DEV Community

Cover image for What I learned about writing and workflow during the pandemic
Manuel Odendahl
Manuel Odendahl

Posted on

What I learned about writing and workflow during the pandemic

Over the last 1.5 years, I have been working at getting better at writing and communication. I started using the gorgeous Bear application on my iPad. Using beautiful tools has always inspired me (so much so that I will often go for looks over functionality). Bear is not only gorgeous, it also comes with a big bag of features: markdown, tags, wiki-style linking, apple watch app, beautiful exports, automatic syncing.

As I was getting to know Bear, I experimented with different kinds of writing. Having found a productive workflow as a musician over the pandemic, I tried to apply the concepts that worked for me in the studio to my new endeavor.

Daily process

Alarm Clock (wikimedia)

The most important part of being productive making music was to sit down and do some work everyday, even if just for one hour. Over time, the consistent work accrues and you reap seemingly enormous benefits, while never really having felt the need for inspiration to strike or having to do long grueling sessions.

The advantage of doing consistent short sessions is that it never feels bad to stop when things get frustrating - you did your work for the day, tomorrow will bring new joy.

I divided this "creative workflow" in roughly four big activities.

Collecting and janitorial work

Janitor (Wikimedia)

The first area is what I call process the "janitorial" part. It is learning new techniques, searching for samples, recording field recordings, making patch collections (preset sounds), sorting files, wiring things up with cables, installing software updates. This is stuff that you absolutely don't want to do when in the middle of a more creative session, as it is a sure way to bring you out of the flow.

For writing, it means note-taking, gathering reference material, picking up and jotting down random ideas, collecting quotes. I started taking notes for articles I came across the internet, making little entries for topics I knew things about, all loosely connected through wiki-links.

While researching Bear and note-taking, I came across Andy Matuschak's work and the ide aof keeping a Zettelkasten, to which I will come back to in a future post. I started keeping smaller "atomic notes" and cross-linking them. I used tags to keep my notes organized. I ultimately migrated from Bear to Obsidian for managing my notes (more about this in a future article), and you can see a "public" part of my vault at mnml's vault.

Creating raw material

Bavarian Stonemason (Wikimedia)
The next activity is creating raw material.

Musically, this would be coming up with beats, song ideas, recording synth progressions. It is not about making a song, it is about having fun making music in a very restricted context. In fact, the more restrictions are placed on the activity, the easier it is to get started. A prompt would for example be "make 10 beats with this one set of drum sounds". Often, a seemingly banal restriction would spark inspiration and I would go on for hours.

Freeform writing

Creating raw written material means finding ways to deal with the fear of the blank page. In order to turn off the internal critic, I practiced writing in a stream of consciousness style. without worries about the outcome. I wrote free-form about software architecture, about bugs I was encountering, about project planning ideas. Over time, getting into the writing zone became effortless. The times I start feeling paralyzed, I usually am anxious about the final form of what I am trying to write.

Keep a collection of prompts

I keep a long list of prompts (for example Blog ideas for blog articles) for different areas. I have a long list of prompts for work related topics (different technologies that could be interesting, marketing ideas, broader thoughts about product and workflow, links to articles I found interesting). If I feel stuck or can't seem to find a way to create a seedling, I will choose a prompt in one of my ideas documents and try to write down a stream of consciousness about it.

Using daily notes

In order to separate writing from an outcome, I do most of my writing in a daily note. It is completely free-form, and I will often paste images, drawings, website captures, conversations along with longer segments of writing. I keep it messy for a reason: purposely not try to make things tidy or think about a potential reader.

Copy pasting chat threads

Interestingly, another technique for creating raw material that works for me is just copy-pasting the long ramblings I post on various chat apps and social media pages. It is a variant of the rubberduck technique, in that here thinking about a reader actually stimulates creativity. I need to feel like I am having a conversation in order to refine my ideas. I would often paste slack screenshots or twitter threads into my notes.

