Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Using ToDoList for Writing

I am always on the lookout for something to help me stay organized while writing my novels, especially when it comes to the editing stage. I like to have an overview of each chapter so that I can gain a high-level view of the entire project. For me, this makes re/organization much easier.

One of my favourite tools in this category is a program called ToDoList. At first glance, it seems to be little more than a fancy tasklist program but it has some powerful features that make it perfect for staying on top of a manuscript. And, best of all, it's completely free.

I use Word for writing the actual manuscript, but there are times when I want a high-level overview of the plot--particularly when there are multiple threads. It is easy to get lost when the plot gets thick. With many characters existing in more than one timeline, it’s easy to forget who is doing what, where, and why. This is when I use ToDoList to stay organized.

At the very heart of the program is the Task window, which can be viewed as a tree (as in Windows Explorer) or as a flat list. I prefer to use the tree structure because it gives a nice visual overview of the book. Each task can be given a comment and tasks can be allocated properties useful for time-keeping. For example, you can specify a deadline for the project for each chapter and sub task. You can also allocate different icons, allowing you to see, at a glance, the content of each chapter or scene. For example, an action scene might have one icon, a romantic scene another, and a dramatic scene a different icon.

 Let’s suppose I want to start a new story. I start by creating a new Project. I then allocate a task for each chapter. Then I create a sub-task for each chapter scene. Finally, I create sub-sub-tasks for each important action or moment. So, the first couple of chapters of my new novel “Round Table” might look something like this:

Project: Round Table
- Chapter 1 - Opening scene (hook)
    Scene 1 - Bank robbery
        Moment 1 - Lancelot arrives at the bank
        Moment 2 - Lancelot robs the bank
        Moment 3 - Lancelot makes a getaway
- Chapter 2 - 1 year earlier .
    Scene 1 - Lancelot working in bank
        Moment 1 - Lancelot goes to lunch, returns to fetch coat
        Moment 2 - Lancelot sees money being transported
        Moment 3 - Lancelot notices lapse security
    Scene 2 - Lancelot at home - intro wife (Guinevere)
        Moment 1 - Lancelot talks to Guinevere
        Moment 2 - Guinevere distracted/bored
        Moment 3 - Lancelot mentions lapse security at bank
        Moment 4 - Guinevere jokingly suggests robbing the bank

In ToDoList, it would look something like this:

As you can see, the project is “Round Table” (this will also be the default file name). I have many tasks displayed as a tree. Each task has a brief description entered in the Comment window on the right with the first line of the comment displayed next to the task in the Tasklist. I have given a special icon for each chapter. The “lightning bolt” indicates action while the “people icon” shows an important social interaction.

In this way, I have an overview of my story. I can display every chapter, every scene, and every moment. Or, if I want a higher-level overview, I can collapse the sub-tasks. So, for example, I can display just the chapters with their icons and comments to tell me what each is chapter is about.

The amount of detail for each task is very customizable, which means you can have a relatively uncluttered screen. Each task can display up to thirty pieces of information, including start and end time, and percentage complete. As you finish each task, a tick in the Completed Status box changes the task font to strikethrough, giving a quick view of your progress.

The comment box can be in either Simple Text or Rich Text, and can hold a huge amount of data. In fact, it is possible to put your entire novel in the comments. As a test, I built a 1 million word novel using the comment box. The program had no problems managing that much text. Later, when it comes time to formatting your novel, you can export the comments to a file for cleaning up.

Here is a step by step guide to building a new project.

In the image below, we see the program without any tasklists or tasks. To start a new tasklist "My Novel", select File->New Tasklist from the menu, or simply type "My Novel" into the Project box below the menu and click the Save icon.

To add a new Task, click the green Plus icon. A new Task will appear with the title Task. Type a name for the Task (e.g. "Chapter 1") and hit Enter, or click the green Plus icon.

To add more tasks, click the green Plus icon. You can also do a copy/paste action. To create a subtask, select an existing task and click the small green Plus icon on the right. A subtask will appear below and to the right of the owning task.

To add text, just select a task, click in the Comments pane, and start typing. The default is Simple Text, but you can select Rich Text for more formatting options.

Re-arranging tasks is simple. The Delete button (or the red X icon) deletes a task or subtask. Use the Shift key to select multiple tasks. Us the Ctrl key with the direction keys to move tasks up and down or to change the level (task to subtask and vice versa). You can drag and drop tasks. Doing this can also change its level, depending on where you drop it.

To enter or change task-specific details such as Time Spent or Due Date, look below the Tasklist. If you alter something here, the details displayed to the left of the task are updated. To change how much of this information is displayed, right-click on the column title directly above the Task List and click on Select Columns. Clicking on Clear All will remove every column, leaving just the task names.

If you decide to write your entire novel inside ToDoList, you can export it to a variety of formats, including:
•   Web Page
•   Plain Text
•   Spreadsheet
•   FreeMind
•   GanttProject
•   iCalendar
•   MyLifeOrganized
•   Outline

Here is My Novel after export to Plain Text. It needs some formatting, but not too much.

If you want to give it a try, you can download ToDoList for free from AbstractSpoon http://www.abstractspoon.com/tdl_resources.html.

I suggest setting up a test project and getting accustomed to the program before you start using it for a novel. It can take a little bit of getting used to, especially with regard to moving tasks around. Always take regular backups, just in case.

Happy organizing!


  1. I use an online one at www.workflowy.com - it looks like this works quite similarly. Love the tree format for organising!

  2. Whew! I will have to give this a try. It happens that I am just starting a new project and trying to do a better job of outlining ahead of time (instead of writing and then making an outline of what I have...) :-)

  3. Brilliant Paul, but you've lost me. I keep all my characters and timelines in my head.

  4. Absolutely mind-boggling.

    I can't even keep track of a simply grocery list with six items. But then, I'm the worlds most chaotic dis-organizer.

    Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I'll have to give it a try.