Six Steps to Successful Writing
TODO break this note up further!
Separate and Interlocking Tasks
- Give each task your undivided attention
Multitasking is not a good idea
- It may appear that (or I may think that) I’m good at doing multiple things at the same time, but in truth I’m not. The book cites a number of studies to back this up, but I already know this for myself!
- The goal should be distraction-free writing
- Writing should be as distraction-free as driving (or in my case, coding too!)
Give each task the right kind of attention
- Academic writing require s a whole spectrum of attention. It requires flexibility and context-switching (say, going from the ability to write a coherent argument to the ability to proofread and critique one)
- “Floating” attention is required while processing the zettelkasten
Become an expert instead of a planner
To be able to become an expert we need the freedom to learn it on our own terms
- Is this why it’s easier for me to learn a programming language by actually writing it than by reading about it?
Beginners must adhere to rigid rules that they are taught, while experts are able to use their experience to make informed decisions. The transition between these two mindsets is the difference between beginner and expert:
Because trainees lack the experience to judge a situation correctly and confidently, they need to stick to the rules they were taught, much to the delight of their teachers. According to the Dreyfuses, the correct application of teachable rules enables you to become a competent “performer” (which corresponds to a “3” on their five-grade expert scale), but it won’t make you a “master” (level 4) and certainly won’t turn you into an “expert” (level 5).
Experts, on the other hand, have internalised the necessary knowledge so they don’t have to actively remember rules or think consciously about their choices. They have acquired enough experience in various situations to be able to rely on their intuition to know what to do in which kind of situation. Their decisions in complex situations are explicitly not made by long rational-analytical considerations, but rather come from the gut (cf. Gigerenzer, 2008a, 2008b).
Expert chess players think less than beginners: they see patterns and let themselves be guided by their experience
- This isn’t to say that rules don’t matter, but we should be critical of rules
- It’s easier to remember things we understand
Things we understand are connected
- The example the book uses provides a list of years the World Cup occurred on ordered consecutively. If we understand that we can make sense of the data and therefore remember it
Every new note we (I) write should be accompanied with the following questions:
- How does this fact fit into my idea of … ?
- Are these two ideas contradictory or do they compliment each other?
- Isn’t this argument similar to that one?
- Haven’t I heard this before?
- What does x mean for y?
Zeigarnik effect: Open tasks tend to occupy short-term memory until they are done
- We don’t have to finish tasks to no longer be distracted by them, we just have to find some sort of closure, i.e. write it down
- The book Getting Things Done talks about this
- We can use this effect to our advantage, however, by continuing to visit the last open question. Pondering the last open item while doing other things is a good way to find answers or solve problems. (Becoming obsessive about it, however, is probably a bad idea)
Reduce the number of decisions
- Willpower and motivation should be seen as a limited resource rather than a character trait
- Decision-making is anathema to motivation; it is a completely draining task. Therefore, decisions should be reduced
- The slip-box, through its lack of categories, reduces the number of decisions one must make
- Being able to pick up a task where it was left, and being able to take breaks, is also important
Read for Understanding
Read with a pen in hand
To write a good paper you must rewrite a good draft
To write a good draft you must turn good notes into continuous text
The idea isn’t to copy but to have meaningful dialogue with the text you read (I more or less copied this text though!)
Luhmann would always read with the intention of trying to connect what he’s reading with what is in his slip-box
Literature notes are a tool for understanding and grasping text
New ideas will necessitate lengthier literature notes, but what we have to keep in mind is that they should only serve as a temporary stop on the way to becoming a permanent note. Literature notes should first and foremost serve to support the writing of permanent notes.
How extensive the literature notes should be really depends on the text and what we need it for. It also depends on our ability to be concise, the complexity of the text and how difficult it is to understand. As literature notes are also a tool for understanding and grasping the text, more elaborate notes make sense in more challenging cases, while in easier cases it might be sufficient to just jot down some keywords. Luhmann, certainly being on the outer spectrum of expertise, contented himself with pretty short notes and was still able to turn them into valuable slip-box notes without distorting the meaning of the original texts. It is mainly a matter of having an extensive latticework of mental models or theories in our heads that enable us to identify and describe the main ideas quickly (cf. Rickheit and Sichelschmidt, 1999). Whenever we explore a new, unfamiliar subject, our notes will tend to be more extensive, but we shouldn’t get nervous about it, as this is the deliberate practice of understanding we cannot skip. Sometimes it is necessary to slowly work our way through a difficult text and sometimes it is enough to reduce a whole book to a single sentence. The only thing that matters is that these notes provide the best possible support for the next step, the writing of the actual slip-box notes. And what is most helpful is to reflect on the frame, the theoretical background, methodological approach or perspective of the text we read. That often means to reflect as much on what is not mentioned as what is mentioned.
