk, office roaming, home upstairs desk, home downstairs desk, home roamer, and tablet), and everything I need must be available and up-to-date on all of them. Synching data and environments is a quadratic process, and keeping six physically separated machines synchronized is infeasible for me. Everything I use must be turnkey out-of-the box or downloadable from a central server with high availability and reliability. Dunno if other people have these requirements, too.

  4. I use outlining for document construction, however the outline view in Word just doesn’t work for me. The symbols are very strange and don’t seem to follow any convertions. Dragging areas around always feel like dangerous activity, when it works you get an adrenaline kick like bungee jumping, a better insertion marker is required.

    Word 2004 in NoteBook view is better, at least I get sensible arrows. If only the OneNote team on the PC would learn some lessons.

    OnmiOutliner is still far easier to use, more natural, and so allows a greater feeling of control, even though I have a convoluted process for getting the end article into Word.

  5. Greg Tomkins says:

    Excel is great. Outlook is great. PowerPoint is great. WordPerfect is (was) great. These are all highly generalized products with a huge spectrum of user sophistication.

    None of these products, (nor VI/Emacs which are great in their own way), routinely compel me to take some font (etc) that I don’t really want, just to save myself the irritation of having to constantly correct the application’s behaviour.

    I think there is a reason O’Reilly has a ‘Word Annoyances’ book, but not one for Excel! (Last time I checked; maybe they have one by now).

    Please transfer more developers from the Excel/Outlook teams to Word!!

  6. Bill Goggin says:

    I understand the design decisions that were made to make the feature less than ideal for producing pure outlines. I can live with that. My main problem with the feature has been that I have found it to be buggy. When I re-open a document, parts of the outline are often at different levels than when I last left them. This is very frustrating when working with others. I can’t rely on them seeing the same thing I saved.

  7. Jeff Atwood says:

    Hey, it looks like you’re writing a letter!

  8. Adam Engst says:

    Hey Rick. I’m glad to see we agree that Word isn’t an ideal tool for professional writers, though I remain sad to see that the needs of the people who rely on the program for their actual livelihood, as opposed to those who could happily get by with just about any word processor, aren’t given more consideration. It seems self-defeating too, since by meeting the needs of of the people who use the program constantly (at least in an app the scope of Word), you’ll automatically be creating something that will work better for everyone else.

    What I think we writers find the most annoying, though, is not that Word lacks the features we need, but that it continually goes 80 to 90 percent of the way there, and then just stops. It’s frustrating to be given a tool that will almost do what you want, time and time again, and when you explain how those features could be expanded, to be told that since so few people use those features, they won’t be improved. That immediately begs the question of why the features are there at all.

    For instance, consider revision tracking. Why do balloons show only in Page Layout view? What if you’re working on a complex document and wish to work in Normal view for faster page display? No balloons. And why can’t insertion and deletion display be controlled separately? For editors, being able to see insertions in colored text (but not balloons), and deletions either hidden or in balloons, along with comments in balloons would be great. But since insertions and deletions are always displayed together, this combination isn’t possible, and the number of balloons in the margin quickly increases until each individual balloon shows almost no text (or disappears altogether).

    These aren’t huge changes, at least conceptually, since Word can already do all the component aspects (yes, I’d like it if revision tracking could also show versions, but that might be a larger change).

    cheers… -Adam

    PS: At the moment, what I’d mainly like to see fixed is the bug that selects an additional word to the left when you double-click and drag down to select by word. If your cursor ever goes slightly to the left of the selected word, that word to the left remains in the selection incorrectly. This proves quite difficult for me to avoid.

  9. Anonymous says:

    The Peat Weblog &raquo; Is Word Too Smart?