Make a Plan: How to Outline Your Ideas with 20 Powerful Tools

Aja Frost
Aja Frost / Published March 24, 2016

It doesn't matter how many ideas you have if you can't connect them. To turn those scattered concepts into a finished product, you're going to need a coherent plan.

That’s what outlines are good for. They're the blueprint for what you want to write, say, present, or create. You map them out hierarchically, so there’s a visual difference between your main points and subsidiary ones.

And although you can certainly compose them with good ol’ pen and paper, a specialized app will give you more flexibility to change and reorganize points on the fly. The best outlining tools make it easy to log your ideas, arrange your arguments, and pull everything together into a polished framework.

Here are 20 of the best outlining tools to help you scope out your next post, project, or speech.

What to Look For in an Outlining App

Outlines are just bullet points with some extra structure. They're lists of ideas and things you want to work on. And you don't need anything fancy to build one—a word processor or plain text writing app could do the job.

But first-rate outlining apps handle the organization of your plan, so you can concentrate on the ideas. These are the features we looked for when choosing apps for this roundup:

  • Visual hierarchy: If you can’t tell the difference between a big idea and a supporting one, an outline loses a lot of its value. These apps—each in their own way—make it easy to visually distinguish outline sections.
  • Nesting: Along similar lines, these apps let you create “parent” items, each of which can have an unlimited number of “children” items. Doing something to the parent (e.g. indenting it, outdenting it, moving it to a new place) applies the same change to its children.
  • Automatic styling: Having your ideas appear by default with bullets, Roman numerals, numbers, indentation levels, and so forth means you don’t need to waste an extra second inserting the format you need.
  • Easy rearrangement: Sure, you could rely on the cut-and-paste method to move your sections around, but that would be inefficient and frankly, annoying. These apps make it easy to drop text into a new place, whether it's via keyboard shortcuts or a drag-and-drop interface.

Plus, there are a few bonus features that we kept an eye out for:

  • Notes: Attaching “hidden” text to an individual bullet point or line keeps your outline from getting cluttered. Look for apps that let you add pop-up or side-bar comments to specific points.
  • Search: The longer and more detailed an outline is, the handier a search and filter function will be. And if you can search through all of your outlines at once, it's easier to find everything you've written down.
  • Tagging: Along similar lines, being able to tag your points with keywords makes it easier to find them again.
  • Expand and Collapse Options: Let’s say you want to focus on just one section. Is there a way to temporarily hide all the other sections? That could mean “folding” the other sections like an accordion or looking at an individual section in a new window.

The Best Outlining Apps

Ready to find your new favorite outlining app? Here are the most outstanding options that we found:

App Icon:  Best for: Price Supports:
Microsoft OneNote Microsoft OneNote flexible visual outlines and notes Free; from $6.99/mo. per user with Office 365 iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Web
Checkvist Checkvist simple, efficient outlining Free; $3.90/mo. Pro plan Web
Toodledo toodledo a no-fuss outline interface Free; from $14.99/yr. Silver plan iOS, Android, Web
Smartsheet smartsheet spreadsheet-style outlines From $10/mo. per user iOS, Android, Web
Workflowy Workflowy focusing on one section of an outline at a time Free; $4.99/mo. iOS, Android, Web
Little Outliner Little Outliner simple online outlining Free Web
OmniOutliner omnioutliner deeply customized outlines $29.99 iOS; $49.99 Mac iOS, Mac
Tree tree visualizing thoughts in a new way $11.99 Mac
Cloud Outliner Cloud Outliner outlines on any device $1.99 iOS; $6.99 Mac iOS, Mac
OutlineEdit OutlineEdit creating outlines while you research $4.99 Mac
CarbonFin carbonfin adding notes to your outlines $4.99 iOS, Web
UV Outliner UV Outliner working on specific sections of outlines Free Windows
Scrivener Scrivener turning outlines into longform content $45 Mac, Windows
Mellel Mellel customized headings $19.90 iOS; $38.99 Mac iOS, Mac
MagicalPad magicalpad combining outlines and mindmaps $2.99 iOS; $9.99 Mac iOS, Mac
Oak Outliner Oak Outliner markdown formatted outlines Free Web
WhizFolders WhizFolders split-screen outlining $35 Windows
Evernote Evernote simple data gathering Free; $2.99/mo. iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Web
Google Docs Google Docs collaborative outlining Free iOS, Android, Web
Microsoft Word Microsoft Word outlines in traditional documents Free; $6.99/mo. iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Mac, Windows, Web

