Dancing with OPML

I’ve talked several times about my reliance on OPML. I’ve developed my OPML workflow over the years and perfected it in the crucible of writing The Book. I’m getting lots of e-mail asking for further details, so here goes.

What is OPML?

OPML, which stands for Outline Processor Markup Language, is an XML format for outlines. Over the past few years, it has become the digital intermediary for getting your planning and outlining ideas from one app to another. Currently, it is enjoying wide adoption from Mac and iOS developers, which makes it particularly useful to writers and others who prefer to sort out those jumbled ideas knocking about in their brains.

Why is OPML Awesome?

Short Answer

It lets you choose your own weapon for organizing your thoughts.

Slightly Longer Answer

Most large projects (and in my case small) don’t start out with you sitting at a blank piece of paper and writing your first sentence. Instead, they require planning and chin-in-palm thinking that generally doesn’t happen while watching your word processor’s cursor blink at you mockingly.
The problem is, most people have different ways of going about doing their best thinking.

Speaking broadly, there are the linear outline folks and the chaotic mind map types but these are just the crudest of distinctions (ignoring completely sticky-pad, napkin, and legal pad varieties). Moreover, each genome has its own particular subsets. For instance, on the Mac and iOS platforms, there are so many mind mapping applications that you probably need a mind map to sort them out.

Regardless, no matter how good these applications get, writing your final product with them is as easy as hammering nails with a screwdriver. What you need is a standard that allows you to transfer your human thoughts between multiple digital applications. Specifically, a way to get your thoughts, outline, and mind map ported directly into your word tools. This is exactly what OPML does and THAT is what makes it awesome.

Who Speaks OPML?

There are several developers that support OPML on Mac OS X and iOS. This list is hardly exhaustive, but includes the stuff that works (for me):

MindNode Pro

MindNode Pro is my favorite Mac OS X mind mapping application. I’ve written about it before. This application is easy to use, includes a minimalist interface, and is reasonably priced. They also have an iOS application. Most importantly, once you are done with your mind map in MindNode, you can export it as OPML for use in your other applications like, for instance, OmniOutliner or Scrivener.

iThoughtsHD

Because I’m such a fan of MindNode, it took me some time to warm up to iThoughtsHD, an iOS only mind mapping application. Once I finally downloaded it, I was hooked. The iPad lends itself to mind mapping. It fits your hands. You can move and create branches with your fingers. I, generally, find sitting back with my iPad very easy to incorporate into my creative process.
The iThoughts developer gave this application extra love and attention with respect to the iPad interface including such features as tapping the space bar three times to create a child or pressing the return key three times to open a sibling entry. The application also includes robust export options for other mind mapping application formats, PDF, PNG, and … wait for it … OPML.

OmniOutliner

OmniOutliner is the best outlining application on any platform. It lets you add columns, notes, and easily move and reorganize your outlines. It lends itself to keyboard shortcuts so you can build them on the fly and, despite being long in the tooth, remains a gem. It currently is only on the Mac OS X platform but a major update and an iOS version are in development.
OmniOutliner opens and exports the OPML format. This means you can import an OPML file from, for instance, iThoughtsHD on your iPad, spend time refining it in OmniOutliner and then send it on to your next application in the process via OPML.

Scrivener

Scrivener is where it all comes together. Scrivener is my word processor of choice. (See my outdated review here with a new one coming soon.) Scrivener lets you import an OPML file to a project. In case you didn’t realize it, that was the hallelujah moment. All that digital thinking you did comes to fruition at the point you import it into Scrivener and start writing. All of your branches and sub-branches are organized into project folders and you are the beneficiary of all that prepartion. When I go through the trouble of developing ideas like this, the project comes out better, EVERY TIME.

So How Does It Work?

The Seed

Ideas come to me at the strangest times. When inspiration strikes, I immediately write something down. Perhaps on my iPhone, perhaps in my pocket notebook. It doesn’t take much, just the general idea.

