“Ghost Bullets” and Completed Items Bring Focus to Writers and Translators


September 1, 2016


Focus doubles your effort and saves you time… and time might equate to money. It does for me. If you’re a writer of some shape or flavor (and especially if you’re a translator) I’ve got some WorkFlowy tips that will create that much more focus right there in the thick of your workflow.

Ghost Bullets

Of course, you do know that zooming into a bullet brings clarity and focus… But what if your workflow calls on you to transfer information from one part of your outline to another quite frequently?

I suspect this might be one of your pet peeves too: (before) when I used to write in WorkFlowy, I almost always had a trailing list of ideas below my writing space – sometimes the product of brainstorming, sometimes outlines pulled in from my “Backlogged” section or even just thoughts bombarding me at the time that I had to jot down. Something like this:

I used to furiously hit Enter half a dozen times to push that material further down the screen and out of my field of focus. Somewhere, anywhere away from where the writing zone was. Only thing is, a string of trailing bullet points did not give me zen-like feelings.

One solution I’ve made part of my workflow is to set up a “Ghost Bullet” (one of the many writing tips I deal with in my book). A Ghost Bullet is basically a parent node without a title (or just 3 suspensive points), under which I nest any material I’d like to expand on at a later stage. One can then expand the Ghost Bullet to pull out the next snippet to write about…

… and then collapse it for a distraction-free writing experience:

When your Ghost Bullet is collapsed, you have this premonition that something is lurking there beneath the surface: There’s a gray aura, just as with any collapsed parent node. BUT… now you also have added focus and less clutter.

Completed Items for translators

Before I discovered WorkFlowy, I used to translate all kinds of things in MS Word. That meant that most of the time my cursor was surrounded by text – above and below.

Now I use a Ghost Bullet and pull out paragraphs one at a time into my writing/ translating area. That way, what I’m working on is always in the last paragraph. Much better for focus.

If you’re a translator, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that it’s essential to see the context of a paragraph… and it really helps if you see things flow in one language. So instead of, say, Portuguese, English, Portuguese, English… it would be nice to see English, English, English… to see if you’re getting the tone right – plus it makes for a quicker revision. This is where I use WorkFlowy’s complete feature (Ctrl+Enter) to complete the paragraphs of the language I’m translating from  (once I’ve already translated them)… and then to hide all completed items, I use the Ctrl+O keyboard shortcut:

Once you’re done translating, you can then hide all completed items and transfer all visible text (in one language) over to a new outline. You now have 2 separate outlines – the original and the translation. You’re good to export. Or you could just hide your completed items and export the translated material directly. Whichever organizational approach you prefer.

Any writers in the house?

Whether you’re a mini-sized or super-sized writer, the WorkFlowy community would sure appreciate the writing tips you’re sitting on  🙂

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5 years ago

so i always end up both rebrowsing old articles with newer eyes and browsing the workflowy blog longer than purpose of visit.. such is the magic of community, yeah? thank you for this tip. great idea belying my pooh-poohing of completed or starred items – originating from my earlier needs of outline rather than a todo list. after a few words, ate my years. uh, other way around.

the blackening of what looks like tags also lends new light to highlighting, otherwise thought as unnecessary nuisiance to reading.. combine with another tip of placing tags in parent note and with some tweaky, is a good workaround for name markers in novel writing.

anybody experiencing trouble with screen jumps though? Mostly from notes in child notes. The jump to note end seems to be feature of the app while non jump of node to screen top when exiting it with mouse is an inevitable bug. Most notable when trying to bulk browse a nested group very long notes in quick succession. when the notes snap out, the parent and sometimes sibling nodes end up very far away and ofc, there is no caret focus to get back to browsing point. i propose a feature to only exit a note with the shift enter keys, but optional, to keep legacy users happy. also **really** looking forward to markdown integration, insta tables would be glorious.

Richard Bird
7 years ago

Frank, awesome post!
First, I appreciate all of your time and effort you put into making blog.workflowy.com a fun and inviting place for all of us to collaborate!
I have been using the “ghost bullet” method without knowing it! I searched my lists for … and found plenty of nested lists that I had forgotten about. This is probably in direct relation to my lack of love for a long list of bullets with no content.
I also found that I use the notes on a bullet for content that I don’t know what to do with yet. Which makes the content auto-hide.

7 years ago
Reply to  Richard Bird

Hey Richard,

I LOVE the note (auto-hide) dynamic. It’s a great upgrade/ addition to this method. It looks like you do smart things rather intuitively 🙂

Richard Bird
7 years ago
Reply to  frank.dg

Haha, I wouldn’t call them smart. I call them picky. 😀

7 years ago

I do a ton of writing in Workflowy. Actually let me correct that…after reading your book I do ALL of my writing in Workflowy. I write journals, novels, screenplays, todo lists, emails, long texts, basically everything. Simplicity and open ended power allow you to make Workflowy into your own custom writing app. An example of something I use all the time is paragraph or dialogue versioning. Want to change something a character says but don’t want to delete what you already have? No problem. Write the new dialogue and tuck the old dialogue inside it. You can expand this concept by having ghost bullets for versions of entire scenes. Sure there’s some writing software out there that does similar things, but with Workflowy you can do it in such a simple and straightforward way. Tuck text into other text, done.

