Organizing Your Writing Life With Trello

by Mac

I’m not gonna lie: I’m not the most organized person in the world. And when it came to keeping track of my writing projects, I used to be in serious trouble. I had a little notebook for jotting down ideas, which I inevitably forgot to carry with me or lost entirely. I’d end up with random notes stuffed in my pockets and scattered across different apps on my phone. I had a ton of research, story ideas, conference notes, and miscellaneous junk in my Evernote account. I was trying out keeping inspiration for my latest novel project as actual print-outs on a magnetic board on my wall. None of it was helping me get any work done, I was literally losing my ideas, and with my terrible memory and easily distracted nature (thanks, ADHD!) that sometimes meant they were gone forever.

Basically, I was a mess. Then I decided to give Trello a try, and everything changed.

Notebooks, a pencil, and a tablet computer with a cup of tea in the background

How many different organization methods have I tried? SO MANY. So many notebooks. So many apps. I have historically been a disaster.

I’d tried Trello before as an organizing tool for my daily-life stuff, but it’d been a little too feature-filled and intimidating for that use. Trying it out exclusively to organize my creative life, on the other hand, was a more or less instant success. I started to keep my story ideas there, then started collecting all of my reference images and character info for my novel concepts, and it just sort of ballooned from there. Now I keep my entire writing life neatly organized on Trello, keep track of due dates and story status, make note of markets I want to submit to, and more.

The possibilities are endless with Trello, and it can be a bit daunting to figure out exactly how you want to use it. So where to begin?

Take a look at the Trello for Writers example collection I’ve set up

After using Trello myself for quite awhile, and then doing a lot of research on how others are using it, I’ve set up an series of boards with ideas on how you might want to organize your writing projects. In this collection you’ll find ideas for how to organize your story concepts, novels, submission tracking, outlining, and more, with plenty of examples and specifics. This was a pretty huge undertaking, so I hope that it’s helpful. If you have additional suggestions, or you find you’re using Trello in a different way, please leave a comment on this blog post or contact me, I’d love to know how you’re utilizing the tools, and I’d love to be able to add on to my collection!Screenshot of the Trello for Writers board collection

My personal favorite uses for Trello are:

  • Developing book ideas, with outlines, character cards, and settings
  • Jotting down quick story ideas for future development
  • Collecting info on various writer’s markets where I might submit stories, and tracking deadlines for markets I’d like to submit to
  • Outlining and collecting research for non-fiction book ideas
  • Creating templates for things I use again and again with different projects, like character sheets and story outline structures
  • Collecting strange and interesting news stories, mythical creatures, and other research that aren’t quite story concepts yet
  • Developing future post ideas for this blog
  • Creating to-do lists of technical tasks I need to complete for this blog
  • Planning the content of my email newletters

If you work in collaboration, like for instance with a co-author, Trello has more than enough collaborative features to cover you.

To get some ideas on how other folks are using Trello (including some specific editorial and blog examples you might find helpful), you can also check out the Trello Inspiration collection. This case study for editorial calendars has a lot of suggestions to offer, too!

When you’ve had a look around, if you think Trello looks like a helpful tool for you, you might want to…

Set up your own Trello account and start tinkering

You’re going to need one if you want to dive in, so you might as well go for it. It’s super easy and it’s super free. Just download the Trello app from the Apple Store, Play Store, or wherever you like to get your mobile apps. You can use the browser version at Trello.com, and you also have the option to download a desktop version from the Microsoft Store or the App Store.

On its most basic level, Trello lets you organize things essentially with index cards, which is a way of working that I feel like a lot of writers have already used — like outlining and planning with index cards — so it’s pretty easy to understand. You can group your Cards together in Lists, and group your Lists together in Boards.

Screenshot of a Trello board showing the board, list, and card structure

Screenshot of Trello card showing what icons meanFor some tips to get you started, you can poke around through my introductory board for writers. You can also take a quick whirl through Trello’s own Getting Started Guide to see how things work. For my fellow visual learners, they’ve got plenty of videos, and you can watch a whole bunch of on-demand webinars that’ll help you with various features, and they’ve got a pretty robust help center. I’ll warn you now that a lot of their content is geared toward business users… if you’re just using Trello by yourself, for your writing projects, you probably don’t need to know how even half the features of this thing work, so don’t be too worried about diving deep into every detail.

As you can see in the labeled image of a Trello card from one of my example boards, there are little icons on the card to tell you that there’s more content inside. Cards without these icons are mostly just there to make boards look more complete. If you do see these icons (especially the description one), you might want to click on the card and give it a read; there are explanations, ideas, and how-to snippets to help you along.

I highly recommend just doing a lot of messing around to see how things work. Use the examples I’ve provided to set up your own boards and see how they work for you!

Go beyond the default

Researching how other authors have used Trello to organize their writing, I found quite a few of them just using Trello’s default lists of To Do, Doing, and Done. These categories might work perfectly for your use, but I’d encourage anyone trying out Trello to really dig in to how you might want to organize your boards. It’s all customizable, after all, so why stick with a to-do list format for everything? For writers, there are a ton of options that would probably work a lot better; for instance if you used Concepts, Drafting, Editing, and Submitting lists to keep track of where your various story ideas are in their development process. (Take a look at the Story Tracking board in my example set to see this format at work.)

If it doesn’t work, try something different

Trello lets you move, rearrange, and rename things all you like. Is the organization method you’re trying out not working? You can rearrange it all without tossing our any of your work or having to re-enter info. Just make a new board or new list and move your cards where you want them. Need some more info on how it works? Here’s the Trello help doc on moving cards or lists, and it also covers bulk list actions, in case you need to move around a whole lot of stuff. You can also just rename and shuffle around your lists.

I’m still discovering new features and reassessing how I’ve organized my data all the time, and putting together my example board collection to share with you guys gave me plenty of new ideas that I’m now using for my own boards. It’s never too late to rearrange.

Embrace organization

This should be enough to get you started with Trello, and if you’re searching for a way to organize your writing, I hope this has been helpful for you. I’m always game for talking Trello and ADHD-beating strategies, so if you have great ideas for organizing writing work, or questions about how you might use Trello to get something done, feel free to hit me up in the comments!

Organizing Your Writing Life With Trello

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3 comments

5 Ways To Track Your Short Story Submissions • Mackenzie Kincaid July 12, 2018 - 3:52 pm

[…] there are so many options that it’s a little overwhelming at first — I’ve wound up using Trello to organize just about everything in my creative life, from writers markets to story outlining to future blog topics. A robust system lets you organize […]

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Maria Delpin October 30, 2018 - 12:45 pm

I found trello on a list of productivity tools and decided to give it a try. At first glace, I was a tad underwhelmed it was so simple I could not really see the genius of it. When I found this blog post and your examples I quickly changed my mind. I am using it to attempt nanowrimo this year for the first time and I’m loving it. Thank you so much for the time and effort you obviously put into this!

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Mac October 21, 2020 - 10:03 pm

Thank you, I’m glad you found it helpful! I’ve shifted to a more customizable software called Notion, and I’m working on how-tos for that as well, but I think if you aren’t incredibly particular about everything Trello is such a great option. (And I do miss how pretty it is when you add background photos, Notion’s a bit more no-nonsense. :D)

I’m extreeeemely late answering this comment but I’d love to know if you’re still using it and how it’s going for you!

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