Microsoft OneNote (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Web)

Best for: flexible visual outlines and notes


If your notes tend to go all over the page—rather than following a traditional linear format—try Microsoft OneNote. This app gives you total freedom over what goes where: add notes to the middle of the page, stick images and quotes next to related content, and rearrange things whenever you want.

The built-in icon bank lets you leave visual clues for yourself, like “remember for blog” or “client request.” You can make things even more visual by customizing the font, size, color, bullet and list styles, and more.

OneNote is available for almost every device, so you’ll be able to edit your outlines whether you’re on your phone or sitting at your computer. Plus, since your outlines automatically sync to OneDrive (Microsoft’s cloud storage platform), you can reference them from anywhere with an internet connection.

OneNote Price: Free; desktop apps included with Office 365 from $6.99/month per user

For a deeper look at OneNote features and pricing plans, check out our OneNote review.

See OneNote integrations on Zapier

Checkvist (Web)

Best for: simple, efficient outlining


Checkvist promises to “keep your hands on the keyboard” by focusing on keyboard shortcuts. Press “Enter” for a new line, “Tab” to indent, “Shift + Tab” to unindent, and so on. There's even a handy keyboard guide on the dashboard for a quick reference to less frequently used shortcuts, like “⌘↑” to reorder list items.

It’s also a cinch to manage, re-arrange, and order your outlines. To drag and drop a node, simply hold down Shift, then move it where you’d like. Is your list getting too bloated? Export specific nodes into their own lists. You can even automatically sort the sub-items within a node and assign nodes specific tags and colors.

Checkvist Price: Free for basic plan; $3.90/month per user Pro plan with file attachments, backup options, and more

For a deeper look at Checkvist's features and pricing plans, check out our Checkvist review.

See Checkvist Integrations on Zapier

Toodledo (iOS, Android, Web)

Best for: a no-fuss outline interface


In Toodledo, adding new items to an outline and indenting them is as simple as pressing Enter and Tab. That’s pretty much it. You can insert checkboxes (although this feature is more useful for to-do lists) or tag your outlines, but on the whole, Toodledo’s functionality is pretty limited.

That makes it perfect for people who don’t want to spend any time messing with settings, learning commands, or setting up the interface. You can focus on what matters: your ideas, and how they’re arranged.

Toodledo Price: Free for 30 items per outline; from $14.99/year for Silver plan with 100 items per outline

For a deeper look at Toodledo features and pricing plans, check out our Toodledo review.

See Toodledo Integrations on Zapier

Smartsheet (iOS, Android, Web)

Best for: spreadsheet-style outlines


Spreadsheets were literally made for organizing information, which means they’re definitely handy for outlining. And Smartsheet takes this one step further by letting you create visual hierarchies. When you indent a row, it becomes the “child” of the parent row above it. And there's no limit on how many child rows you can create, so your sub-notes can have sub-notes, and those sub-notes can have sub-notes, and those sub-notes can have sub-notes—you get the gist.

But fear not, even with potentially endless levels of hierarchy, your outline won’t turn into an overwhelming ladder of notes. Every sub-row can be temporarily hidden, meaning you’ll only see its parent. That way, you can collapse the sections you’re not working on and focus in on your top priority.

If you find yourself wishing you could add notes to specific rows without clogging up your outline, you’ll appreciate Smartsheet’s comments feature. Once you add a comment to a row—say, “Find more info on this,” or “Not sure if I need this point”—it won’t show up until you click on its speech bubble icon.

Of course, you can also use comments to collaborate with your teammates: Smartsheet also has customizable sharing options, so you can assign different editing privileges to each recipient.

Smartsheet Price: From $10/month per user for 1-2 users

For a deeper look at Smartsheet features and pricing plans, check out our Smartsheet review.

