Writer’s Toolkit: Milanote

It seems like everywhere you look, there are tools to do something better. Want to schedule your Instagram posts a month in advance? There’s a tool. Want to pick up relative pitch? There’s a tool. Want to train wild leopards to move to your commands? There’s likely a tool for that too, although whether the leopard will be amenable to picking up the training tips is another matter.

Writing tools are no exception. There’s a plethora of them, and I don’t just mean spellcheckers. Chances are you’ve heard of Ulysses and Scrivener, two of the most famous – maybe used them too. They’re supposed to be the thing for writers in a digital-first world, although I’ll personally take pen and paper any day. I do type out my final manuscripts on Google Docs, but the outlines and first drafts are always by hand. Writing tools have always struck me as a little too gimmicky. I haven’t ever bought one for myself, but I’ve tinkered with the free trial of Scrivener and found it too complicated to use comfortably. Which kind of defeats the purpose of writing productively and at length.

There is, however, a lesser-known tool I discovered recently . It’s called Milanote, and it dubs itself ‘the app for creatives’. I was Googling ways to organise my thoughts and ideas and this showed up, and the initial impression was admittedly a good one. Now I love drawing mind maps as much as the next doodler, but sometimes all the hand-drawn stuff gets a little…messy. I get these cravings for an aesthetic chart of literary ideas, you know?

I’ve been using Milanote on and off for the last few months, and I figured I’d share my honest opinion of it as an aide to creative writing. I’ll start off with a disclaimer that I haven’t actually used all of its features, so this isn’t by any means a comprehensive product review, but I do have the general hang of what a writer might be likely to

The features

Milanote allows you to create your own boards with cards for each piece of content (text, images, file uploads and links). Cards get slotted under columns, to which you can add a name like ‘Character List’. You can rearrange columns as you like, rearrange cards within columns and add arrows that connect columns to one another. You can also drag a card out and position it by itself on the board. You have all your basic text functions, like bulleted lists and headers, and you can add a colour to the top of each column to help them stand out.

Here’s a small section from one of my boards to show you what it’s like:

One interesting feature they’ve added for writers is a collection of pre-made boards for things like character profile and story outline, where you have a set of pre-filled cards with sample characters and plots. They’re supposed to give you a good place to start your own profile/outline, and while I’m weird and like to do my own outlines from scratch, the template boards are helpful if you’re looking for a bit of a shortcut.

The usability

Pretty good. It’s all intuitive. You can move cards around by drag-and-drop and extend the length/change the directions of arrows to create different types of connecting pathways. My only minor disappointment was about the cards not being swipe-able by touch, although that might be there on iPads – I couldn’t do it on my Microsoft Surface Pro laptop.

The cost

It’s free! At least, for the first 100 cards. You can get 20 more each time you invite a friend to sign up for an account, and you can get unlimited cards for about $12 a month. I’ve managed so far on the 120 allowance (got the husband to sign up), and when I run out of cards I’ll probably delete the content on old ones so I can use them up again. I don’t really see myself paying for more cards, although you might benefit from that if you have a large number of simultaneous projects or are doing some highly complex worldbuilding.

The value-add

This is the big question – does Milanote live up to its claim of being the app for creative people? How much does it really enrich the writing process? Here’s what it does for me – it helps me organise my random ideas into a nice neat chart and move them around as I develop connecting threads and more complete storylines. Is that useful? Certainly. Is it aesthetically pleasing? For sure. But is it the thing for me? I’d still say…nah. Nothing beats the freedom of pen and paper, even if it can get a little messy.

Of course, that’s just my personal opinion. Objectively speaking, I would say that Milanote is certainly a useful tool for organising thoughts and developing storylines, and its biggest advantage is that it’s extremely intuitive, without any unnecessary features. And given that it’s free and that it can be used on all major operating systems, I’d definitely recommend you give it a try. Who knows – if you’re looking for an upgrade from your notebook, this might just be the answer for you.

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