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WorkFlowy: A Free Creative Writing Tool To Use On Any Device

The mission of Scribtotum is to share what I’m learning in my quest to live a healthy, productive, successful creative writing life. Of all the tools in my virtual kit bag, few help me be healthy, productive, and creative as well, or as frequently, as WorkFlowy.

WorkFlowy describes itself as “a zoomable document that provides unprecedented flexibility in organizing your ideas.”

I bet the fine folks at WorkFlowy spent a lot of time refining that description, for WorkFlowy is one of those deceptively simple tools that appears rather plain at first glance… but in fact, contains multitudes.

Your multitudes! Organized however you’d like, and accessible on pretty much any device, anywhere.

Don’t Call WorkFlowy An Outliner

It might be tempting to call WorkFlowy an outliner (a text editor used to create documents with a hierarchical tree structure for planning / organizing) and leave it at that. And sure, you can create document outlines in WorkFlowy, and it’s really, really good at that.  In fact, in just a bit I’ll show how I use it for outlining fiction.

But don’t sell WorkFlowy short — or limit its benefit to you — by thinking WorkFlowy is just, or even primarily, an outliner.

Basic at the Core

Workflowy has two primary content types:

  • Items
  • Notes

That’s it!

Items are bulleted content. These can be nested, which is why WorkFlowy most readily resembles an outliner.

Notes are content associated with an individual item.

workflowy items and notes
WorkFlowy Items and Notes. Viewing on a small screen? Click the image for a larger version.

Any item can be moved anywhere in the document, either up / down or indented / outdented.

Additionally, WorkFlowy employs tags (#todo, for example) and asperands (@JohnDoe, for example) to categorize items and notes, and has functionality to mark items as “completed” (and hide or display completed items at will).

Every parent item can be collapsed to hide all its child items, and every item can be “zoomed in” on to be the only one on the screen.

Everything in WorkFlowy is searchable.

Finally, thanks to a variety of intuitive keyboard shortcuts, to use WorkFlowy all you have to do… is type.  So work… flows!

Hmmm…. is that where they got the name..?

From Simplicity… Everything and Anything

WorkFlowy is the encrypted Omega-Level mutant test-tube offspring of a text editor, a to-do list, a notebook, and yes, an outliner and word processor.

It’s my outboard brain.  Here are some of the ways I use it:

  • Calendar
  • To-Do Lists
  • Grocery lists
  • Notepad
  • Project Planning
  • URL bookmarking
  • Brainstorming
  • Commonplace book
  • Storyworld bible(s)
  • Plotting
  • Outlining
  • Writing

One of the problems I always run into with more structured organizational systems is that none of them work exactly the way I want to work. That’s one of the best things about WorkFlowy: its simplicity and flexibility allow you to use it in a way that best suits you.

I have over four hundred (and counting) individual items in my WorkFlowy, all organized in a hierarchical, tagged system that makes sense to me.  And I can adjust it or change it outright, any time I want, as easily as dragging and dropping.

Creative Writing In WorkFlowy

WorkFlowy is a text editor with some basic formatting (bold, italics, underline) built in. The content you enter into WorkFlowy can be exported as formatted text, plain text, or OPML, so whatever you put into WorkFlowy can be easily transferred to Word or OpenOffice Writer.

What more do you need?

Nothing! But thanks to WorkFlowy’s hierarchical, zoomable document structure, you get lots more.

That’s why I use WorkFlowy more and more as the central repository for my creative writing.

creative writing with workflowyHere’s a glimpse at the top-level items in the Writing parent item of my workflowy account.

Under the fiction item, I have individual items for each of my storyworlds (the distinct milieus in which most of my fiction is set), including several items under the “meta” child item.

Under “meta,” the lists vary according to storyworld, but some common items include characters, places, items, animals, organizations… that’s the “story bible” section of my WorkFlowy.

I also make a new item for each of my works of fiction or non-fiction.  I tend to plan novels; short stories I usually make us as I go along and then retro-fit them in a few planning sessions.  All of that work is done in WorkFlowy under an item dedicated to that particular work.

