I’m Lou Franco, and this is Episode 13 of Write While True, which is a writing program for programmers.
If you follow it literally, you’ll be in an infinite loop of writing. But I mean program as in a training program.
So, in each episode, I’ll challenge you with an exercise that will help you build a writing habit. This is Season one, which is about foundational exercises.
Listen to Write While True at your desk, and when it’s over, start writing.
In season one of Mad Men, Don Draper asks Peggy (his secretary at the time) for her perspective on a product and to suggest some ideas about how to describe it.
At this point in the show, the ad agency, Sterling Cooper, had no women copy writers. And she had shown some promise as a copy writer, and since this product was for women, Don wanted her input.
Anyway, after a day of using the product, she has no idea what to say, but she does know why someone would want one. He asks her to come back with written words. And as she’s leaving the office, he says:
“Peggy, just think about it. Deeply. Then forget it. And an idea will jump up in your face.”
When I heard this line, I was instantly reminded of a book, written in the 1960’s by an advertising executive named James Webb Young. It is called A Technique for Producing Ideas. I put a link to it in the show notes.
Mad Men is about ad executives in the 1960’s, and I am sure the writers had read this book. It’s more of a pamphlet. My Kindle says it’s 48 pages, but each page has only a few paragraphs, each a sentence or two long. I just re-read it, and it took less than 30 minutes.
And I mean that with respect. My dream is that this podcast be breezy.
The technique that Young describes is based on the principle that new ideas are novel combinations of old elements.
He claims that he can produce ideas of this nature as reliably as Ford produces cars.
His technique has five steps, which I’ll briefly summarize. There are details in the book.
The first step is to gather materials, both specific to your problem and just general knowledge.
General knowledge is something he thinks you should be gathering all of the time. Reading fiction (he suggests Jane Austen), listening to music, reading outside of your field, going to plays, poetry, that sort of thing.
He recommends keeping scrap books of general knowledge that you can use to organize the material and refresh your memory.
He was in advertising, so by specific knowledge, he means product and customer knowledge. For that, he makes index cards. You might keep thoughts about programming language design or software engineering processes this way.
In Episode two I talked about taking notes in Obsidian. The way Young talks about scrapbooks, with cross-references, is a lot like what I suggested you do with your notes.
I haven’t spoken about it yet, but I also use a flash card system called Anki to keep bits of facts that I want to remember. I’ll talk more about that next week.
Whatever you do, having some way to access your knowledge is critical to the next step.
In step two, you are going to randomly access and combine bits of knowledge. A note from here with a card from there.
You’ll note patterns and relationships. You will get them into your mind, think about them, think about the combinations.
During this process you will have some ideas. Make new notes and cards about these ideas. They might not be the idea you are searching for, but they will help lead you there.
He calls step 1 “gathering food” and step 2 “chewing it”.
This is meant to be hard work. Don’t skimp on it. Read the material thoroughly. Think deeply about it. Write up new notes where you synthesize the material.
When Young was asked why he was sharing his technique, he said that he was sure that not many people would even do step one, because it was hard work. And he wasn’t really worried that writing the book would result in lots of new competition.
Then walk away
Step 3 is digestion.
In step 3, you walk away. You don’t think about it any more. You see a play, you read a book, write some poetry. You get it all out of your head.
Go work on something else. Go for a run. Goof off.
In episode 9, I talked about deprivation. That’s fine too. Read nothing. Meditate. You’ll be alone with your own thoughts, so you’ll think, but don’t think of the problem at hand.
About Step 4, Young writes:
Now, if you have really done your part in these three stages of the process you will almost surely experience the fourth.
Out of nowhere the Idea will appear.
The fifth and final step is to shape and hone it. The idea that jumps into your head is a starting point. It needs to be refined.
Take that idea and write up a first draft. But, make sure to do editing passes on it that make it valuable.
In my intro, I asked you to listen at your desk, ready to write when I am done speaking.
But first, I want to thank you for listening so far. As a new podcast, I am depending on you to spread the word if you found it valuable. I also want to encourage you to send your feedback email to email@example.com or find me on twitter @loufranco or look for me on LinkedIn.
I would love a review or rating in the Apple Podcasts app, stars in Overcast, or whatever else your podcast player allows. And subscribe if you want more episodes.
If you write publicly, please send me a link.
A Technique for Producing Ideas is a short book and only $1.88 on Kindle. It’s a classic in the field that goes into a little more detail on the technique.
I think you should read it, but I will warn you that as a book of the 60’s, it uses dated language. If you watched Mad Men, it’s kind of like that, except it’s not commentary.
Then, this week, I’d concentrate on gathering materials for a new piece. Just step one. If you have not adopted some kind of knowledge base system as I suggested in Episode 2, then go and listen to that episode and find something. I linked to a bunch of possibilities in the show notes for episode 2.
Having scraps of material is essential to being able to go onto the next stage. I’m going to talk more about that next week.
Thanks for listening. This has been Write While True and since true is true, go gather material.