See Smartsheet integrations on Zapier

Workflowy (iOS, Android, Web)

Best for: focusing on one section of an outline at a time


When you’re working on a complex outline, Workflowy is a good fit. Its “Zoom” feature will let you see any bullet (and its sub-bullets) in isolation, so you can really focus on a specific section. To zoom back out and see your entire outline, all you have to do is click “Home.”

To further organize your notes, you can add tags with a # symbol. For example, you might add #more to every place in your speech outline that needs more detail, or #priority for the items on your outline that deserve your attention first. All hashtags are searchable, so you’ll be able to quickly find them again.

Workflowy Price: Free; $4.99/month for unlimited lists

Little Outliner (Web)

Best for: simple online outlining

Little Outliner

When you want to hit the ground running, try Little Outliner. It’s a lightweight tool that runs in your browser, but stores your outline on your computer.

Little Outliner’s learning curve is pretty minimal. To enter text, you simply click and type. Pressing “Enter” will take you to a new bullet, while “Tab” indents your line, and “Shift + Tab” outdents it.

To collapse a bullet, double-click it; to expand it, double-click again. Rearranging bullets is a little less intuitive and requires some complex mouse action. Luckily, once you’ve done it a couple times, you should be able to move things around quickly.

Since Little Outliner uses your computer’s local storage, you can only store one outline at a time. If you want to work on multiple outlines at once, use Fargo—it’s essentially the same outlining tool, but it integrates with your Dropbox account so your fameworks are saved automatically.

Little Outliner Price: Free

OmniOutliner (iOS, Mac)

Best for: deeply customized outlines


When you first open OmniOutliner, it looks pretty similar to your basic word processor. But once you start investigating the app’s style, formatting, and display menus, you’ll realize you can customize just about everything.

From the basic font type, size, and color down to the amount of space between each row and the height of each line, OmniOutliner gives you total control. When you’ve set up your outline just how you like it, save it as a template so you can easily make another one.

Once you’re ready to turn an outline into a full-fledged piece, you can export it as a CSV, Excel, HTML, OPML, plain text, rich text, Word, or Powerpoint file. And bonus, if you choose to send it to Word, your style and formatting choices will carry over perfectly.

OmniOutliner Price: $29.99 for iOS, $49.99 for Mac (Standard), $99.99 for Mac (Pro)

Tree (Mac)

Best for: visualizing thoughts in a new way


Tree offers a unique outline structure: instead of building your notes vertically—with one bullet stacked on top of the next—this app lets you build them horizontally.

It’s as though you took a regular sheet of paper and rotated it, so sections appeared on the left and subsections were displayed in columns to their right.

There are a couple extra ways to view your notes. When you want to work on a specific section in isolation, Tree lets you open it in a new tab. If you want to switch to the traditional vertical format for a bit, use the toggle option to flip your outline.

Tree Price: $11.99

Cloud Outliner (iOS, Mac)

Best for: outlines on any device

Cloud Outliner

Cloud Outliner syncs with your Mac, iOS devices, and Evernote account—which means you can start an outline on your laptop, add a couple notes on your phone, and rearrange it on your iPad. Since your outlines are collapsible, they’ll be easy to view on small screens. Plus, when you’re using your phone or tablet, indenting and outdenting lines only requires a single swipe.

Cloud Outliner also offers automatic numbering, drag-and-drop row rearrangement, and customizable text styles. You can even switch the interface from light to dark, or work in fullscreen or landscape mode.

Cloud Outliner Price: $1.99 for iOS app; $6.99 for Mac

OutlineEdit (Mac)

Best for: creating outlines while you research


I’ve experimented with a number of ways to make copying and pasting more efficient, but OutlineEdit’s Marker Safari extension is the best yet.

When you come across a chunk of text you want to copy, highlight it with your mouse and click the extension button. It’ll zoom off to your outline: either one you’re currently working on, or a fresh draft. And OutlineEdit stores your highlight history, so you can grab multiple pieces of text before sending them, all at once, to your notes.

This feature alone makes OutlineEdit worth using. However, the app has a couple more unique options. Once you turn on “float” mode, your outline will automatically show up on top of all your other windows, regardless of the order you’ve viewed them in. To work on your outline while referencing something in another window (or, y’know, watching Netflix), turn your outline transparent.

