I’m Lou Franco, and this is Episode 2 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, each week’s episode will challenge you with an exercise that will help improve your writing. This is Season one, which is about foundational exercises.
You’ll get the most out of this if you listen to Write While True at your desk, and when it’s over, start writing.
The first season of this podcast is meant to be listened to in order, so if you somehow found episode 2 and didn’t listen to episode one, you should probably go do that.
In the previous episode I talked about being blocked and described Morning Pages from the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. This is an exercise that trains you to be able to get into a writing flow. So, I hope you you tried that out. I do morning pages every day—it helps me get into a flow that carries onto my real writing.
Today, I want to talk about another small thing I do that makes it easier to write.
I’d say, that for my whole life, I didn’t really understand how to write. I mean, I could write and did write a lot, but it was a struggle. I was constantly looking at a blank page, getting stuck, and any writing project felt daunting.
I’d grind through it. Put something down, get frustrated, get distracted because it seemed to be going nowhere. The problem was that I didn’t really have a method for producing written work.
And, I had a different problem. I didn’t really understand how to read. Again, I read. A lot. I read a lot of non-fiction about software development, business, productivity, psychology, design, and writing. I have gotten a lot out of it, and sure, I’ve retained the big ideas that really resonated with me, but when I tried to recount an idea to someone else, I realized that the details had escaped me and that my understanding was often superficial.
So, I’d write and it was a struggle and I’d read, which was enjoyable, but all of that exposure didn’t help me develop ideas. I didn’t publish much writing based on the ideas I did have.
I also didn’t realize how intertwined these problems were.
I had a vague sense that I should be taking notes as I read, and I did. I use Trello a lot for personal organization—I worked there as an iOS developer for six and half years.
So, I would use an iPad to read with kindle on the left and a Trello board on the right and if I saw something in the book I wanted to remember, I made a card in a list dedicated to that book. Over time, I had a board with one list per book and a bunch of notes in individual cards.
This was fine, but mostly it didn’t change much. When I wanted to recap a book, I could—but it was really no better than any recap I could have just found with a google search. My notes weren’t special. They were about the book. They weren’t specific to me.
So, they weren’t useful and they didn’t seem to have any point, so I didn’t take good ones or consistently take them.
I didn’t realize that solving my notes problem wouldn’t just help me with my reading, it would drastically change the amount I write by making it much easier.
Sometime last year I became vaguely aware of a note taking ideology called Zettelkasten. It’s described well in a book called How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens.
This book made me realize that I didn’t know how to read or write. It’s completely changed both for me.
Before I get into the technique, I want to clarify what I mean by reading and writing. When I talk about reading, I am not talking about reading for pleasure. I am more talking about reading for the purpose of learning and advancing inside of your own research and interests.
For me, this applies to reading within software development and things I think are related to that. Also, it extends to other forms of media — I am loosely using reading to mean consuming, which could also be a video, a podcast, a conference talk. Etc.
And by writing, I mean a piece of published work meant for an audience. For me this is mostly going to be in the same topic areas. I am hoping to contribute my own ideas and work. This podcast is an example of the kind of thing I mean. But I also mean my blog and articles I get published elsewhere. This also extends to writing I produce for clients, like presentations and recommendation memos.
The book, How to Take Smart Notes, goes into a lot of detail — I put a link to it in the show notes, but I want to describe the essence of what a Note is within this ideology.
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 will instead 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.
For example, I read a lot about behavioral psychology. But, I don’t write about that directly — I write about software development and a lot about how to get a job in software development.
Sometimes when reading about psychology, I might have an idea about how that applies to software recruiting, so I write a small note about that. A few paragraphs in my own interests in my own words synthesizing work from another field.
And, if I want to quote something, I do it, but in it’s own note, so that it’s clearly marked as a reference, not original writing.
Over time, I have lots and lots of these kinds of notes, all linked together.
When it comes time to write a blog, I read them over, follow the links, and grab a few of the related notes and I’m part of the way to a first draft. I’ll cover that part in the next episode.
Here is the key point: Write notes that can be assembled into published work later.
Keep them short, but finished. Link them together. Start with recaps to get used to the style. But, eventually mostly write notes that are more about your interests and topic areas, informed by the material you are consuming.
If you’re doing this right, your notes are very personal to you and not just simple recaps that you could find elsewhere.
In my intro, I asked you to listen at your desk, ready to write when I am done speaking. Before we can write notes, though, we do need to have a place to put them.
I’m going to get to that, 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, send me a link. And tell me how the challenge went for you.
Ok, so to even get started taking notes, it would help to have some kind of note taking software.
I want to warn you, it’s very easy to get caught in an endless loop of procrastinating. All you really need is something that let’s you edit text notes and link them together. If you already use something that can do that, that’s good enough for now.
I use Obsidian for this. It’s free, it’s specifically made to support this style of note-taking, and it just edits simple markdown files in a folder.
There is no proprietary file format. The main drawback right now is that there is no built-in way to sync them to mobile devices.
I have it on my laptop and only edit there. You could use something like dropbox to make them available anywhere, but I don’t do that.
But there are lots of choices. Evernote and Roam are popular ones.
Just remember, all you need on top of editing is simple linking. Don’t overthink it — you could always switch later if it’s not working for you. Look in the show notes for examples.
Then, over the next week, keep the software open while you are reading. If you have an interesting thought, write a note. Don’t copy and paste — try to restate the idea in your own words (referencing the book).
If you really want to keep a quote, make a reference note for the book itself which will only contain quotes with page numbers — these could be footnotes later.
As much as you can, write notes that could be copied into your own original writing later. So, a few complete paragraphs with a single idea.
And you don’t only make notes while consuming — sometimes you just have a random idea. Try to express that idea in a new note.
And remember to use links liberally. Orphaned notes won’t be easy to find later.
There are tons of youtube videos describing the technique, and the book How to Take Smart Notes goes over it in detail. I put links in the show notes.
By the time you listen to the next episode you should have some note taking software installed and at least a few small notes. The easiest way to write a note is to just read in your field.
If you have note taking software, you could write a note right now about what you learned from this episode.
So go do it.
This has been write while true and since true is true, get started.