Tips & Stories

A Novel Strategy: How to Organize Big Writing Projects

A Novel Strategy: How to Organize Big Writing Projects

Posted by Forrest Dylan Bryant on 01 Nov 2017

Posted by Forrest Dylan Bryant on 01 Nov 2017

Every November, hundreds of thousands of writers around the world come together in a fun, freewheeling virtual community. In an annual explosion of creativity, these intrepid souls undertake to write a 50,000-word novel in just 30 days. Say hello to National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo).

As sponsors of this annual extravaganza, we know that more than a few NaNoWriMo participants turn to Evernote to collect ideas, plan their stories, and even write their drafts. We also know from experience that a project of that size means piling up a lot of notes, from plotting brainstorms to character descriptions to mountains of online research.

That mass of notes can become pretty intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. The reason you put them in Evernote in the first place was to make them easy to find and use, right? So relax. With a plan and a few minutes of effort, you can clean up even the most unwieldy writing project and organize it to suit the way you like to work.

3 ways to organize your novel’s notes

Method 1: Standardize your titles
The simplest way to organize a novel-sized writing project (or any big project) is to create a new notebook dedicated to that project. Move all the notes for your project into that notebook, and just search for the notes you need. Easy-peasy. But if you’re referring to lots of different notes on a regular basis, you may not want to do that much searching. You can make things easier on yourself by using consistent names for all your project notes.

For example, let’s imagine your name is Cervantes and you’re writing a story called Don Quixote. (Nice title! That sounds like a best-seller.) You could give all your story notes consistent names, like this:

  • Quixote | Character – Don Quixote
  • Quixote | Character – Dulcinea
  • Quixote | Character – Sancho Panza
  • Quixote | Plotting – Outline
  • Quixote | Plotting – Scene List
  • Quixote | Research – La Mancha
  • Quixote | Research – Windmills

By sorting your note list alphabetically, each type of note (in this example, characters, plotting, and research) is automatically grouped together for easy scanning. Or if you do search, the title tells you exactly what the note contains in a way you can instantly understand. You don’t have to follow this specific format; the point is to get into the habit of using one format for all the relevant notes so they’re easy to sort and comprehend.

Method 2: Stack it
Another way to give your notes some structure is to use multiple notebooks and combine them in a stack. Each notebook can be dedicated to a single type of note, so you know exactly where to file new information to look for it later:

A novel project in a notebook stack

In this case we have four notebooks, one for each main area of organization. We might further organize the notes like this:


  • Dialogue snippets
  • Inspirational photos
  • Scene ideas


  • Chapter 1
  • Chapter 2
  • Chapter 3


  • Clipped articles
  • Glossary of useful phrases
  • Maps


  • Character profiles
  • Locations
  • Synopsis

This system adds another layer of organization. It also takes more work to manage, because you have to be consistent about filing things in the right place. Also remember that each notebook will need a unique name, so you may have to get clever if you’re managing multiple novels in Evernote.

Method 3: Organize with tags
Here’s a way to combine the simple, flat structure of the first method with the organizational power of the second. Instead of spreading notes around in multiple notebooks, use Evernote’s tagging feature to get a similar result.

First set up a single notebook with all the notes you need, then tag each note:

All in one notebook, but tagged. Tags are added to the shortcuts pane, too.

All in one notebook, but tagged. Tags are added to the shortcuts list, too.

Use any tagging system you like, but here are a few starter ideas:

  • Chapters: indicates a chapter note
  • Characters: for all character profiles
  • Research: for all research topics
  • Plus one tag for each main character’s name

Now when you search for a tag, you’ll see all the tagged notes grouped together. To get the most out of this method, create shortcuts for your most important tags so you can access all the relevant notes in a single click.


Using tags and shortcuts makes it easy to navigate large projects with a lot of notes. A single note can appear in any number of tag lists.

Using tags and shortcuts makes it easy to navigate large projects with a lot of notes. A single note can have any number of tags.

If you go with a tag-based system, remember that tags work across notebooks, so you’ll need unique tags for each novel project. An easy way to handle that is to add a prefix: For example, you could start tag names for Don Quixote (seriously, someone should write that book) with “DQ-” to keep them unique to that novel.

A word about writing your draft in Evernote

Now that you have all of your research and planning notes organized and easy to find, what about the draft of the novel itself? Writing a draft directly in Evernote isn’t for everyone, but it has a few advantages. Your draft is in the same place as your notes and research, so you don’t have to hop between apps. And it’s kept in sync, so you can start a chapter at home, add a few words on the train, and maybe even get in a bit of creative writing at the office during your lunch hour.

If you’re writing a book in Evernote, you can try to keep the entire draft in a single note (notes can hold a lot of text, even an entire novel), but you’ll probably be better off keeping each chapter in its own note and using one of the organizational systems above to keep them organized.

PRO TIP: If you use Evernote for Mac and need to refer to another note while you work, type ⌘ T to open a second tab without leaving the note you’re working in (requires the desktop version of Evernote and Mac OS X Sierra or later).

Want more tips for writing productivity? Check out our recent interview with Grant Faulkner, executive director of NaNoWriMo. If you’re participating this year, come visit Evernote on the NaNoWriMo forum and let us know how your novel is coming along!


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6 Comments RSS

  • Farrell

    I am currently learning on how to make my first novel. I really lack the skills at the moment. I have great ideas in my mind but I do not know how to organize them. This post is a great help for aspiring writers. Thank you. By the way, I like Evernote. It comes as a default program on my android phone and it is pretty helpful. I am planning to get the premium version by next month. Keep up the good work.

  • Ray Sidney-Smith

    Regarding “Method 3: Organize with tags,” if you have your entire novel or novel planning materials in a single notebook or stack, you don’t need unique tags necessarily. You can delimit your search to which novel notebook or stack for that tag using the notebook:”MY NOVEL” search operation (for the stack it would be stack:”MY NOVEL Stack”) using your example notebook name above. Then, your tag for, say, a character would be for only that specific novel. Hope that helps those who don’t want to have to create redundant tags!

  • Amy Young Miller

    Hey Evernote guys! Question: Is there a word count feature on Evernote? I’m writing for NaNoWriMo and really would like to see how many words I’m writing each day. Thanks!

    • Forrest Dylan Bryant

      Hi, Amy: There is a word count in Evernote for Mac and Windows. Look for the “note info” icon at the top of the note you’re working in (the letter “i” in a circle). Word count is not currently shown in the web version of Evernote.

  • Andrea

    I might be missing it but in all of the NaNoWriMo-related blog posts I’ve read on Evernote’s website a huge piece of the puzzle seems to be missing: EXPORTING. Evernote doesn’t export into Word or PDF, etc., correct? So if someone actually wants to do something with their novel, aside from just winning NaNoWriMo, what’s the best option?

    • Forrest Dylan Bryant

      Hi, Andrea: At this time the only way to get the content of a note into Word is via copy & paste. But I find that I can get a short story from note form to a clean, submittable Word doc in standard manuscript format in only a few minutes, or transfer a full novel in a couple of hours. That is an investment of time (although not a large one relative to the project as a whole), so I can understand why many writers prefer to use Evernote strictly for research and planning while keeping their drafts elsewhere. It’s all a matter of what’s comfortable to you.

      I will sometimes split the difference by writing a draft in Word but keeping that doc inside a note. On the desktop version of Evernote for Mac, double-clicking a Word doc kept inside a note will open the doc. When you save changes to the doc, the changes are saved back to Evernote, so the latest version is always kept in sync. This doesn’t work on all platforms, however, so there are limits to that method. You might want to test it before trying it on an important document.