This section once again recommends taking notes by hand. I must get a notebook!
Keep an open mind
- Don’t let your own biases get in the way of new information!
If insight becomes a threat to your writing, you’re doing it wrong!
- Insight should seek to correct your understanding, so that you’re constantly fighting confirmation bias
Instead of staring with a hypothesis and going from there, we should:
- Confirm that we have separated tasks and focus on understanding the text we have read
- Make sure we’ve given a true account of its content
- Find the relevance of it and make connections
- Something should not go into the slip-box unless it adds to the discussion of what’s already in the slip-box!
Get the gist
- It’s important to be able to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information
- “The ability to use one’s understanding is a challenge, not a given.”
Learn to Read
- It’s important to take notes in your own words, because then it shows how well you understand what you’re reading
- Zettelkasten is an external system that forces us to confront what we know and don’t know and be honest about it
Learn by reading
- Learning requires effort. As Marx says, there is no royal road to science.
- Writing should be an act of learning
- The slip-box is complementary to learning: it serves as long-term memory and references. The brain is supposed to be the thing that ties all the information together!
Take Smart Notes
- experienced readers tend to engage with a text with questions in mind, see how it relates to other things they’ve read, etc.
- Writing every day helps, but writing for writing’s sake is insufficient for academic writing
Luhmann wrote six notes a day, on average
- Granted he was an academic!
- Writing concepts down and then forgetting them is integral to the process of long-term learning
- We should focus on making connections, maximizing information “retrieval strength” to maximize learning
- Adding permanent notes to the slip-box is an integral step to taking smart notes
- The goal is to “build a latticework of mental models”
- The slip-box is not an encyclopedia, we do not need to worry about completeness
Luhmann would only add two “tags” per note
- Luhmann’s tags corresponded to an index though. org-roam makes it a little more free
- The organization of notes lies in their ability to reference one another. Some connections may be surprising
- The archivist asks “Which keyword is most fitting?” while the writer asks “Under which circumstances do I want to find this note again?”
- Comparing notes helps to detect contradictions or paradoxes, which indicate that an idea hasn’t been fully developed yet
- The slip-box should be a creativity machine!
- New ideas are generated out of intuition, and the slip box is there to help facilitate that
- Creativity comes from seeing associations
To be able to play with ideas we have to be able to abstract ideas from their original context
- Abstraction and re-specification allow us to apply ideas in new situations
- Make sure you describe notes in the slip box as plainly as possible and describe it as you understand it
We might not know what’s missing from our notes, but we can take guesses as to what would be relevant
- The book goes into an anecdote about survivorship bias, i.e. Abraham Wald suggested that the Royal Air Force armor all the places planes hadn’t been hit, because the ones that had been hit didn’t make it back
- Take simple ideas seriously
The book recommends taking digital notes as though the space were limited and limiting yourself to one note per idea
- I’m not sure how to square this with org-roam yet!
- literature notes are basically “on page x, it says y”
- Self-imposed restrictions like the one above can make thinking and creativity flourish
- A clear structure allows us to explore the internal possibilities of something
Share Your Insight
- Writing makes you realize where the holes in your knowledge are
- Research projects ought to be flexible
- The slip-box should always be there to give you lots of different research topics, so if you get stuck you can move onto something else
- When it comes to writing, you should try and consider writing only for yourself first
If there is one piece of advice that is worth giving, it is to keep in mind that the first draft is only the first draft. Slavoj Žižek said in an interview that he wouldn’t be able to write a single sentence if he didn’t start by convincing himself he was only writing down some ideas for himself, and that maybe he could turn it into something publishable later. By the time he stopped writing, he was always surprised to find that the only thing left to do was revise the draft he already had.
- Open document (Hedgedoc) at https://doc.anagora.org/20200712121954-six_steps_to_successful_writing
- Video call (Jitsi) at https://meet.jit.si/20200712121954-six_steps_to_successful_writing