Notes on Writing as Thinking in Public

Assorted quotes I’ve collected lately

Recently, I started using Bear to organise the tangled array of notes I collect in both my physical notebooks, in Google Docs, and different notes apps. I gather these from books, blog posts, songs, tweets, Wikipedia pages, news articles, forum posts, things people say, and ideas that drift into my brain.

Now, they’re loosely organised on my laptop, each with a title summarising its main idea, so I can pull them up at will for inspiration. I’ve used Evernote as a central repository for notes for a while but wanted something less unwieldy with more flexible organisation. Taking a full weekend to transfer everything to a new app proved worth the effort and I’ve felt able to think clearer with a coherent note-taking system in place.

So I’m planning to try sharing the occasional post compiling notes on specific topics. As I compile more on that topic, I’ll update the post.

Here are some of my favourite notes about writing as a means of thinking in public.

Writing as a dance with reality

From In Favour of Writing Narrative Mancy

‘Putting work where it can be seen means becoming in contact with reality greater than the inside one’s own ego.’

Thoughts: one of the reasons sharing writing can be intimidating is that it makes it possible for you to find out you're wrong. We’re so good at rationalisation that our thoughts always seem correct if we never externalise them.

Writing for rediscovering memory

From Thoughts on Meaning & Writing Dormin

‘Beyond nailing information and understanding deep within my mind, writing also creates digital permanence and the opportunity to revisit my experiences…When I revisit the essay, I don’t just recapture the information, but the process of discovering it. I remember writing particular sentences, how I found the relevant knowledge online, and the compositional decisions I made to put each sentence in its particular place.’

Thoughts: I never regret time spent documenting things that happen through photographs or writing. It only takes a small, simple record of something to hold onto memories you would otherwise lose.

Karl Popper on writing to obtain objective knowledge

Found via Taking Note Now.

‘Putting your ideas into words, or better, writing them down makes an important difference. For in this way they become criticisable. Before this, they were part of ourselves. We may have had doubts. But we could not criticize them in the way in which we criticize a linguistically formulated proposition or, better still, a written report.’

Thoughts: something that’s obvious in what I’ve read of Popper’s writing is how he considers every possible angle of criticism, leading to incredible precision.

Writing as compressing networks of ideas

From Writing To Clarify ThoughtsBen Kuhn

‘Ideas in your head are part of a massive web of different thoughts that have accumulated over months or years. Think of it as a graph, maybe (in the computer-science sense): a bunch of vertices (ideas) with lots and lots of edges (logical connections and relations) between them. That kind of structure is ill-suited to being put into writing because writing is essentially linear.

…Writing a good paragraph therefore involves excising some subset of these ideas and figuring out how to put them in order. That’s the part where good writing helps good thinking. The constraints of the medium — linearity and low information density relative to thinking — turn out to be a benefit, because they force you to compress your idea into a form that’s easy to transmit and work with. The constraints breed creativity because they force you to think about your idea in new ways.’

Thoughts: the networked nature of ideas provides endless justification for not publishing your writing. There are almost always additional connected ideas you can consider it unfinished without covering. It also complicates knowing how to organise ideas within a piece. A major skill of prolific writers seems to be knowing how to isolate ideas from their wider network of other interconnected ideas. In other words, narrowing the reader’s field of view.

Writing as an evolving hypertext of thought

From A Blog Is Your Brain, On The Internet, Over TimeGilest

A blog is your brain, over time, on the internet. An archive of what you think now and what you thought before. And that means it’s one of the simplest and most effective ways you can make things open, and make things better.

The more you link new posts to old ones, the more of a hypertext you build. A blog is not PR, it’s not a good place for press releases. Rather, it’s an evolving hypertext of thought. The longer you use it, the more valuable it becomes. Old posts provide a backdrop to newer ones — you can link to them, and show clearly how your thinking has changed.’

Thoughts: See this Twitter thread.

Writing as active thinking

From In What Ways Is Writing Valuable? — Reducing Suffering

‘…writing is kind of an extreme version of “active reading” or what we might analogously call “active thinking”. Writing can expand one’s effective memory capacity and organize thoughts into a structure that makes them easier to analyze. The written document also provides a record of one’s thoughts for later reference by oneself, even if no one else ever finds it useful.’

Thoughts: active engagement is more important for learning than the smooth presentation of information. What you do with things you learn is more important than how good their delivery to you was. (Related)

Writing as unemotional analysis

From An Art Leveraging A Science Collaborative Fund

‘Thinking about your strategy for winning feels more accurate than it should because in your thought process you likely immediately jump to your desired conclusion, which feels great. It’s not until you sit down and write about something that emotions floating around your head are laid bare to objectively analyze, especially if you let others read and critique that writing.’

Thoughts: the post this is from is about how success in many fields involves combining an art with a science to achieve more than is possible by being good at either individually. Morgan Housel writes that many of the best. investors are also excellent at communicating their ideas and predictions through writing. The skills are complementary because writing helps investors convince people their strategies will work, while also helping them reflect on and improve those strategies. My guess is that the same is true for other fields where you need to sell your ideas and engage in meta-thinking.

John Steinbeck on writing to one person

Found via Tom Critchlow

‘It is usual that the moment you write for publication — I mean one of course — one stiffens in exactly the same way one does when one is being photographed. The simplest way to overcome this is to write it to someone, like me. Write it as a letter aimed at one person. This removes the vague terror of addressing the large and faceless audience and it also, you will find, will give a sense of freedom and a lack of self-consciousness.’

Thoughts: writing for an audience doesn’t mean you need to picture a faceless mass of people while writing.

Writing as tidying up

From The Age of The Essay Paul Graham

‘Just as inviting people over forces you to clean up your apartment, writing something that other people will read forces you to think well. So it does matter to have an audience. The things I’ve written just for myself are no good. They tend to peter out. When I run into difficulties, I find I conclude with a few vague questions and then drift off to get a cup of tea.’

Thoughts: while my writing often starts off as being for me, I get a lot more out of it if I edit it to share with other people. I really like the comparison to cleaning up for visitors.

Mark Suster on publish or perish

From Finding A New Medium

‘If I could give you one piece of advice it would be this. Take a topic, deconstruct it into individual parts and make each bullet point a post. Each topic should have 10 ideas and if you have 3 topics then you’ll have 30 posts ready to write before you even start. Keep each under 750 words, use no jargon, and at the end of writing each post hit publish. Publish or perish. You can always revise it later but frankly you’re better off moving to the next post. 70% of what you write will just be ok, 25% will suck and 5% will be inspired.

But you have to be in the game constantly to develop a feel for the medium. You need to constantly put out thoughts, shape ideas, debate with audiences and one day when you are writing at 2am from your hotel room and you don’t give a fuck what anybody else is thinking because you’re in your own head and just writing what’s on your mind — BOOM!”’

Thoughts: regression to the mean is a good lens for thinking about this — produce more to increase your chances of writing something of anomalous good quality no matter your skill level.

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Content strategist @ Farnam Street by day. Essays here sometimes. Berlin. More writing/ say hi:

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