Drafting hacks: In long docs view only a section at a time

August 11th, 2009 by jose

800px-Toiletpapier_(Gobran111)I’m sure everyone here is familiar with drafting. It’s a very  demanding activity, and my feeling is that there are no proper tools out there. Word is clearly not a good drafting tool, and raw latex is not much better. I particularly use onenote, but it’s not without its problems (I work under linux too, and there the closest solution I could find is to use rightnote under wine).

Surprisingly enough, the Office team has a website to request feedback, and they seem to use it (!). This is a way to talk to the developers directly, something I missed when using microsoft products for a long time. So if you have a pet peeve, go post it there. Here’s mine:

In long docs view only a section at a time

Navigating a long doc is awful for drafting. The toilet paper metaphor doesn’t work, human working memory cannot keep track of location of ideas that way. Onenote shows a much better metaphor, where one idea/section is its own tab. This idea agrees with the programming maxim "a function should use a screen at the most. If it doesn’t fit a screen, it’s too long". writing text is not programming, but it’s close: many ideas organized in a logical way, with dependencies.

So the proposal: In long docs, view only a section at a time. This could be draft mode, or a checkbox for any mode.

Btw, outline mode is not what I mean. Apart from being ugly as hell, it shows all other sections folded. I mean a completely crear screen with just the section you are working on.

It sorta can be done now, by using a master document and making each section a subdocument… but it’s not very agile. I rearrange sections a lot. Having each subdoc as another window separately is confusing.

I’m curious to hear what your tricks are for drafting. I’m surprised that things like onenote don’t get more attention in this community. They do take quite a lot of mental effort out from writing for me.

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13 Responses to “Drafting hacks: In long docs view only a section at a time”

  1. PeterNo Gravatar Says:

    If you own a mac: try Scrivener. It does everything you describe, and some more. It will change the way you write. There is a 30 day free trial so you don’t have to pay anything to try.

    You can split sections into bits and pieces, drag the pieces around, edit the pieces by themselves, or in the context of other pieces. There is a full-screen mode for writing so you can fully focus on your writing without any distractions. The metaphor for the workflow is a corkboard, and it really is like having lots of small notes that you can quickly re-arrange and refine to fit your “story”.

  2. GeraldineNo Gravatar Says:

    I begin drafting in Onenote – I like how it has very little to distract me from getting words on a page (eg themes, headings etc)

    However, when my writing is taking on a bit more shape, I tend to transfer to Word. I use two word documents – the full document, in which I make use of headings and sections, and I use another ‘working’ document for the section I’m currently writing, for the purposes you describe in your post. When that section is drafted and its time to move on, I copy and paste it into the full document, and begin work on the next section in the second document. It’s cumbersome, but it works for me, provided I save my work regularly. I don’t end up with a ton of one section files though, because once the writing is back in the full document, I delete the ‘working’ file.

  3. Michael W. PerryNo Gravatar Says:

    Those who have Macs might want to check out the award-winning Scrivener. It’s specifically designed for the outlining and drafting stage of writing, as well as for storing research documents. When you’re ready to format and publish, you can export the text in standard formats, including Word. And the full screen mode is a wonderful way to get rid of distractions.

    There’s more, including a video, at:


    If you use Windows, there are links to similar products here:


  4. Jose Says:

    : interesting idea.
    Ideally, one could have onenote and word open side by side, for drafting and final. In fact, they have done just that on office 2010: notes in onenote are linked to positions in the word document. This could be a killer feature. And the new onenote has equation support (!).

    Still, I miss better integration onenote/word. Copy/paste will not keep the headings even (h1, h2…). That is ridiculous. I’d like my doc to morph into a collection of notes/word doc back and forth seamlessly. Right now, import/export is all but seamless. A bit like what one has with latex/pdf but having onenote/word would be good.

  5. Sylvain RouanetNo Gravatar Says:

    I spend a lot of time to look and test software for drafting.
    After these trial I use Keynote for many years.
    Rightnote is a paying clone of Keynote.

    To put it simple in a keynote you can create as many tab as you wish. And each tab had a hierarchical tree.

    Using this I can put all my ideas, datas, citations, to do list … in a single keynote without ever having more than two or three page of text on the screen.

    Ok this software blook old ut he is really useful you can even use it with on a usb key. With it, firefox portable, zotero and your netvibes or google reader account you’re really ready ;-)

    Ps : forgive my approximative english I’m not a native speaker.

  6. JoNo Gravatar Says:

    I would like to add my resounding “yes” to the suggestion of Scrivener. I use it for my dissertation and it’s an incredible tool for narrowing focus, organizing, and–dare I say it–actually finishing.

  7. Jose Says:

    quick update: after tesing under wine and crossover, rightnote is not a good solution under linux.
    It doesn’t keep formatting when copying from the web, nor the url the snippet came from.

    What’s a good notetaker on linux? I tried, and found not good enough: tomboy, basket, tuxNotes, zim, … this is a crucial piece of software for me.

  8. Emre AycaNo Gravatar Says:

    I am also searching for a good note-taking software for linux. None of them is good enough for my purposes, and actually I am very fond of Scrivener from what I see and read about it. I tried adapt Celtx to a writing software, tried to use it for scrivener-like index-card organisation, etc. but it did not work for me, naturally of course as it is a media pre-production software aimed at script writing of all sorts. But it runs on all os, for those who are interested: http://celtx.com/

    I should note that my own interest in mac started as I found out scrivener while surfing the web for a good writing software and I started saving money to buy a mac – in this part of the world you unfortunately pay three times higher the actual price of the macs sold in the US, and hence they are not as widespread. so I wish I knew some coding:)

    last note: and of course there is always LyX, my all times favourite:
    and a certain Rob Oakes, who loves both LyX and Scrivener like me but knows coding unlike me, tries to connect these two:
    I hope it works in a near future (and as an early tester I must say the results are impressive:)

  9. Emre AycaNo Gravatar Says:

    sorry for bothering again but this page gives a better sense of LyX a-la Rob Oakes

    best wishes

  10. JaneNo Gravatar Says:

    Word 2004 for Mac has a Notebook Layout view which has this feature – not sure why it is not in the Windows version…

  11. Says:

    Hi Emre,

    Thanks for posting this.
    Actually, I borrowed a mac and tried Scrivener. I didn’t care much for the approach, I’m too used to each sublevel being an outline in itself (tab indentation marking ideas), and Scrivener is not supporting that.

    I do think that some notetaker built on top of LyX could be a killer idea!

  12. Luc P. BeaudoinNo Gravatar Says:

    If you have access to a Mac, I recommend OmniOutliner for drafting.

    I drafted my thesis in an outliner called More II (early 90′s) and then converted the document to Word. I switched to OmniOutliner a few years ago, and it is the most important application for my conceptual productivity. I do almost all my drafting in OO these days, not just for papers, but for all my planning, note taking, etc.

    It’s not a final drafting tool, however.

    Thanks for your blog!

  13. Jeromy AnglimNo Gravatar Says:

    My preference is to use a text editor with code folding.
    This has the benefits of something like Outline View in Word, but with the freedom to define arbitrary folds based on content.

    I use Vim and LaTeX. I fold on LaTeX sections, subsections and so on. I also have some custom folds for paragraphs which don’t actually print anything but allow me to see the paragraph level structure of an article.

    Vim has a lot of really powerful folding shortcut keys that are great once they become part of your muscle memory.

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