Structuring Your Ideas With Scrivener and iThoughts HD

Oftentimes small ideas become bigger. A project that we may have thought would only be a few hundred words turns out to require a few thousand. Our small and big ideas tend to need very different kinds of nurturing. While a small idea might flow freely, our bigger plans require better planning.

When it comes to my writing, I have two distinct workflows. A freeform process for exploring smaller ideas and a more structured approach to larger projects (I go into both of these at length in my Writer Workflow post over on Gabe Weatherhead’s Macdrifter site). Smaller projects always start the same way. An idea occurs to me and I just start writing (or I revisit a previously captured idea). Larger projects, start in iThoughts HD. I think about what I want to say and use this excellent mind-mapping application for the iPad to flesh it out. Once I’m happy with the outline, I import it into Scrivener and have at it. Most of the time, I’m able to discern the best possible path for an idea. Occasionally, I guess wrong and need to adjust accordingly.

What To Do When A Small Idea Suddenly Gets Bigger?

I recently had a project that ballooned on me. I was expecting something small, perhaps 500-750 words. When I looked up, several hours later, there were a few thousand. I did my best to keep going, but inevitably I found myself getting lost. Byword, the app I usually write smaller posts in, suddenly became the wrong tool for the job. I wanted to map things out, but I also didn’t want to start over. So what to do? Well, much of the workflow on my larger projects is stolen from David Sparks “Dancing with OPML” post. This is how I’ve taken my mind maps in the past and gotten them into Scrivener. I wanted to see if I could reverse the process and take an unwieldy document, break it up in Scrivener and then export it as an OPML (along with all of the text that I’ve written) in order to create a mind map.

Thankfully it proved to be possible. Here’s how…

From Document to Mind Map and Back Again

  1. Copy your text.
  2. Create a new Scrivener Project (or folder within an existing project).
  3. Split your project into paragraphs or sections.
  4. Export as an OPML file to Dropbox (NOTE: You must select Titles and Text when exporting).
  5. Import your mind map into iThoughts HD.
  6. If you selected your entire “Draft” folder in Scrivener, you will need to remove the “Drafts” node from the mind map.
  7. Add whatever structure is needed and export an new OPML to Dropbox.
  8. Import your work into a new Scrivener Project or folder.
  9. Get back to writing.

Here’s a quick screencast showing you how:

Taking A Step Back Before Moving Forward

It’s easy to get lost in large writing projects, especially when what you thought was a small idea suddenly proves to be bigger than you expected. Taking a step back to add structure and rethink your approach might take a little while longer in the short run, but can save you time and missteps as you move forward.

How about you? What do you do when you find that something you thought was easy suddenly feels a lot more complex? What’s your best secret for adding a little or to your chaos, regardless is it is a writing project or not?

8 Responses to Structuring Your Ideas With Scrivener and iThoughts HD

  1. Great post. Although I’m not a mind mapper, I definitely do a similar thing as you — except I do it with lists to organize the project.

    But you omitted a few initial steps when realizing your project is bigger and more complex than you anticipated.

    1. Go into the bathroom
    2. Shut the door
    3. Lock it
    4. Weep until someone breaks down the door forcibly
    5. NOW confront your big project
    • It’s funny how one mans nightmare is another’s salvation. I’d go crazy if I tried to do it with lists. I’m sure I’m just tricking myself, but the mapping makes it see so much easier.

      As for the omission, you’re just more willing to share that kind of stuff than I am :)

  2. Great tip, thanks! Which kind of utility allows you select apps from a popup list in the Window menu, as it seems you do in the screencast?

    • I use LaunchBar, but there are also similar products called Alfred and Quicksilver. It’s a surprisingly useful app. There’s a great Mac Power Users episode on how you can get the most out of it.

  3. Michael, I finally read this post that you referenced on What I really like about this is that I can take my work to another place out of my home computer. Back and forth. Sometimes, most of the times, those incremental ideas appear when I am away from my home computer. Really useful.

    Thanks. Álvaro

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