January 18, 2021

Turning Over a New Writing Leaf

6 minute read

Have you ever known that you wanted to write about something, but weren’t sure where to start? I’ve often experienced that when writing for this very blog. I’ll have a topic like programming or cooking that I want to share a thought about, and get stuck… starting. That’s one of the reasons I haven’t been blogging as often as I’d have liked to.

In order to tackle this “writer’s block”, I’m going to try changing my blogging approach in three related ways: setting explicit writing goals, taking notes towards those ends, and not rushing the writing process.

I recently stumbled back across a tech talk that I love, Rich Hickey’s “Hammock Driven Development”. He brilliantly observes that we can’t solve problems without being able to articulate them:

There’s a bunch of technique and skill to solving problems… And the first one is to make an effort to understand the problem you’re working on. To recognize [it], identify it, put it somewhere, and talk about it.

Until now, I’ve often stumbled across an interesting gadget or an interesting technology, and said to myself, “I should write about this!” But that’s an overly-simplistic approach. If someone wanted to know basic facts, they could go to Wikipedia or YouTube or whatever. People who read long-form articles on my blog presumably want to know either what I personally think about something, or else what I recommend about a particular question. Some of my blog posts (such as Recommended Programming Languages for High School Students) are more popular than others: and not by accident. I’ve solved a problem for many people I don’t know, by writing a topic for someone I do know.

Therefore, for future blog posts, I’m going to target specific topics and actionable writing goals. One such post was“Saving TiddlyWiki Documents”, which answers the question of, “How do you use this cool app which has a bunch of different back-ends?” I think targeted and objective writing is a good idea, and something I intend to do more of.

Nearly fifteen years ago, my high school English teacher told me how (in ye olden times) people would go to their local library and write down references for their research papers on index cards. At the time, I didn’t “get” it; I tried it, and it didn’t quite “click” for me; and even back then, most interesting sources and citations could be found on academic databases like JSTOR. Now, though, I think I understand what she was trying to tell me.

Recently, I came across the TiddlyWiki program, for creating a personal knowledge base about… anything and everything. One popular use for TiddlyWiki is as a “zettelkasten”, or a formal index-card organization system for gathering references and notes on any and all topics. Anne Laure Le Cunff’s writings on the matter, such as this July 2020 interview, have helped me understand how powerful this system can be. First, she’s constantly ingesting new information into her system, so that it can be processed later:

As far as what I write about, I never really struggle to find ideas.

I’m constantly adding content to my “creativity inbox”. If I’m on the go… I capture notes on my phone… and they’re very, very messy!

It’s not about hunting for the perfect sound-bite, or the money-quote. It’s about being genuinely curious and keeping an open mind. Life is full of serendipitous moments, and inspiration can strike at any moment. Lightning can be captured in a bottle (or zettelkasten, or an index card) by the well-prepared. Hickey observes that a problem-solving mentality, combined with note-taking, allows solving hard problems that cannot be solved in a single day:

We know there’s a… working memory limit. As smart as any of us are, we all suffer from the same limit. But the problems we’re called upon to solve are much bigger than that… So how can we solve [problems like these]?

I recommend you write all the bits down. You’ve written a lot down about the problem, a lot of facts and constraints, you’ve asked yourself those questions and wrote them down…

Later on, these captured inspirations can be readily tapped or followed-up-on, in order to draft a final work. As YouTuber CGP Grey describes on his “State of the Apps 2021” podcast: “[my system]… ‘primes the pump’ for writing.” He can go through the index-card system in a modular and non-linear order, to pull together the right ideas for one of his videos.

I’ve begun doing this for some of my posts (including this one!). I hope that this will help me increase the quality and coherence of the posts that I write.

The final idea I want to touch on, also due to Hickey, is to not rush the creative process. Time is the most important ingredient to quality creativity, and in combination with the other two techniques described above, allows a writer to produce their best work:

Now you’re done. Cake is in the oven. You just have to wait. It’s so good!

And one of the things I’d say is, at least wait for it overnight… Sleep on it at least one night.

The active portion, for Le Cunff, Grey, and Hickey, is to do active background research, get all the references and notes and data ready, and let it “bake”. But sometimes the baking process takes a long time. So Hickey has another suggestion (which is implicit in Le Cunff above as well):

But one of the ways you can deal with [long creative thinking] and not get stymied… is to work on more than one thing… Over the course of time… it’s quite possible to load one [project] up for [e.g.] three days… and if you get stuck for a little bit just switch to another project.

The quality of my writing used to suffer tremendously because I used to feel like I had to write an entire post in a single day. Why did I feel like I had to write an entire post in a single day? As Hickey observed above, there’s a working memory limit. Because I refused to write anything down, I was limited to writing about subjects which could fit into a single weekend afternoon. I’d choose a topic, try and blitz the research for it, and try and crank out a post, all in a single afternoon. It… did not work well for me, I must admit.

Rather than trying to ad-hoc bang out a blog post, and doing a slipshod job of it, I intend to use these non-linear writing techniques, to tackle writing with the fullness of time. I hope that the quality of these post continues to climb because of it.

© Jeff Rabinowitz, 2023