A few ideas for organizing writing notes
I’m showing my system of organization, but also giving some suggestions for methods to try if you haven’t already. I’ve used a number of different programs and methods that have worked only marginally for me or that just didn’t fit my needs. I’ll be mentioning them later on. They might be just what you need, since you’re a different kind of writer with a different kind of thought process.
Everyone has a different way of organizing writing notes. My way may not work for you. The important thing is that you find something that does work for you. Don’t try to conform your entire thought process to one method unless it makes sense for the way you think. If something isn’t gelling with your thought process, change it, adapt it, or ditch it.
I’m a fantasy writer, so I have to keep a lot of notes about worldbuilding as well as plot. I also tend to think all over the place, so my challenge over the years has been to streamline the way I document notes so I can easily reference them later, but also to find a way to add ideas quickly that won’t create complete chaos out of my neurotic organization.
This is the most extensive type of notetaking any writer needs to do, especially if you’re writing in a genre that involves research. I choose to do a lot of mine on paper. I’ve tried doing it digitally, and that might ultimately be more efficient (it’s flexible and searchable), but I’ve found that keeping a notebook rather than a file or Google Drive folder or a bunch of bookmarks works best for me. I can flip through it like a physical book to find what I need instead of having to figure out what goddamn file I put that one note in.
I combined the concept of the story/worldbuilding bible with a bullet journal, because it’s much more pleasant to add and read notes if everything looks pretty. I use a dot grid notebook, bullet journal style, because I do have the occasional sketch or family chart or whatever, and I just think it looks nicer.
You can see my first page index here. I’ve also added labeled tabs for the stuff I reference most.
Each section has colored titles, headings, and subheadings.
What’s in it?
I’ve adapted various worldbuilding bible templates, especially this one created by Patricia Wrede many, many moons ago. There are plenty of other templates out there. I didn’t use the same order, but it was a good checklist for what to think about when creating a new world and new cultures.
I also have extensive character notes, again adapted from various character questionnaires and such, notes for future plot points, lists of tertiary character names, lists of ideas for character names, and some notes on plot. I tend to start my plot notes on paper and eventually move them digital, as you’ll see in a moment.
There’s evidence that writing something by hand helps you remember and process better (or at least differently). Because a) I’m able to do this and b) my working memory is like swiss cheese (i.e. full of holes), I tend to like working on paper. It helps me be as meticulous as I want to be, and I’m also not bound to a computer if I need to look something up. This is helpful especially because I also hand write most of the time.
If I don’t have the notebook with me, I don’t have the notes. This has been annoying when traveling, for example, when I don’t want to carry around one more object. There’s also the small, nightmarish chance that I might someday lose it or it will get damaged. Believe me, I’ve thought about that.
Spur of the moment ideas
Everyone gets them, and usually at inopportune times, when you’re not near your notebook or computer. I’ve managed to confine spontaneous brainwaves to two things: sticky notes and my phone’s note app.
I’m a teacher and also obsessed with office supplies, so I pretty much always have sticky notes at hand. I’ll scribbled down an idea (that will hopefully make sense to me later) and put it either in a writing notebook or the most conspicuous place I can think of, e.g. my laptop keyboard, for filing and adding to my worldbuilding bible later. If I’m in the middle of something else that’s writing-related, I can also scribble a note and slap it into the back of my actual-writing notebook if my worldbuilding notebook isn’t to hand. Eventually, it all gets written into the worldbuilding notebook. In the meantime, it’s safely documented somewhere that I know it will stay and be seen later on.
Super easy, low tech. I can write notes in places where I can’t or shouldn’t access my phone, like in class. Whipping out my phone while I’m teaching is not a good look.
Very easy to lose. I’ve learned to take a couple extra seconds to make sure the note goes somewhere safe and conspicuous. It never ever gets stuffed somewhere random.
Note taking app
I have an iPhone, so I use the Notes app for everything. There are plenty of other, more elaborate apps, like Evernote, but I like the simplicity of the Notes app. If I don’t have a sticky note or pen with me, or if it’s four in the morning and I just woke up with an idea, I can grab my phone and type it in. Occasionally, if I’m in the car, I’ll get Siri to take notes for me.
Convenient. I have my phone near me 95% of my life. I use the app for grocery lists and other things, so having my writing notes there is also great. Since I also have a Macbook, my notes sync between my laptop and my phone.
While I like the simplicity of this app, it’s not great for actually organizing the notes. It’s also bad form to use your phone while driving, obviously, and Siri does not always understand me. I made a series of notes while stuck in traffic at one point, went back and read them later on, and saw several references to “the rain.” Actual conversation with myself:
WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK KIND OF RAIN ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT, AVERY?
Ummm I have no idea. This book has nothing to do with weather. Was this idea about weather?
