Kanban for Writers
My writing life is a many headed beast. I write fiction, non-fiction, freelance articles, stage plays and more under a variety of pen names. I’m always looking for better ways to prioritize and manage all these different project so I’m not running around like the proverbial headless chicken. When I learned about the Kanban system of project management, I was incredibly excited because I realized it was perfectly adaptable to the writing life (and specifically my genre hopping, over-booked, multi-projects in progress at once writing life) in dozens of ways.
Since then, I’ve been using kanban-style project management boards to organize my writing life from the micro to the macro & found it incredibly helpful so I wanted to show you how it could work for you too! Let’s talk about Kanban for writers!
First things first, though…
Um, what is Kanban?
Kanban is a Japanese word that roughly translates to billboard or sign. Legend has it, the Kanban project management system started in Japan in a Toyota factory where they used it to organize and streamline the manufacturing process. But while it may have originally been designed for the automotive industry, it’s an incredibly flexible system that adapts to managing almost any kind of projects from the big picture (prioritizing your slate of upcoming books) to the small (prioritizing edits in a single revision pass through).
At its most basic, Kanban is a task board that involves columns and cards. Each card represents a task (or, in some cases, a whole project) and each column represents a status. Cards move from column to column as the cards change status. The idea is to limit each column to only a few top priority cards (ideally no more than 1 or 2) at a time that get top focus.
Example status columns might read To Do, Doing, Pending, and Done but you can change or add and subtract from this list as needed.
Also it’s apparently pronounced con-bon and not CAN-BAN like my Jersey girl self wants to say it.
What is Kanban for writers?
A system of columns and cards designed to organize individual writing projects, an overall production schedule or any other tasks you can think of related to the writing life! It’s applying the basic production principles and methodology of Kanban to get organized and better work on writing and finishing books and getting them out the door!
What do you need to get started with Kanban for writers?
If you’d prefer to go electronically, there are a bunch of Kanban, project management and task board apps apps and programs you can use. I personally like the free app Trello, shown above, because it’s simple, highly customizable and it works across just about every platform and even has an offline option. Beyond Trello, there are also add-ons for many of your favorite programs that add Kanban functionality to what you’re already used to like Microsoft Office or even Gmail, such as this nifty plugin that lets you organize your Gmail inbox into Kanban like columns.
Because of the big picture view a Kanban board takes, it can also work really well as a physical board on your wall. While you can purchase the Kanban board of your dreams for hundreds of dollars on Amazon (I mean, those dry-erase post-it notes are cool but, seriously?), you can also make one much more simply and cheaply with any old large dry erase board, magnetic board or, like I use, some post-in notes and tape right on the ding dang wall. As long as you have a way to designate columns and move the cards as their status changes (even if the “cards” are simply a line of text that you erase from one column and write over again in the new column), that’s really all you need. I know the lure of wanting to spend a ton of money on accessories when you discover a new thing but this is a case when function beats form and it’s really often better to go cheaper and low tech as you’re figuring out how to best make the system work for you.
Here’s the one I have on my office wall. It’s just post-it notes and masking tape, dat’s it! And it works just fine!
Yes, that picture’s from the very beginning of the year if you’re being nosy and reading my cards. 😛 The top row is a board of just writing projects while the second row is for my company.
Which is a better way to do a Kanban board? Would Kanban for writers work better online or off?
Depends on how and where you work. If you’re always on the go, a Kanban board app like Trello is always with you, stored in the cloud and updated. It’s private (I always feel a little judged when someone comes into my office and glances at a card on my wall that hasn’t moved in a while), portable and can allow for hundreds of boards nested within each other without taking up any space.
If you consistently work in one location, though, it can be incredibly satisfying and motivating to physically move the cards from column to column. It’s also a lot harder lose focus or get off track with your goals when they are literally hanging above your head. And sometimes feeling a little judged because someone will notice that card on your wall hasn’t moved in ages is exactly what you need to motivate yourself to finally push it to the next stage.
Before you get ready to commit to an online board or off, I’ve found that they work best when in conjunction with each other. I keep several huge boards on Trello with ALL my projects, even the ones I’m not planning on starting for a few years yet, and then use the physical board in my wall for only the top 5 projects due in the next few months so I can see my current status in a glance without getting overwhelmed.
