Organising and identifying ideas to publish

There are two problems here which I had originally grouped into one step, but which are actually probably quite separate: firstly organising ideas that have occurred to you, and secondly identifying which of those ideas are things that you’d like to publish.

The Zettelkästen method has emerged over the last couple of years as a popular way to organise notes. In fact, by side-stepping some of the emotional barriers that I had, starting my own Zettelkästen was one of the factors that has allowed me to get into writing recently.

To describe it quickly, a Zettelkästen is a collection of discrete notes. Each note should be an explanation of a single idea. (Most of mine end up being only a short paragraph, with some of them running to two or three paragraphs before I think that I should split some of it out into separate notes.) These notes are then linked together into a branching tree structure, and are also heavily interlinked in a more random-access fashion. As a result of doing this, you end up with note sequences that can form an interesting chain of reasoning, and annotated with their relationships to other ideas. Niklas Luhmann, the inventor of the Zettelkästen method, said that he used his system as a conversation partner; that by working with his system he would develop ideas as one would in a conversation.

There are subtleties to the process, though, and I’d strongly recommend reading a fuller description if it sounds interesting to you. How to Take Smart Notes does a pretty good job of describing the Zettelkästen process. (It is also clearly the product of its process, so it makes a clear demonstration of the sort of writing that you end up with as a result of working from a Zettelkästen.)

I’ve found that there are some tricks to using a Zettelkästen system well. It’s tempting to obsessively capture things that you’ve read, but the bigger advantages of it for me have come when I’m actually capturing my own observations. That’s when I’ve put together ideas that I’d actually be tempted to publish. If I’m just capturing what I’m reading then I’d probably just tell people to go read those same books rather than developing it into any of my own writing. There’s nothing wrong with using the books that you read as input for fuelling your own thoughts, of course, but you do have to actually record your own thoughts. The instinct that I feel when reading a book is to think that the book contains better ideas than mine, perhaps because mine are only half-formed, whereas what I’m seeing in the book is in a polished state.

There are, of course, other ways of managing notes. Most people only capture notes for each specific project. Some people maintain categories or tag systems for their collections of notes in Evernote or whatever. Obviously you’ll need to pick something that supports your own writing process.

Also, there are different problems between long-form and short-form writing. Above a couple of thousand words or so, you’re looking at the problem of organisation beyond what you can just hold in your head. It is perfectly possible to go from a topic or an idea to a published piece of writing – at least a short one – without doing anything to organise notes. And my problems would be different if I were trying to write longer things than blog posts.

Having said all that about Zettelkästen, though, the truth is that I’m not actually using it now. I did for about a year, and most of that was while I was commuting on the train and so it was an easy way to spend the time. But lately I’ve been writing using other methods. In particular, I now have a Beeminder commitment to write a draft per week. But because this is pulling from the side of picking a topic and writing about it, it’s not emerging organically from the Zettelkästen.

I still believe that done well, a Zettelkästen could be a very useful thing. Perhaps the most important part of it, though, is making time for it. Andy Matuschak spends a couple of hours every day working on his notes. And this is something that I’m not doing. So perhaps, instead of having a Beeminder goal for writing drafts, I wonder whether just having a goal to spend time working on notes would get me a lot of the way to actually publishing. Alternatively, if I found the process more intrinsically rewarding and if it had enough positive associations, then that might be sufficient to make writing take the place of other activities.

Given that most of my recent writing doesn’t come from having organised notes, does that mean that I’m dismantling my model that writing is a multiplicative pipeline? I’ll certainly need to revisit the model once I’ve gone through all the parts like this.

The other part of this step, and one that I struggle with much more, is identifying which things to publish. It rarely occurs to me to think, “oh, that’s something I should publish”. And here we’re getting to the heart of my problems with writing.

There are some things that I’m afraid of writing about publicly: in particular, I’m afraid of being controversial and I’m afraid of being unoriginal and obvious. So in a similar way to how I described in the process of generating ideas, there’s an inner censor at work with the decision to publish as well. And that reaches back through the pipeline, so that I don’t identify things to publish, and I don’t capture or organise things because I assume that they won’t get published.

How might one get past that? What I’m hoping for is that by forcing myself to publish a bit more than I feel comfortable with, I might get some positive feedback and start to fear it a bit less.