Planning a Complex Project with FoldingText and Markdown MindMaps

Switching “zoom levels” on a complex project with FoldingText

I recently started planning a three-day live training event with a colleague, in which we had to design several active learning experiences, with the learnings from each session building upon those that came before it. Whether you’re writing a multi-chapter book, planning a complex course, or prepping for a big life event like having a baby or moving to a new town, you often have to look at the project from multiple “zoom levels” to pay proper attention to everything — looking at the big picture and the smallest details to keep everything in mind at once.

Different project planning tools and writing apps can lock you in to viewing your project at one “zoom level”, and make it awkward to step back and see the big picture or focus in on the details. If you open a Word doc to write Chapter 1 of your novel, you may have a harder time sketching out the broad strokes of how Chapters 5, 10, 15, and 20 will go. You could write those in separate Word files, but then again, how do you look at the big picture?

One of my favorite note-taking tools, Evernote, allows you to group individual pages into notebooks, but within that, you can’t really re-order notes, or look at them from a bird’s eye view. Again, you’re stuck at one zoom level.

It’s the same with taking plain text notes and keeping them in a desktop folder — you have to open each note to see everything at once, which can really break your creative flow.

For our course planning, we started using a kanban board like Trello to plan the individual sessions so we could move the cards around and reorder the sessions. This worked OK, but when it came time to write out the details of the individual sessions, we were stuck attaching Word docs to the back of each card, creating extra steps to switching from the macro- to the micro- level view.

FoldingText Saves the Day

This is when I remembered FoldingText, an app that allows you to create an outline in plain text (or markdown), and then to “fold” the view at any level of focus, from the macro to the micro. With a simple set of keystrokes, you can switch your view from your whole outline to focusing on individual headings, sub-headings, and individual passages of writing. This has allowed us to quickly move from a macro-level outline view to a distraction-free writing view of each individual session and back again with no friction.

FoldingText is a desktop, Mac-only app which works great for me, but there are a couple other cloud-based webapps that work the same way if you’re on Windows, Linux, or mobile. DynaList and Workflowy also offer the folding outline view that can give you the same type of workflow. I’d advise you to try it out the next time you’re planning a complex project where you have to pay attention to multiple “zoom levels” at a time.

Demo: Writing a Monomyth with FoldingText

You may be familiar with the Monomyth, a story structure identified by Joseph Campbell in A Hero with a Thousand Faces. It’s a set of plot points common to mankind’s most beloved hero stories, from the stories of Jesus, Gilgamesh, and Heracles to modern tales like Star Wars, Harry Potter, and The Matrix. The stages the hero passes through are fixed and predictable across all these stories, but the unique details of each story provide novelty and interest. There’s something psychologically satisfying about seeing someone move through these various stages, as it mirrors the drama of experiencing scary changes in our own lives and moving through them successfully.

It’s relevant for this example because writers use these stages of the Hero’s Journey as a template, an overall story outline, to fill in with novel details that make a compelling story. You can see in the example below, I start off by creating an outline of Campbell’s stages of the Monomyth.

The headings in the outline are delineated by the number of hashmarks they contain — one # for the top-level document title, two ## for the next level headers in the outline (“acts”), three ### for subheadings (“chapters”), and below that, the text in each chapter.

With this basic outline in place, I can look at my new story at any level with simple keystrokes. Dropping the same document into the free, cross-platform Atom Editor with the Markdown MindMap extension produces a nice mind map of the overall document structure, allowing yet another bird’s eye view of the document that has been very valuable for us during our planning and discussion.

See the video demo to see it in action:

I didn’t even note that all of these outline folding apps, FoldingText, Dynalist, and Workflowy, have very nice tagging and todos features you can place anywhere in the document and it instantly adds intelligent functionality to help you manage those tasks. It’s nice that you can add a plain-text tag like @fleshthisout or @todo anywhere in the doc and that goes into a menu where you can use the tags to navigate around your document and get things done.

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