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From brainstorm to outline: Why I use OPML

Successful projects start with thorough planning. You aren’t going to create a compelling business proposal by scratching a few notes on a cocktail napkin then firing up Keynote. You need to plan first. For me, planning means making an outline, and outlining means using OPML.

OPML, which stands for Outline Processor Markup Language, is an XML file format created specifically for outlines. It’s supported in a wide variety of Mac and iOS apps; any app that reads OPML can open files from any other app that writes it. That makes OPML a bit like plain text: it liberates your data from any specific apps or devices and allows you to work with whatever tools suit your context and needs.

Depending on the app, you can use OPML to create both formal outlines and less formal mind-maps. That makes it great for nimble planning: Using the OPML file format, I can let loose my inner-hippie, freely brainstorming to create mind-maps covering all aspects of a new project. Once I have a bunch of ideas down, I can then move that same OPML file to an outlining app and exercise my inner-CPA to organize those ideas into some kind of linear order.

OPML is so ingrained into my workflow that every business writing project, contract, presentation, and proposal I work on starts life as an OPML file on my iPad. Here is how I do it.

Start with the map

If you’ve never created a mind-map before, it's a free-form way to collect and organize ideas. You enter words and phrases, usually contained in geometric shapes, then arrange and connect them in a workspace—the map—to define their relationships. For instance, let’s say you’re writing a business plan. As you think about what that plan will require, you might create mind-map entries for research, financing, manufacturing, and marketing; those entries would be called siblings, because they're all on the same conceptual level. Focusing for a moment on the latter, you might create entries for television, radio, Internet, social networking, and so on and connect them as children to marketing. As you continue to brainstorm, you add more entries and arrange and connect those. There is a lot more to mind-mapping, but that’s the general idea.

Most of my projects (including this article) start life as a mind-map on my iPad. Using my fingers to create a mind-map just feels more natural than it ever did with a keyboard and mouse. While there are several fine iPad mind-mapping apps, my favorite is iThoughtsHD. This app just gets the touch interface. To add a sibling entry, I tap Return on the iPad’s virtual keyboard three times; to add a child, I tap the space bar three times. I can then move my entries around the screen with my fingers. Using iThoughtsHD, creating and manipulating mind-maps becomes second nature; the app disappears and lets me get on with the hard work of brainstorming.


When I start a new project, I open a new iThoughtsHD file and start adding ideas. I don't worry about how they fit together; the key is to just let my mind roll and allow my ideas to spill forth. I usually start these mind-maps days—even weeks—before I have to do anything concrete on the project. That way I can keep coming back to iThoughtsHD and polishing. At any given time, I have a bunch of half-baked maps in the app. That's another advantage of iPad mind-mapping: It's so easy to pick up right where I last left off.

Polish with the outliner

Of course, iThoughtsHD can open and save files in the OPML format. So after a mind-map starts to take shape, I can hand it off directly to an OPML-compatible outliner by tapping the Action icon button in iThoughtsHD and then the Send to App button. I can choose to save in the app’s native file format, PDF, or OPML. If I tap OPML, the app displays a list of installed apps that speak OPML.

In my case, I usually opt to send the map to OmniOutliner, my iPad outlining tool of choice; it also has an excellent Mac version. (Disclaimer: The Omni Group, maker of OmniOutliner, is a sponsor of my podcast, Mac Power Users. That said, I was a paying user of the program long before the company became a sponsor.) There are several other good outliner apps for the both iPad and Mac. If you like a different one, go for it. Just make sure it reads and writes to the OPML format so all your outlining data stays intact.

After iThoughtsHD sends the OPML file, OmniOutliner converts the parent-child-sibling connections between ideas in my mind-map into a more structured outline. Using the outliner, I can then start moving items around within that structure, bringing some order to the chaos.

Seeing my ideas arranged in a more orderly fashion lets me see how well one idea connects to the next. This is especially true with writing projects and presentations that eventually will need a beginning, middle, and an end. Working in an outline also exposes holes in my thinking. If I’m not satisfied with the outline at this point, I can send the OPML file back to the mind-mapping app for more cooking. Some big projects take several bounces before I’m ready to move out of this planning phase.

If you don’t have an iPad, you can use this same workflow on your Mac using outliners and mind-mapping apps that read and write OPML. There are plenty of good Mac mind-mapping and outlining apps. My favorites are MindNode Pro for mind-mapping and the Mac version of OmniOutliner for outlining, both of which read and write OPML. You can also work on both platforms: iThoughtsHD, for example, works with Dropbox, while OmniOutliner uses a file-syncing system much like the iWork iPad apps.

When the planning is finally done, I can finally start the project itself. If it is a presentation, OmniOutliner can export a Keynote file with my outline. If it’s a writing project, I can export the outline as a text file (from OmniOutliner) and drop it into my favorite text editor as a skeleton. For big writing projects, I import the OPML file to Scrivener, which reads OPML files and creates writing projects based on them. In fact, I just finished writing a 110,000 word book with that very workflow.

The point is that OPML lets me generate lots of ideas without worrying about how they fit together, then it lets me organize those ideas once I have them all down. It also lets me do all that regardless of where I am or which hardware I have with me. For me, it's the key to planning almost anything.

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