Trello for Writers and Beyond – Part One

I’ll admit it, I have a technology fetish. I don’t embrace every bleeding edge device, social media service, or website, but I do love to gaze from afar until I am ready to make my move.

As a writer, I spend a lot of time on my computer, and if not there, on my smartphone, writing the great American novel or editing the next anthology I want to publish. That means I have tried many programs, apps, and websites that may (or may not) make me more productive and/or organized so that I can get to what I really want to do: write.

SEARCH Magazine (Summer 2015 and Fall 2016) published a couple of my articles where I briefly list off some of the tools I use. It’s about time that I dedicate more time to deep dives on the ones I use everyday.

Before I start, let’s address the green elephant in the room. I use Evernote to keep all of my research and ideas, organizing it all with purpose and structure. In a nutshell, it is my instantly searchable handy dandy second brain.

However, when I need to organize my plans, while Evernote has come a long way, I still want something with more flexibility. Or to put a finer point on it, something that fits the way I work and think.

As a software developer, I’ve used tools like Rally and Jira which implement a process known as Kanban for tracking the progress of bug fixes through stages like analysis, reproduction, resolution, testing, and deployment.

A kanban board is essentially a white board divided into columns representing those stages and sticky notes to represent tasks. As a task progresses from stage to stage, you move the note to the next column, usually from left to right. Typically at the far left is a backlog, the looming miasma of despair that awaits your team’s attention.

Hopefully each task in the backlog has a priority so the most urgent issues are addressed first. Also it helps to have an estimate of the size of the task, so that when it is assigned to someone to work on, they won’t be overloaded with tasks. The whole point of all of this is to quickly see where bottlenecks are, what is backing up, and address them, but also balance your time among all of the tasks.

It came naturally to me then to want to use the same kind of process breakdown when organizing a writing project. Those other tools, though flexible, are specifically oriented towards agile software development. I wanted something with more freedom and, let’s be honest, was free. Thus enters Trello, a website that can be found at, with apps for Android, iOS, Windows, and Mac.

This is a view of my primary Trello board which I call “All The Things”. That’s actually a bit of a fib because it is only my writing projects I am committing to. I have other boards to manage other projects, like the anthologies I am publishing, and a board just for the novel I am working on. I’ll get to that in my next post.

This board exists to show me that I have a problem over-committing to projects. Um, I mean, the breadth and depth of various things I want to write and publish. The stages are divided between those waiting to be done and those in progress.

I have three backlogs: The Back Burner, Later (low priority), and Soon (high priority). The Back Burner is a true backlog. Stuff I want to write someday is listed here, but none of it has any urgency to it. Later and Soon help me get stuff lined up for what I think I ought to work on next. Depending on inspiration or lack thereof I could pull from any of these lists, but if I am honest in my prioritization, then I should work on those in Soon first.

The remaining columns are the various stages of progress from start to finish. Research & Planning are those stories/articles I am actively gathering research for and outlining. You could make an argument for these to be two separate columns, but since I typically outline and gather research as I go, it makes sense to me to have them in one stage together.

Writing lists everything I currently have worked out the needs and am now doing the deeds. Note that these cards have details such as the deadline, word count, and what draft I’m writing. I use an enhancement (which Trello calls Power-Ups) that allows me to add Custom Fields to the board. I have custom fields for start date, percentage complete, word count goal, priority level, and more.

Users of Trello who use their free service can have only one Power-Up per board, and I highly recommend using Custom Fields. If you find you need more Power-Ups, then you might consider either the Gold or Business premium levels. (Myself, I eventually upgraded to Gold and I love it.)

Of course one doesn’t need the Custom Fields Power-Up. You could just add the same type of information to your card’s description. However, the benefit of the Custom Fields is that the fields you use are displayed in the card’s minimized  view, like this one for my primary work in progress.

Editing is for tasks after my first draft is done and either I am editing it or my Editor is. Cards here may bounce back to Writing if the necessary edits are more than just fixing typos and the like. If I have to make up a new backstory for a character’s arc, back it goes -- maybe even to Research & Planning.

Beta/Review is for drafts that I have sent to Beta readers for review. Much like Editing, if the Beta readers think something needs to be tweaked, back it goes to Writing. If they catch something I or my Editor missed, then it would go to Editing for the fixes it needs.

Finally (off screen) is Submitted. Cards here are for final drafts that I have posted to my blogs (as a draft or pending review) or that have been sent off to Publishers. They stay in this column until the work is published. Then it gets archived and is finally off my radar. If the story is rejected, I will usually have it fall back to The Back Burner, so I can re-evaluate the story or shelve it for another potential Publisher. That is usually not something I work on immediately, unless there’s feedback that I can follow up on sooner.

I realize I probably did not need to go into that much detail, but my justifications for the stages may not be the same as yours, and so I wanted to make it clear what each stage means to my workflow. Now that I’ve addressed that, I wanted to point out some of the features of the cards that make this all more than just a glorified to-do list.

First, every card on my board makes use of Labels, the colored tags at the top of each card. Each board can have a different set of Labels, so they are all custom fit for your purpose. On this board, I used them to describe the type of project: blog, article, short story, book, etc. More than just labels, they are searchable as hashtags which you can filter on.

So let’s say I have completed a novel and I want something new to work on. I don’t want to jump into another novel right away, so maybe I’ll see what short stories I have pending. Up in the search bar I can just type #short and the results will list all of my short stories. I can save this search for later quick access. You can search for free text as well. If I search for short, I might find cards where I described a character as short.

There’s quite a lot of useful data you can associate with a card. When you click on a card, it will display all of its details, like this:

Note that Labels and Due Date come standard. The other fields before the description are all Custom Fields. The attachments are where Trello becomes powerful. This card has a Trello Attachment, which in this case is a link to another Trello board where I am planning out the novel itself. In this way, I can move this card around as needed but it always links directly to where all of the full details are at. You can have Trello Attachments to either cards or boards.

The other Attachments are either files you can upload or are links to websites. They also have integrations to Google Drive, OneDrive, Dropbox, or Box. You can also add Power-Ups to add more integrations for attachments, like for Evernote for example. (Which does make searching for and finding notes to link to easy, but you can do the same thing by simply copying the shareable link to a note and linking to it without the Power-Up.)

What I love is that by having a link to a Google Drive document, like the draft of my manuscript, I can jump from this card directly to Google Docs and start writing online. It’s more complicated if you use OneDrive to store your Word documents, but it will work. The link will open up Word Online and you can edit online or in Word on your computer. (If you have your Word/Office setup to connect to your OneDrive, it will download your file to edit and save your updates back to OneDrive.)

Lastly, I didn’t use them on this card, but you can also add checklists to any card. This is great for outlining or working out a plan and checking off tasks as you complete them. Should the need arise, you can even convert a checklist task into its own card as it grows beyond a simple one-line statement.

On that note, I believe I will stop for now and leave discussion of how I use Trello for plotting out my novel for next time. If you have any questions, feel free to ask.

One Comment

  1. Pingback: Trello for Writers and Beyond – Part Two – The Shaurette Gazette

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