Thinking with Tinderbox

· science ·

I've been trying to write another grant proposal recently (a seemingly Sisyphean task for academics), but I ended up a bit stuck. It was a collaborative idea that a colleague and I sketched out last year, but which -- for one reason or another -- ended up on the back-burner for a while. I was really struggling to pull it together. We had plenty of ideas, but I was having trouble rearranging and grouping them into a sensible structure and seeing gaps that needed to be filled. Finally, I decided to blow the dust of my copy of Tinderbox and try that.

I wish I'd done it earlier. I used to use Tinderbox a lot for writing notes and organising ideas^1^, but newer, shinier applications have come along, and I've gradually turned to them. But Tinderbox is still a great tool, and it really excels at visual brainstorming. If you open a map view, you can just hammer out short notes containing all your ideas, then group them into similar themes later. With a linear outliner (a view which Tinderbox also has), you end up worrying more about where stuff should fit than what the important ideas are.

Once I'd got all the ideas down, I made some adornments ('sticky notes' on the page to visually group notes), and started moving notes around, first into similar ideas, then dividing them into aims, questions, hypotheses, techniques and random things to remember. Once that was done, I moved back to the linear outline view, and tidied things up, fleshing out the outline a bit as I went. It was really effective, and almost fun^2^! While Tinderbox can export notes quite easily as text (or HTML or XML), I probably won't bother to do so in this case, because I was just using it as a tool for thinking rather than writing. I've started to write the final document with the Tinderbox outline view open to guide my writing, and it's working really well.

^1^ I even constructed, managed and wrote this weblog with it when I first started blogging.

^2^ Something which can make grant writing even almost fun is a miraculous tool, in my opinion.