Generating ideas

A couple of weeks ago I described a pipeline model for the process of writing. The first stage of this pipeline is to generate ideas. (In fact, there’s actually a stage before this: there are inputs to your thinking, e.g. the books you read, and so on. I might return to this topic at some point.)

The process of generating ideas is both familiar and mysterious. It happens all the time, but I certainly couldn’t explain how it works. I notice that I have interesting thoughts in response to having good conversations, either during the conversation itself or afterwards as I muse on what we spoke about. (Indeed, my shower thoughts are usually the products of imaginary conversations.) And reading doesn’t just load information into my brain, but rather I also come up with my own connections and related thoughts while I’m reading.

Alkjash on Less Wrong came up with the term “babble and prune” to describe the creative process, and this idea that I’m improving my ability to babble has been very helpful in thinking about how to do more writing. Babbling is good for generating ideas. Indeed, Alkjash is suggesting that it is the process by which ideas are generated. It seems to me that babbling is a learnable skill, and getting better at it has been one of the best things I’ve done for producing ideas.

The process of getting better at babbling is, for me, largely about getting past the inner critic or censor that prevents me from writing down my thoughts. That censor comes in various different forms, and probably varies a fair amount from person to person, so it’s worth getting an idea of what prevents you specifically from writing. But there are a few forms that seem to be fairly common.

I found Larry McEnerny’s talk, The Craft of Writing Effectively, very valuable for thinking about this problem. He’s giving guidance for academics in particular, but at the very least this advice generalises to most non-fiction writing. He makes the point that you were taught to write at school as part of a process by which your knowledge would be evaluated, so you likely will have internalised the teacher’s voice that says that you have to demonstrate that you know everything that you should know about this subject. But outside of school, people aren’t reading your writing to evaluate you. They couldn’t care less about how much you’ve learnt. Instead, they’re reading your writing in the hope that it will be useful to them. Demonstrating your encyclopaedic knowledge is not useful. Indeed, it will probably make your writing incredibly tedious to wade through. In order for people to value your writing, it will have to tell them something useful. (And that doesn’t mean that it has to tell them something original.) So that was one of the major barriers that I had to writing: the fear that if I left out something relevant then I would be criticised for it.

Another barrier is the expectation that writing has to be high quality. I have a sense of what good writing looks like, and if I write something below that standard then I tend to criticise myself for it as soon as I’ve put it onto the page. Predictably, this means that I don’t much enjoy putting things down in writing. Giving myself the permission to write badly has been very important to me. One way that I do this is by writing “shitty first draft” as the heading, and I’ll explicitly give myself the instruction to “make it really shitty”.

A couple of years ago I started using a Zettelkästen system. One of the things that I very soon noticed was that I was writing more enthusiastically in there than I had ever written before. I wondered why this was, and eventually I’ve come to the realisation that the goal of writing short notes sidesteps a lot of the inner critic’s objections. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t said everything that there is to say, because the note is supposed to express only one idea. And it doesn’t matter that it’s not beautifully written, because it’s not for public consumption.

Another barrier to writing for me has been the fear that someone might find my writing, particularly if it’s on a personal subject. I need to trust that my private writing won’t be read, otherwise the inner censor will not let me write it. If that means that I can’t use cloud services, or that I need to save my writing on an encrypted drive, or that I need to shut the door before I write, so be it. Your inner censor’s concerns are potentially valid, so you might need to satisfy them rather than trying to override them.

Probably the most important thing that’s helped me get past this inner censor is writing morning pages. Actually I don’t really follow the morning pages method described in The Artist’s Way. Instead I’ve adapted it to something that seems to work for me. And I don’t do it consistently. I go through phases. At some points it seems to be highly valuable and at other points it doesn’t do very much for me.

So my process for morning pages is that I write 750 words at some point in the day, not necessarily in the morning. And I do it on a computer rather than on paper (because a physical journal would be too easy for someone else to discover and read). I try to do this as quickly as possible, largely because I want to get it done and out of the way for the day. When I started doing this it would take me at least an hour to write 750 words, and I can now do it fairly reliably in under half an hour. By setting myself the goal of going fast, that forces me to practice ignoring the inner censor. Indeed, I would try to do most of it by just writing the next words that came into my head. And the fact that I’m doing it everyday means that I get to repeatedly experience the blocks to writing, figure out what they are, and then try to do something about them.

That’s roughly what I’ve learnt so far about the process of generating ideas. I have a few thoughts about capturing ideas, and I’ll cover them in the next post.