Mitchell Kimbrough
Mitchell Kimbrough

Founder

Posted on Oct 11, 2019

Trello: An Excellent Way To Write A Book

I’ll just address two of the three factors real quick to get them out of the way so that we can move on to the Trello part. First, it is known that many successful authors write early in the morning. This is a time of peak brain acuity and focus. It’s also when my family is asleep. Early morning writing is essential for the completion of a book project in my view. Second, abandoning ego and writing entirely for your intended audience is a magic salve to all the mental blocks I have ever encountered. During my process, any time I thought of myself, of what people would think of my work, of the acclaim or humiliation I would experience, I would get stuck. I was immediately freed by thinking about how my work was going to help the people I had identified as my audience. The more I focussed on them, the more I got out of my own way. The more I focussed on my people, the less my ego got in the way.

Trello
I work in technology but I’m slow to adopt the new stuff. Trello has been around for a long time, but I only started using it seriously a couple of years ago. It’s swell!

People think of Trello like a corkboard. You have cards that you write ideas on and then you pin those cards up on the board in rows and columns. You move them around and categorize them to create meaning.

In Trello, cards can have all sorts of attributes. The baseline set of attributes that I cared about in my project are the title, description and labels. Titles and descriptions are obvious. Labels are colored tags that can be attached to a card to give it extra meaning. A card can have more than one label and labels can be shared across cards.

Most people use Trello for project management. On complex projects at Solspace we use it for this. We love it in particular for bug tracking. The columns on a client’s bug board represent the phases that a bug can go through (i.e. reported, working, verified, closed) and the cards are the bugs. A card can get labels for priority as well as deadlines and image attachments for those times when a bug really needs to be spelled out.

Method
All of the above is great, but it turns out that Trello lines up very cleanly with my methods for long-form writing. Since college, when I needed to write something of significant complexity or length, I would tear up 8.5 x 11 sheets of recycled paper and make little cards. I would relish the times when I found some discarded scratch paper of different colors. These would be used as section headings or other organizing indicators.

When it came time recently for me to write up an idea I’d had in book form, I was preparing to cut up discarded paper like in olden times. I was annoyed that I would be carrying around a big stack of scrap paper like before. I was wishing that I could use my iPhone. In fact, I was hoping that during those times when I had 5 or 10 minutes to kill I could pull out my phone and instead of reading the news or playing Toy Blast I could work on my book. That’s when using Trello as my organizer clicked.

Outlines
I long ago learned to write in outline form. And I learned to build and shape an outline in layers carefully over time. You build out sections bit by bit sort of like how silt settles in the flow of a river. Eventually you have very little to actually write since the outline has so much narrative detail.

I should not have been surprised when Trello’s ability to help me organize thought into structure gave way to allowing me to just completely write the book inside it. I built up my outline as usual in the form of columns and cards. Each card ended up being a chapter. And I used labels on cards to indicate groupings of chapters. This method was even better than the old outline method.

Back in the college days I would work up my paper cards in stacks, adding notes and flesh from various research sources. I would organize these until they were coherent and there were no obvious holes in the pattern. Then I would transfer this information over to MS Word in the form of a literal outline; roman numerals and all that jazz. Once in outline form, I would cut and paste and move stuff around as necessary. It was easy to lose track of big branches of the outline though. It was hard to see the whole picture. Finding symmetry and balance across a work was nearly impossible.

Using Trello as my writing canvas fixed most of the above problems. Cards have titles and that’s pretty much all you can see when you look down on a complete board. Labels show up here as well and the color coding is a powerful thing. So you can look down on your structure from 10,000 feet. You can see order or lack thereof. You can see symmetry or lack thereof. Eventually this method let me compose a thought framework that has a numerical symmetry and power I would not have dared dream of.

Steady Progress
The Trello method of writing a book has a distinct advantage that may be its biggest selling point. It supports the rule of steady progress on big projects. When you build out your book outline in Trello you see the expanse of where the book is headed. You see the major sections, subsections and eventual chapters all at once. You know how far you have to go and you can feel your steady advance in that direction. When you can see the finish line, the race is so much easier to run.

In this Trello method of writing, you gain the ability as well to see future problems on the horizon. This ability is essential to being able to obey the rule of steady progress. When you see that you are headed into troubled territory. You can be ready for it. You can even anticipate how long until you land there. In my case I was writing a chapter a day. This meant that I could see a problem section weeks in advance and I could start getting psyched up for it. I could also plant the problems into my subconscious and let it do it’s magic on them while I worked on the easier bits. By the time I came around to the more blocky bits I had too much built up momentum to have any real trouble. This piece may have been at the heart of why I finished a book after so many years of failed attempts.

Shareability
Books need editors. You have to share your work with trusted critics in order for it to advance from decent to good. Trello is perfect for this.

Every card in Trello can have comments. The comments make up a conversation about that specific card. This creates a space where other collaborators can offer editorial insight and maintain a record of changes and ideas. This ended up being a big deal. It streamlined the writing and editing process and made the thing manageable.

Export
So how does a book written in Trello get out of Trello and in to the world? Well first remember that the description field in a Trello card holds the text of a chapter. The word limit in this field is high enough to support a chapter of ideal reading length. Getting the chapters of the book out of Trello and into the world means a simple cut and paste.

It’s useful to keep in mind one of the other 3 main reasons I was finally able to finish a book. I got out of my way and tried to serve my audience. This meant that I didn’t spend much time thinking of finding an actual publisher to turn the book into a bound volume and send a copy to the Library of Congress. Instead I was happy with just publishing the book on the web. It has its own website and sort of behaves like a long and carefully structured blog. It’s over here if you want to have a look.

It was most important just to get my ideas into the hands of the people they were intended for. I was willing to make them available for free. This was key. This was the final abandonment of my own ego and it released me to actually finish. Exporting the book from Trello is a simple cut and paste into the Craft CMS instance that I set up for the purpose. Although the book is fully written, I’m publishing a chapter a week and making this available as a weekly email as well.

You
A work colleague of mine got wind that I used Trello to write a book. She introduced me to another friend of hers who was about to start his own. I don’t think he used this exact method, but I do know that hearing some of the tips that helped me helped him in turn.

After reading this I hope you will consider the idea of getting off of that great book idea of yours and getting it into the world. I think you just need a reliable process and you can make it happen too.

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