And while many outlining apps let you create tags, OutlineEdit’s version is different. Highlight a part of your outline (from one word to the whole thing), then add your category. With the flexibility to choose exactly what goes where, you can make categories as broad or narrow as you’d like.

OutlineEdit Price: $4.99

CarbonFin (iOS, Web)

Best for: adding notes to your outlines


When you find an outlining app that lets you add notes to each row, bullet point, or numeral, cherish it—because not many apps offer this feature. CarbonFin is one of the few.

But why, exactly, is that so useful? Well, when each item in your outline is fairly detailed or lengthy, pushing those details into a note will make your outline easier on the eyes. By default, CarbonFin shows you a little preview of each note (but you can turn that feature off to keep your outline squeaky clean).

When you need a bird’s-eye view of your project, pull up the editor window and tap “collapse all”. CarbonFin will hide everything in your outline but the headings.

And since you’ll probably be working on one section at a time, the app even provides a “zoom” button. Highlight a block of text, click “zoom,” and the rest of your outline will disappear until you click “zoom out.”

CarbonFin Price: $4.99

FoldingText (Mac)

Best for: outlines with timers and checkboxes

Folding Text

Let’s face it: If you never had to use your mouse or touchpad again, you’d be way more efficient. Well, with FoldingText you can rely almost 100% on your keyboard to create and edit your outlines.

It runs on Markdown-style formatting, which lets you “write out” how you’d like your text to look. To give you an idea, surrounding a chunk of text with asterisks will italicize it (*italicize*), adding double asterisks will make it bold (**bold**). No more clicking around for the right formatting options.

Along with its Markdown support, FoldingText comes with several cool modes you won’t find anywhere else.

For example, once you type “.todo”, all of your items will be automatically converted from bullet points to checkboxes. If you enter “.schedule”, you can create an in-app timer with multiple stages, which is useful for timed work strategies like the Pomodoro Technique. Maybe your outline includes some math: type “.calc” to have FoldingText perform your calculations for you.

FoldingText Price: $29.99

UV Outliner (Windows)

Best for: working on specific sections of an outline

UV Outliner

UV Outliner’s plain appearance and layout mean your attention is solely focused on your outline. And to further hone your focus, UV Outliner has two modes: one for entering text, and one for moving stuff around. It’s a good option if you like to work on one task at a time.

Speaking of focus, you can also move specific chunks of your outline into their own windows. Touches like these make UV Outliner a solid option for uni-taskers.

UV Outliner Price: Free

Scrivener (Mac, Windows)

Best for: turning outlines into longform content


Scrivener is a popular writing tool among the book-writing community, since it lets you break down large, hard-to-organize projects into separate files. The interface makes it easy to flesh out ideas, arrange sections, and finally combine them again into one big file.

While Scrivener has multiple modes (all of them useful), I’ll focus on its outliner. In this mode, you can see all of the files in a specific collection. If you’re writing a 100-page ebook, you’re probably only going to have one collection of files; if you’re writing a 500-page novel, you might have collections for Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

You could stop there, and simply organize your folders. Or, you could drill down into the specific documents in your folders. Along with moving them around, you can edit their titles and summaries, view their word and character counts, and assign them statuses and tags. Basically, the outliner mode works like a flexible table of contents that you can edit.

Scrivener Price: $45

Mellel (iOS, Mac)

Best for: customized headings


Mellel’s slogan is “the word processor for professional writers,” so you know it means business. And while this tool certainly has a book’s worth of features, non-professional-writers will find it just as useful as their literary peers.

When it comes to designing and organizing your headings, I’ve never seen an app with more options. Mellel lets you create a unique style and format for every heading level. So, for example, you could put every level 1 header in size 42 bold Arial font, every level 2 header in size 35 italicized Lucida font, and so on. You might wonder if such specificity is really necessary—but when you’re dealing with multiple layers of sections (from chapters all the way down to paragraphs) this visual distinction is really nice.

When you open the Outline window, you’ll see all these headings displayed in a hierarchical list. You can choose to hide specific sections, move sections around, or delete them. These functions probably sound familiar. But with Mellel, you’re getting the simplicity of a traditional outlining tool applied to massive amounts of text.

