Designing a better thinking-writing medium

10 March 2021
10 Mar 2021
West Lafayette, IN
8 mins

As I’ve written more often, writing has become more than just a way for me to communicate. To me these days, writing is the creative by-product of my learning and thinking process. If I learn something new, it begins life as just an idea, thrown somewhere into the distant orbit in my mental solar system of ideas. Over time, as this speck of an idea develops through conversations and readings, it starts growing and colliding into other ideas. Asteroids of ideas agglomerate in my mental orbit, pulling itself closer to the center of the solar system, until one day, I feel ready to cast a shadow of its form from within my mind out into the material world. That shadow of my thoughts is my writing. Writing is the end product of thinking in my life.

I spent some time discussing this perspective on writing with Samson Zhang who is working on a tool called Postulate that’s built around this exact concept – melding learning, thinking, and writing into a single process. In postulate, blog posts start out as notes to yourself about what you learn, and mature into public-facing blog posts, resulting in a kind of blog that feels like an active, learning journal. I think there’s something to this idea. A tool for better thinking is necessarily a tool for better writing, and a tool that helps you write better is necessarily also an aid in thinking.

This relationship between better writing and clearer thinking runs deep. Language is the medium through which we – humans – see and make sense of the world. There is barely a thought we have within ourselves that isn’t shaped and filtered by the linguistic medium we use to think. So the more precisely and accurately we can model our ideas about the world in words, the better we can think. Polishing our writing is like cleaning the lenses through which we think about our experiences. Naturally, better writing yields clearer ideas.


Quantum physicist Richard Feynman once noted an interesting way he thinks about the notes he takes while solving problems. He said on one occasion about his scribbles working through a tough problem:

No, no! They aren’t a record of my thinking process. They are my thinking process. I actually did the work on paper.

Feynman argued that writing was not merely a record or trace of what he thought, but rather the medium through which he thought that enabled him to think more consciously. Writing ideas down, materializing them outside of his mind, helped him think more clearly.

Our brains are good at thinking moment to moment, but not over time, especially across days and weeks and months. Writing helps us think better because it allows us to think across time. At any moment, our minds can only hold and connect a handful of related ideas and memories. When we try to multiply big numbers in our head or understand complex situations, that limitation we run into is the limitation of how much we can think at once – we can only think a few thoughts clearly at once, so to create vast maps of ideas, we need a larger surface. When we take notes, we render our thoughts onto paper so that we can hold onto them even when they aren’t at the top of our minds. We can lay out a hundred different ideas on paper and move them around to connect them and group them easily.

This process of thinking through writing and writing through thinking transforms the two activities into a single process, what I like to call thinking-writing.

An infinite room

I talked to Jess Martin last fall about how we both organized knowledge in our lives, and after our conversation, he wrote one of my favorite metaphors for memory, an infinite room for thought. In it, he imagines a boundlessly large room for your work – workshop, office, whatever you call it – that contains an infinite number of copies of every book you ever need, every note you’ve ever taken, and every photo you’ve ever seen. The room would stretch on forever into the distance, holding onto every little piece of work you’ve ever created, in that pristine form just how you left your workspace. He describes the room:

The things you used most recently would be open, at your fingertips, right where you left them. The entries you recently updated in your encyclopedia would lay near your right hand, ready to be picked back up. A small stack of open books to your left, lying opened to exactly where you were last reading.

That half-finished project? The books would still lay on the table, cracked open to key passages, ragtag bookmarks peeking over tops of pages. The whiteboard sketch, littered with sticky notes, would be there on the wall, the lines reminiscent of a spider’s web.

How big would this room be? It would stretch on beyond sight, but with walls scattered as needed near spaces where work was done. It would feel expansive, but cozy, limitless but focused.

Every time we write, we open a small room for our thoughts. Rather than trying to hold them all in our minds, we lay them out, in the order in which they came to us, so that we can jump between them and explore them at our leisure. But every time we publish or every time we stop writing, we close the door into that room, and start anew with a fresh room.

What if, on a single sheet of paper that lasts an entire lifetime, you could inscribe every thought you’ve ever had? It would be the written version of Jess’s infinite room for thought. Every idea you have would have a place here. In a perfect world, when you stumbled across a new idea that relates back to a previous memory, you’d simply take a pencil and draw arrows from this new idea all the way back to the ideas that came before. In this way, we’d construct an infinite transcript of our thoughts that was our life’s canvas for ideas. This infinite notebook would reflect the way we learn – we would connect related ideas together to trace out a web of memories, and label and sort them for future recollection. Just as Feynman replaced his working memory with notes on a piece of paper, we could replace our entire solar systems of ideas in mental orbit with an infinite, always-on transcript of our minds' chatter.

These are some of the ideas I’ve been thinking about as I continue to build and use what we’re creating at Ideaflow. Actually, as I’ve had these ideas and conversations, I’ve collected them in my Ideaflow notes. This blog post is simply a more organized shadow of the many connected ideas I’ve encountered across months of time. In this way, this blog post is the end result of my thinking across weeks and months of idea-gathering.

As I pulled together all the ideas that went into this post, I realized that this kind of thinking – across long stretches of time – wouldn’t have occurred to me without this infinite transcript of my thoughts. In the same way that Feynman’s notes were a medium for thinking rather than a record of it, my writing in this this little app became a medium for long-term thinking, rather than simply a record of it like my blog. I was thinking through my neverending writing on this infinite surface.

Mediums, not tools

Chris Granger makes a careful distinction between tools and mediums that I think is relevant here. He defines a tool as something that takes an existing workflow, and makes it more efficient. A nail is an efficient way of holding pieces of wood together; a to-do app is an efficient way of remembering your responsibilities. A medium, on the other hand, gives us new agency or power by which we can do something we couldn’t do before.

As with any dichotomy, there are grey areas. Powerful, effective tools can become mediums and enablers too. The graphical computer user interface wasn’t just a better way to write scientific simulations or data processing systems – it also became a new medium for creative work. Programming languages began history as a more efficient way to store and maintain punchcard programs, but a half-century of innovation has made it a medium for expressing programs that couldn’t be written before.

If we want to build something that aids us both in our thinking process and the expression of our ideas – a thinking-writing thing – that thing must be a medium, not a tool. A thinking-writing medium that enables us to think new thoughts and imagine new stories by allowing us to think beyond pieces of paper and our working memory. This must be what we should strive for when we build writing tools: not a typewriter into which we type words as a record of our thinking, but an open space through which we think more clearly across time, gathering and connecting ideas around us as we navigate reality.

This is my first blog post that started life as a few notes in Ideaflow, and grew and snowballed into a longer piece. Though it’s early, I think what we’re building at Ideaflow can become a thinking-writing medium in the way I’ve described here. My experience using our alpha so far partly inspired this piece.

Thanks to Jess Martin, Jacob Cole, and Samson Zhang whose conversations with me about writing and thinking led to ideas in this post, as well as Amir and Rahul from the newsletter who shared thoughts that inspired me to write this post.

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy my piece on building a runtime for structured thought, which touches on similar themes and topics, but from a programmer’s perspective.

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