Workflowy: A Great Tool for Outlining

Lisa Jackson Haselton writerOutlines definitely have their place, as Edith points out, but until recently, just the thought of writing an outline before the story caused me to avoid writing all together. Which is bad. A writer needs to write.

But, honestly, the idea of sitting down to craft an outline froze my mind. I’m a ‘pantster’ by nature – the type of writer who prefers to sit down with a blank page or screen and just let the words flow.

Outlines obviously have their place. They are especially valuable to mystery writers who have details and clues to keep track of, along with everything else.

One of my challenges with outlines, and maybe you can relate, is to let go of the memories of the formal outlines taught in school – you know the kind, right? Mixing Roman numerals with letters and capital case with lower case in the correct order, and with the correct indentation.

Another challenge is that writing outlines on paper gets messy. I think for many writers, our thoughts don’t come out sequentially, especially as we’re brainstorming a story. And I know my efforts on paper turn into many pieces of papers with a lot of crossed out phrases, arrows pointing to new lines, editing marks, and so on.

Using Word or Excel (or something similar) to outline stories gets cumbersome and all the scrolling up and down and across can be frustrating.

I’ve even used index cards for outlining, but without being able to spread the cards out on a large wall, floor, or table to see the ‘flow’, they didn’t work for me. Having the cards remain in a stack wasn’t beneficial and there’s no sense numbering them if the idea is to be able to freely move them into a new order!

But then a wonderful event happened in January of this year. I found a free tool called Workflowy. It’s a tool to ‘organize your brain’ and is efficient at doing just that. The tool makes it easy to manipulate the levels of a task or a goal. I first started using it for goal setting.

After a while, I started tracking stories in process, and found myself adding bullet points of ideas. And, wow, the power of seeing a story fleshed out like that makes a difference. (I knew it would, but just hadn’t found the process that worked for me before now).

Workflowy (and I’m not being paid for my comments) lets me move thoughts around easily and I can print out any portion of the outline I want at any time.

Updates I make are e-mailed to me each morning, too. It’s a fabulous way to review work from the day before and get the muse engaged early.

The outlining I do in Workflowy is painless, clean, and, my favorite part, easy to do. I just drag and drop an item from the bottom, to the middle. No fuss, no mess, no loss of ideas, no inserting spaces or crossing out and using arrows to redirect the reading.

And then I can copy my work from Workflowy into Scrivener or a Word document and get the story crafted.

Workflowy lets me retain my sense of writing freehand while organizing my thoughts painlessly.

If you’re challenged with outlines, I recommend giving this tool a shot. There’s nothing to install or download. You can access it from anywhere you have Internet.   The Workflowy blog gives a lot of details about the tools features.

Have you heard of Workflowy? Have you tried it? Does it seem like a tool that could work for you?



About Lisa Haselton

Lisa Haselton has had several short mystery stories published and has a couple of novels in various stages of completion. She always enjoys learning new tidbits about other writers, and takes great pride as an editor when working with writers on polishing their manuscripts. She's living a life around her passions for writing, photography, volunteering, and anything related to New England, particularly New Hampshire.
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13 Responses to Workflowy: A Great Tool for Outlining

  1. Nancy Gardner says:

    This sounds very useful, Lisa. I’m going to look into it! Much thanks for the pointer!

  2. edithmaxwell says:

    Cool, Lisa. I’m definitely going to look into it. Thanks!

  3. Jan Brogan says:

    I just FINISHED (drumroll please) outlining my three-viewpoint historical and for me, it gives me confidence. I usually always outline after I write about a hundred pages and figure out who the characters are and what I think I want to say. Even if I ignore the outline it’s useful. I will definitely check out Workflowy

  4. Thanks for the info on this tool. I took a look at it, watched all the videos, was really impressed and have started using it. I’m very impressed with it’s flexibility and it’s breadth.

  5. Sarah Smith says:

    Nice simple program (though I think most of us would quickly run out of room in the free Workflowy, which limits you to 500 items a month). Have you looked at Scrivener? I like it because it lets me do all this note-taking and include stuff like music, pictures, and video.

    • Lisa Jackson says:

      Yes, I use Scrivener. It’s very handy, I’m so glad they finally came out with a version for PC. 🙂

      I like workflowy for its simplicity and ability to capture details right away no matter where I am. And copying into Scrivener is a breeze.

      • Jay Verney says:

        Hi Lisa, Thanks for the article – I’ve just discovered Workflowy and it looks ideal for outlining stories, novellas, novels, anything really. I also use Scrivener (still a beginner). When you say copying from Workflowy to Scrivener is a breeze, do you mean that you just need to copy and paste and there it is? I hope so – appreciate your confirmation on this – I’ll go and give it a go as soon as I get some content into Workflowy.

      • Lisa Jackson says:

        Yep, that’s it exactly. Very easy to c&p. I’ve been using Workflowy for over a year now and enjoy its simplicity of keeping things organized. 🙂

  6. Caitlin says:

    I have used this for outlining and it has been helpful 🙂

  7. Hi Lisa – I’m really interested to hear a little more about how you align Workflowy and Scrivener? When you say you copy things across, do they end up in one doc in Scrivener or split? I am looking at an outlining tool or mind mapping tool that works well with Scrivener….

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