My biggest problem with Workflowy for writing is the fact that you can’t export blank lines in markdown without the empty note trick. If you are on your own then Phase Express shortcuts work fine. At this point, without even thinking, I automatically hit ctrl-shft-enter when I want a new paragraph. The biggest problem is when you are collaborating with other people on writing. I find that non-tech-savvy/non-early-adopter people don’t like changing their normal intuitive “enter” behavior. I actually believe a ton more people would start using Workflowy for long form writing if two features became a part of the main app. Being able to turn bullets off (in the app, outside of stylish/css tricks) and exporting blank bullets as paragraph spaces in markdown.

Being able to turn bullets off should be an easy feature to add to the the default app (and it would be nice to have on mobile too). Exporting markdown properly might be a whole different beast. Have you had any discussions about this with the devs Frank? If it’s even remotely possible I think it would completely change how a more casual user sees Workflowy. And it would make my writing collaborations a whole lot easier 🙂

7 years ago
Reply to  Michael

Hi Michael,

It seems we need to do an interview about how you’re using WorkFlowy 🙂 I’m glad you’ve gone all in and are using WorkFlowy as a text editor for your writing in general. I really do wish more people would catch on to this massive use case. It’s a crying shame that someone would use WorkFlowy to outline their writing but not do the actual writing therein.

By the way, I’ve since simplified my workflow when it comes to creating empty notes for Markdown paragraph breaks. I do it all in one go once I’m ready to export. I loop the following PhraseExpress script like 200 times and hit Escape when the cursor gets to the end of the page/ outline:

{#loop {#SHIFT {#ENTER}}{#SPACE}{#DOWN} -count 200}

I do prefer the “double spacing” this gives one between paragraphs at the actual time of writing… so it’s a tough call.

I love your dialogue-versioning use case in WorkFlowy. Plain and simple. I’d like to showcase that simple use case with a show and tell on the blog here…

To touch on your question about the developers “fixing” or accommodating paragraph breaks for Markdown export – I somehow get the feeling that not many people are actually using WorkFlowy for this… and in general, there’s a bit of a misconception about some thinking I’d like to have WorkFlowy be a Markdown editor. Some outliners do that… and I would steer clear of that. But as a (select) few know… there is nothing stopping us from actually writing in Markdown within WorkFlowy. People do it in text files… so there’s a bit of a misunderstanding there. Or at least, many people who could be benefiting from Markdown export haven’t explored that realm yet. That’s the long way of saying that I think it’s going to take a long time for what you and I would like to see become enough of a demand to warrant a “fix” materialize. In the meantime, I content myself with a few quick and dirty workarounds, which, like you said, becomes second nature when you automate things with PhraseExpress.

7 years ago
Reply to  frank.dg

So yes (sigh), you are probably right about the demand being rather low for markdown export 🙂 My optimism comes because I know Workflowy is so amazing and I want more people to be using it. I’m comfortable using CSS or custom macro’s to modify Workflowy’s interface into the perfect writing environment, but the casual user won’t be. However Workflowy is so amazing for writing, EVERYONE should be writing in it, including the casual users.

And yes I agree, we definitely don’t want to turn Workflowy into a markdowneditor. Workflowy is awesome BECAUSE it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles. The only thing I was hoping for was a better export that turned blank bullets into markdown spaces. But now, thanks to you, I don’t need it…

The Phrase Express script is fantastic! I’ve actually thought about creating something like this for awhile but I just never did it. I didn’t like the double space so I made a single space version.


It works fine as long as you use it with the curser at the start of a bullet. It basically does the export function I was looking for. I’m really excited about this. I’m going to reintroduce Workflowy to collaborators and hopefully things will work out this time.

I’m open to an interview or if you just want to to talk. I’m nobody important, none of my writing has been published (yet). But if that doesn’t matter, I love just talking about Workflowy…probably too much, as my friends could tell you 🙂

7 years ago
Reply to  frank.dg

Update! First of all, sorry! I posted the wrong script. The right one is actually…


…looped as many times as you need. This only works if you use it at the start of the bullet that is above the first blank bullet you want to convert. It also only works if every paragraph is double spaced. For a lot of my writing this will work but not for markdown “fountain”screenplay formatting that has both single and double spacing. I can’t figure out a way around it so I may use Franks double space method or go back to my manual ways 🙁

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