The ROI of Writing

This is my second time deliberately writing in my life, and I do so because the first time I wrote in such fashion, which started about 4 days ago, and will not be finished for a foreseeable future, has been the first time in my life it had such incredible returns.

Writing Had Never Worked Before, Until It Did

Don’t get me wrong, I have always been irritatingly fluent in argumentation. Since early on I have been told that I’m a good explainer of things, that I have good rhetoric, good flow of speech, and should become a lawyer. For the greater part of my life, I have talked to my self out loud, as a mechanism for making sense of things (BYOD), veering into lunacy at points. I had already heard the mottos that “unclear writing is a sign of unclear thinking”, and read that Paul Graham essay on essaying. Yet, despite having all of the evidence in front of me that language is a pathway to good ideas, and having conceptually understood it, I had never experienced it, despite honest attempts to spark that fire in my mind.

But oh boy has that changed in the last few days. Yesterday I sat down and wrote for about 10 hours straight, safe for bathroom and food breaks. Something clicked. I now get why people are so obsessed with ranting blog posts, journals, et cetera. Upon sitting down and mindlessly banging my frustrations on the keyboard, at some point I felt something reach into my head and untangle my thoughts. This led to more words, which led to more thoughts, and then more tangling.

This process of recursion has been going on for a few days now, and what was meant to be a simple .txt document to log frustration points, turned into a slide presentation. Eventually slides proved to be a low throughput mechanism: thoughts appeared faster than I could put them into words, not to mention the nature of slideshows is that you inevitably start obsessing about the “presentation” aspect, rather than the content. The presentation then became a blog post, which started another blog post to tackle the underlying concepts of the first one. Now this second one is so large, and references so much work that I dived into, has so many footnotes regarding interesting tangents, that it should probably be called an article at this point. This is getting so a intense, and this process has been so tremendously insightful, that it might become a full-fledged book, regarding all of the fascinating truths I unveiled about software engineering and information systems, from something that started as a rant regarding poorly applied scrum and agile practices. Not to mention all of the additional leads for writing that appeared along the way.

This feeling, of “accidentally wrote a book”, is what I had been needing for a long time. It supplements the thinking process by forcing you to arrange your thoughts so neatly, that they can fit on paper. The act of fitting thoughts to the constraints of language may seem limiting, and a strenuous exercise, but it's the only way humanity has been able to pass knowledge onwards. It is only by attaching words to ideas, that we are able to talk about them with reasonable effectiveness, and abstract even further. Human knowlege is built on the shoulders of those who came before us, and without language, we would have no shoulders to stand on. Not only that, but you will find that bad ideas are virtually unsynthesizable into words, unless critical aspects of what make it bad are blatantly ignored. When they are, you can write large bodies of work about things that are fundamentally incorrect (aka pseudoscience). Ignoring such aspects can be done both consciously or not, but the act of writing forces you to go through these oversights, which is why it can be a filter to bad ideas, if when caught overlooking important concepts, you are honest enough to course-correct accordingly. Thus, be: aware of the fact that you have a fallible monkey brain, humble enough to acknowledge your non sequiturs, and striving to speak the truth, even when it takes a toll on the ego.

As you can probably tell, by the way I talk about this, it has been a profound discovery for me. It seems that at this point I am hooked, and honestly, I hope it lasts. Of all my addictions that I could surrender to, this is the most worthy by a lot. I am not sure when I will be ready to publish the rest of what I've been writing, as it sprawled to so many directions, but hopefully sooner rather than later.

A Method to the Madness

It has been a wicked ride so far, and I still have much to discover and perfect, but so far what I can share about making the most of this experience is the following:

  1. Don‘t force yourself to do it. Write when furious about something, and sit down to make sense of it. The rest will come naturally. It‘s better to do this when this fury is fresh, and you have a lot of context to support your thoughts. I have missed many opportunities to write about interesting topics because I let the fury slip away. Avoid this at all costs: write early, rant often;
  2. Bang your words away, in a quiet and private space, in an environment without rich formatting support, where you can‘t sidetrack into fiddling with fonts and other counterproductive affairs. In short: maximise the throughput of the medium;
  3. When writing, don‘t focus on anything that is not coming up with the most eloquent manner to put your idea into words, and writing those down before your mind decides to flush them out of working memory;
  4. Once the current idea burst wears off, start revising a few points that you wrote before, clarify ambiguities, contextualise what feels loose, maybe add some punctuation and structure, simplify sentences, and correct bad grammar;
  5. During the process of doing number 3, you will feel the need to elaborate many tangential points related to things that were mentioned en passant. Do not fuck with the linear structure of the idea you presented earlier, this will ruin the flow of explanation. These tangents, however, add contextual richness to your piece, and you should use footnotes aggressively for this purpose (using the method in number 2 to write them), and hyperlinks to related work and references;
  6. If you feel an important tangent coming, and are in the process of doing number 3, don‘t stop to expand on it. Quickly write down a coherent sentence that can spark that idea again later, preferably in a place along the structure of the text where it‘s convenient to approach this subject, and mark such footnote or paragraph as a TODO so you can find it later to expand on it. Don‘t take too long to come back to it though, as ideas are fickle beasts that will run off and have you chasing them in a moments notice;
  7. When you hit a tangle that doesn‘t seem to untangle by itself, stand up and walk around your space, talking to yourself out loud, and trying to make sense of it. This will spark your “writers rage” again, and have you obsessively recursing over your own ideas in no time;
  8. Avoid breaking the cycle, and ride it as long as it lasts. Have food and a bathroom nearby, keep your blood sugar high, your caffeine supply ready, and let the madness rage on. Writing is supposed to be a reactive effort to seize knowledge before it fizzles away. Surrender to the muses of this maniac behavior. Let them posess you.

Since passing this experience, I have decided to (finally) finish this blog, and make of this piece my “Hello World”. I hope you have enjoyed reading it, but now if you don‘t mind, I need to exercise my newly discovered superpower.

See you next time?