How to Write Better With Workflowy – Optimize Your Writing


July 6, 2021

Thomas Edison is famous for saying:

Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

That may well be an exaggeration, but the general idea holds that the value of inspiration is vastly overrated when compared to the less glamorous work that bookends it. For a writer, that less glamorous, but much more important work is organization. While typing out the words, sentences, and paragraphs of your work may be where all the action is, the work of planning, arranging, and ordering your thoughts is where the value is.

Effective tools for organizing all the work involved in your writing help you come up with more ideas and implement them in writing once you get going on the work of drafting and editing a piece. This gets us back to the inspiration part of writing.

Even if inspiration is only 1% (or slightly more) of genius, it’s still a part of it. And it doesn’t come from nowhere. The sources of inspiration are tough to predict. They can be a passage from a book, a quote from a song, a scene from a film, and on and on. Whatever form they take, when they hit you, they hit you. The more quickly and reliably you can record that inspiration, and integrate into your writing process, the better. That’s where a great organizational system truly shines.

Elements to Organize

Before you even begin writing a draft—and even once you are writing a draft, there are plenty of things to keep organized. Here are just a few, as well as how you can do them in Workflowy.

Reference and Research

Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, a short article or a novel, for fun or for profit, reference material is a big part of the writing process. Sometimes it can be the inspiration. Other times, it’s included directly in the work—via quotes and links, or in a thorough review. But however it’s done, keeping it all in one place and organized is key.

One thing I’ve found helpful is for any piece I’m writing, there is a section called “Reference”. Under that bullet, I put everything from interesting thoughts of my own, to links, and even full excerpts I copy and paste (or type out) from another work. In the bad old days, I used to literally type out excerpts from physical books. These days, I heavily leverage Workflowy’s image feature, and snap a picture of a page or excerpt from a book. I’ve found it helpful to hit ctrl + enter to put a note with some hashtags or @ symbols with key themes or tags that can help me identify that text in the future (since it’s not searchable!).


There are some pieces of writing where brainstorming is a necessary component. You have to start from scratch – build up a wall of ideas, and knock down all the blocks but the precious few that will make the cut to your final piece. Workflowy was almost built for this purpose.

My favorite process is to create a separate bullet called Brainstorming, and then go crazy listing ideas. Be they good, bad, or otherwise, get as many ideas as possible down before you evaluate them. Quantity actually creates quality in the end, so I list a bunch of ideas first. Then, the good ones get a hashtag (something like ‘#good’ to move on).

Once I’m done selecting the ‘#good’ ideas, I refine them in a separate bullet. The finalists then go on to the outline.

Outlining and Mapping

Outlining your writing is where Workflowy shines. If you’re writing fiction, you can create character studies, outline story arcs, and rearrange dialogue. Brandon Abbott has a wonderful article on The Writing Cooperative about how he uses Workflowy for fiction writing. And he even did a screencast exclusively for Workflowy! Since Bradon’s piece, Workflowy has created its templates feature—which make things like character templates even easier to do. Simply create a character study you really love, then remove the particulars about that character and save it as a template.

For nonfiction, the ability to structure arguments and enter notes in Workflowy is a huge help. One of the most helpful outlining methods is to outline your piece with your main thesis as the primary bullet. Then write the rest of your outline as bullets under that primary one. Each bullet either supports the main point directly, or supports a supporting point. You can move them around as you see fit.

When you’re ready to write your draft, simply copy your outline, and begin writing the first draft by elaborating on the main bullet points. You can do this either by typing the text of the draft as notes under the bullet (shift + enter) or indenting the text as a bullet under each outline point. I prefer the first method.

Drafting in Workflowy

Yes, it’s possible to draft full text for pieces of writing in Workflowy. It’s not a writing app per se, but we Workflowy users tend to be happy trying to hack our way to making Workflowy do pretty much anything we want it to. So, if you’re a writer and a Workflowy lover, here are some tips on using it to actually write a full draft.

Mechanics and Formatting

Workflowy has its own minimal text formatting. You can format in italics, bold, and underline—or a combination of the three. But there’s no headings, blockquotes, or other elements that a lot of blog posts or other articles have. So if you need more elements, you’ll want to write in a different markup language within Workflowy.

My suggestion here would be Markdown or some variant of it. Markdown enables you to simply and elegantly code elements that will render in HTML reliably. From headings, to blockquotes, to raw code sections and beyond, Markdown will do well for you in Workflowy. Once you get used to typing your work in Markdown, it’s as simple as cutting and pasting into a text editor that uses Markdown.

The text from me drafting this very piece in Workflowy. I’m using Markdown to identify the headings & subheadings that are currently bullet points.

Using the #TK Tag

When drafting—especially longer pieces, you can lose track of places in your piece where you need more editing, or where things have been left incomplete. For these sections, I use a #TK or @TK tag. Before I export the writing, I run a quick search to see if there are any of the tags in my piece. I make sure to resolve them before I go to the stage of final revisions.

In terms of using this, I recommend any time you stop writing, check if you’re satisfied with that bullet. If you’re not, put ‘#TK’ in there. Save yourself the worry later on.

Getting Text Into a Final Document

Workflowy is a lot of things, but it’s not exactly a word processor. There are no shortage of requests for it to (kind of) be one, though. People (including me) love to organize their writing on it, but wish there were an easier way to take text out of it and into finished work. The difficult thing is balancing formatting (bolds, italics, etc.) with eliminating bullets.

Since my workaround is Markdown, I simply adjust how I write in Workflowy to accommodate for the need to export in that format. For any bullet points that I want to remain bullet points in Markdown readers, I use a dash in front of them. It looks a bit weird in Workflowy next to the bullets, but that’s the price to pay for easier exporting.

When it comes time to export, I simply select export next to the whole essay parent bullet, and select “formatted”. Then I copy and paste, or download it as an html file and copy it into my markdown writer. I use Ulysses to do my finished copy and export it to WordPress or other platforms directly. It makes for a pretty seamless workflow.

Conclusion: Engines & Inspiration

In many ways, the writing process is like an engine. The parts of the engines, their arrangement, and their movements may be different from one instance to another. But their input and output is all the same: they take in fuel, and generate power and motion.

As a writer, you take in the fuel of source material, life experience, and random thoughts. You put out the power of a great piece of writing that moves readers. What the moving parts in between input and output are, are up to you. But whatever they are, keep them as clean and quickly moving as you can.

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1 year ago

Please eliminate the jargon. I’d rather read your post than go search for meaning in your writing. I am talking about the “#TK Tag”

Next time, dear author please do not assume we readers know what shortcuts or abbreviation(s) you’re using, so next time please say:

“I use the #TK tag as a place holder for words, sections, scenes, descriptions, etc., to come. TK is a journalism/printing reference for more info see wikipedia.”

Last edited 1 year ago by Dan
1 year ago

Great insight, thanks for the article.

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