The writer’s ultimate guide to Notion

It’s might be easier than ever to write everything down, but I swear it’s harder than ever to find anything.

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, and over that time I’ve stumbled across so many tools that promise to make me more productive, better organized, or ultimately, a better writer.

Despite all of those promises, I’ve struggled to cobble together a workflow that actually made me more productive without it falling over itself, and until recently, just wrote straight into a CMS out of frustration.

I make a living from crafting sentences, from both writing posts like this one, to UX copywriting, so I’m writing constantly but actually organizing my digital brain has been impossible until recently because it was slathered across four different tools, each with their own prescribed workflow.

Switching to Notion changed everything for me.

I realize the irony that comes from writing something about how another tool in my workflow has helped organize my life, but it’s impacted the entire way I write, do business, plan my day and so much more.

Here’s how I’m using Notion, and a look at why it’s been transformative for how I write — and think — on a daily basis. I hope it helps you get started, and provides a way to jump off for your own sweet setup.

Where I’ve come from

Being organized isn’t natural for me, so I’m a sucker for tools as a way to workaround my own limitations and hack my brain into getting stuff done. Before I switched to Notion as an all-in tool for both writing and organizing my life, I used a dizzying array of tools that didn’t really work with one another.

Here’s my original workflow, which I’ve now replaced entirely with Notion:

Minimal writing: Dropbox Paper / iA Writer
Discovering distraction-free writing tools was something of a holy moment for me; for years writing apps were covered in buttons and features that didn’t really add much value, and made you write in a layout that looked just like an A4 piece of paper.

Before switching from Mac to Windows, I wrote directly into iA Writer, particularly because I loved that it was able to handle Markdown natively. While this was great, it had some flaws: it was inherently not shareable with my writing clients, and I’d forget to save all the time.

After switching from Mac to Windows I used Dropbox Paper because it’s superb at just getting out of the way of the writing process, it helped me focus on just the piece at hand and it didn’t require remembering to hit the save button all the time.

Planning/task management: Trello / Todoist
Kanban is the new cool, and Trello was go-to app for organizing my workload, writing ideas, phases of projects and whatever else I could think of. Trello’s workflow focuses only on Kanban, which I used heavily to track the phases of projects, including what’s in the backlog, due dates and comments about the project itself.

To track thoughts or ideas relating to the task, I just commented on the card directly. The only problem? Actually remembering to check it and keep it up to date.

As for the everyday tedium of life, which certainly needs basic checklists, I would use Todoist to manage these with my partner. Shopping lists, books I wanted to read, house chores and more lived there, with no particular rhyme or reason to them.

Notes, research and more: Google Keep
For random scribbles, ideas and whatever didn’t fit anywhere else, Google Keep was a perfectly fine place to brain dump. If I had a random thought that needed a place to live, it would go right into Google Keep, probably to be lost forever.

Meet Notion

As you can tell, my brain was scattered across a bunch of disparate tools. If you’re in Trello, you get Kanban, and you’re going to be using that forever. Notion is different because it’s the only tool with a philosophy of allowing you to mold it into whatever you need it to be.

Notion is made up of an array of ‘blocks’ that are broad in both purpose and complexity, and are what make it special.

There’s a block for everything from the ability to embed a Figma prototype to instead creating a database, and having entries from that database appear on another page in a different format, such as a calendar view. Alternatively, just throw in some markdown text.

Think of Notion as similar to a box of Lego: you’ve got everything you need to make something — you just need to decide what it is you’ll create. You can either follow the example on the box, or create something for yourself.

This system means that Notion is infinitely customizable, and allows you to mold it to fit both your own workflow and any future adjustments you might make to the way you work and write: all you need to do is drag and drop the blocks to move them somewhere else, or re-arrange your new digital brain.

Because it’s both minimal and powerful, you get the simplicity and full Markdown support you’d find in iA Writer and the collaboration features of Dropbox Paper in a single tool.

Notion is simple on the surface but deeply powerful as you get familiar with it, so it might take some time to adjust.

Evernote is just for taking notes, so it’s easy to grasp just writing things down. Dropbox Paper is just for writing, and Trello is just for task management. Notion can be all of these things or just one of them; it’s really up to you how far you take it, but it doesn’t have to be all at once.

The magic is all in finding your flow, then optimizing it over time as you become more comfortable with the core concepts. Here’s all of the great things I use as a writer on a daily basis, and how to get yourself set up for each different use case.