Taking notes on the go

Finally, the apple watch of Bear.app was invaluable. I usually have a lot of ideas while riding my bike or running, and with the watch I could easily record these straight into my daily note. The speech recognition was always a bit of a mess, and I learnt over time to take much longer notes than I thought would be necessary at the time. Nothing worse than coming back to a note that says "bathroom architecture tomato pixie" and have no idea what that was supposed to mean.

Properly file the created material!

An absolutely vital part of creating raw material is to make that raw material easy to reuse in the future. This means naming files correctly, filing them in ways where they can be found later on, adding proper metadata, saving related resources nearby. This is more important for music than for writing, but even for writing, I make sure to cleanly label my files, link them in a way that makes it easy to recall them, link additional documents such as project files for graphics and diagrams, correctly quote referenced material.

I put everything on dropbox so that I can access it quickly from wherever I am, even on other people's computers. It also makes it easy to share work in progress if I feel like collaborating.

Assembling

Ford Assembly Line (Wikimedia)

In the studio, the next part of the process is finding different musical ideas and sounds and making them work together. This is when songs start to appear. The key here is to have quick recall of all the raw material created in the previous step. This is where the janitorial work comes from. If everything is nicely labeled, well sorted, backed up, documented, it becomes very easy to stay in the flow while assembling. Having a lot of raw material also helps.

A fascinating thing is that musically, the best ideas often come from the least inspired sessions. If I was feeling very inspired and excited making beats or certain synthesizer sounds, this usually meant that after a night of sleep, the result sounded horribly cliche. Sessions where I really had to labor to come up with something interesting provided much richer material in the long run.

Assembling writing

I feel that writing is similar, although I have much less experience in that domain. Notes and raw writings need to be easily retrievable. They also need to "age". This means that the value of an idea or a piece of writing becomes more apparent over time. If something is still interesting after 6 months, or you can find it expressed in 5 different ways in multiple notes, it probably touches upon some deeper meaning.

Both musically and in writing, I think of assembling as working with scissors and glue. It is not creating as much as it is just moving things left and right and trying out different juxtapositions. This is where using digital media helps tremendously. Copy, paste, duplicate, erase, undo, redo, save copies. All these things are tremendously tedious with real tape or pen and paper.

Furthermore, using tags and wiki-links and the search functionality in Bear.app, I could quickly retrieve my notes and turn them into bigger documents. This easy recall of previous notes and references gave my writing a new depth.

Editing

Barber (Wikimedia)

The final part of the process is editing. After heated creation and assembling, a fair amount of semi-finished ideas have accumulated. They are raw songs or articles, unfinished, but roughly of the right length (or longer), with the main idea clearly present. At this point, I choose one or two of the best ideas present, and I set down to work to actually finishing them.

This is almost mechanical work. It is about editing sentences, shortening paragraphs, looking up references, reading for flow. In music, it is cleaning up recordings, adding missing elements, mixing the sounds spatially, making sure the flow and structure is correct. The work is technical and requires an alert mind, but it doesn't rely on inspiration. You can just turn on the computer and do it, a bit like doing the dishes.

Interestingly, for outsiders, this is where "the magic" happens. It seems that all the rubbish writing, the wonky sounds and ideas suddenly fall into place and turn into something magical, sometimes within minutes. But really, the magic is in the workflow. It is present in labeling notes, in collecting web links, in writing free-flowing rubbish, in assembling individual paragraphs. The editing pass is akin to putting a beautiful cake into the oven, and then waiting. You know it will come out great if you are just careful enough to take it out at the right time.

Quantity over Quality

In both creating raw material and in assembling, I always try to go for quantity over quality. The quality of the output is not directly related to the quality of what the work that gets done at each step. The quality of the output is only determined by the selection that gets done before editing, and by the experience and ruthlessness of the editing itself.

I would say that for my music, around 2% of the material I create ultimately gets released. But the 98% are what made that 2% worth releasing.

What are your techniques for writing?

What about you? Do you have a workflow for writing? Did the pandemic help you become a better writer? What do you think you could improve?

Discussion (1)

Collapse
wesen profile image
Manuel Odendahl Author

I originally started this as an article about note-taking, but as you can see, I didn't get very far.