Something that’s been on my mind since this pandemic started and I was left with too much time on my hands has been my writing routine. Specifically my complete lack of one. It’s something I wanted to change in the new year because I knew that was a big reason why I was struggling to make time to write and failing to meet my goals. I had no systems in place to anchor me, and no routine to fall back on when I felt indecisive or unmotivated.
And a big part of that was how I organized my notes. I’ve been writing for a long time, and I’m prone to brainstorm on anything – an audio note on my phone, haphazard typing at my computer, lengthy sessions in my notebook, scribbles on half a dozen post-its – that aspect of my writing can get pretty chaotic.
For the last several years I’ve kept those notes organized in a series of Evernote notebooks, and while I love Evernote as an archiving tool it just doesn’t work as well when you are required to regularly access that information, especially if that information is likely to change.
I needed something new, that I could customize to serve my needs – and more importantly, change as my workflow demanded it. I wasn’t sure what my routine would look like (and I still don’t), but I wanted to be able to customize it to work best for me.
And then I found Notion.
NOTE: This post covers my setup from early 2021. If you’d like to see a full tour of my new 2022 setup, click the button below:
Table of Contents
- What is Notion?
- Converting My Notes from Evernote
- How I Use Notion to Organize My Writing
- Should You Use Notion?
- Free-to-Use Templates
What is Notion?
In case you haven’t heard of it, Notion is an online all-in-one workspace, and it can quite literally do whatever you need it to do. It can manage all your notes and tasks, scheduling, project management, collaborative work – it can even be used as a blog. It’s incredibly powerful, and with the recent addition of a free plan, I knew it was the perfect time to try it out.
It was convenient timing that I was scrolling on Youtube and happened to come across a video of a content creator sharing their Notion layout. From there, the Youtube rabbit-hole took over, and I watched dozens of notion tour videos from writers, bloggers, students, and entrepreneurs, and every single layout was different – customized to suit the needs of their users.
Notion could be anything you needed it to be – a calendar, kanban board, a wiki. It was extremely flexible and looked to be exactly what I needed to re-organize my writing.
Converting My Notes from Evernote
I had over 2000 notes in Evernote, in what felt like an endless nest of notebooks, and it was a long and tedious chore to go through all of them and move over relevant information in addition to building my new workspace the way I wanted it.
But that also presented a good opportunity.
A lot of my notes were no longer relevant, and I had so many half-written posts and unfinished story ideas. I could clean out those notes that were no longer important, and rebuild my systems from the ground up. I knew it would be a tremendous undertaking, but my systems were not working for me anyway.
I needed something new, and no matter what I chose, I would need to go through those 2000 notes to figure out what I needed to keep and what I had to get rid of.
And with that, I began the very long process of moving into Notion.
My Current Notion Dashboard
This is how I currently have my dashboard or “home page”, and it has been working pretty well for me so far. I’m still making some tweaks here and there as I use it, just to better optimize it so I’m no full tour just yet.
It took several weeks to get through all of those notes, and I went through different configurations before I found something I liked. I started with everything split into different databases, but unfortunately one of the drawbacks to using Notion was that I could only display a calendar with one “database” and I wanted to be able to see everything at a glance as soon as I opened up the app.
After several more weeks of testing and re-organizing, I had a loose system in place, and I began fiddling with it to better suit my needs. I ended up with the homepage you see above, which I am quite happy with, and have organized the rest of my work into various categories.
How I Use Notion to Organize My Writing
But now we get into the nitty-gritty – how I actually use it to keep my writing organized.
As mentioned before, Notion allows you to create databases, which are essentially tables, and each item in the table is a “page” for taking notes or drafting, and you can assign them a variety of properties that allow you to sort and filter them.
Each of these databases can take a variety of forms – you’re not limited to the classic table. There are Kanban boards, lists, calendars, and more. You can also create more instances of the same database with different filter and sorting profiles. No matter where you access the database, one change will be reflected in all of them, and this is incredibly powerful, and meant that I could create different profiles for every type of writing that I do.
I have one massive “master” database, where I dump all of my work. Projects, tasks, drafts, purchases – almost everything is in this database, and from there I can use more instances of the database to organize them into different layouts.
Because I use one database, I can have everything visible on my monthly calendar as soon as I pull up my Notion dashboard. This was really important to me, because I have a tendency to lose track of things if they’re not immediately visible to me.