Mellel price: $19.90 iOS; $38.99 Mac

MagicalPad (iOS, Mac)

Best for: combining outlines and mindmaps


Use MagicalPad’s mind-mapping feature to unleash your creativity and capture your random thoughts. Once all your ideas are on paper, its outlining turns those thoughts into a coherent, organized flow.

Each MagicalPad page can hold as many diagrams as you’d like, so you can keep your mind-map and outline side-by-side for easy reference. You can also merge and split your outlines, link two outlines together, add images and files, distinguish sections by color, and more.

MagicalPad Price: $9.99 for Mac; $5.99 for iPad; $2.99 for iPhone

Oak Outliner (Web)

Best for: markdown formatted outlines

oak outliner

Like FoldingText, Oak is a plain text outliner that uses Markdown-style formatting. This type of formatting is really efficient, but when you’re using text commands to style everything (for example, making a word bold by writing it as bold), your outline will start to look messy. That’s why Oak automatically hides syntax commands for every line except the one you’re working on. Speedy formatting, without the visual clutter—it’s the best of both worlds.

If you want to group related items from different sections together, give them a common @tag. Clicking a tag link will show you every line that contains that specific tag. You can apply an unlimited number of tags to each line, so it’s easy to cross-categorize your notes.

Oak Price: Free

WhizFolders (Windows)

Best for: split-screen outlining


WhizFolders might not win any beauty contests, but the usefulness of its split-screen layout makes up for the clunky interface.

The left side of the screen displays all of your headings in a hierarchical list, just like a traditional outline. The right side, however, shows you a single section in all its glory—not just its headings and sub-headings, but their accompanying text. It’s like Microsoft Word and your favorite outlining app fused together.

If you’re always pulling in info from the web, WhizFolders has your back. The app automatically includes the URL of any text you copy and paste into your document—so going back and checking your sources isn’t a hassle.

At any point in time, merge the two sides of the screen together to see your full outline. And when you’re ready to take that outline to the next step, WhizFolders let you carry over the merged version to Microsoft Word.

WhizFolders Price: $35

The Best Word Processors for Outlining

Word processor apps don't pack the same bells and whistles as the outlining apps above, but they're likely where your outline will eventually end up. If it's a lightweight project, why not consolidate? Here are some word processors with outlining options.

Evernote (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, Web)

Best for: simple data gathering


Evernote acts as your trapper-keeper for any note, idea, or file that you might want to reference later. It's a basic word processor with powerful search capabilities that are easy to personalize. And if you're gathering research materials for a project, it's tough to beat Evernote's organizational prowess.

They also make building and sharing outlines easy. Start by creating a note for each item in your outline, filling them with relevant details and research. If you find something online that you want to include in your research, use the Evernote Web Clipper to save any webpage as a note.

Once you're done, select every note you want to compile, and click “Create Table of Contents.” You’ll instantly have an outline that you can edit as needed.

The main benefit is linking between your reference materials. Evernote lets you snag a link to any note in your account, which you can incorporate into your outline. On the desktop app, just right-click on a note and choose "Copy Note Link"; on the web app, choose a note and click the "…" icon, then select "Copy Note Link".

Creating that interwoven structure with links keeps your outline clean, while allowing you to expand on concepts and research in a separate space.

Gathering your research and reference materials is half the work of making an outline. By pairing Evernote with Zapier—an app automation tool—you can feed materials to your notebooks while you work. For example, you can set up combos called "Zaps" to automatically create new Evernote notes from Asana, Slack, Gmail, RSS feeds, and more. Then you can go back and add your related thoughts in individual notes.

Let’s say you’re writing a blog post on best Twitter practices. You could set up a Zap so every Tweet you favorite is turned into an Evernote note. Then, you search through Twitter for some awesome Tweets, favorite them, add your supported points as separate notes (for example, “Don’t overuse emojis,” and “Stick to two hashtags or less,”). Create a Table of Contents, and voila! You’ve got an outline, and you didn’t have to copy and paste a single thing.

Since Evernote isn’t specifically designed for outlining, moving sections around does require cutting and pasting. Luckily, Evernote integrates with Smartsheet and OneNote, so you can easily move your outline over for more efficient organizing. You could even use Zaps to add your Evernote notes to those apps, to make notes and a nicer outline at the same time.

