When I work with graduate or undergraduate students on their writing skills, I often ask them to tell me about their writing process, from the note-taking stage through pre-writing, writing, and final revision. I often ask whether they outline a paper before beginning to write, as that’s often a useful way to begin exploring how a particular writer thinks and organizes ideas. I don’t believe that all writers need to outline, nor that all outlines should be done in a certain way. Unfortunately, too often outlining has been taught to students in a constrained fashion, so that both the outliners and the non-outliners suffer from similar problems in organizing and developing their ideas before and during the writing process.
A challenge many writers face, particularly when writing documents more than 35 pages long, is that it can be difficult to keep the structure of the whole document in mind while working on a specific section. Additionally, the rich associations and connections that one develops during the note-taking and idea-generating phase may not easily fit into the strict linear form of a conventional outline. Attempting to corral ideas too soon into that linear form can be just as problematic as trying to create a linear argument too late in the writing process.
Gingko, A new web-based tool, addresses these writing challenges of the writing process in an innovative way, by offering a modular visual approach for organizing your writing. In Gingko (yes, the app’s name is deliberately spelled differently from the tree), you organize your document using cards arranged in “trees” of three or more columns, placing the most general points on the left, with increasingly specific cards in the columns to the right arranged as “branches” and “leaves” of each point. You can also create multiple cards as “branches” of a single card in your first column. This is all much easier to understand by looking at an example, such as this one from a user review on the blog Dr Andus’s toolbox shows:
Basically, Gingko is a horizontal outlining and writing tool.
By displaying qualitatively arrayed information horizontally, it supports the natural associative tendencies of the human brain. If that sounds confusing, this short introductory video gives a good demo in under 2 minutes.
In Gingko, text is modular and movable.
- cards can be easily reordered or moved to other columns
- the default view keeps three columns visible (depending on your screen size), but you can create more columns if you need to nest cards more deeply
- when you click on a card, its parent, children, and siblings are highlighted on the screen so you can easily see the relationships between your pieces of writing
Gingko is a plain-text writing environment that uses Markdown.
- Plain text is truly cross platform and cross application. Like many other ProfHackers, I already do a lot of work in plain text.
- But unlike many plain text editors, the Gingko writing environment is designed to help you easily generate and capture ideas — it’s built for writing not for coding.
- Gingko uses Markdown syntax for formatting, which is very simple to learn (and a help display is easily available from the tool)
- You can export your entire document tree or just the final column as plain text or formatted html. Plain text, of course, has the advantage of being easily archived and transferred to other applications, including a number of conversion apps like Pandoc. You can also copy text from the formatted version displayed on your screen or from the exported HTML and paste it into Word or another word processor.
- Markdown syntax includes bold and italic text formatting, six levels of headings, and ordered and unordered bullets. You can thus create levels of hierarchy using headings within a particular card, which can be helpful in early outlining stages of writing.
Gingko is good for visual and spatial thinkers.
- Much like mindmapping, Gingko allows you to visually connect general points or terms with more specific ones. Organizing notes or ideas on separate index cards has long been a research strategy in the analog world, and although a number of index card software apps exist, the visual display in Gingko is particularly intuitive, at least for a certain number of users.
- It has a beautiful, clean design that makes it appealing to use.
- You can include images on your cards for enhanced visual effect.
Gingko includes features for collaboration and presentation.
- By default your documents (or “trees” in Gingko’s terms) are private, but you can share them with collaborators. When multiple people are writing or editing, each card is locked to prevent conflicts.
- The last column of your document tree can be exported to a simple web-based slideshow (using impress.js), as in this example.
Examples and suggested uses
The Gingko website includes a number of examples and templates to give you an idea of how you might use this tool:
- academic papers
- class notes (good for instructors or students; or for collaborative note taking by groups of students)
- a screenplay template
- a goal-setting calendar
The creators of Gingko are clearly interested in its larger implications for creativity and productivity, as you can see in their blog.
Pricing, Backup, and Security
You can sign up to try Gingko for free. This basic user account gives you three document trees to work with. Unlimited trees are available for a monthly price currently set at $9.00.
Gingko uses SSL encryption and backs up the server nightly. Their website states:
We will never access your documents without your permission.
We do collect information such as your approximate location, and your usage patterns (how often you log in, etc). This is only so we can serve you better.
The website also says that an offline version of the tool is under development. Obviously, if you’re working on something super-secret you shouldn’t be looking at a web-based writing tool anyway.
Although I haven’t had any problems with data loss, I regularly export my work in Gingko to plain text files for archiving or transfer to other applications. That is my standard practice when using any web-based tool, and one I’d recommend if you’re working on something important.
I’ve been using Gingko for a couple of weeks and really like it. I find it’s especially valuable for collecting ideas and notes about a topic and then developing more structured pieces of writing from them. As a spatial thinker, I often write ideas or paragraph stubs on index cards or half-sheets of paper and move them around on a table; this tool lets me integrate the same kind of planning with my writing process. I already do a lot of my work in plain text format, so I appreciate the ease with which Gingko exports files and integrates in to my existing workflow. Finally, although I certainly could (and often did, before finding this app) simply create a lot of individual text files as virtual “cards” on my desktop, the clean visual display that Gingko offers really appeals to me. This is the first digital tool that offers mindmapping-like features in what is for me a truly intuitive design. I’m going to continue using Gingko for my own work and look forward to its continued development.