Writing and the Web in the Head

Indy Neogy
Indy Neogy
3 min read

These thoughts were prompted by this piece by Austin Kleon.

It is very much not the whole story of "mind maps" and similar techniques - but surveying that landscape is something for another day.

However, as noted in Edition #011, one of the lower layers of thinking that has been identified is a "web of elements" in the mind. It seems to me that one of the challenges of writing is that it involves taking the web of elements and turning it into a (mostly) linear narrative.

What does writing have to do with thinking? Some people use writing as a way to think things through, but writing is also a key way of communicating our thoughts to others.

If we consider writing as this process of moving from a web to a linear exposition, then it clarifies two basic problems.

The first - often encountered by students - is that if the web of elements in the mind is too sparse, then you don't have enough to say. This has two obvious causes:

  • you need to expose yourself to more ideas and thoughts (and think some new thoughts too!) to create a denser web of elements.
  • you are not managing to remember the thoughts and elements, you need to find a new process and tools to help you remember.

For today, I want to concentrate on the second basic problem - which is transforming a web of elements into a narrative. (Many forms of narrative are mostly linear, not just the written kind.)

The first challenge this poses is that (at least metaphorically) everything we know lives in our mind in a greater web. Thus, if we are going to communicate about a particular topic, we need to draw a line and say "these elements are relevant and those are not", because otherwise you would be here all day reading my Epic Work On Everything About Thinking Including Every Lateral Connection.

To draw these lines is sometimes easy (not many elements connect) but sometimes challenging. A key part of the challenge is we may not feel we know what facts or beliefs the people we are communicating with are already familiar with. Ineffective narratives can suffer from assuming too much background or not enough.

Of course, there is lots of advice out there about "knowing your audience" but we should note the second part of this challenge, the doing. In particular, the large the web of elements we are working with, the harder it will be to keep track of the "borders" of the web. This is one place a way of working (process) or tools might help.

The second challenge is that if we imagine a web of elements, then to make a narrative is to choose a path through the web and there are many different paths we could take. A straight mathematical calculation would indicate a massive number. Fortunately, most of the time we have a sense of things that need to be at the beginning and end, but it is still not a small task. Once again, plotting a route over the web of elements is a place where working process or tools might help.

Thinking about tools, this isn't a new problem. Lots of people have techniques and tools they use to deal with these challenges. However, I wonder if once we look at the web to linear challenge explicitly we might be able to find/build some better ones. After all, I don't think we can say the problem is "solved" in general.

This piece was triggered by the linked article (see above) on mapping. Mapping is definitely an important part of this process, but it's also not the only thing needed. Likewise, some popular personal knowledge management applications contain webs of knowledge and some people have even rigged up ad hoc processes to help with some of these challenges. But wouldn't it be interesting if there were some tools and processes explicitly around this challenge ?

If you've come across any, let me know. You can find me on Twitter, reply to the newsletter email or use the contact form on the site.

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Indy Neogy

Indy Neogy is the main author of Mind Atelier. He is a coach, consultant and thinker about better thinking using tools, spaces and principles for thought.