Writing experience, without limits

When I was a full-time journalist, I would write my content straight into the CMS — it’s disturbingly common among writers and the amount of lost work that happens behind the scenes, lost to a lack of autosave, on a daily basis is mind boggling.

I now write straight into Notion and use it as the single source of truth for my entire writing, editing and publishing process. Notion saves your work, online or offline, and makes sure it’s safe without having to remember to hit save, so it’s finally time to break the habit.

When writing a piece like this one, I always start with a simple blank page to focus on the task at hand. The writing experience you get is minimal and beautiful, thanks to Notion’s monospaced font, and just like iA Writer, the interface stays out of the way until I need to dive in and start formatting or insert a different block.

Markdown + shortcuts
With full Markdown support you can write however you’re accustomed to, either with all the manual parameters you’re used to, or just use the interface to format and export to markdown later.

I love using Markdown and tend to habitually write it by hand, but if it’s not your cup of tea you can use the visual interface instead by selecting it, then using the pop-over menu.

As with other tools, the usual shortcuts for text formatting work, like CMD + B to bolden, but there’s one key improvement worth knowing about: inline linking.

Tucked away at the bottom: word count

When adding links to your writing, just remember that CMD + K is your friend — this shortcut instantly drops an inline link onto the text you’ve highlighted without a need to use your mouse or deal with clicking through a dialog box or typing the right markdown.

There’s a full suite of keyboard shortcuts available for the full array of Markdown features, from bullet-point lists to code blocks, so keep this link handy and you’ll be a pro in no time.

Word count

Sooner or later you’ll find yourself needing a word count, which you’ll find close at hand.

To see how you’re tracking to that word limit, click the three dots on the top right and it’s right there at the bottom of the page’s settings menu.

Organization and editing power

Simple, easy reorganization

During the writing process you’ll inevitably end up needing to move something around, delete it, or save it for later.

This is simple in Notion, and helps with rearranging your narrative as you’re editing, or even just during the writing process itself.

To rearrange a paragraph — or many block types at once — just grab them all by holding down the mouse and dragging over them. Once you’ve got them all highlighted you can take all of the selected blocks with you by grabbing the dotted menu at the top, then moving it around, or just using cut and paste like normal.

This is a complete revelation for those who are accustomed to traditional text editors, which either make a complete mess of your text, or leave bits behind when you try to move them.

Notion treats each block as unique, and it’ll safely bring them all in the exact layout you chose before moving them. It makes the editing process a lot easier, especially if you’ve written something particularly long and later want to move it all around.

Nested pages
To really get the most out of Notion nesting your pages is a key concept to wrap your head around, and decide how you’ll use.

I use nested pages to organize everything relating to a topic and create a master page at the top level to act as a sort of ‘contents’ for what’s found below.

For example, if I was writing a piece about how to use Notion, I’d create a top-level page, then a document called ‘Draft #1’ inside of that and start writing there. As I collect references, create to-dos or other material, I create that below the page, since it’s all related to what I’m working on.

This practice offers focus, and organizes my space around what I’m working on, which hacks my process in order to hone in on the specific piece I’m working on, avoiding distraction while keeping references close at hand when needed. No context shifting is required, because I’m staying in one tool.

Your own preference for nesting will dictate how you organize Notion, but my one piece of advice is this: try to nest, and organize as soon as possible — it’s easier to organize later as your workspace grows.

Toggles and highlights

Sometimes you’ll find yourself needing less text or a way to draw attention to something, but it isn’t enough to deserve an entire page.

Toggle blocks are your secret weapon for keeping useful information right where you’re working, without switching between pages.

Basically, toggles do what they say and let you hide anything away beneath a sub-header, but while retaining them inline for later.

I use these all the time because they’re a great way to add reference information to a document without needing to see it all the time. This is especially useful, for example, when you need the outline for a story close at hand, but don’t want to stare at it the whole time you’re working on it.

To make a block collapsible using toggle blocks, just insert a new block by hovering in the left margin of your page then choose Toggle List from the dropdown. You’ll get a new, empty toggle that you can drag any amount of blocks into for collapsing.

I use these in a variety of ways: for comments and context, for references about a piece or just to keep the outline handy without seeing it all the time.

Toggle blocks basically give you instant clarity, and I’m a big advocate for using them liberally.

Highlights are great for the opposite: drawing more attention to something for remembering later or highlighting to a collaborator.

Like here on Medium, you can choose a block to be highlighted and make it stand out. Just select the section you wish to highlight and click the three-dot menu in the formatting bar that appears, then choose your favorite color.