If you look to the left of my setup, you’ll see a bunch of entries under “workflow”, and that’s where I do most of the actual writing if I don’t see something on the calendar. I have all of my database instances organized there depending on what their purpose is.
There might appear to be a lot of moving parts to this system, but they are all connected to the same database, or those databases are threaded together to connect relevant material.
It’s important to note that having a massive master database is not for everyone. It takes a long time to set up, and it can be a little frustrating when you consider how large that database can grow to be. It takes some dedication and maintenance, but if you have a lot going on, it might be worth it for you, too.
Many of these sections are still works in progress, and once I feel “settled” in my Notion setup, I’ll be sure to update you with any changes to my system.
The first section of my workflow is my inbox, which is simply a database of all of my tasks. When I need to do something, I can jump into my inbox and quickly add a new task, assign necessary dates, priority levels, and link it to any projects or other databases. Nothing too fancy, but this is the database that changes the most from day-to-day.
Below the Inbox is my Author Dashboard, where I organize everything associated with my fiction writing. I have specific pages for the series I’m working on as well as my standalone novels. I also have a lot of marketing and newsletter plans and things of that nature, as well as a page dedicated to all of my writing ideas.
I have another calendar there, except it shows me only the deadlines specific to my fiction. This section was by far the most difficult to transfer, and I’m still in the process of finding what works for me.
The biggest problem I faced when reorganizing my writing was the plethora of notes I had for my books. I’ve been writing for a long time, and as a fantasy writer, I had endless pages not just about plot ideas and characters but about the world, and the magic systems, about fantastic locations and pieces of fictional maps. Some of those notes were still relevant and some were not, and there was no easy way to organize that.
It was important that in moving to Notion I didn’t repeat the same mistakes that had me sitting on top of a mountain of unorganized digital notes. I needed to create a system that would more easily organize all of those notes.
Creating My Story Toolkit
Last year I checked out the Story Toolkit workshop from author and writing coach Rachael Stephen, and it completely changed how I think about brainstorming and organizing all of my notes.
The toolkit, which was essentially a set of tools optimized for collecting and organizing what she called “canon” and “potential” meta text. Canon being the actual facts of the story, and your “potential” being all of the brainstorming and writing that you do as you as a precursor to creating that canon.
Not too complicated once you understand the concept, but in the workshop, Stephen primarily used traditional pen and paper for her note management and I liked to work digitally. I knew I needed something like this toolkit, especially since I was already aware that my notes were a mess, but I figured it would be too late to try to integrate.
It was another fun coincidence then, that as I have been rebuilding my systems in Notion that the Story Toolkit workshop reopened. I have since watched the workshop several times, and have integrated a lot of the principles around Stephens’ Story Toolkit into my Notion workspace.
So, what is the Story Toolkit?
I won’t go into it too deeply, and if you struggle with organizing your notes as I do, I recommend that you check out the workshop when it reopens again. It’s free of charge, and you can sign up to find out when it opens on Rachael Stephens’ website.
The toolkit is comprised of a handful of tools. The first of which is the text – the story itself, in all its various drafts, and the meta-text, which is split into a workbook for your writing process and brainstorming, and the journal, which is the refined, “canon” meta text you need for your draft.
That is only scratching the surface, but suffice to say the idea of generating and organizing your brainstorming into “canon” and “potential” to shift the focus to brainstorming when the need arises, rather than for its own sake (and thus avoid the classic world-builder disease), were essential to building my new system.
My Evernote profile had become a disorganized mass of random notes after all. I had to avoid allowing my system to become that in the future.
I created within my master database, a “notebook” database which has essentially become a dumping ground for my brainstorming, much like the toolkit’s workbook. I tag it with a date, a title, and link it to an associated project. Then I have a place to explore all of those ideas I have without clogging up any worldbuilding or plot notes. When I’m finished with it, I can “canonize” what I need to and then I archive the note.
In place of a journal (as I am currently working on a series), I’ve created a series wiki – another database of all of my canon meta-data – characters, world notes, and things of that nature. With my current novella, I have a page with an outline organized in the gallery view (which looks sort of like the index cards in Scrivener), and finally, the draft itself.
I’ve started building a Notion template that uses the Story Toolkit principles, as I’m a huge fan of how it reimagines the brainstorming process. I’m still working out the details as I use it myself, and once I think I’ve found a working system, I’ll be sure to share it!
Here is the start of one of my ideas in the beginning stages of an outline in the “gallery view”. With this, I’m able to create a storyboard with cards, and each card can have a bit of information about what happens in the story.