The thing I love about writing in WorkFlowy is… well, heck, there are a number of things I love about it:

  • Everything is within reach: notes, storyworld details, character details, my outline, and the story itself.
  • My content is synced between platforms in real time, so if I start working on my desktop computer, I can take my laptop to a coffeehouse and pick up exactly where I left off.  On the drive over (having pulled over, of course), I could add a note in WorkFlowy on my phone… and see it on the laptop when I sit down with my chai tea latte.
  • My content is encrypted both in transit between me and WorkFlowy’s servers, and at rest on their servers.
  • I can export my content in a variety of formats.
  • Did I mention it’s free for up to 250 items per month (you can pay $5.00 / month or $40 / year for unlimited use, or get 250 additional items per month by recommending WorkFlowy to others)?

But I Already Use EverNote, or Scrivener, or Some Other Note Taker / Outliner

WorkFlowy is designed to be a flexible “offboard brain” for text.

It’s not an EverNote killer; Evernote is built to do something different. If you need to clip and save websites and multimedia and scans of business cards and stuff, use Evernote.

It’s not an outliner-plus-word-processor-plus-ebook-creator; use Scrivener for that (but you’ll need to buy the desktop and mobile versions separately, there’s no Android version, and if you want your different versions to sync, you’ll need a separate Dropbox account…)

The key to what makes WorkFlowy different, and the clue to its purpose, is right there in its name: Work Flow.

Like the best software and hardware tools, WorkFlowy does its job and stays out of your way while it does it, leaving you free to focus on the work itself.

A Jump Start To Fiction Writing In WorkFlowy

WorkFlowy has changed the way I organize things in my everyday life. It’s helped me consolidate from many tools to one. And it’s absolutely boosted my productivity when it comes to being creative and writing.

I want you to reap those benefits, too!

Another of WorkFlowy’s neat features is the ability to share items, or “WorkFlowys,” with other WorkFlowy users.

I’ve adapted the fiction outline template I created for yWriter for use in WorkFlowy. I want you to have it so you can hit the ground running with your own WorkFlowy account!

How To Get the Fiction Outline WorkFlowy

  1. Get WorkFlowy! It’s a web application at its core, so simply get your own WorkFlowy account and then come back to this browser tab.
  2. Make sure you’re logged into your WorkFlowy account.
  3. Come back to this browser tab and open this Fiction Template WorkFlowy link to my shared fiction outline template and follow the prompts.
  4. The shared Fiction Template will now be in your WorkFlowy, but it’s not editable.  Let’s take care of that:
    • Hover over the Fiction Template bullet point (touch on a tablet or a phone)
    • Select “Duplicate” from the sub-menu
    • The duplicate Fiction Template is now editable in your own WorkFlowy! You can delete the original if you like.

Using the Fiction Template WorkFlowy

The Fiction Template is based on the work of Larry Brooks. It’s what I used to plan and plot my second novel, my serial fiction, and I continue to use it for most of my fiction. Even if you’re a “pantser” who writes fiction without any kind of advance plan, plugging your first draft into this template will help you see where your work needs improvement.

There are notes built into the WorkFlowy fiction template, and they should be self explanatory. Some items are placeholders (bridge scenes, for example), and it’s expected that you will probably need more bridge scenes than I’ve provided — all you need to do is duplicate an existing bridge scene, and edit your copy.

You can use my fiction template to plan your fiction and write the actual text elsewhere, or, if you prefer, you can plan, plot, and write your work entirely in the template.  I recommend keeping one “pure” version of the template and work from a copy (change the name of the parent item to something that makes sense for you — probably the name of the work in question).

I’d love to hear about works you create using the fiction template. Tell me about them in the comments!

More WorkFlowy Resources, Templates, and Tutorials

WorkFlowy is deceptively simple! If you want to really go deep and also get the absolute most out of this remarkable tool, check out the following links.

What Do You Think of WorkFlowy?

I love WorkFlowy enough to write a sixteen hundred word article and create a free fiction template for you.  Obviously, I’m into this particular tool / service!

I want to know what you think of WorkFlowy! Are you using it? Are you writing with it?

Tell me about your WorkFlowy experience… in the comments!

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