Evernote Price: Free Basic plan for standard features and up to 60MB uploads per month; from $2.99/month Plus plan for offline notebook access and up to 1GB uploads per month

For a deeper look at Evernote features and pricing plans, check out our Evernote review.

See Evernote integrations on Zapier

Google Docs (iOS, Android, Web)

Best for: collaborative outlining

Google Docs

Google’s online word processor, Docs, is built for outlining with a team. You can send people read-only links to your file, let them add comments, or grant them editing power. And unlike emailing a document and waiting for the marked-up version, working in Google Docs means you’ll see your collaborators’ comments and edits instantly.

Docs speeds up the research process as well. Open the research pane, and you can run Google searches without ever leaving your document. There are a few handy filters, too, including “Quotes,” “Images,” “Google Scholar,” and “Personal” (which sorts through your Google Drive and Gmail inbox).

If, at any point during the outlining process, you want to see which changes have been made, check out the minute-by-minute revision history. If you’re unhappy with an edit, simply roll back to a previous version.

Best of all, Google Docs includes hundreds of add-ons—including these handy tools to simplify outlining:

  • Table of contents uses your headings to create a table of contents window, letting you easily jump to a specific section of your outline.
  • Change Case lets you highlight text and apply uppercase, lowercase, sentence case capitalization, and title case capitalization formatting .
  • Copy Comments copies all the comments in a document when you use Google Doc’s “Make a Copy” feature.
  • UberConference lets you start an UberConference call in your document’s sidebar with all the doc’s viewers.

Google Docs Price: Free

For a deeper look at Google Docs features and pricing plans, check out our Google Docs review.

See Google Docs Integrations on Zapier

Microsoft Word (iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Mac, Windows, Web)

Best for: outlines in traditional documents

Microsoft Word

Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? Although Microsoft Word still looks like the program we were using 20 years ago, when you peek under the hood you’ll find some nifty updates—like Outline View.

Once you’ve created a numbered or bulleted list, turn on Outline View to expand and collapse individual sections, change heading levels, show only headings of a specific size, move text up and down, and more. Then, use keyboard shortcuts to add stuff to that outline. Type an asterisk followed by a space to start a new point, press "Shift+Alt+Up/Down" to move the point around, "Tab" to indent a point, or "Shift+Tab" to un-indent it.

When I’m outlining, I also like to use Microsoft Word’s clipboard. This panel holds 24 items at once, which is nice when you’re moving multiple chunks of text around. Open it up by pressing "Control+C" twice.

Microsoft Word Price: Free Word Web App at; from $6.99/month per user with Office 365

For a deeper look at OneDrive features and pricing plans—including the Office Web Apps—check out our OneDrive review.

See OneDrive integrations on Zapier

Build Your Outlines Automatically

Automate Outline with Zapier

For the most part, building an outline is a manual process, where you have to figure out the most logical way to organize and structure your ideas. But you can automate some of the research with Zapier, which passes data between more than 500 apps like OneNote, Checkvist, Toodledo, Evernote. With Zapier, everything happens in the background, so you can build your outlines and publish them without any extra work.

Here are some ideas for getting started, or you can build your own integrations with your favorite outline tool and other apps.

Add Items to a Rough Draft

Ideas for your next great work could come from anywhere—and Zapier can help gather them all into a starter outline. You can pull in ideas from forms, chat apps, RSS feeds and more and have them logged to a spreadsheet. Then, all you'll have to do is organize the points and start writing.

Copy Your Outline to a New App

Need more than one outlining app—perhaps one that's bare-bones, and another that looks a bit nicer for sharing? Or maybe you need to collaborate with someone else who prefers another outline tool. Either way, Zapier can copy each point of your outline over to another outlining app as soon as you add it.

Create Tasks From Your Outline

Using an outline to plan your next project? Connecting your outline to a to-do list app will make sure you don't forget anything.

Whether you want a plain text outline or one with vibrant colors and graphics, there's a perfect outlining app for your needs. How do you outline your blog posts, talks, or projects? Let us know in the comments.

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