The Plan

Next I’ll start playing with the idea in iThoughtsHD. My best planning is done away from my desk with the iPad. Sometimes I’ll take my iPad to lunch and sit on a park bench or at the standing desk in my office. The trick with this step is to not “schedule” it. Just let your mind roll and go with it. A lot of times, I will spend a week going back and fiddling with the mind map several times. At any time I’ve got 15 or 20 half baked mind maps on my iPad. Because iThoughtsHD syncs with Dropbox and exports as OPML, I can always tinker with them on my Mac using OmniOutliner or MindNode Pro. Rarely does the final version end up looking much like the initial one.

Great Artists Ship

At some point you have to move on. When that day comes I take the final exported OPML and import it into a new Scrivener project. By then I’ve lived with the ideas for sometime and have a good idea of where I’m going with it.* As a result, I rarely encounter writer’s block. I just start cranking through the Scrivener binder. If something doesn’t feel quite right, I move to the next subject and come back later.

* This is not to say that projects don’t change (sometimes dramatically) after I get started in Scrivener. The point is that they don’t change willy-nilly. When I make changes later it is for the good of whatever I’m doing and not because I still don’t have my act together.

MacSparky.com is sponsored by Bee Docs Timeline 3D. Make a timeline presentation with your Mac.

45 Comments Dancing with OPML

  1. warwickldavis@gmail.com

    Thanks David that was helpful. I never realised mindnode pro and omni outliner could share an outline so well. To test I just exported a pretty lengthy Omni Outline to MNP and wow !!!!

    No more flip flopping over whether to mind map or text outline, I can have both. A mind dump into OO and deeper though in MNP, or vica versa depending on what exactly it is I'm doing.

    Reply
  2. warwickldavis@gmail.com

    Thanks David that was helpful. I never realised mindnode pro and omni outliner could share an outline so well. To test I just exported a pretty lengthy Omni Outline to MNP and wow !!!!

    No more flip flopping over whether to mind map or text outline, I can have both. A mind dump into OO and deeper though in MNP, or vica versa depending on what exactly it is I'm doing.

    Reply
  3. warwickldavis@gmail.com

    Thanks David that was helpful. I never realised mindnode pro and omni outliner could share an outline so well. To test I just exported a pretty lengthy Omni Outline to MNP and wow !!!!

    No more flip flopping over whether to mind map or text outline, I can have both. A mind dump into OO and deeper though in MNP, or vica versa depending on what exactly it is I'm doing.

    Reply
  4. warwickldavis@gmail.com

    Thanks David that was helpful. I never realised mindnode pro and omni outliner could share an outline so well. To test I just exported a pretty lengthy Omni Outline to MNP and wow !!!!

    No more flip flopping over whether to mind map or text outline, I can have both. A mind dump into OO and deeper though in MNP, or vica versa depending on what exactly it is I'm doing.

    Reply
  5. warwickldavis@gmail.com

    Thanks David that was helpful. I never realised mindnode pro and omni outliner could share an outline so well. To test I just exported a pretty lengthy Omni Outline to MNP and wow !!!!

    No more flip flopping over whether to mind map or text outline, I can have both. A mind dump into OO and deeper though in MNP, or vica versa depending on what exactly it is I'm doing.

    Reply
  6. Rickdob@gmail.com

    How come you decided on iThoughts instead of Mindnode for the iPad. Was there a distinct advantage there?

    Reply
  7. Rickdob@gmail.com

    How come you decided on iThoughts instead of Mindnode for the iPad. Was there a distinct advantage there?

    Reply
  8. Rickdob@gmail.com

    How come you decided on iThoughts instead of Mindnode for the iPad. Was there a distinct advantage there?

    Reply
  9. Rickdob@gmail.com

    How come you decided on iThoughts instead of Mindnode for the iPad. Was there a distinct advantage there?

    Reply
  10. Rickdob@gmail.com

    How come you decided on iThoughts instead of Mindnode for the iPad. Was there a distinct advantage there?

    Reply
  11. jskey1080@gmail.com

    David,

    Is it possible to go back and forth between platforms in OPML? In other words, could I start in omnioutliner, edit in ithoughts hd for a little bit, work the document some more in omnioutliner, then go back into ithoughts hd? Does ithoughts do something that makes the transition back difficult?

