Recommended background listening:
English class does a terrible job of preparing you to write on the internet. And since more jobs are remote and the internet runs on words, it pays to learn more practical methods.
In school writing assignments are singular and linear. You are given a topic, do some research, come up with an outline, write a draft, and finish your essay. Online writing is the opposite: multi-threaded and swerving.
Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.
However, writing isn’t a linear process. It’s an exploratory process where you never know where you’ll end up. Now you aren't optimizing for a good grade, but for better knowledge.
Roam is the perfect tool for this. Roam allows you to create a knowledge graph, a sprawling database of random musings, Twitter threads, kindle highlights, & shower thoughts. Think of them as building blocks you'll use to construct articles, essays, emails, and Twitter threads. From this pile of interlinked chaos, you can perform some word algebra and construct articles. When you have a pile of thought blocks you can't get writer's block.
Here's what the knowledge-graph based process looks like:
The knowledge graph process:
- capture thoughts and observations in daily notes
- turn consumption productive by collecting notes from media
- Refine ideas and work on multiple projects at once
- article construction over bleeding on a blank page
Collecting Your Thoughts, Literally
Any note-taking system (if fact any knowledge system, including project management tools) has to solve for two problems: information capture and retrieval. If information is not easy to capture, people will not add information to the system. If information is hard to retrieve, people will not be able to get utility out of the system.
With a knowledge graph, we solve the capture problem with the daily notes page. By default, Roam will create a daily page that will display as the default editor. You can put anything on the daily journal page. This allows you to capture thoughts without having to go through the step of deciding where you are going to capture them.
Roam solves the retrieval problem by using wiki-style links. Here’s an example I pulled from my daily notes.
[[decision making]]- "easy decision model" - two types of easy decisions: arbitrary(heads or tails) and strictly better($100 or $10). make arbitrary decisions as effortless as possible, effort will not get more results. decisions are arbitrary when there is no right answer, or the answer is unknowable (restaurant A vs restaurant B). Making easy decisions faster gets you closer to [[action produces information]].
You can create a note and a link to that note by wrapping any phrase in double square bois. Now, this note links to and belongs to two other notes: “decision making” and “action produces information” in my graph. It also belongs to the day of the daily journal. One note already connects to three other places! You can see how this can quickly spiral into a serial-killer web of knowledge.
I also keep some notes publicly available. You can see examples of notes that’s been through a few iterations by clicking the two links in the paragraph above 👆.
If those nodes did not exist, they are created. Linking to nodes that don’t exist yet is a feature, not a bug. Do this a few times and you’ve created a useful note from nothing.
Online conversations are another good source for notes. Did you say something useful or answer someone's question on Slack, Discord, Telegram, in your DMs? Track it as a note, and then your nugget of knowledge long after it's vertically scrolled away to the ether.
Writing isn’t necessarily work so much as it is a byproduct of your work. You can collect notes as you work, and if nothing else, create a reference you yourself can use later. As a knowledge worker, you can think of the nodes in your knowledge graph as your personal inventory you can invest in from current projects and reap the benefits in future work.
Turning Consumption Productive
Another source of ideas is research. I’m using the term research liberally here, to include anything from reading academic journals to eyeball-grabbing Twitter threads.
The optimal method is popularized by the book How to Take Smart Notes This book lays out a method called the Zettelkasten, a note-taking system pioneered by Conrad Gassner in the 1500s.
3 Heuristics for Taking Good Notes
- Notes are atomic. A single note should cover a single idea.
- Notes are written for someone else. That someone else is probably you six months from now. It could also be someone reading your article in the future.
- Notes are in your own words. Translating ideas into your own words increases understanding and retention. It's one of the main benefits of this process.
Cheating With Computers
Luckily, unlike Conrad, we don’t have to do everything by hand, and keep our notes in boxes of index cards, organized by a numbering system that would by Mr. Dewey Decimal himself proud.
Most of our content is digital, and we can more easily link, cut, copy, and paste.
Here's where I deviate from the traditional note-taking a bit. I do keep notes on articles, books, courses, videos, and even Twitter threads. For shorter pieces of media, I keep notes on them in the daily notes. For longer ones, They get their own page. I created a template page in Roam that looks like this:
About The Author
Status - is either "needs reading, reading, needs processing, done".
Exporting Notes from Kindle Books
While there are some books I prefer to read in dead-tree format, you can’t deny the convenience of books that are delivered in 30 seconds & give your indecisive self the ability to take 300 books with you on your next flight to San Fran.
I use bookcision to export highlights from kindle books into Roam. This is a bit of a cheat on the smart notes system. Ideally, I would rewrite notes in my own words, but I also like having specific quotes with links to locations so I can cite them later if needed. Highlight chapter headings help preserve the structure. When that's done, do a form of progressive summarization: format notes, add your own thoughts, add in chapter headings. Link and tag parts of the book.
In fact, this process of refining notes is something you think about doing all the time.
Reworking, Refining, and Improving Notes
You should think of your notes as being as evergreen as possible. This helps lay out the linking strategy that will build the knowledge graph over time. Notes are not a writing project where one day you are “done”, they are constantly growing and evolving.
Think of your notes as a garden that you tend to or a code base you manage. (Your graph of notes is a database, after all). Mosey through your digital garden with a boy scout’s mindest, aiming to leave the place a little better than you found it.
6 Ways to Enhance a Note
- Notes should be linked densely and in context. Favor adding links instead of not. Bias toward including links in the context of notes instead of loosely tying notes together with 'tags'. Links can be to other notes and to external sources.
- Include a further reading or appendix section This gives the reader additional resources to research the work further.
- add media - images, Youtube videos, Twitter threads, code samples, etc. all add to the richness of the note.
- Add more formatting to help with organization (bullet points, bolding, italics, highlights, emojis).
- If a note is getting too large and no longer feels atomic, branch off part of the note into a smaller, more atomic notes.
- Review current links and thoughts, and cut items that are no longer relevant.
Constructing Articles Out of Your Idea Blocks
Once you have an idea for Roam (ideas you can be collecting in your daily notes, #article ideas), I start a new page with the tag #working article to denote it's an article currently in process. One of the tricks of writing consistently is to have several articles in various states of the process. That way if you get stuck on one you aren't screwed for the week.
- Collect your notes. I start by adding tags I think might be relevant, including any books or articles I think are relevant.
- Start sketching out an outline
- Shift+click to open the notes in the sidebar, then option-click to drag quotes into the main article. You can also shift+click 2nd-degree connections if they look interesting.
- Keep adding and refining to your outline. If your notes are original writings, it's like you've pulled off a time travel trick: you wrote your articles before you even started!
- Keep rewriting, refining, reshaping notes into an article.
Putting it all together
One of the secrets to improving writing is to write the same idea more than once. It's how you refine an idea, sharpen your thinking. And creativity is all about remixing; nothing is original, everything is a remix.
There is no rule saying you can't use a block more than once. As Venkatesh Rao lays out in his essay The Calculus of Grit, reusing, remixing, and referencing your existing work is one of the keys to getting more done with less effort.
By capturing notes prolifically, you have more to reuse, rewrite, reference, remix, more and ultimately, more to release. Good note-taking gives you a personal Wikipedia, hell, a personal interweb to pull from to create new and better work.