Reference Desk #7 – Trello

As a part of this Reference Desk series, where I look at useful tools for authors, I’ve now shared most of the software that I use for writing. I covered Scrivener, where I do most of my novel writing. I talked OneNote, where I keep my notes, from story brainstorms to blog posts. Finally, I discussed Dropbox, which I use to back up all my writing work.

However, there’s one more application that I use, for a different aspect of writing – organization and planning. That software is Trello.

I remember seeing Trello when it was first released, and thinking, “Is this really all it does?” Even the Trello website is a bit cagey when describing it, using all sorts of business buzzwords, like “collaborate,” “manage,” “productive,” and “organize.”

Personally, I use Trello to keep track of my weekly to-do list around the house. I use it to plan meals (at least when I’m feeling like a competent adult). I use it to track short stories I’m working on, and what stage of development they’re in. Sometimes I use it to track revision notes or prioritize my projects.

Boards, Lists, Cards

Trello doesn’t dictate a rigid form or structure. It just lets you make lists of things. Shuffle them around, color-code them, or check them off as you get them done.

An accurate (if not thrilling) description of Trello is “an app that makes very flexible lists.” Lists are one of the simplest and most effective ways to take complicated things, big things, and break them down into small and manageable things. That’s what I use Trello for, and that’s what it’s good at.

Trello lists are built from a few simple components. At the top level, there are “boards.” On each board, there are multiple ordered “lists.” On a list, you have “cards.”

Cards have a title and can have a description. They can have little color-coded labels, or comments, start dates and due dates, checklists, pictures, or other attachments. Cards are where the action is.

Simple and Flexible

You can think of Trello as a big cork board. Lists are just columns of index cards, pinned onto the board. You can move them between columns, or up and down a column. But cards are also like file folders, and they can have all sorts of interesting things inside them. From that basic structure, you can organize in whatever way seems natural to you.

The most obvious example is a to-do list. Make a board with three columns: To Do, Doing, and Done. Fill the first column with tasks. When you’re ready to do a task, move it to the middle column. When you’ve finished it, move it to the last column. When everything is done, close the board.

Of course, you can embellish the bare-bones process. You can shuffle tasks in To Do so they’re in the order you plan to do them in. You can color-code them by importance, or amount of effort, or both. You can add a picture to each one. You can add addresses or phone numbers or web links.

You could expand the basic To Do list into a writing board. Perhaps you want more columns: Ideas, Incomplete Drafts, Complete Drafts, Published, and Shelved. Then add a card for each of your stories. Some small story seed might end up as a card in the Ideas column with just a vague title and a few words. As it moves, it could accumulate more ideas, inspiring photos, character bios, and so on.

You could attach the story document directly to the card, or add a link to your cloud backup. You could maintain a list of the magazines you’ve submitted that flash fiction to. Heck, you could attach copies of rejection and acceptance letters.

Hopefully, you can see that these very simple tools can be put together in a lot of ways. Part of what I like about Trello is that I get to figure out how I like to do things over time, and I can adapt my process accordingly.

Collaboration and Synchronization

Trello is an online tool, so your updates are automatically saved and available across devices – computer or mobile – as long as you’ve got internet connectivity. They have the usual iOS and Android apps. I use Trello on my phone about 95% of the time, and it works well.

I use Trello almost exclusively for my own boards that nobody else needs to see, but I have shared boards with my wife in the past, and the changes and sync between the two of us were seamless. Trello is obviously trying to sell to the “enterprise” team crowd, so if you want to coordinate with a few writing or business partners, it shouldn’t break a sweat.

I’ve found the free plan to be more than adequate for individual use. The main limitation that you’re likely to run into is a maximum of 10 open boards. So long as you aren’t updating more than 10 boards on a regular basis, you can always close old ones and stay under the limit.

If you do need more boards, need to upload big files, or want to use some of the serious team collaboration options, the next tier up is about $120 per year.

One Small Caveat

It’s worth noting that Trello was recently acquired by Atlassian, a huge enterprise company that specializes in tools for software development. Thanks to my day job, I’m familiar with most of the Atlassian tools. They’re about as powerful, expensive, rigid and occasionally clunky as you’d expect from software that has big-business plans with prices listed as “Contact Sales.”

Trello has been slowly but steadily adding features over time, and that’s continuing under the new regime. So far, I haven’t seen any unsavory pushing of paid options or favoring big business over individual users. But there’s always that possibility when smaller start-ups are eaten by their older, larger competitors. Time will tell whether Trello influences Atlassian, or vice-versa.

Try It Out

If my description of Trello sounds interesting, I encourage you to try it out with a free account. The only advice I’d offer is to try to come up with more than one way to do things. Play around with it. One of the big advantages is freedom and flexibility that so many apps like this lack. You may find that the flow that ends up working best for you isn’t quite what you expected.

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