The bigger picture
The sidebar, and the way in which your organize your Notion space, is a great way to get the bigger picture at a glance.

Once things are nested, you can easily see where you’re at, and jump between tasks, pieces or clients in general.

During the writing process itself I prefer to reduce distraction as much as possible, so I collape the sidebar and work with a minimal interface.

To do this, click the two arrows on the top left, near your workspace name, and it’ll tuck away for later — but you can still access the context of where you are at the top of your screen with the breadcrumb menu.

To get the sidebar back just hover near the left edge of the screen or click the hamburger menu on the top left.

External workflows

When I’m at the draft stage, I’ll invite one of my editors into the page to provide feedback with inline comments.

To collaborate you can let anyone into a Notion document , even if they don’t have a Notion account. Everyone has their own tool preferences, but Notion lets your collaborators sign in with a Google account, rather than making them sign up for Notion from scratch — a refreshing change of pace.

To share your document, hover near the top of Notion to reveal the share button, click that, then hit Invite a person to choose who you’ll share with and how much access they’ll receive. If you prefer they just jump in an edit, you can throw on public link sharing, which lets them immediately open it in the browser.

Collaborators can comment on your document, tag you and set reminders, just like in other tools. I’ve found inviting writing clients into a client space, and having various iterations of your draft there, to be a much more open process than I’m used to which has helped with actually writing the piece itself.

On the go
There’s an app for basically everything you care about, now that Notion’s available on Android.

You can use the entire feature set of Notion on mobile, on the web or on the Mac and Windows apps for editing or note-taking on the go. It’s great for quickly taking notes, correcting a mistake, or brainstorming an idea!

Portability and exports

When I’m done working and ready to publish, it’s just as flexible to get content out of Notion as it is to get it in — there aren’t any proprietary file formats here.

Generally, I export the page directly to Markdown or PDF from Notion and upload that into whatever CMS we’re publishing in (personally I use Jekyll, so this makes it super easy). For visual CMS’ like Wordpress, copy and paste works too.

Research, ideation and more

Ideation in one place
If you’re a writer you probably have a ton of ideas circling around in your head for a piece at any given time, and know that only some of them are going to make the cut. I’m constantly dreaming up ideas for pieces but tend to forget once the moment passes.

Writing these moments of inspiration down as soon as they pop up helps with this dramatically, so I’ve created a simple workflow for keeping the ideas I like around until I have time to write them, rather than a series incoherent series of notes that I never look at.

To do this, I use a combination of Notion’s clipping tools, columns and whatever other types of blocks take my fancy, like videos or other embeds if needed. Below, there’s an example of my ideation board in its current form, on a weekend.

In this ideas board, I just store whatever I’ve been inspired by, thinking about, or just things I would like to write about one day. Eventually, if they grow into an idea for a piece, like this one, I’ll drag them out into a new document, underneath the page I’m writing in, to clear away the clutter.

This board uses two types of block, combined Notion’s flexible column support. To get started, grab any block that you’ve created, then move it to the right until you see a little blue bar appear. Release your mouse when you’re happy, and you’ll have a nice fresh column.

Drag to the right!

You can do this as many times as you like — if it starts getting messy, flip the page over to a full width document by pressing the three dots on the top right of your page, then choosing full width.

If you’re adding rich content, like a webpage or image, you can create a nice scannable embed with the web bookmark block. Just hover on the left of your page, hit the plus icon and scroll until you find the web bookmark type, then paste your URL in.

A block for everything

Notion’s block-based layout system allows you to embed a wide array of rich media in one place.

Embed a Figma prototype you’re talking about, YouTube videos and attach PDFs to your documents — it all works.

There isn’t much to say here beyond that the core set will keep you happy for a long time and constantly surprises me with how many different types of media it supports.

Long-term storage
One of the biggest problems I’ve faced as a writer is how short-lived content tends to be. The internet feels like it’s forever, but the reality is that lots of great writing is lost to time — be it a publisher going out of business, a domain name expiring or just an inability to figure out where something lives five years later.

In my Notion workspace, I’ve now taken to storing both the original draft, and ultimate published piece for the long haul. When the piece is published online, I print it to PDF using Chrome’s printing features, then upload that into the client workspace for long-term storage — there’s a special attachment block for this.

I’ll also keep a raw text format version of the document in Notion by either copying the final product back into Notion, or just storing the final version in the same client workspace. Because you can always export from Notion in PDF or Markdown, this is a practical way to store these documents and not worry about what file format they’re in.