    By the way, I'm an adjunct at a law school and find that the vga output works great for lectures in some cases.

    Thanks for the great post.

    Scott Key

    Reply
  12. jskey1080@gmail.com

    David,

    Is it possible to go back and forth between platforms in OPML? In other words, could I start in omnioutliner, edit in ithoughts hd for a little bit, work the document some more in omnioutliner, then go back into ithoughts hd? Does ithoughts do something that makes the transition back difficult?

    By the way, I'm an adjunct at a law school and find that the vga output works great for lectures in some cases.

    Thanks for the great post.

    Scott Key

    Reply
  13. jskey1080@gmail.com

    David,

    Is it possible to go back and forth between platforms in OPML? In other words, could I start in omnioutliner, edit in ithoughts hd for a little bit, work the document some more in omnioutliner, then go back into ithoughts hd? Does ithoughts do something that makes the transition back difficult?

    By the way, I'm an adjunct at a law school and find that the vga output works great for lectures in some cases.

    Thanks for the great post.

    Scott Key

    Reply
  14. jskey1080@gmail.com

    David,

    Is it possible to go back and forth between platforms in OPML? In other words, could I start in omnioutliner, edit in ithoughts hd for a little bit, work the document some more in omnioutliner, then go back into ithoughts hd? Does ithoughts do something that makes the transition back difficult?

    By the way, I'm an adjunct at a law school and find that the vga output works great for lectures in some cases.

    Thanks for the great post.

    Scott Key

    Reply
  15. jskey1080@gmail.com

    David,

    Is it possible to go back and forth between platforms in OPML? In other words, could I start in omnioutliner, edit in ithoughts hd for a little bit, work the document some more in omnioutliner, then go back into ithoughts hd? Does ithoughts do something that makes the transition back difficult?

    By the way, I'm an adjunct at a law school and find that the vga output works great for lectures in some cases.

    Thanks for the great post.

    Scott Key

    Reply
  16. alexandre.psi@gmail.com

    Hi, David!

    I'm your biggest fan in Brazil. I've listened to all of your "Mac Power Users" podcasts, and I love browsing around MacSparky.
    I have a doubt: As a Mind Node Pro User (I'm either a big fan of this tool), do you have some restrictions over their solution for iOS?
    I ask this because I saw you mention iThoughtsHD, and I know their tool works also on the iPad (without the awful copying pixels solution).
    Is there an objective reason for you to choose iThoughtsHD over Mind Node for iOS, or it's just a personal preference?

    Keep up the wonderful work!
    Alexandre Costa e Silva
    Psychologist
    Spare Time Geek and Podcaster
    iPhone Hoje Podcast
    Fortaleza, Ceará
    Brazil

    Reply
  17. alexandre.psi@gmail.com

    Hi, David!

    I'm your biggest fan in Brazil. I've listened to all of your "Mac Power Users" podcasts, and I love browsing around MacSparky.
    I have a doubt: As a Mind Node Pro User (I'm either a big fan of this tool), do you have some restrictions over their solution for iOS?
    I ask this because I saw you mention iThoughtsHD, and I know their tool works also on the iPad (without the awful copying pixels solution).
    Is there an objective reason for you to choose iThoughtsHD over Mind Node for iOS, or it's just a personal preference?

    Keep up the wonderful work!
    Alexandre Costa e Silva
    Psychologist
    Spare Time Geek and Podcaster
    iPhone Hoje Podcast
    Fortaleza, Ceará
    Brazil

    Reply
  18. alexandre.psi@gmail.com

    Hi, David!

    I'm your biggest fan in Brazil. I've listened to all of your "Mac Power Users" podcasts, and I love browsing around MacSparky.
    I have a doubt: As a Mind Node Pro User (I'm either a big fan of this tool), do you have some restrictions over their solution for iOS?
    I ask this because I saw you mention iThoughtsHD, and I know their tool works also on the iPad (without the awful copying pixels solution).
    Is there an objective reason for you to choose iThoughtsHD over Mind Node for iOS, or it's just a personal preference?

