§Taking knowledge work seriously (Stripe convergence talk, 2019-12-12)

Talk outline

Meta

  • Stance:
    • presenting work in progress
    • more about asking questions than revealing answers
    • definitely not here to provide usable solutions
  • What the audience gets:
    • Eyes opened to a set of fascinating questions that lie behind every day of their work
    • Sense of excitement and possibility motivated by a few examples of possible progress

Evergreen note-writing helps insight accumulate

Much of the day-to-day thinking involved in creative work is simply lost, like sand castles in the tide. Ephemerality can actually be useful in low-fidelity thought, but it’s simply an accidental property in many cases. We should do our serious thinking in the form of Evergreen notes so that the thinking accumulates.

Leaps of insight emerge from prior thought. So where does that thought happen? It could happen in your head, or in a series of fleeting sketches in the pages of your notebook, but Knowledge work should accrete, and those mechanisms are awfully lossy.

Consider some hypothetical leap of insight you’d like to be able to make. To make that leap, you’ll typically need to evolve many independent, partially-formed ideas simultaneously, until they suddenly converge in a flash of inspiration. If you need to iterate on more than a few pieces at once, you may struggle to keep them all in your head.

By contrast, because Evergreen notes should be atomic, they’re small enough in scope that you can start and finish one note in well under half an hour (see Evergreen notes permit smooth incremental progress in writing (“incremental writing”)). Yet each note you write represents an increment in your thinking about that specific idea, and each note enriches the broader network of links (Evergreen notes should be densely linked). Because these are Evergreen notes, you now have a clear place to stand as you iterate on this specific idea.

The notes you write will interact with materials you read (Evergreen note-writing helps reading efforts accumulate) and will produce the foundations of new manuscripts (Executable strategy for writing).

And if you can’t write even one atomic note on the idea you have, Spaced repetition may be a helpful tool to incrementally develop inklings.

Related: “Better note-taking” misses the point; what matters is “better thinking”


References

Luhmann, N. (1992). Communicating with Slip Boxes. In A. Kieserling (Ed.), & M. Kuehn (Trans.), Universität als Milieu: Kleine Schriften (pp. 53–61). Retrieved from http://luhmann.surge.sh/communicating-with-slip-boxes

Naturally, independence presupposes a minimal measure of intrinsic complexity. The slip box needs a number of years in order to reach critical mass. Until then, it functions as a mere container from which we can retrieve what we put in. This changes with its growth in size and complexity. On the one hand, the number of approaches and occasions for questions increases. The slip box becomes a universal instrument.

Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers.

Executable strategy for writing

A naive writing process begins with a rough inkling about what one wants to write and a blank page. Progress from this point requires an enormous amount of activation energy and cognitive effort: there’s nothing external, so you must juggle all of the piece-to-be in your head.

By contrast, if you’ve already written lots of concept-oriented Evergreen notes around the topic, your task is more like editing than composition. You can make an outline by shuffling the note titles, write notes on any missing material, and edit them together into a narrative. In fact, because you can Create speculative outlines while you write, you might find that the first of these steps is already accomplished, too. And writing each note isn’t hard: Evergreen notes permit smooth incremental progress in writing (“incremental writing”).

Instead of having a task like “write an outline of the first chapter,” you have a task like “find notes which seem relevant.” Each step feels doable. This is an executable strategy (see Executable strategy).

I describe two approaches here: an undirected version, in which writing projects emerge organically from daily work; and a directed version, in which you’re trying to write about something specific.

Undirected version:

  1. Write durable notes continuously while reading and thinking. (Evergreen note-writing as fundamental unit of knowledge work)
  2. Each time you add a note, add a link to it to an outline, creating one if necessary (Create speculative outlines while you write).
  3. Eventually, you’ll feel excited about fleshing out one of those outlines. (Let ideas and beliefs emerge organically)
  4. Write new notes to fill in missing pieces of the outline.
  5. Concatenate all the note texts together to get an initial manuscript
  6. Rewrite it.

Directed version:

  1. Review notes related to your topic (and a step or two beyond those—Notes should surprise you)
  2. Write an outline
  3. Attach existing notes to each point in the outline; write new notes as needed.
  4. Concatenate all the note texts together to get an initial manuscript
  5. Rewrite it.

One other nice benefit of this approach: Evergreen notes lower the emotional stakes in editing manuscripts.


References

Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers.

Preparing Fragments Helps You to Ease Into Writing • Zettelkasten Method

To see with clarity if your research backs up your text’s structure sufficiently, the next step is to assign notes from your Zettelkasten to the items of your outline. When an item of your outline seems to be neglected because you don’t have enough notes that fit, you can continue your research, focusing on the missing pieces. As soon as you’re confident you got enough coverage for a start, you string the notes’s contents together according to the outline. Thus you create the very first draft. That’s all it takes to move from a plan to outline to manuscript. Then you begin to re-write, organize the material and start to make the text coherent.

There’s no magic involved in writing texts with the help of a well-fed Zettelkasten. To compile a first draft you put the contents of selected notes at the appropriate places in the outline, putting meat on the bones of your text’s skeleton. That’s how a Zettelkasten helps you complete your first draft.