Medium-time Experience with OmniOutliner (as Circus Ponies Notebook replacement)

“Leap and the net will appear.”
John Burroughs

I’ve tried out OmniOutliner as a Circus Ponies Notebook (CPN) replacement for a couple of months now. So far, it works okay-ish to fine.

I still miss the handbook style of CPN. The ability to have all information on one topic in one file that still loads fast was great. Plus the natural structure. But that’s gone. (And to be honest, there was a scary bug that destroyed info on a page without giving you any information.)

But OmniOutliner is a good replacement.

  • Writing
    You can easily use outlines to plan your writing. I still like the style with one content column and a source column. If you store your information in topic outlines (essentially, all information about one topic in one outline, incl. the source information) you can quickly create new writings. Think of it as having the bones in the storage to create a new skeleton for text — later you just add the fleshed out text. You can also expand hierarchical outlines only to those levels you actually want to use.
  • Topic Outlines
    Still looking for the best way to store information about topics in outlines. Works well when it comes to topics with little information or individual articles/books. But more complex topics (like perception) likely need different outlines. Not fragmenting the topic over too many files might become a problem. Then again, using the search function of Finder (constrained to the directory in which you store you outlines) can quickly find the correct outline with the information you seek. There are argument for few files with lots of information and for multiple files with fewer information (quicker to load, easier to compare). Disadvantage of the later — difficult to connect content of different outlines.
  • Using folders as divider replacement works well.

Some things to remember

  • Using the escape key — which can be used to start and stop editing cells — can become an annoying habit. In pretty much every other app it cancels the last action. Still, very useful in OmniOutliner. You can also press “e” to start editing a cell.
  • Images might be shown smaller than expected if the resolution is above 72dpi. Programs like GraphicConverter can change the resolution, even automated.
  • Note that if the column is not visible, then the content won’t be copied. It’s also surprisingly easy to delete stuff.
  • If you store your images elsewhere (e.g., in DEVONthink), tagging the images you have transferred to the Outline files might be helpful. I use tags for categories (e.g., overall handbooks like Food, Drinks, Photography, etc.). I usually scale down the images to 600 px (and 72dpi) — enough for a reference. I still have the original files if I need them.

So, yeah, all in all, the outlines have a couple of advantages. You have the information with the source easily available (in the second column, where it does not distract). You can quickly deal with information hierarchically (great to find information). It’s easy to add information and easy to rearrange information.

And while not a beautiful or comprehensive as a real virtual notebook, OmniOutliner does just fine.


  1. I like the simplicity of OutlineEdit, which laks Markdown export, sadly, but otherwise manages to get a decent outlining job done.

  2. I prefer to simplify. Scrivener, which now runs on iOS, has outline and card modes. It’s not as full-feature as OmniOutliner, but it does all a writer needs and makes the transition from outlining to writing effortless. And it does all that for $10 less than OmniOutliner for iOS.

  3. Yep, recently tried out the iOS version (looks great) and I get that Scrivener can be enough for a single project (e.g., a book or an article). But what about notes on different topics — more or less the building blocks for articles? Personally, I doubt that Scrivener — despite all its strengths — would work this way. But yeah, if that is a non-issue, Scrivener all the way.

  4. Installed it, but I don’t like that you have to register with Microsoft and … well, Microsoft as a company.

  5. Any time spent with OO5 Pro? Maybe the search feature could work like the CP tags? I did like that feature and don’t see something similar in OO, but maybe I’m missing something.

  6. I tried out OO5 but I found it sluggish and there were some annoying habits (e.g., the cell borders are shown for a short moment when you move around in the outline). I’m hoping for a major update here.

  7. Today, I bought OO5 Pro after I realised that Circus Ponies Notebook no longer works in my newly updated High Sierra. I loved that app, and I tried to keep it as much as possible till now…. My question regarding OO is the following: How would you use OO as a note-taking app, given that you don’t have search across different outlines?

  8. The easiest way is probably to use Finder an limit the search to the directory of your outline files. You can set the default search behavior in the Finder preferences (“Finder” => “Preferences” in the “Advanced” Tab). Last option is “When performing a search:”. Set it to “Search the Current Folder”, this way you can simply open your Outliner folder an use the search field in the Finder windows, without having to change the scope of the search afterwards. If you want to search your whole harddrive, just open a finder window on the top level (usually “Macintosh HD”). Finder will search within Outline files and show the ones where you have matches.

    Personally, I store my Outlines in a DEVONthink database, so I use the search function of DEVONthink. I just set the search to “Content” and it does the same.

