Release valves for non-linear thought may support improved linear output

One way to navigate the paradox inherent in Prefer linear work products but non-linear working environments: by making non-linear structures available for work-in-progress, you create a release valve for tangential thought—which in turn can free the author to focus on their “primary” line of thinking.

For instance, on a whiteboard or in a notebook, if you’re developing a “main” bulleted list or diagram and something occurs to you that doesn’t quite fit in, you can simply write it off to the side and perhaps drawn an arrow.

Likewise, in a Hypertext Note-writing system, tangential thoughts can always be captured in another note and linked in: Evergreen notes lower the emotional stakes in editing manuscripts. But this benefit isn’t necessarily about building up a well-connected ontology (as described in Evergreen notes should be densely linked); it’s more about maintaining hygiene and attention.

Linear authoring environments like word processors force the author to create bubbles of non-linearity inside their linear work, e.g. by making appendices or colored “stray notes” sections or using Google Comments. These approaches all feel strained and unnatural: Tyranny of formality in interfaces

Per Ted Nelson (source, via Mark Knight):

…the ideas were constantly trying to escape. What is a parenthesis but an idea trying to escape? What is a footnote but an idea that tried — that jumped off the cliff?

Q. In what sense does the treatment of tangential thought in non-linear working environments act like a release valve?
A. Stray thoughts can be usefully captured and related for later attention without interfering with one’s primary focus.

Q. How does the “release value” theory of non-linear writing subvert the usual narrative around hypertext note systems?
A. Maybe the value of non-linear writing isn’t in the future value of the embedded links, but rather that capturing tangential thoughts can help authors focus on their “primary” line of thinking while writing.


Original observation from Nick Barr, 2020-09-25

Last updated 2023-07-13.