How would Kanban for writers work?
My overall advice? Keep it simple. It’s easy to come up with a billion columns but less is easier to manage. You can always make an alternate version of your Kanban board that’s just “priority projects” with the top 3 in each column if the number of items in a single column makes you itchy.
The real key to making Kanban work for you is to find the method that best fits your needs and suits the way you prefer to work. Kanban for writers is about adapting the system to your writing process. There is no one size fits all approach here so I highly encourage you to try things and try to find the way that makes sense to your brain since you’ll be the one using it.
Once you understand how to use the system, don’t be surprised if you want to create multiple boards, some to focus on the big picture, such as everything you have to do this year, and some to focus on the details, such as the individual changes you still have to make in this revision pass through. Because you can nest boards within each other (which I’ll cover in a moment), it’s easy to keep an eye on the whole situation at a glance and then zoom in as needed. Or keep some boards electronic and others physically posted in your office.
Let’s give some examples to get you started. You could use kanban for writers who…
- want to outline or organize the process of writing a single project from start to finish with individual scenes or chapter cards moving from a Rough Draft column to Revising and finally Finished as they move through the project.
- need a big picture view of all their ideas and everything they want to write someday to help them prioritize what project to work on next. (See the picture above for my board that is exactly this!)
- have multiple projects in progress or are balancing multiple genres or freelance projects and need a visual production schedule for the next year or five where every card is a single book or article you need to finish.
- are coordinating a book launch & marketing. A kanban board is a great way to keep all those little deadlines and tasks right in front of you to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.
- regularly research and compile big freelance projects or articles.
- blog regularly and need a way to track their posts and content production from idea to published post.
- have a big non-writing project to organize such as redoing their website or mailing list.
You see the idea. Once you understand the basic way that the Kanban method can organize tasks and projects, you can easily adapt it to almost any task you’ve got related to your writing.
Trello tricks: nested boards and To Do Lists
While I’m sure you can figure out a way to do it with an offline Kanban board as well, Trello has two really useful features in their Kanban boards I want to highlight. The first is that you can nest boards within each other, linking an entire other board from a single card. For example, if you have a board of every book you want to write someday, you can link the card for any one individual project on that board to another board where you’re specifically organizing the writing and revising of that book. This way you can use a Kanban board to look at the big picture of what you have to do overall, but then still have the option to zoom into an individual project as needed.
The other neat feature Trello has is that you can add attachments and To Do lists to your cards. For a revision, for example, you can have a card that reads Chapter One but then have a To Do list within that card with individual changes you need to make in that section and a your beta readers comments right there as an attatchment. With this method, it’s only once you’ve crossed off everything in your To Do list that you can move that card to the next status. This also makes it a great unconventional tool for outlining because you can throw your research and notes for a given scene right into the card for it.
Using services like IFTTT and Zapier, you can also opt to automatically export certain cards, columns and to do lists from Trello automatically to your favorite To Do app.
There’s also a little add-on that ages cards like an old pirate map when you haven’t made progress on them in a while which is silly but also weirdly motivating!
This all sounds complicated. Is kanban really for writers?
Kanban is a system built for manufacturing and, when you start to think about it, the process of writing and releasing a book has a lot in common with factory production. You are the factory and what you are manufacturing are words but you can still focus your efforts using the same kind of system they use to crank out cars instead of books. Kanban for writers is about managing your writing workflow, prioritizing tasks, and staying focused on the big picture of your writing career instead of chasing the latest plot bunny. If you’re already feeling disorganized and overwhelmed by your current process, it couldn’t hurt to give it a try.
I encourage you to experiment in a low tech setting first because, once you try it out, you’ll realize that the Kanban system is really just about taking your existing To Do list and organizing it in a new way. When it works, it can help you learn how you work and make your process better and more efficient so you have more time to do what you want to do… write! But, like any productivity method, if you find that the process of organizing your projects starts to take up too much of the time you actually need to spend writing, move on. A tool like this is meant to be something that helps, not another distraction.
Have you used a Kanban board for your writing projects or to organize your writer’s life? I’d love to hear how below!