  9. Thanks Dan for the tips! I will check them, I also do have Devonthink, maybe it is the right time to put it in a more use. But, still this is a “loose binding” search and I would like to have everything under one umbrella…

  10. You can build such a structure with folders (or groups in DEVONthink). It’s not as comfortable as Circus Ponies Notebook (*sigh*), but better than nothing. 🙂

  11. Hey Daniel!

    Any new insights on the recent version of OmniOutliner for academic outlining (considering that 5 months have passed since your last comment here)?

    My thesis is currently looming over my head BIG TIME, and I’m considering my digital workflow options to tackle that beast. I was also heartbroken when Circus Ponies ceased to work. But does OO come closer to Circus Ponies now that it has received tagging functionality (and whatnot)?


    PS: Love your blog; it’s kinda making me feel my thesis isn’t gonna bring me under the ground 😉

  12. Hoi Lorenz,

    thank you for the positive feedback 🙂

    I wrote a bit about OmniOutliner’s shortcomings in What makes a good outliner?. In short, OmniOutliner’s focus seems to be on rather short documents with less than a couple of thousand lines. Too many lines and it gets slow, very slow. So if you break up your content (e.g., by chapter) it might work. Having topic outlines for notes about, e.g., specific subjects also works (again, depending on the amount of lines). What seems to work as well is keeping multiple paragraphs of text in a single cell — instead of having a separate line in the outline for each paragraph of text. You sacrifice a bit when it comes to detail, but if the text belongs together it seems to reduce the load. OmniOutliner also works well for paper overviews — e.g., one outline file with multiple columns to jot down summary information about the paper you have read. Using a column for source, one for a summary you write, perhaps one for the main dependent and another for main independent variables works well. You can put the paper abstract in as note — allowing you to have that information available on demand without cluttering the outline. Sure, you could do it with Excel, but I really do not like Excel. So yeah, OmniOutliner might work, it’s no CPN, but I don’t know a better app either.

    Best regards


  13. I have really enjoyed your blog and insights. I used CPNotebook for many years, and have saved the data from various notebooks in Microsoft Word for now, and am staying on Sierra rather than upgrading to eek out that last functionality.. I am trying to use Scrivener as a replacement, but am finding it clunky. I have multiple academic projects, and one thing that was great in CPN was the ability to just move and drop items into different projects, and have a top section with the immediate tasks of the week. Another was the collapse function, which really helped with multiple projects with subtopics. Do you still think Omni Outliner is my best next bet? I am a visual thinker and enjoyed having color differences and font variability to draw my attention to various sections. Any new advice now?

  14. Hoi Lynn,

    hmm, one thing you might want to check out is Microsoft’s OneNote. Not a fan, but it might be closer to CPN. As for OmniOutliner, it does have a nice styles pane and you can set styles, e.g., for headings and the like. That’s one thing I really like about OO. As for tasks, perhaps a task manager like Things or OmniFocus might help here. Like written, OO has some of the functionality, but it is not a notebook like CPN. If I were you I’d go for the trial version, test it for a month and make my decision then.

    Best regards


  15. Are you using Scrivener 3? You can set it up so it has a one-pane outliner look similar to OmniOutliner… see page 181 of the manual (figure 8.23). There are a variety of ways you can create shortcuts to key sections as well; the program is really a behemoth. I never had issues with document size on even huge documents in OmniOutliner Pro v3, especially with the ability to hoist arbitrarily (basically focusing in on individual sections). I always thought it was more flexible than CPN in that respect. But it’s possible the program has deteriorated in more recent versions.

  16. Hoi Chris,

    thank you for the tip. Yup, use Scrivener, but haven’t had a close look at this feature. As for OmniOutliner, I guess it’s the amount of rows that breaks OO’s back. File size (e.g., via lots of images) isn’t the problem as far as I can see, rather a couple of thousands of rows. I have started to use cells for more content (with line breaks within a cell) and it work much better.

  17. Could you explain more about what you mean by cells with a line break for OmniOutliner- or better yet show a picture? I was using CircusPonies with great results and now I am writing my dissertation with Papers, Scrivener and fumbling along with OO.

  18. If you mean “line breaks within a cell” — just press alt + Enter and you get a line break that works in an OmniOutliner cell. You can put multiple paragraphs into an OmniOutliner cell, thus reducing the amount of lines in the document.

  19. I forgot to mention: I wrote a script for OO, to append a source’s information to the end of every cell in a column, like tagging in Circus Ponies as used by Daniel. So I would write my notes, run the script, it would open a dialog window, asking for the text, and I would type “DVA_001” or whatever and it would append “(Source: DVA_001)” at the end of every cell in the highlighted column. But since OO5, I don’t know how to run scripts anymore.

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