Notion’s roadmap has a web clipper on it, which would make this even easier, and I’m eagerly awaiting its release!

Task and project management

Get stuff done
With a simple Kanban board I manage my workload, deadlines and other phases of projects with my writing clients.

First, I create a series of lists based on tags for each phase of a project: backlog, scheduled, in progress, in review and done, then move them between each column as they progress.

Each task is attached to a client and has a field with the deadline as well as comments with other information about the job, such as story outline, attached. Finally, a URL field on the card is kept empty until published, at which point I’ll drop the public URL in for long-term storage.

This Kanban board is more than meets the eye. Notion allows you to create separate views for the data underneath, including either a table layout or a calendar view to get a different perspective on your data.

My workload board contains two views right now: GTD (Getting Things Done), pictured above, and a Calendar overview for quickly parsing due dates. Switching to calendar view means I get a quick peek at my upcoming deadlines and the stage the project is in, rather than a giant list of to-dos.

Relational CRM
I’m a freelance writer so keeping things organized while dealing with an array of vastly different clients is difficult and time consuming.

One of the most powerful features of Notion is that everything is inherently relational — and made up of ‘blocks’ — so you can organize pieces of information by linking them together and pulling them into a different page.

An example of this is a simple CRM I keep in Notion; it’s just a list of my writing clients, who they are, the tasks due for them, workload, and the current status of our relationship. I created this document by choosing the full page table block, then defining custom columns for each customer with the above labels.

The workload column is where it gets crazy once it’s set up and you wrap your head around how you can link everything together. Instead of repeating information, just enter it in one place and grab it wherever is relevant.

When I add a new task, and type a client’s name in, the field on the task itself looks up what clients I have in the CRM and auto-completes them so I don’t have to write them repeatedly.

When I add a client, like Notion, it’s attached on both ends so I can click through from the task itself, or view all of the relevant posts in the workload column of my CRM. By doing this, I get an overview of everything related to a client by just clicking on their name and getting a list filtered by that property.

There are a number of other ways to use this that I won’t get into here, but by storing data in tables you’re able to reference it repeatedly and pull it into other pages at any time. Behold, the result:

If you have lots of things that live in a similar category, such as a list of ideas, or clients, tables are the way to store them so you can pull them up in other pages.

Trust me, these are going to change your life.

Bring it all together: the homepage

Deep breath — that was a lot of great stuff, but probably felt a little overwhelming! I’ve only got one last hack for you that you’ll want to use for yourself: creating the ultimate dashboard for your day.

With all of the above done, I can now reference a bunch of great data and pull it from any table into another page to get an overview in one place. Basically, you can build yourself a page that you check into first thing to launch off from and quickly get to either writing, taking notes or ideation — but you’re free to add as much information as you like here!

To set up your home page, just choose the top level of your organization (or your personal instance), and create new blocks right there. On my homepage, shown above, I have quick insights into tasks, currently active clients and stories with deadlines.

This page is created using the linked database block so we don’t need to type in any information again and saves us from duplicating information into two different spots.

Just add the block to the top-level page, then choose the database you want to show, then create a view to hide (or show) as much information as you’d like.

I keep mine tidy by only showing a sliver of the information that I have that’s most relevant like “tasks due this week” from my Kanban board, and click on the titles of the tables when I need to jump in and see everything at once.

There are hundreds of ways you can make this page useful, so I recommend arranging it in a way that makes sense to you and helps get you right into the work you need to be doing.

Feel free to ask away in the comments if you have any requests for advice here, I’m happy to help!

Make it your own

What makes Notion so magic is how flexible it is, and how many different ways there are to actually use it. I hope that this helped convince you that it can help drop a whole bunch of tools you’re using to combine your workflow into a single, unified place.

Notion is, in essence, as simple or complex as you need it to be. It’s up to you to imagine how you’d like to arrange your information, and for the first time you can arrange a tool around your brain rather than the other way around, and I adore how simple it makes my life now that I’ve taken the time to truly invest in using it regularly.

Because Notion gives you a set of building blocks to build and design the way you want to, there’s no rush: just take your time, get comfortable, and start using it every day.

It might seem daunting at first, but with the powerful array of block types and simple interface, I promise you’ll be hooked in no time and won’t be able to use an old-school editor ever again.

This post was sponsored by Notion, which generously paid for my time to document my pre-existing workflow — I was already a happy customer when they approached me and am excited to share how I use it with you!

Fascinated by how code and design is shaping the world. I write about the why behind tech news. UX Manager @ Shopify.

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