How a Kanban-Style Trello Board Made My Novel Revision Easier

This simple, visual three-column system helped me keep track of all the edits I needed to make, big and small.

A few days ago, I turned in the revision of my latest middle-grade novel. My awesome editor at Knopf had given me notes on a few things she wanted me to focus on in this pass—fleshing out a couple of characters or relationships; deepening a primary theme; adding more setting description in certain passages. And here and there I needed to address smaller issues: an out-of-character moment here; a clarification there.

With prior novels, I’ve worked from paper notes—a printout of the editorial letter and marked-up manuscript—checking notes off as I address each one. This time around, I created a Trello board with three simple Kanban-style lists: To Do; Doing; Done.

Kanban is a scheduling system developed by Taiichi Ohno, an industrial engineer at Toyota, that has been embraced and adapted by productivity enthusiasts around the world.

On the To Do list I created a card for each element I wanted to address, big or small. When I sat down to work each day, I moved one card to the Doing list and got down to business. Sometimes I had two cards under Doing at once, if I was working on a passage that needed minor tweaks in addition to a more substantive revision.

And whenever I resolved an issue completely, I slid its card over to Done. Watching that list grow, and the To Do list dwindle, was the absolute best feeling.

I felt calmer, too, about the amount of work in store for me each day, because it was broken down into small, specific points of focus—a technique I have long employed for other kinds of work and general life business. If I’m planning a trip, I make a sublist of all the individual tasks: book plane ticket, book hotel, write presentation, decide on outfits, find suitcase, etc. And some of those tasks (write presentation, for example) might have their own sub-lists of single-action items.

But in the past, I have tended to work differently on book revisions—keeping a lot of running lists in my head, scribbling notes all over the margins, checking off items on the editorial letter, and so forth. And sure, I got to the finish line each time. But I think it’s easy for that visual chaos on the page to magnify one’s sense of what work needs to be done. All those overlapping notes and arrows and post-its fill my workspace (and brain) with a frenetic, anxious energy, which is not the environment I want to work in.

When I’m writing the first draft of a manuscript, I usually work in Scrivener and made abundant use of its index-card “scene” view, because of the way way you can easily rearrange scenes by moving cards around on the panel that looks like a bulletin board. Most of my novels are historical fiction, and Scrivener is the best tool I’ve ever found for storing all my research—text, images, and links—in the same place as my draft-in-progress.

But for this stage of my revision process, Trello was a better fit for what I wanted to do. I wanted a clean, uncluttered space and an easy way to track tasks needing my attention.

And oh what a glorious feeling it was when I slid the last task from Doing to Done!

Blue is the color of ahhhhh, I’m finished