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Writing is Thinking

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“I don’t know what to write.”

Focus on the thinking, not the writing.

Writing is simply an extension of thinking.”

Constraint-Setting

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What is constraint-setting?”

“We’ve talked a while ago about the creative limitations principle [<link; short read] of creativity. The idea that

Restrictions breed creativity. (Mark Rosewater)

Constraint-setting means making the process intentional.”

“A kind of intention-setting?”

“Yes.

In practical terms, this means getting clear at the beginning of the creative process on what your constraints are.

What are your constraints?

Let’s take these imaginary dialogues as an example.

‘Fragments from imaginary dialogues’ is the primary constraint – my idiosyncratic style. 

I write in the form of dialogue.

I write fragments, which means they do not follow the traditional story structure of beginning, middle, and end. [pattern-breaking]

I write short-form, which means I strive to keep them short. [brevity, condensed meaning]

I write in simple language, which means that, given a choice between two similar words, I go for the more common one. [clarity

Viewed as a template [<link; medium read], this is the fixed part of the template. The content of the dialogues is the variable part of the template. 

Let’s take this particular imaginary dialogue as an example.

The dialogue has a creative focus. [one thing]
It has a general creative focus, a theme – which in this case is mental models. 
It has a specific creative focus – which is usually the title of the piece.

The first stage of my writing process is exploratory mind-mapping.”

“So you’re essentially discovering your constraints.”

“Yes.

I discover my creative focus for the piece, and I discover the main components of the piece. We might think of the former as the hard constraint, and of the latter as soft constraints

Then I continue the exploration by starting to write, using the mind-map as a guide.

The beauty of the process is that I never know where I’m going to get.”

Note-taking as Art 2

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“I think of my note-taking as an art [<link; short length]. A kind of calligraphy.

I don’t seek perfection of execution, but balance. 
Balance between functional and aesthetic beauty. 
Balance in the use of space.

I also like to think of it as a system.”

“Why think of it as a system?”

“Because it allows me to optimize it more effectively. Creativity is one of the central values of my life, and Optimization is an essential component of it. For me Optimization is a value in itself – and another venue for self-expression.”

“You mean life optimization?”

“I’m a Designer. I like to optimize EVERYTHING. However, life optimization is indeed my main focus. And that is, essentially, systems optimization.”

“What’s one notable component of the note-taking system?”

“I’m using three sizes of notes, created from A4 pages.

My three types of notes

I cut the A4 page in four. This is the largest note size (L-notes).
By cutting the L-notes in two, I get the medium notes (M-notes).
By cutting the M-notes in two, I get the small notes (S-notes).”

“Why are you using three sizes of notes?”

“Each size serves a different function.

L-notes are for general note-taking purposes, idea capture, and to-dos.
M-notes are for mind-mapping.
S-notes are for implementation.

The size ensures I can tell which is which at a glance.”

“Why don’t you use the large ones for mind-mapping?”

“I sometimes do. But the smaller space forces me to be more focused. Smaller mind-maps are more usable

Everything I write starts as a mind-map. I take the idea-seeds, which I collect in a digital document, and develop them through mind-mapping. Once they gain enough definition, I start writing.

I have a growing stack of M-notes, for upcoming articles.”

On Writing and Focus

Fragment from imaginary dialogues

“How can I find inspiration to write my piece for the day?”

Focus on (and revel in) the process, not the outcome.

Focus on playful reflection and exploration, on solving life-puzzles, on optimizing life-systems.

Writing is a means to an end, not the end itself.

There’s a quote I like:

Speak because you have something to say, not because you have to say something.

It applies to writing as well:

Write because you have something to write, not because you have to write something.

Writing Optimization

Fragment from imaginary dialogues

“How can I optimize writing?”

“What does your writing practice look like?”

“There’s a beautiful practice which I know from Brian Johnson:

Be creative before you’re reactive.

I start every day with writing.

The first Deep-Work block of the day (DW1) is 6 pomodoro long, which I divide between writing and learning/reading. 

DW1
3 pomo writing
3 pomo learning/reading

“What’s the problem?”

“On most days it works great. However there are days when inspiration is harder to find.”

“In her book A Mind for Numbers [about learning how to learn], Barbara Oakley makes a distinction between two modes of thinking: the Focused Mode, and the Diffuse Mode.

She uses it in the context of problem-solving for Math and Science, but it applies to any creative endeavor with a problem-solving element. 

Like writing.”

“I hadn’t thought of writing as problem-solving.”

“Trying to figure out what you want to write about, clarifying your understanding of something, figuring out the best way to convey it in writing, all can be seen as a beautiful puzzle.

