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.

Evergreen notes permit smooth incremental progress in writing (“incremental writing”)

Evergreen notes’ atomic size (Evergreen notes should be atomic) and link structures (Evergreen notes should be densely linked) make it easy to stop and resume work. This helps us Close open loops.

These small, self-contained notes represent regular checkpoints. Each note takes only a few minutes to write, but because they’re Evergreen notes, each note is solid ground to stand on—fairly complete relative to its own concept (Evergreen notes should be concept-oriented). Of course, we’ll iterate on their contents over time, but each time we do, that note will remain a mostly-complete, self-contained unit.

By contrast, when we’re working on a large work-in-progress manuscript, we’re juggling many ideas in various states of completion. Different parts of the document are at different levels of fidelity. The document is large enough that it’s easy to lose one’s place or to forget where other relevant points are when one returns. Starting and stopping work for the day feel like heavy tasks, drawing heavily on working memory.


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.

As the outcome of each task is written down and possible connections become visible, it is easy to pick up the work any time where we left it without having to keep it in mind all the time.

All this enables us to later pick up a task exactly where we stopped without the need to “keep in mind” that there still was something to do. That is one of the main advantages of thinking in writing – everything is externalised anyway.

Only if nothing else is lingering in our working memory and taking up valuable mental resources can we experience what Allen calls a “mind like water” - the state where we can focus on the work right in front of us without getting distracted by competing thoughts.

Wozniak, P. (2018, June 9). Incremental writing. Retrieved December 30, 2019, from https://supermemo.guru/wiki/Incremental_writing