    Keep up the wonderful work!
    Alexandre Costa e Silva
    Psychologist
    Spare Time Geek and Podcaster
    iPhone Hoje Podcast
    Fortaleza, Ceará
    Brazil

    Reply
  19. alexandre.psi@gmail.com

    Hi, David!

    I'm your biggest fan in Brazil. I've listened to all of your "Mac Power Users" podcasts, and I love browsing around MacSparky.
    I have a doubt: As a Mind Node Pro User (I'm either a big fan of this tool), do you have some restrictions over their solution for iOS?
    I ask this because I saw you mention iThoughtsHD, and I know their tool works also on the iPad (without the awful copying pixels solution).
    Is there an objective reason for you to choose iThoughtsHD over Mind Node for iOS, or it's just a personal preference?

    Keep up the wonderful work!
    Alexandre Costa e Silva
    Psychologist
    Spare Time Geek and Podcaster
    iPhone Hoje Podcast
    Fortaleza, Ceará
    Brazil

    Reply
  20. alexandre.psi@gmail.com

    Hi, David!

    I'm your biggest fan in Brazil. I've listened to all of your "Mac Power Users" podcasts, and I love browsing around MacSparky.
    I have a doubt: As a Mind Node Pro User (I'm either a big fan of this tool), do you have some restrictions over their solution for iOS?
    I ask this because I saw you mention iThoughtsHD, and I know their tool works also on the iPad (without the awful copying pixels solution).
    Is there an objective reason for you to choose iThoughtsHD over Mind Node for iOS, or it's just a personal preference?

    Keep up the wonderful work!
    Alexandre Costa e Silva
    Psychologist
    Spare Time Geek and Podcaster
    iPhone Hoje Podcast
    Fortaleza, Ceará
    Brazil

    Reply
  21. jeff@jeffabbott.com

    I outline my books in Tinderbox for Mac, which combines both a traditional outliner and a mindmap view (and other views, and is very powerful, but can have a steep learning curve when you past basic outlining). You can export in OPML but I don't think that is built in yet, they have a script you can use to get stuff into Scrivener.

    There is a new Mac outliner called NeO, which is very much in many ways like the original super-powered (and much missed) Mac outliner MORE (including a powerful cloning feature, which Tinderbox has but Omni Outliner doesn't, and Omni says it won't be in the new version.) It has a built in OPML export and can be found at the Mac App Store. I just bought it yesterday and am going to give it a serious look.

    Thanks for this summary of OPML.

    Reply
  22. jeff@jeffabbott.com

    I outline my books in Tinderbox for Mac, which combines both a traditional outliner and a mindmap view (and other views, and is very powerful, but can have a steep learning curve when you past basic outlining). You can export in OPML but I don't think that is built in yet, they have a script you can use to get stuff into Scrivener.

    There is a new Mac outliner called NeO, which is very much in many ways like the original super-powered (and much missed) Mac outliner MORE (including a powerful cloning feature, which Tinderbox has but Omni Outliner doesn't, and Omni says it won't be in the new version.) It has a built in OPML export and can be found at the Mac App Store. I just bought it yesterday and am going to give it a serious look.

    Thanks for this summary of OPML.

    Reply
  23. jeff@jeffabbott.com

    I outline my books in Tinderbox for Mac, which combines both a traditional outliner and a mindmap view (and other views, and is very powerful, but can have a steep learning curve when you past basic outlining). You can export in OPML but I don't think that is built in yet, they have a script you can use to get stuff into Scrivener.

    There is a new Mac outliner called NeO, which is very much in many ways like the original super-powered (and much missed) Mac outliner MORE (including a powerful cloning feature, which Tinderbox has but Omni Outliner doesn't, and Omni says it won't be in the new version.) It has a built in OPML export and can be found at the Mac App Store. I just bought it yesterday and am going to give it a serious look.

    Thanks for this summary of OPML.

    Reply
  24. jeff@jeffabbott.com

    I outline my books in Tinderbox for Mac, which combines both a traditional outliner and a mindmap view (and other views, and is very powerful, but can have a steep learning curve when you past basic outlining). You can export in OPML but I don't think that is built in yet, they have a script you can use to get stuff into Scrivener.