Oh. OOOOHHH. Therian.
Plot notes and outline
I’ve tried so, so many methods and apps and programs for plotting and outlining. Nothing, including much-loved programs like Scrivener, have worked for me. Their way of organizing the program just doesn’t match up to my writing or mental organization.
The app I’ve found most useful is Trello, which is a little like a digital version of the plot card method, only better. Essentially, you create categories and cards within those categories that you can title, tag, and add notes and attachments to. You can also add to-do lists and collaborate with others if you’re working on a joint project.
I have three Trello boards for The Taste of Fire, which I created at different points in my process.
I had several plot threads to juggle, so I made each thread into a list. Specific plot points or events went onto the cards, which I tagged to categorize them across lists: e.g., actions, reactions, relationship events, background events, and so on. Each Trello board has slightly different tags according to the purpose of the board.
I didn’t try to organize these cards in any chronological way at first, but I eventually did, as you can drag and drop the cards within and across lists. This board was really about laying out what was happening across plot threads without worrying about the specific order of scenes.
The second board I created was similar to the first, except in this one I laid out plot points in rough order according to act. The salient thing here is that I was thinking about plot points and not about specific scenes. There could be several scenes surrounding the same event.
Tags are similar in this board. In fact, I copied a lot of the cards from the first board, laid out in a different way. It’s good to keep both because 1) it’s digital and I can, and 2) I can reference plot points by plot thread and by their specific position in the narrative as well.
The third board, which I’m referencing more often these days, is development, editing, and publishing-related. I’m serializing The Taste of Fire on Patreon, so these cards are separated out scene by scene and tagged according to their development/publication status status, POV, and what needs to be done with them if they’re already written.
It’s free, and there’s a mobile version that’s also free. You can link documents from Google Drive, Dropbox, or OneDrive for easy reference. It allows you to collaborate if that’s your thing. You can add as many tags as you want. You can also incorporate to-do lists and due dates for each card. A card can exist in multiple lists within the same board or in multiple boards. Cards can be easily moved around. It could be great for taking notes, too, and I might try that if I ever want to give up my beautiful bullet journal.
For me, not many, but for general use, a few. Attaching documents has very little functionality. It’s basically just like attaching a document to an email: if you want to edit it, you have to download it, edit it, then upload it again. Cards can exist in multiple places, but making an edit to one place won’t change the card in other places. There are no sub-lists, so if you have a big collection of cards, you’ll end up with many smaller lists or several big ones. Minor quibble: deleting a card isn’t straightforward–you have to “archive” it instead.
In sum: if you like the plot card approach and are interested in a digital version, try Trello.
If you’re like me, you get enthusiastic about a new program or method, try it for a bit, then drop it after a while. Most of the time, this happens because that new program isn’t incorporated into your established practice or routine. This is the reason why I’ve dumped a bajillion different programs and systems and methods–I just ultimately couldn’t sustain them. They were either too hard/inconvenient to make part of my habits or too boring to keep my interest, and I don’t have time for either.
If you find this happens to you, you can do one of two things: try to incorporate it or find something else that’s easier to incorporate. Don’t stick to something that isn’t working for you. If it’s not working for you, it’s working against you.
Other tools I’ve tried
These things didn’t ultimately work for me, but they’re interesting and might work for you just fine.
- Evernote: Evernote is probably the thing that comes closest to an all-in-one for me. You can write text files, save clippings from online articles, scan and mark up documents, attach pictures, create to-do lists that can send you reminders at a certain time or at a certain place, and more. I have no idea why it’s never clicked for me. Just one of those things. It’s free, but if you pay for it, you get more space and more stuff.
- Scrivener: well-regarded in general and made for writers. It’s a really dense program with a lot of very granular tools, which is ultimately why it doesn’t work for me. That said, there’s lots of space for world building, character creation, plot carding, and so on. It does cost money, so keep that in mind.
- WriteitNow: similar to Scrivener, but it also includes a different storyboard. The layout and functionality is somewhat different, and it’s a bit more old school.
- World Anvil: a very, very cool project built for RPG campaign running as well as world building. You create a world, name it, and describe it. It has predetermined categories (e.g. religion, species, etc.) where you can add articles and notes. It’s free, but if you’re a subscriber on Patreon ($3/month), you can make your world public, add co-authors, and get subscribers. I wasn’t able to fold this into my writing process, but I still want to use it somehow in the future.
Is my method of organization efficient? Maybe not the most efficient in the sense that it’s not all in the same place. Does it help me keep track of things better? Definitely. Is it for everyone? Unless your brain is scattered in the same why my brain is, no. But I hope you find something you’d like to try from this list.
What tools do you use to organize your writing? What have you tried that didn’t work?