Focused Mode is a period of time deeply focused on the puzzle. 
Diffuse Mode is a period of time away from the puzzle.

In the Focused Mode you’re opening a process[<link; short read]. 
In the Diffuse Mode your subconscious mind is working on it in the background, making wild creative connections.

This can be used strategically, by alternating between the Focused and Diffuse Mode. I call it the Focused/Diffuse Oscillation.”

“So, in my case, I could start with a pomodoro of writing. If I’m feeling inspired, I can continue with another one. If not, I could switch to a learning/reading pomodoro, thus activating the Diffuse Mode, and then come back to writing.”

“There you go.”

Open/Closed Process

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“How can I optimize daily writing?”

“Start tomorrow’s piece today. 
Strategically leave it unfinished.

This is an example of what I call an open process. By leaving the process open, your mind will continue to work on it in the background.

Some processes you want to leave open, others you want to close.

Recurring thought patterns, for instance, are often a sign of an open process in need of closure.

Similarly, if you don’t set an endpoint for your workday, your mind may remain stuck in work mode. Another open process in need of closure.

We can expand this into a general principle:

Learn to artfully open and close processes.

On Writing: Posting daily

You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly… Accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well. (Jennifer Egan)


Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“How can I post something every day without sacrificing quality?”

“Distinguish between short-form and long-form writing.

The former you can finish in a single writing session.
The latter takes multiple sessions.”

“What if I can’t think of a short-form piece for the day?”

“The key is preparation.

You can use short- and long-form as a filter for your writing ideas.

I actually have two documents:

Writing (short-form)
Writing (long-form)

Whenever I come up with a writing idea, I evaluate it based on the estimated length, and write it down in the appropriate document.

Having all the short-form ideas in one place ensures I can easily find them, and have a constant supply of them.”

“Are you saying I should focus mostly on short-form writing?”

You can focus on both, by stacking them.

You can split your writing sessions in two: one dedicated to short-form, the other to long-form.

Once you’ve finished a short-form piece, you can switch to working on a long-form one.

Once you’ve finished a long-form piece, immediately start a new one in the same session.”

“Why immediately start a new one?”

“Leaving things unfinished can be used strategically. In leaving a process open, your mind will continue to work on it in the background.”

On Writing: The Blank Page

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What’s the best way to approach the dreaded blank page?”

Approach it Playfully.

When you look at the Blank Page, see Possibility.

‘There’s no map’, one might lament.

Beautiful!

Explore. Draw your own map. See it as an adventure, a playful journey of discovery.

Turn the Blank Page into a beautiful opportunity to Connect with your Inner Child.

Approach it Mindfully.

Slow down. 
Breathe.

See the Process as Meditation.

See the Beauty of the Process, and open your Heart in Gratitude.

Approach it Strategically.

Choose something as your Focus.

It can be anything.

It can be the title of your piece, it can be a random quote or word or image. Once you’ve given your mind something to lock on, it will inevitably start doing what it does best: make Connections.

I like to do it mind-mapping style.

Write your Focus in the middle of the Blank Page, and expand in all directions.

The first phase is the generative phase. The guide here is quantity. Let your mind wander freely, and revel in the process unfolding before your eyes. Your chosen Focus will anchor it in place, ensuring it won’t stray so far that it loses sight of the starting point. I like to do this with a pencil.

The second phase is the evaluative phase. The guide here is quality. Once you’ve grown a beautiful dense tree, it’s time to pick the fruits. I like to do this with a pen. Identity the best ideas, 80/20 style, and write over them with the pen. This ensures you can see them at a glance. Once you start writing, this will serve as your map.

This is a decision-point. You may choose to start writing, following your map, or expand the map.

This is an iterative process.

If you choose to keep going, pick any of the ideas you’ve generated, turn it into a new Focus, and repeat the process.

Generate
Evaluate
Decide
Iterate

You could liken this process to breathing.

Generation / Evaluation
Expansion / Contraction
Breathing in / Breathing out

There’s nothing to be dreaded about the Blank Page.

The Blank Page is a magical portal into the infinite expanses of your Mind and Heart.

Grow to love the Blank Page, and joyfully lose yourself in it.”

On being a Writer

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“How can I tell when I’ve become a writer?”

When you know you’re going to write every single day until you draw your last breath.

The Joy of Writing

Fragments from imaginary dialogues

“What is writing to you?”

A beautiful adventure, 
a playful creative exploration,
a delightful journey into the unknown.

I never know where I’m going to get.

I start with a little idea-seed,
a sketchy treasure map of sorts.
And then I joyously set out 
along the winding pathways of my mind,
wherever they may lead.”