    There is a new Mac outliner called NeO, which is very much in many ways like the original super-powered (and much missed) Mac outliner MORE (including a powerful cloning feature, which Tinderbox has but Omni Outliner doesn't, and Omni says it won't be in the new version.) It has a built in OPML export and can be found at the Mac App Store. I just bought it yesterday and am going to give it a serious look.

    Thanks for this summary of OPML.

    Reply
  25. jeff@jeffabbott.com

    I outline my books in Tinderbox for Mac, which combines both a traditional outliner and a mindmap view (and other views, and is very powerful, but can have a steep learning curve when you past basic outlining). You can export in OPML but I don't think that is built in yet, they have a script you can use to get stuff into Scrivener.

    There is a new Mac outliner called NeO, which is very much in many ways like the original super-powered (and much missed) Mac outliner MORE (including a powerful cloning feature, which Tinderbox has but Omni Outliner doesn't, and Omni says it won't be in the new version.) It has a built in OPML export and can be found at the Mac App Store. I just bought it yesterday and am going to give it a serious look.

    Thanks for this summary of OPML.

    Reply
  26. mitchellm@usfca.edu

    I'm NOT David, but I do use iThoughts HD on the iPad, and MindNode Pro on the Mac. From what I've seen iThoughtsHD does have some key extra features. The most important one to me is that you can add "notes" to nodes of a mindmap. This has some very positive consequences as I typically want to go from mindmap to Outliner (small percentage of time) or Scrivener (most of the time). These notes show up in both programs. Specifically the notes in iThoughts HD shows up as the text within an outline level in Scrivener. So I can not only develop the structure for a new piece of writing, but also jot down some beginning text as well.

    As of this time MindNode Pro does NOT allow one to have notes attached to nodes. I wrote the developer and he said he may "consider" this for a future update. It sounds like it may not be implemented, or not soon at any rate.

    Reply
  27. mitchellm@usfca.edu

    I'm NOT David, but I do use iThoughts HD on the iPad, and MindNode Pro on the Mac. From what I've seen iThoughtsHD does have some key extra features. The most important one to me is that you can add "notes" to nodes of a mindmap. This has some very positive consequences as I typically want to go from mindmap to Outliner (small percentage of time) or Scrivener (most of the time). These notes show up in both programs. Specifically the notes in iThoughts HD shows up as the text within an outline level in Scrivener. So I can not only develop the structure for a new piece of writing, but also jot down some beginning text as well.

    As of this time MindNode Pro does NOT allow one to have notes attached to nodes. I wrote the developer and he said he may "consider" this for a future update. It sounds like it may not be implemented, or not soon at any rate.

    Reply
  28. mitchellm@usfca.edu

    I'm NOT David, but I do use iThoughts HD on the iPad, and MindNode Pro on the Mac. From what I've seen iThoughtsHD does have some key extra features. The most important one to me is that you can add "notes" to nodes of a mindmap. This has some very positive consequences as I typically want to go from mindmap to Outliner (small percentage of time) or Scrivener (most of the time). These notes show up in both programs. Specifically the notes in iThoughts HD shows up as the text within an outline level in Scrivener. So I can not only develop the structure for a new piece of writing, but also jot down some beginning text as well.

    As of this time MindNode Pro does NOT allow one to have notes attached to nodes. I wrote the developer and he said he may "consider" this for a future update. It sounds like it may not be implemented, or not soon at any rate.

    Reply
  29. mitchellm@usfca.edu

    I'm NOT David, but I do use iThoughts HD on the iPad, and MindNode Pro on the Mac. From what I've seen iThoughtsHD does have some key extra features. The most important one to me is that you can add "notes" to nodes of a mindmap. This has some very positive consequences as I typically want to go from mindmap to Outliner (small percentage of time) or Scrivener (most of the time). These notes show up in both programs. Specifically the notes in iThoughts HD shows up as the text within an outline level in Scrivener. So I can not only develop the structure for a new piece of writing, but also jot down some beginning text as well.

