I recently tried Ceres Software’s thought processor (as they call it), Inspiration (about $160 discounted). I’m not especially fond of using an outline as a method of organizing my thoughts due to being forced to do outlines in junior high English classes.
Like all writers, I occasionally have trouble starting a piece. It can be hard to start, especially if you aren’t thrilled about the concept of writing about the subject, say Aristotle’s view of Plato’s Theory of Forms as expressed in the later dialogues (I once wrote about that, a process akin to receiving a frontal lobotomy without anesthesia). Some call it writer’s block – I prefer to think of it as writer’s piano, because I usually feel as though someone dropped a piano on my brain. I occasionally use Eastgate’s excellent hypertext editor, Storyspace, to pull my brain out from between the piano wires, and although Storyspace is a joy for linking chunks of text and creating hypertext documents, its outlining mode isn’t great.
Inspiration has a few of the same sort of graphical features as Storyspace, which makes it nice for entering and arranging ideas, but Inspiration also has a good outliner and can handle large blocks of text within outline items.
I generally whip off a couple of quick ideas in Inspiration’s rapid-fire mode, which creates outline headings as fast as I type, although the program won’t arrange them in the graphical layout until I pause and it has some CPU breathing room. Once I’ve got the basic ideas, I enter the main text that will go under each item. Once I’ve done that, I switch to the outline mode and make sure the structure of the overall document meets my stringent illogical requirements. Finally, I export to a format Nisus can read, like MacWrite or Plain Text. A little cleaning up and the piece is done.
Two modes — Inspiration has two basic modes, Diagram and Outline. Diagram mode is a fairly basic "shapes linked with arrows" mode in which you create ideas and link them to other ideas, essentially positioning them in an outline. Of course it’s easiest to let the program create the new ideas and links by using the rapid-fire mode (in which you type an idea, hit the Enter key, and type another idea, which will then be subordinate to the original one). There are multiple methods of creating ideas and linking them (or leaving them unlinked if you prefer) to other ideas, so I’m sure everyone can find a good method of creating and linking ideas. Interestingly enough, you can create links between objects that are not directly hierarchically related, which would be useful for graphical presentations, if not for the structure of the outline. Hypertext capabilities would require Storyspace’s skills, and Eastgate and Ceres might do well to get together and share strengths.
Inspiration’s outline mode is the more traditional, well, outline mode, with items indented below their superiors and everything numbered and lettered correctly (in numerous different styles for different fields). I hated getting the numbering and lettering correct in grade school. It’s a matter of click and drag to move items around in the outline, and its easy to hide or show different levels of the outline depending on what you want to look at at any one time.
Added goodies — Inspiration sports a couple of features which increase its utility as a writing tool. You naturally have control over font and style and all that boring stuff, but Ceres also included a Find/Replace function and a spelling checker. Unfortunately (for me anyway, your mileage may vary) both are modeled after Microsoft Word 4.0’s thoroughly mediocre Find/Replace and spell checking utilities, which makes them familiar, but limited. The Find/Replace function cannot search the note text within objects in the Diagram mode, which is a small pain, and although the spelling checker can check an entire diagram, like Word, it won’t make suggestions without prompting from the user. Still, these utilities are helpful and ease the writing process.
Inspiration also has some utilities for its graphical side as well, including a configurable grid that objects can optionally snap to for that squeaky clean look. If you don’t like working in clean mode, just turn off the "snap to" option and use one of the several hierarchical tree styles that Inspiration includes. It’s just a matter of selecting Arrange… from the Draw menu and selecting the appropriate graphical tree style.
Embellishments — I haven’t particularly used the neat graphics capabilities present in the Diagram mode. You can arrange any of the ideas in any graphical order you wish, but more interestingly, you can apply a number of different shapes. Ceres includes a load of them for normal stuff, basic business use, flow charts, one set supposedly for designers, though I’m not sure why, and two open slots for you to add your own shapes and graphics. You can also set colors, patterns, line thicknesses, line patterns, and so on. If you’re truly picky you can even modify the arrowhead direction used by the links, select different style arrowheads, constrain the links to 90 degrees, bend a link around an object, or even add descriptive text to a link.
You might want to use Inspiration for a presentation in the Diagram mode by selectively hiding and then showing selected subtopics as you cover each point in turn. I’ve never used this for real because I haven’t done a presentation in some time.
Families — One of the more interesting features of Inspiration is the ability to manage large and complex documents by creating a family, or a main document with embedded sub-documents, called children. These children are not separate documents (although you can turn them into separate documents by disowning them), but you can hide and show them easily to simplify the process of working with a huge outline. Another use of children is that they do not use memory until opened, so if you’ve got a huge document and not much RAM for Inspiration, you can get away with only working with certain children at a time.
Uses — Perhaps the hardest thing to decide about Inspiration is what to do with it. I personally use it, as I said, to break writer’s piano, and Ceres talks about that use in a little Idea Book that comes with the documentation. One fact that their marketing people don’t play up quite enough is that Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame is apparently an ardent fan of Inspiration and uses it when writing his books. There are numerous other uses for Inspiration, though, mostly due to its graphical capabilities when merged with its outlining skills. Ceres mentions that you can do organization charts, flow charts, and production storyboards. In essence, anything that you can best display graphically, but which also requires a significant quantity of text, is a task well-suited to Inspiration. Thinking of other tasks for Inspiration is left as an exercise for the reader.
Problems — As usual with software these days, Inspiration is not perfect. I can’t really compare it to the other major outliners like MORE and Acta for the simple reason that I haven’t used them. Sorry, but you should check out additional reviews in the major magazines if you’re interested in how they all compare. Inspiration intrigued me more than the rest because of its superficial resemblance to Storyspace, and although no one would buy Inspiration instead of Storyspace because it has no hypertext linking features, Inspiration is instead a good outliner and graphical thought processor, tasks which Storyspace can do, but not always as fluidly.
Perhaps the quirk which irritated me the most was the slow screen redraw times, especially when using TrueType fonts at strange sizes on a large screen. I understand that it’s hard to avoid those sort of slowdowns, but it would still be nice if you didn’t have to wait for them. On the other hand, I wrote this entire review in Inspiration on a Classic, and though certainly not speedy, Inspiration was usable on a small document.
My other complaint isn’t terribly serious either. When you create ideas in rapid-fire mode, Inspiration chooses where to put them when you pause for a moment. Much of the time, I found that it placed my new objects in thoroughly strange places, requiring me to move them into place afterwards.
I mentioned my dislike of the Word-like Find/Replace and spell checking utilities above, and even combined with the slow screen redraw and strange auto-layout quirks, these don’t add up to anything serious. I see one of two equally likely possibilities here. Perhaps I’m missing some major problems because I don’t use Inspiration or outliners constantly (as such, caveat lector – which should translate to something like "Reader beware."). Alternately, Inspiration may not have any serious flaws and may do everything it promises quite well. It certainly isn’t a great word processor, but that’s not its goal.
Overall, I like Inspiration, and although I don’t use it every day, or even every week, I’ve found it handy on occasion to help me start writing. As I’ve said, there are a number of uses, and you’ll have to decide for yourself if your tasks require its special skills or if you would be better suited by one of the other outlining and organizational programs. Recommended.
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