I’m Lou Franco, and this is Episode 14 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.
I have a decent memory, but it’s mostly tuned to the things I do nearly every day like programming. I can bring the details of Swift or the iOS framework to mind. I can usually remember the various parts of the codebase I’m spending the most time with.
To a lesser extent, I remember my more dormant projects. If I work on the App-o-Mat website, I’ll definitely need to look up some python detail in Stack Overflow.
If I just finished reading a book, then it’s pretty likely I will have retained something from it. There are some books that have had such a profound impact on me, that I have read them multiple times and can remember a lot of them.
But, for the most part, the ideas, emotions, and facts that I have experienced while reading fade over time.
In episode two, I talked about the book How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens. In that episode I explained that a note is a small piece of original writing. Perhaps a few paragraphs. These notes are hyper-linked together so that the result is a large graph of small notes.
While you are reading, if there is something you want to remember, instead of just copy/pasting a quote, you make a new note which is your understanding of what you read in your own words.
It’s your synthesis of the material. Edit the note enough so that it could possibly be published in a larger piece — it should be a somewhat finished, though very small, bit of writing.
A better kind of note you could take is one that extends one of your own ideas based on what you have read.
And at the end of that episode I recommended that you adopt a note taking app. I use Obsidian, which I highly recommend. In the show notes of episode two, I linked to a site that lists and reviews many options.
In that episode, I explained that the main use of these notes was to jumpstart a new writing project. I do this all of the time. In fact, the script for this podcast started with pre-written paragraphs from several notes about the topic I want to talk about today, which were several hundred words that I didn’t have to write. The whole this is usually less than 1500 words, so that’s a big chunk.
But another way to use the note is to just remind yourself about things you read and your own thoughts. So, from time to time, I just pick an entry-point into the note database and start reading. Notes are linked together, so I continue on and on for a while. This practice keeps me in touch with my own thoughts and ideas so I don’t forget them.
Each note is several paragraphs long, so this works well for things that are more complex and weave into some kind of narrative. Reviewing these notes is kind of like reading an unfinished book.
It doesn’t work well for disjointed facts. For that I do something else.
In the last episode I talked about the book, A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young. The technique Young described had five steps to producing an idea.
The underlying principle was that new ideas were novel combinations of old elements. So, the first step was to become very familiar with the elements.
He described two sources of material. The first was the material pertinent to the problem at hand. For him that meant customer and product data. For me, it’s more about software engineering and processes. The second kind of material was just general knowledge. Viking trade routes, anime, Rothko paintings, architecture, typography, bluegrass standards — where ever your interests lead you.
For these kinds of things, it may be hard to write a note though. You could certainly write down something, but it’s unlikely that you’ll develop a few paragraphs of a coherent thought about lots of random things.
One way to do it is to draw a parallel to your own work. I am very interested in how sound design relates to software UIs, so that’s one area that I do have a lot of notes on.
But, generally, what you might try to remember is just a sentence or two. Just a simple fact.
James Webb Young said to use index cards for that. That would certainly work, but I recommend using spaced-repetition card software instead.
Spaced Repetition is a technique for moving knowledge into your long-term memory.
You have prompts and “answers”, i.e. Flash Cards.
The advantage over physical cards is that you study using an algorithm that spaces them out at ever increasing intervals if you remember them and shorter intervals if you can’t remember them.
Your goal is that you are constantly reviewing knowledge that you are about to forget.
I use free software called Anki to do this. I put a link in the show notes
There are a lot of ways to use Anki, and there are lots of youtube tutorials. I’m going to make a few suggestions for getting started.
First, just make one deck with all of the different kinds of cards in it. Don’t try to separate subjects to start. Part of why we are doing this is to discover serendipitous combinations.
Second, look into Clozed Deletions. This is “Clozed” spelled C-L-O-Z-E-D. Instead of having a question on the front and an answer on the back, you instead state a simple fact.
- A linked list is the simplest example of a persistent data-structure, which means that it is immutable and that versions share structure with each other
Then you designate some of the words or phrases as a deletion. In this example, I would choose “linked list”, “persistent”, “immutable”, and “share structure”.
When it comes time to show you this card, Anki will show the full phrase missing one of the deletions. You answer the card by filling in the blank.
This helps you make lots of cards very quickly–I just made 4. Anki will know that they are related and only show you one per study session.
Like Obsidian, I keep Anki open while I am reading. When there is something interesting I make a note if I have original thoughts, or if I just want to remember something I make a quick card with some deletions.
I keep Anki running all day, and once a day I try to do a study session. Anki will show me about a dozen cards and I try to fill in the blank and then rate myself on how well I remembered it. Anki will space out the repetitions of that card based on my personal rating.
Sometimes, when I just want to try spark an idea, I’ll just do longer study sessions just so that Anki will show me random cards.
You can put anything in a card. For example — there could be an inspirational poem you want to remind yourself to read every once in a while. Anki will surface it from time to time. You could also use lines from it as prompts.
Remember in stage two of the technique for producing ideas, James Webb Young said to mix ideas together and consider combinations. As you look at the cards, this will spark ideas for new cards and new notes. Take a moment to write them when that happens.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
This week, download Anki and read about Clozed Deletions. I put links in the show notes to get you started.
Make a single deck and start throwing random facts you want to remember in there. I did this while watching WWDC this week. During the talks, as I learned a new fact about Swift support for async await, I made a card. Now each day, I am reminded of one of those tidbits along with other random things I put in there about UI design, cooking, nutrition, music, typescript, evolutionary biology and the tons of random facts I want to be reminded of. It only takes a few minutes a day to do a study session.
It’s not like I’m going to be tested on this stuff — I just want light reminders of things I found interesting.
Thanks for listening. This has been Write While True and since true is true, time to download Anki.