When you write a new note, add it to one or more outlines you’re maintaining, creating a new one if necessary. Substantially-complete writing projects will naturally emerge.
Normally, we start an outline when we start a writing project. This forces us to start with a blank page. By contrast, if we write new notes every day and notice how they relate to each other, these can accumulate into potential writing projects. When an outline feels “ripe,” we can pluck it and turn it into a manuscript without the exerting herculean start-up effort that comes with a blank page.
Maintaining already-written notes in an outline is comparatively easy: just look at a pair of notes and ask: which comes first? (Pirsig)
Furthermore, to start a writing project with a blank outline, we need to have a topic and some angle in mind. We can Use notes to avoid preconceived conclusions.
Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers.
Developing arguments and ideas bottom-up instead of top-down is the first and most important step to opening ourselves up for insight.
Steven Johnson, who wrote an insightful book about how people in science and in general come up with genuine new ideas, calls it the “slow hunch.” As a precondition to make use of this intuition, he emphasises the importance of experimental spaces where ideas can freely mingle (Johnson 2011). A laboratory with open-minded colleagues can be such a space, much as intellectuals and artists freely discussed ideas in the cafés of old Paris. I would add the slip-box as such a space in which ideas can mingle freely, so they can give birth to new ones.
“When I am stuck for one moment, I leave it and do something else.” When Luhmann was asked what else he did when he was stuck, his answer was: “Well, writing other books. I always work on different manuscripts at the same time. With this method, to work on different things simultaneously, I never encounter any mental blockages.”
When I create a Zettel, I search through the folder for an outline that could make use of this Zettel. If I don’t have an outline in my folder that fits, I create one.
Now I can see articles, books, and other writing projects emerge as a consequence that I read texts and create Zettels without any specific intention in doing so.
The book on writing I mentioned came to be in the same manner. I work on a book on nutrition, so I decided to research how to write a book and writing in general. Each note I turned into a Zettel got its place in an outline. After a while, I satisfied my need for readings on that topic. When I looked at the outline I realized that I had notes worth a book already. I replaced the IDs with the content of the Zettels. Voilá. A manuscript was ready.
Pirsig, R. M. (1991). Lila: an inquiry into morals. New York: Bantam Books.
Instead of asking Where does this metaphysics of the universe begin? — which was a virtually impossible question -all he had to do was just hold up two slips and ask, Which comes first? This was easy and he always seemed to get an answer. Then he would take a third slip, compare it with the first one, and ask again, Which comes first? If the new slip came after the first one he compared it with the second. Then he had a three-slip organization. He kept repeating the process with slip after slip.