This post is Part 5 of the sequence on Babble. After writing Hammers and Nails, I figured out that my favorite Hammer is writing.
Write about everything. Write it immediately. Edit afterwards.
In this post, I tell two stories about the magic of putting words on paper. Make your own conclusions about the brain-enhancing effects of writing.
Then, I share my recursive blogging process which avoids the ickiness of planning and gets directly to the thick of things. The recursion makes it easy to expand sections without breaking into structureless rambles. My process is mostly inspired by Nonfiction Writing Advice.
Finally, I explain why disclaimers suck.
In middle school, I carried a single enormous binder to every class, filled with colored tabs and lined paper. In that binder, I took notes religiously, trying various techniques of organization and highlighting.
I had no good notion of why I took notes. After all, I never looked at the notes I took – textbooks were always easier on the eyes than my chicken scrawl. I did notice, however, that I remembered things better when I wrote them down, so for a time my plan was to simply take the notes and forget about them in my binder.
I eventually noticed what was actually working, and discarded the superstition. I left my binder to gather dust and started bringing lined paper to class to take the notes. When the bell tolled, I dropped the notes in the recycling before leaving the classroom. I wrote down only the key words and spent the rest of class staring at those scattered words, injecting them with the meaning. Imagine lonely crimson ink-drops falling into a glass of water, bursting into delicious, velvety tendrils at contact. Plop, Plop. That’s how meaning injection feels.
Several iterations later, my study strategy is perfectly streamlined.
I no longer take notes in class. The night before each test, I skim the textbook with a blank sheet of paper and write down all the important terms – without definitions; the sheet of paper serves as a kind of corporeal mind palace. I read through the list once, injecting the words with meaning. Plop, Plop. And that would be enough.
Fast forward to 2013 and transport yourself to my first summer research program. Every Monday, we give a brief board about that week’s progress. I mull ideas on paper over the week before TeXing them up Sunday night.
A curious thing happened – all my progress happened on Monday and Tuesday. I spent the rest of the week meandering around the same ideas, checking special cases and writing up fragments of arguments. On Sunday night I write everything down, and the ideas crystallize on paper. They lose their grip on me, and I move on to new pastures.
These days, I reproduce the effect simply by writing up any partial results as quickly as possible. Oftentimes, I sit down with an uncertain inspiration and immediately try to TeXing it. Usually, it fails catastrophically but I gain a piece of insight. If successful, the argument pops out on paper fully-formed by narrative force. My last paper – itself only twenty pages – is a Frankenstein-esque construct built out of thirty rambling TeX documents.
Structure is Process
Very readable and natural blog posts can be written recursively with minimal pre-processing. My process is mainly designed to streamline brainstorming and outlining while avoiding two failure modes.
The first failure mode is simply writing too little. Thus, I emphasize rapidity over content and quantity over quality.
The second failure mode is writing long, detailed pieces with little structure, and finding myself disagreeing from the beginning of the argument by the time I reach the end. You know the loudness bar over the microphone icon in Skype settings? The length of my blog posts used to fly up and down just like that capricious little bar. I’m incapable of finishing two paragraphs without changing my mind, and my process is designed to recursively deconstruct into semi-independent pieces that I can close and set aside.
1. Headers are Brainstorming
Brainstorm by breaking your argument down into a handful (2-5) of the core ideas. Separate individual arguments and anecdotes. Write down titles for each.
For this post, I started with four sections: “Study Skills,” “Research Notes,” “AI Risk and Affordance Widths,” and “Structure is Process.” Later on, section 3 was removed – I couldn’t find an angle to tie AI Risk with the magic of poetry. Also, “affordance width” is a wonderful idea, but the concept handle screeches like cheap chalk. Would someone please syllable it?
2. Intros are Outlines
The introduction to a post defines the topic and sketches the arc of each section. It teases the reader with sneak peaks. Your post is cobbled together from unrelated shit but the reader won’t notice if you tie it together with a metaphor or something.
In the introduction, it can be useful to gather links to background reading and place the post in a larger context. The reader finds this thoughtful and welcoming. Actually, it’s a convenient trick to batch-process all the link hunting.
Recursively apply this process down to the level of sentences. Each section longer than a single complete thought should be broken into subsections and outlined. Each paragraph longer than five sentences should be broken into smaller paragraphs.
At the lowest level, it may be wise to treat topic sentences as micro-headers, to be written first before filling out the paragraphs with content. It may also be wise to reflect on the integration of the (sub-)sections into the whole before filling them out.
If you think your words are but pale wavering shadows of the real content in your heart, you are not alone. You will feel the need to precede your posts with all manner of content warnings, epistemic statuses, and protests of humility – you will feel no right to cry black and white when all the world is shades of gray.
There are decent and genuine reasons for disclaimers, but I’ll let you produce those. I propose that we use epistemic statuses and disclaimers sparingly.
What happens to the reader when every post starts, “epistemic status: mostly true with a chance of rain?” As the reader’s eyes hit “epistemic status,” notice how they roll to the side and glaze over ever so slightly.
She knows it’s 10% about epistemic and 90% about status. Magic brain juice  takes over and associates that instant “ugh” with opening your posts.
Instead of conditioning readers to hate us, I propose we return to a saner time, where the fact that your words are but a pale wavering shadow of the grand, mysterious truth in your heart is the default assumption about human communication. Where truth is a dance of successive approximations yet no step in that dance requires adult supervision. Where quibbles over certitude are banished to the comments section where they belong.
[…] would be hypocritical of me to write a post of my usual form to teach Comfort Zone Expansion. Instead, I’ll explain why the Disney song How Far […]
[…] might be load-bearing. For instance, in high school I learned that the sole value of note-taking is writing down names to remember them. Culling out the superstition, I continued to take notes but stopped keeping […]
Beautiful ending. Writing and thinking are starting to seem more fun now.