Org-Mode for Writing: Structure and Focus

Org-mode is a structured editor that combines the best features of a powerful outliner and a powerful editor in one package. I’ve been fooling with org-mode a lot lately, digging into capabilities, solving issues and fine tuning, always asking the question — is org-mode the best environment for my writing? The answer is an unqualified yes.

Emerald Ring Outline — click to enlarge

The illustration above is a screenshot showing the outline I used to write “An Emerald Ring,” a short story I wrote at the end of last year. Org-mode uses stars to distinguish heading levels, one star for the top level, two for the next and so on. You create a new headline by pressing either the Ctrl or Alt key together with the enter key. You cycle headline visibility using the Tab key.

As I progressed, I created a new top level heading for each new draft of my story with the latest draft at the top. The first four lines in this outline are structural markups that begin with #+. The markups don’t print. They tell org-mode what to do when the file or part of the file is exported to LaTeX, html or plain text. I put the latest draft at the top of the outline so that when I highlight the structural markups and the first headline, only the latest draft will be exported.

When you’re deep into writing a story, an article or even a book, and you have ideas, where do you keep the ideas so they don’t get lost? Well, I created headings for Story outline, characters and notes lower in the outline. I didn’t lose anything and my notes are right there when I need them.

The screenshot shows the outline partially expanded. Org-mode shows three periods after any headline that has subheads or text below. Yeah you say, all this is lovely but doesn’t it get kind of messy when you want to concentrate on writing a passage of plain text in the middle of an outline? Glad you asked because org-mode has a neat trick.

Focused headline — click to enlarge

I put the cursor on the headline for the 8th draft and told org-mode to narrow the focus with a simple shortcut command. Here’s the screenshot. Try that one with your word processor. Now I have an uncluttered screen where I can write with no distractions. I wrote this post with org-mode using this trick. I created a new headline, told org-mode to narrow the focus and had a clean screen with the subject line at the top. Works for me.

There’s lots more to come. I figured out how to get the old DOS MaxThink and org-mode to cooperate but that’s another subject for another time.

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