On Internal Writing
Writing, in general, is the process of taking something vague, a thought construct, an idea, a model of how something might work, and turning it into linear words. This process itself is necessarily lossy, we can’t represent the vague idea in our heads into words, words are not a sufficient medium for this. If you are sufficiently skilled at the craft of writing, you may guide the reader to gradually reconstruct the idea in their own heads, similar to what it was at the time you thought to write it down. This turns written word into a data structure for ideas, something other ideas use as a more transmittable proxy representation.
This is hard. Many books themselves have been written on how to write (and read) books more effectively, to be better at serialising ideas to words, and how to be better at deserialising words to ideas, none with such definite success that consider them unnecessary to write anew. A major difficulty in doing this is the spread of minds in audience, what is a good representation of an idea for one person is a terrible one for the next, and so on.
But what if we make the goal slightly easier, in that we reduce the audience for such writing to oneself? After all, “serialising an idea to a format it can be retrieved from at any time so desired” is a highly valuable concept, even if our audience is one person, and nobody else will read it. It is valuable because our minds are fickle and fleeting1, and refuse to hold on to one idea for long. Being able to recall ideas, plans, and events without being beholden to the whims of memory cooperating is quite useful indeed.
In fact, writing for an audience of one has advantages to it, if we are purely consider the objective of “serialising ideas”: You can use tricks, styles, and references that would be unworkable when trying to communicate with a large audience. You know how the person in question thinks and works. You know which references and shorthand they will understand2, and which is unknown. You can create the most objectively-bad categorisations and use them to great success.3
I’ve dubbed the writing aimed at solely your past and future self to be “internal writing”, and with it, all the relative lack of constraints and more narrow goals that come with it. I think that engaging in internal writing is crucial, as it allows for more effective communication with yourself, to learn from your own thoughts, and to be able to reconstruct ideas you have when you need them.
Arguably, a lot of my internal writing could be public with no loss in meaning to myself, but sadly, things don’t quite work that way: If I know there is a potential audience, if things are at all visible, I write for the benefit of a hypothetical audience, rather than use my own shorthand to communicate with myself.
Internal writing is a broad domain, so it helps to make it more concrete to specify what there is to communicate, and more specifically, what makes them different from one another. Things I consider to be internal writing and thus subject to the special benefits and constraints that come from the audience of one:
- To-do lists.
- Reference guides.
- Notes about connections and ideas, future and past.
- Memory aides about location/connection/subject.
- Historical recordings, like notes about conversation.
All of these can, once considered “internal”, be enhanced with shorthand and objectively-incomprehensible abbreviations to no loss in meaning. Something that started out that way and only afterwards became known are Carrol’s sigils in the now-popular bullet journals. Assuming you had no idea what a bullet journal was, putting an eye next to a dot in a list would not tell you much of anything, but if you know it represents an open, important task, you can now scan for this and act accordingly.
Internal shorthand is incredibly good at conveying information from your past to future self, while being much quicker and, in the sense of Dijkstra’s dictum of abstraction4, also being more precise. Once you are freed from the burden of rendering text comprehensible and deserialisable to more than one person, the price of abstraction is diminished greatly.
For some more personal examples of shorthand I use and employ daily:
- Notebook references, for example, L3p102 is page 102 in logbook 3, a set of chronologial notes;
- Note-tree references, for example, #4d3c2c1d refers to a file talking about the idea of Cognitive Systems Engineering;
- A note/entry in Omnifocus that starts with
spire:refers to an idea for a script that could help me, one that starts
sq:refers to new entries to the spending queue,
read:to new entries on the reading list, etc;
- A thin, hammered-copper bookmark in the logbook refers to a set of notes I took while reading books that I have not yet pulled out of the logbooks into something better;
- A tilde (~) inside the logbook refers to the current book I am reading, usually in the immediately-preceding notes section,
- A square in the top right of each days’ headline in my logbook refers to whether or not I cleared my omnifocus list for that day, empty is no, filled is yes, which is useful for deciding if my recurring workload is too high;
- Empty and filled squares on a loose sheet of paper refer to that day’s goal of focus periods, and whether I’ve achieved it;
- A “C” next to items on my “at some time in the future” list refers to an unfulfilled prerequisite, something that prompts me to check up on that each maintenance period, an “S” marks something for the next month;
cls reviewin a shell presents me with a sequential list of steps to take for reviewing everything without forgetting a step.
I could keep going, but the point is that none of these would be comprehensible to anyone else without me explaining them first, yet they are idiosyncrasies that help me process information. “Good writing” would ask me to expand these upon use, to remove the need to ask to explain, but because I am all of the audience, I do not need to. I can use the shortcuts and hacks that are illegible, but useful. The goal here is not to make you segregate public from internal writing, it is pointing out the inherent benefits that come with writing that is fundamentally internal, and then exploiting it. If you do not practice writing of much of any kind, this might be a prompt to start, the benefits of being able to being able to communicate with my future self has been tremenduous.
In the end, I think that internal writing is sufficiently different to be treated differently, and it has also very different uses. Most importantly, however, treating it like it needs to be comprehensible for anyone but yourself is removing the biggest benefit it has.
Some more so than others, mine, having ADHD, is on the end of “extremely fickle and fleeting”. ↩
This is not strictly true, your understanding of yourself will change and so you will not always understand the shorthand you do now, and you will have to account for that. ↩
For a satirical but illustrating example, consider Borges’ classification of animals in the Celestial Emporium Of Benevolent Knowledge. It is objectively a (satirically) bad classification, but looked at from a certain angle, it is also a potentially useful one: Each category distinguishes a different type of required action if you were to face them, much like one might to stay clear of those trembling as if mad. ↩
“The purpose of abstraction is not to be vague, but to create a new semantic level in which one can be absolutely precise.” ↩