I am a Ph.D. student in engineering, so most of my writing fits into a fairly strict idiom: the IMRaD (Introduction, Methodology, Results, and Discussion). In general, I like to use an outline to help structure the paper and each section of the paper. So I will create something like the following list.

  • Introduction
    1. blah
    2. blah
  • Methodology
    1. blah
    2. blah ...

Although I do not always label the sections so strictly by the IMRaD format, this works as a good example for my problem.

To get the content of the outline for each section if my paper, I usually do what I call a brain dump; i.e. I write every possible topic and content item that I can imagine falling under this section. I then try to reorganize the pieces and make something coherent. In theory, I suppose this process should produce a nice outline. In practice, however, as I start writing from my outline I end up realizing that I forgot to explain some crucial details, and then I need to go back and revise my outline to take these into account. Normally, I would accept this as part of the revision process, but I would like to help work out some more of these kinks by adding a step to my outline process.

I want to try some sort graphical or visual outline, either in parallel or in series with my textual outline, to help show which ideas or topics need to be explained first. This ordering will help ensure that I am not using a term without defining it.

My question is: How can I coordinate the visual outline and the textual outline in a time efficient manner?

I can work on a computer or by hand. I don't really have a preference, except that I will always use a computer to generate the bulk of my prose. Most of my final writing will be done using a text editor (such as EMacs) to write my document using LaTeX (a system for typesetting that is particularly math friendly), so systems that are compatible or complementary to these would be ideal, but it is not required.

1 Answer 1


I use mind mapping software (Freemind, Freeplane) to organize all of my writing projects. Blocks of text can be imported and then moved around as needed. You get a visual representation of your outline, as well as quick access to any part of your content. Areas that are completed, need content, or are under review are easy to mark with visual icons. When complete, the entire work can be dumped to a Word document or copied out to Framemaker or whatever software you are using to receive final formatting.

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