How to shield your writing process to prevent the unpredictable
Your note-taking and writing are constantly at risk of Back Swans.
A Black Swan is a very unlikely event but highly catastrophic. Some catastrophic events are not extremely unlikely. We just think that they can’t happen because of some personal or professional bias, because we are too involved to judge, or because we underestimate the fragility of a system.
In a strict sense, the probability of a Back Swan event is so low that is virtually unpredictable. You don’t prepare for particular Black Swans. Acknowledge Black Swans is more like expecting the unexpected or knowing you can face the unknown.
Note-taking and writing look very simple that you don’t think about in taking preventive measures for unlikely events.
The problem starts because we don’t see note-taking and writing as complex processes. Being something we have done since elementary school makes it look, well, elemental.
Black Swans and unlikely events
Back Swans and unlikely events have been always a menace for writing but things have become deeper, wider, and faster these digital days.
Note-taking and writing have been always important in our modern lives but as with other old school practices, today it affronts the information overload and the variety of distractions we are in.
For example, you have some routine to take notes at work. You keep a traditional paper-based agenda to keep track of your activities and tasks during the day, plan ahead, and take notes from meetings, observations, and things to remember.
Everything looks good until you lose your agenda. Or maybe you just simply forget to take it to an important meeting. Or maybe an extraordinary but very important event happens without notice and you don’t have your notebook with you.
Sometimes the arrival of Black Swan is very subtle. You simply stopped taking notes one day and you didn’t notice the necessity to keep doing it. You remember everything, you can communicate without preparation, you can plan things in your mind.
In other cases, we break our routine because we break the triggers or the environment that make us write. We used to write first time in the morning but now your daughter goes to high school and needs a ride very early in the morning. Or you used to write at night but a new project requires you to wake up earlier so you get sleepy trying to finish a draft before bed.
Routines and habits are hard to keep. They are fragile.
It can happen also that you want to improve your process. Notes or Keep are not enough for your work notes anymore. Or Word or Docs fell short now for writing a book. You decide to upgrade but that brings with it an unexpected situation — yes, like a Black Swan or likely — because the new app doesn’t have the export options you need or it doesn’t have a version for your operative system.
Personal issues also affect our writing. Your mood has been a little down for a couple of weeks so no spirit to touch the keyboard. Or vice versa, vacations came and you break the streak.
The possible scenarios are endless. I used to write in a coffee shop. Some of my most productive days of writing were there. Lockdown came and suddenly all the family was at home without a way out. A Black Swan for my writing.
How to prepare your note-taking and writing for the Black Swan?
Talking about tools, pen and paper are the more resilient options for writing, for example. You can always substitute them and start again to take notes or write. But of course, these days they have disadvantages also, like the difficulties of sharing your notes with collaborators or on social networks.
But note-taking and writing are more than a couple of tools. It’s a process operating on a system. It doesn’t matter if the process and system are explicitly intentional or not.
Your agenda or app is not the system, they are just tools or elements that belong to the system. You the writer, are part of the system also. But you are more important than the agenda or app. You are the part of the system that even if the agenda is lost or the app deleted you can rebuild a new workflow and write again.
There is always this classmate at school that keeps a very clean and orderly notebook with margins, different ink colors to differentiate definitions from examples or exercises, etc. It’s a spectacle to see how a person can capture all the information following all those rules into the paper. I respect that a lot. I can’t do it myself.
It depends on the personality, but trying to keep strict and over-structured methods is always difficult. As soon as you can’t keep everything in place the notebook stops working properly and can become useless.
Rigidity is not good for Black Swans. And you don’t learn from doing the same every day.
There was also the other classmate that wrote down not just the class lesson but her own ideas, some drawings, personal comments… all in different note-books, with different kinds of pens or pencils — depending on what was available at the moment — and even using sometimes loose sheets of paper. Nothing stopped him from writing. Better to write it down than not, is his rule. That sounds more like me.
Flexibility is good for Black Swans. And better, you learn from change.
Every house on fire is different. The experienced firefighter handles better a fire not because he knows more than a non-experienced one but because he has developed a framework or mindset that adapts easily to any fire. And he is always learning.
Overcompensation is good to face Back Swans.
You write down the little task you have to do not because you are going to forget it but because you don’t know if you are going to forget it.
Carrying away with you, not just a pen but a backup pen is to apply the good practice of redundancy. Keeping every draft of the article you are going to publish — or a versioning system in modern terms — is also being ready for Black Swans using redundancy.
Convexity and optionality
Writing, in general, has already high convexity and optionality. You don’t lose too much writing down meetings or ideas but you can gain a lot from it. You may not use all the things you put on paper or on the app, but the little pearls you have are priceless.
You can also make constant little modifications to the writing process in the search for improvement. Different pen, using new tags or bullets, trying other abbreviations, changing the app configuration, the time to write… It didn’t work? Going back is easy.
When everything fails
You can always restart everything over. The most important part of the system process is the writer, remember?
Authors have been taken into prison, writers have lost everything in a catastrophe, novelists have lost final drafts in a fire, songwriters have illegible lyrics on wet napkins. Did they stop writing? No.
How to shield your writing process to prevent the unpredictable? Armors killed more knights during Middle Edges than battles.
Note-taking and writing can become less fragile to Black Swan events being exposed to the natural stress of life, learn from it, gain, grow, become robust.
Or even becoming more than robust, the opposite of fragile—antifragile.