I really don’t think one needs to use external software to develop an outline, prior to using Scrivener. One might do so out of preference for a particular approach. Scapple for instance gives you the blank sheet of paper approach. Mind-mapping programs can help for those that are very visual and like the outward expanding radial idea map. But again, in my opinion these are not necessary prior to starting a new Scrivener project and to say that Scrivener’s own outliner is not an outliner doesn’t make sense to me. To say that Scrivener’s freeform corkboard, which allows you to develop broad ideas component by component in a spatial context is not a brainstorming tool—I don’t understand this. That is the entire point of their existence. Don’t think of index cards as documents. Think of them as nodes if you will.
Perhaps it is that, a bit of a terminology block. If you think of Scrivener’s Binder as a document organiser, like one might organise fifty 200 page .doc files in a fancier system than Finder provides for, then I can see why there would be friction toward the idea of using Scrivener’s corkboard/outliner in the same way you would a mind-mapping or pure outlining program like NeO. One might conclude, as you say, that the corkboard only exists to embellish documents with meta-data. But really, it’s not. That’s one of the fundamental principles of Scrivener: that documents can be broken down into small pieces and organised thematically; that one can gather a maelstrom of ideas in small pieces and assemble them into a larger, what we might traditionally refer to as, documents. “Documents” in Scrivener can be paragraphs, sections, half-a-sections, snippets, whole chapters, or entire works. The system is designed to scale as you need it to. You can even leave things that way, with the conceptual underground right in your final work, by turning off the “Include in Compile” checkbox in the Inspector for these outline items. That feature is there so you can brainstorm and outline and take notes directly within the final material.
Apologies if you already get this, it just seemed to me as though you were thinking of the Binder in terms of a file manager, and in that sense you would be right, why on earth would somebody create 15 documents to express an idea when all you need is 15 short lines. That’s not how Scrivener works though. You don’t need to go any deeper than the item title, if you wish you can elaborate further with the synopsis or write fifteen pages of exposition in the main text / document notes if even that is not enough. Do what you need, the flexibility is there and you won’t be penalised for going a little crazy in the Binder. Maybe just give that a try. Use Scrivener’s Binder just as you would a normal outliner, point by point. When you’re ready to start fleshing out those points, select the ones you wish to work on, hit Cmd-1 to enter Scrivenings mode, and dig in. Later on if you desire you can merge these points together into a single document. You may never have to do that though. Take a look at the official documentation project, available on our website. You’ll see how the user manual is broken up into nearly a thousand individual pieces, most of them quite short and containing a single portion of a topic.
Another approach to consider is the non-linear. Instead of outlining beneath the sections that need conceptual work, use the Scrivener Link feature I referred to. Link the sentence or paragraph to a new folder somewhere outside of the Draft and make your freeform corkboard / outline there. Now as you read through your manuscript, if you come across something that required further work you can just click on the link and see the outline pop up in the other split. That outline may not contain any data beyond the headings themselves—that’s fine, or it can have hundreds of pages of content. That is fine, too. Personally I think hitting Cmd-3 right out of your writing session to do a little thinking in outline mode is more convenient, but if you don’t like what that does to your Binder, side-lining these thinking areas to another area of the Binder is valid.