This was one of the big points in Notion’s favour, as I have been a lover of Scrivener for a long time for this very reason. And because everything can be moved with a simple click-and-drag, it’s really easy to shift things around within the Notion databases as well.
Below my Author Dashboard is my blog dashboard, and much like the author space, it includes a calendar of upcoming posts and tasks related to my blog, as well as information regarding my blogging goals and audience, log-in information for all of the services I use, and a massive database of post ideas, all separated by topic.
My blogging has been sporadic of late as I adjust my workflow, but I have been regularly working on drafts, and when I’m ready to add something to my calendar, I simply give it a date, load up a blog post template, and get to writing. When I look at the calendar now, I can see which posts I have scheduled to go up next, and it has been really easy to shuffle things around as I need to.
The blog post you are reading right now was written first in Notion. I keep a checklist of necessary steps – final revisions, checking links, creating relevant images and promotional stuff for Pinterest or Instagram, and then I move it over to WordPress for a final proofread and format check.
Another fun feature of Notion is the page templates. Within your database, you can save templates – a pre-set configuration you can save to use over and over again, which is extremely useful when you’re planning a blog post or something like it.
What you see above is my current blog post template, and it covers most of the basics. It’s not overly busy either, which makes it easier for me to just jump straight into writing.
Under my blog dashboard is my final “writing” section, which hasn’t seen much action yet, but I’ll briefly go over how I’ve organized it.
I’ve yet to start posting on Medium and expanding in that regard (though I do have plans for that relatively soon – expect some posts about my experience!), but I did want to get a workflow set up so I have a place separate from my blog dashboard to write.
Some of my content will be cross-posted there, but I wanted to explore other topics that don’t necessarily fit with Alyssa Lost in Space. It gives me a chance to write about new topics without worrying about my current blog’s brand and audience.
For the moment, this workflow is very basic, and will probably shift as I begin posting there and figuring out what works best for me. For now, I have a copy of my page bio, some publications I’m interested in writing for, as well as a list of posts I plan to write (with their own unique Medium post template). I also have a handful of tips at the ready for when I’m writing, to increase my chances of my posts getting curated.
After all of the “proper” writing sections, I do have a project section where I index all of the projects ideas I have, and the few that I’m actively working on I keep at the forefront of my workflow. These are not necessarily writing projects, though it does include things like novels or novellas. They’re not optimized in the same way the rest of my writing is, so I’m not going to go into too much detail. The format of each varies depending on what the project is, but it’s really handy to quickly see (and access) those projects when I boot up the app.
Should You Use Notion to Organize Your Work?
If it’s not already obvious from how much I’ve gushed about this program, I love it, and so far it works well for me and what I use it for. I would heartily approve if you were looking for something to organize your writing (especially if it was as chaotic as mine!)
But there is a learning curve to it, and it can take a long time to set up. And time spent setting up your system is also time you could be writing.
If your current system works for you, then it might not be worth it to change to something entirely new. It’s also easy to procrastinate and think that by migrating everything to a new app you’ll solve any productivity problems you may have. Your tools are only as valuable as you allow them to be, so you have to actually use them for that to work.
It’s really easy to get excited about a new program, but there isn’t much point if you spend all your time setting it up only to never use it.
At the time of writing this, Notion also lacks an offline mode, which means you’ll need to be connected to the internet to access your writing. Not a big deal for me, but don’t expect to take your laptop to an off-the-grid cabin in the woods to write your novel.
That being said, it is very powerful and can be an excellent tool in your writing arsenal if you allow it to be.
The Power of Templates
One of the coolest things about Notion is the ability to share any of the pages you come up with and allow anyone to “duplicate” them into their own workspace. From there they can use it as is or customize it to suit their needs. There are plenty of people out there who have created these “templates” for you to try out, especially if you’re a writer.
If Notion seems like something you’d like to try, I’d recommend starting with a template. The setup is already done for you, and you can try out many of Notion’s features to see if the app works for you.
I went on a search and found a few templates for bloggers and authors you can check out, if you want to give Notion a try.
Since posting this walkthrough of my system last year, I have used (and loved) Notion a lot more, and have made some updates for the new year. If you want to see the current version of my setup including a full tour of my dashboard, click the link below:
How do you organize your writing? Do you find your current systems work for you or are you looking for something new? Have you used Notion before? Let me know in the comments below!