I need to take you on a bit of a tangent, because I’ve had something of an epiphany. One that I really want to share with you.
A couple of weeks ago, I opened up the Pandora’s Box of systems, structure and note-taking. While this exploration was largely driven by my own experiences and challenges, the reaction has been astonishing; I apparently find myself in very good company when it comes to trying to get my life, my notes and my files sorted. That possibly shouldn’t be a surprise, given the plethora of books, processes and workshops promising to reveal the essential routines of exceptional individuals.
As I outlined last time, my particular challenge centres around trying to create larger meaning out of my records, writings and ruminations. While my project game is pretty good, and I usually manage fairly well to maintain and ultimately archive the results of any given engagement, that’s where meaning tends to stop. The result is quite literally terabytes of data, all out there in a swamp of systems and folders, that should be a meaningful basis of insight and further exploration. The operative word in that last sentence being, “should.”
To put a positive spin on the situation, the opportunity is to find a way to maintain my notes, in a more coherent and enduring form that I can continue to draw on over time. As input into the post I thought I was writing this week, I’ve been reading a rather intriguing book. The appeal of the title is self-explanatory: “How to Take Smart Notes.” In it, the author lays out a very specific framework for note-taking (one that I will expand on in more detail next week; while it may not be a completely optimal way forward, at least for me, there are some useful ideas to explore, adopt or adapt). Along the way, though, Sönke Ahrens lays out some really interesting philosophies about note taking in particular, as well as how we think about projects in general.
It’s those insights that have led to this tangent. Reading the book, I’ve been reminded of some of the more common principles underlying how writing and research is taught. More particularly, I’ve come face-to-face with some of my own conceptions. Some of these are obvious extrapolations of accepted approaches, while a few are—perhaps unsurprisingly—the product of my own contrarian instincts.
Ahrens gleefully (for a German) skewers common perceptions about how we think about significant writing projects (whether research paper of full-on dissertation). In doing so, he makes a point of highlighting the writing guidance of numerous leading universities to underscore his point. Writing well is commonly framed as the selection of a topic, from which we research, outline, draft and ultimately edit our way to academic success. This is portrayed as a linear, straightforward and essential process that is the heart of all effective writing. As many of us no doubt recognize from our own experience, it also fails utterly to describe how writing actually gets done.
This is where Ahrens departs in an intriguing direction that gave me pause. His assertion, in essence, is that note-taking IS writing. More specifically, taking notes, pursuing tangents and exploring what interests us should be the basis of writing, and from there we should simply follow our muse. We should actively make notes about what interests us, make connections we see as meaningful, identify gaps that look promising and frame questions that guide further pursuit. A good system with a critical mass of notes should serve as a sufficient base to support a lifetime of writing, research and exploration, one that continues to push the boundaries of what intrigues and inspires.
How to do this is another story (and you’ll need to either buy the book or come back next week for further elaboration). But the promise is an appealing one: the taunting cursor atop a blank screen should be a thing of the past. Instead, we should be able to approach each writing project with a set of insights and questions that simply require structuring, organizing and expansion to turn into something meaningful and relevant. There will be gaps to fill and additional references to find, but we should always find ourselves starting with something, and usually enough critical mass of insight to guide where we go next.
Being very frank, I have never written like that. For all the thousands and thousands (dare I at this point say millions?) of words that I have produced in my career, there has never been a single project where I went in with sufficient structure, insight and ideas that the writing simply became play. Words are hard. Sentences are difficult. Paragraphs are complicated (and I wrestle in writing each one between the dictates of theoretically proper form and my instinct to channel my own voice).
I detest that flashing cursor. On a good day, it never blinks, driven forward on an unrelenting wave of stream-of-consciousness thoughts that somehow coalesce into something meaningful and relevant. Those days are seldom, but they do happen. On a bad day, I can stare at that cursor for hours, trying to find a way in to the piece I am writing. By the time I do find the entry point, what emerges later can take a wildly different form that what I expected. That can be serendipitous, and it can also be frustrating.
The key for me, though, is finding a way in. I need to know where to start, and where to go. That notion is unclear, though, and so it’s not necessarily helpful; some elaboration is probably useful here. When I write well, there are a few attributes that guide me in what I am doing, where I am going and how to actually get there. First, I have a notion of topic; there is a sense of something that I am trying to write. I have an essential point I am trying to make, a story that I can use to illustrate it, some supportive and dis-confirming information to share along the way. Ideally, I also have a place to start. Those are the essentials. It’s where I began wriing this piece, today. It is how I have approached virtually every post on this site, and a very great many beyond.
