Creating outlines and lists with TreeLine

As someone who writes for a living, I can attest that an effective outline is a key part of any writing project. Why? A good outline provides a structure for what you’re writing, as well as a roadmap from beginning to end.

Whether you’re creating an outline or just a list, I’ve found that the best way to do that is with a dedicated piece of software. Most of the outlining software that I’ve tried on the Linux desktop has been OK. Nothing special, but OK. One outliner I keep coming back to is TreeLine.

Let’s look at it.

A little bit about TreeLine

According to its developer:

Some would call TreeLine an Outliner, others would call it a PIM. Basically, it just stores almost any kind of information. A tree structure makes it easy to keep things organized. And each node in the tree can contain several fields, forming a mini-database.

TreeLine is obviously a very flexible tool. You can use it to, as the tag line for one popular web based application goes, organize your brain. You can use TreeLine like that if you want, but I find it’s a more-than-capable outliner and general list creator.

Getting and installing TreeLine

Before you grab TreeLine, check to see if your computer has all of the libraries and additional software that are needed:

  • The QT libraries
  • Python and PyQT
  • An XML parser
  • A spelling utility like aspell

You can learn more about TreeLine’s requirements here.

To install it, download the archive and extract it somewhere in your /home directory. From there, crack open a terminal window and navigate to the directory where you extracted the files For TreeLine. Then, run the command sudo python install. You’ll be prompted for your password. TreeLine installs quickly, so you’ll be up and running in no time.

Creating an outline

When you first start up TreeLine, you’ll be asked to choose a template for your outline.

When creating outlines, I usually choose either Long HTML Text or Long Plain Text. They’re similar, and both work well. Click OK.

Notice that pane on the right? It’s kind of unsightly, and not really useful with an outline. But you don’t have to look at it while you’re working. Just drag it to the right to hide it.

Notice that the two items (called nodes) are named Parent and Child. Those are the default names. Just double click them to change their names to something more useful.

Most outlines have more than two nodes. To add a node, click either the Insert Sibling After or Add Child Node buttons on the toolbar.

A sibling node is one that’s on the same level as the node above it. Think of sibling nodes as branches in the tree of your outline. So what are the leaves? Those are the child nodes. When you add a child node, it’s indented. If you accidentally add a child node or a sibling node and want to adjust its level in the hierarchy, then click the Indent Node or Unindent Node buttons on the toolbar.

Add nodes for all the items in your outline. You wind up with something like this:

Yes, that was the original outline for this blog post. It changed a bit …

Creating a to do list

Another template that I find useful is the to do list. To create a to do list, select File > New and click ToDo List in the template list.

As with an outline, you can add tasks to the list by adding nodes. You can also indent and outdent nodes and move them around.

Remember what I wrote a few paragraphs about the right pane in the TreeLine window? While I don’t find it useful when creating an outline, it’s definitely useful when working with a to do list. Why? It has control that let you specify whether a task is urgent and whether or not it’s complete.

Exporting outlines and lists

You’re not always at your computer. Sometimes, you’ll want to take your outlines or lists with you. But since TreeLine doesn’t have a mobile version, you’ll have to export your outlines and lists to a more portable format. TreeLine, as you’ve guessed, lets you do that.

To export an outline or a list, select File > Export.

You can export information in TreeLine in a number of formats. The ones that I found most useful, and which retained the integrity of the lists, are HTML single file output and Tabbed title text. When you click OK, you’re prompted to give the export file a name and the directory in which to save it. Once the file is exported, you can view it in an application like a web browser:

Or a text editor:

Final thoughts

I haven’t covered all of TreeLine’s features in this post. Just the ones that I use. Overall, it’s a very flexible tool for creating outlines and lists. While I thing the interface could be a little more user friendly, TreeLine does its job and does it well.

Photo credit: Neil Denize

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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