    As of this time MindNode Pro does NOT allow one to have notes attached to nodes. I wrote the developer and he said he may "consider" this for a future update. It sounds like it may not be implemented, or not soon at any rate.

    Reply
  30. mitchellm@usfca.edu

    I'm NOT David, but I do use iThoughts HD on the iPad, and MindNode Pro on the Mac. From what I've seen iThoughtsHD does have some key extra features. The most important one to me is that you can add "notes" to nodes of a mindmap. This has some very positive consequences as I typically want to go from mindmap to Outliner (small percentage of time) or Scrivener (most of the time). These notes show up in both programs. Specifically the notes in iThoughts HD shows up as the text within an outline level in Scrivener. So I can not only develop the structure for a new piece of writing, but also jot down some beginning text as well.

    As of this time MindNode Pro does NOT allow one to have notes attached to nodes. I wrote the developer and he said he may "consider" this for a future update. It sounds like it may not be implemented, or not soon at any rate.

    Reply
  31. skielboe@gmail.com

    Nice post! I'm trying to figure out a good workflow for taking notes in class and for projects. I find that using a mind map is much better for getting the bigger picture, and make sure you're looking at everything. Outlining is perfect for digging down a particular branch.

    The fact that MindNode doesn't support notes from OPML is really a deal breaker for me. So far I've found that OmniGraffle can do notes from OmniOutliner and NovaMind (which looks horrible) supports importing notes from OPML as well.

    Guess I will have to take a look at iThoughtsHD for the iPad, until MindNode supports notes. And then maybe stick with outlining on the Mac. Too bad.

    Reply
  32. skielboe@gmail.com

    Nice post! I'm trying to figure out a good workflow for taking notes in class and for projects. I find that using a mind map is much better for getting the bigger picture, and make sure you're looking at everything. Outlining is perfect for digging down a particular branch.

    The fact that MindNode doesn't support notes from OPML is really a deal breaker for me. So far I've found that OmniGraffle can do notes from OmniOutliner and NovaMind (which looks horrible) supports importing notes from OPML as well.

    Guess I will have to take a look at iThoughtsHD for the iPad, until MindNode supports notes. And then maybe stick with outlining on the Mac. Too bad.

    Reply
  33. skielboe@gmail.com

    Nice post! I'm trying to figure out a good workflow for taking notes in class and for projects. I find that using a mind map is much better for getting the bigger picture, and make sure you're looking at everything. Outlining is perfect for digging down a particular branch.

    The fact that MindNode doesn't support notes from OPML is really a deal breaker for me. So far I've found that OmniGraffle can do notes from OmniOutliner and NovaMind (which looks horrible) supports importing notes from OPML as well.

    Guess I will have to take a look at iThoughtsHD for the iPad, until MindNode supports notes. And then maybe stick with outlining on the Mac. Too bad.

    Reply
  34. skielboe@gmail.com

    Nice post! I'm trying to figure out a good workflow for taking notes in class and for projects. I find that using a mind map is much better for getting the bigger picture, and make sure you're looking at everything. Outlining is perfect for digging down a particular branch.

    The fact that MindNode doesn't support notes from OPML is really a deal breaker for me. So far I've found that OmniGraffle can do notes from OmniOutliner and NovaMind (which looks horrible) supports importing notes from OPML as well.

    Guess I will have to take a look at iThoughtsHD for the iPad, until MindNode supports notes. And then maybe stick with outlining on the Mac. Too bad.

    Reply
  35. skielboe@gmail.com

    Nice post! I'm trying to figure out a good workflow for taking notes in class and for projects. I find that using a mind map is much better for getting the bigger picture, and make sure you're looking at everything. Outlining is perfect for digging down a particular branch.

    The fact that MindNode doesn't support notes from OPML is really a deal breaker for me. So far I've found that OmniGraffle can do notes from OmniOutliner and NovaMind (which looks horrible) supports importing notes from OPML as well.

    Guess I will have to take a look at iThoughtsHD for the iPad, until MindNode supports notes. And then maybe stick with outlining on the Mac. Too bad.

    Reply

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