What I have learned from this is that until a piece is ready to come out, it’s not ready to come out. That is often the underlying reason I don’t post here some weeks (although fortunately those are of late few and far between). If I don’t have a way in, there is no way to get it out. I can try to chase it, but it will unrelentingly flee (usually faster than I can pursue). I’ve learned to manage this, in a way, in that I maintain awareness of what needs to be produced when, and from there I can build a sense of what needs to be produced with sufficient runway that it usually gets churned out by the deadline. After thirty years, I’m relatively confident of my ability to work this way, but there are precious few visible mechanics that represent how the results actually get produced.
What I do not do—and never have—is write the way you are “supposed” to. At least, I don’t follow any process or structure imposed by my early education. I do not write down the objective or purpose of what I am trying to say; it is enough for me to hold it in my brain. Unless I am writing something on a very large scale (a book, a dissertation or a large client report) I typically don’t write an outline. In no instance whatseover do I write a detailed outline; the best you will get from me is an articulation and ordering of section titles.
When I do write, I write for keeps. I don’t rewrite excessively. Sometimes, I don’t rewrite at all. I will edit for grammar, spelling and word choice (or better yet, have someone else do that for me). Most of my writing, though, comes out very close to final form. On a good day, it’s 98% there; it is rarely less than 90% done, and any result not hitting that threshold usually means that something was forced before its time.
So here’s the thing. What I have just described in terms of my writing process (and it is one that has served me reasonably well, in that I am still here, still writing and doing so to a progressively higher standard over time) is downright flaky. It is intuitive, internalized and in no way able to be replicated by others. The underlying system that Ahrens describes does not exist in my world. I have never approached a writing project with significant ideas, questions, structure and suggestions already in place. It sounds like nirvana, and that kind of spooks me. It also makes me wondering if I’ve been working the hard way for a very, very long time.
This also forces me to confront a very real perceptual bias that has guided how I write (and also how I think, how I research and how I take notes). What I do and how I do it is guided by a perception of efficiency. I know I’m a good writer. I can craft structure, story and supporting details pretty much on the fly. With a generalized sense of where I want to go, in a couple of hours I can usually set down a couple-of-thousand compelling words that takes you from introduction to meaty interior to compelling conclusion. I do this because it’s fast, because it’s straightforward and because it has worked.
What I do not do, nearly as much as I should, is reflect. As I already have acknowledged, I have a legion of notebooks going back nearly a decade. I consult them occasionally, usually when I have a notion of an idea that I have captured that I am trying to recall. This is a pretty focussed search-and-retrieval exercise. I know what I am looking for, I know roughly the period that I am looking in, and I often have a generalized sense of what the page looks like (and which side of the notebook I will find it on). That’s not reflection; it’s search-and-rescue.
Taking the time to leisurely review previous ponderings, to evaluate what they mean now and to consider where I might go with them is not an investment I have made. I read to find information, with the expectation that having read it I will remember it (or failing that, avail myself of the Google and find it or something like it again in the future). The consequence is that when I do need that information again, I go back and re-search, re-find and re-read it. I have made the excuse to myself that I am doing so with a different lens, for a different purpose, so it is both inevitable and natural that I should do so. There is a risk that this is an excuse.
This is the state of affairs that has led me to my current, haphazard and chaotic way of storing, managing, thinking and note-taking. Every article is a one-off. Every project lives in isolation. Ideas may connect, but those connections live in the grey matter between my ears. I have a trove of information already in my possession, and an insatiable appetite to go out and find more. There is a real risk—and a potential opportunity—to do things differently. That’s an uncomfortable notion to confront at this point in my career, but it’s one I’m prepared to take on and at least explore.
Reflection is where growth is supposed to live. It’s why we do lessons-learned reviews. It is how we take stock of where we are, what we have done and where we might go next. It is the essential basis of growth and learning, as long as you are prepared to take time to do it. Where I live right now, I have marginalized reflection as inefficient and time consuming, and displaced it with doing the things I need to do now. That might be a strategic error. If that’s the case, then it’s one I’m willing to correct.