The Process of Preparation: read, prime, synthesize (a1)


“Wisdom at a certain level is nothing more than the ability to follow one’s own advice.”
Sam Harris

This is the first post of a series on how i wish to write long-form essays. I’ll be learning along the way, which adds weight to the above quote. Creating my own feedback mechanisms in hopes of bootstrapping to something meaningful.

Process is foundational, on top of knowledge (which is the focus of my other threads), and so I chose to start here.

Alright. Lets map some ripples and roll some dice.

Read a lot of books to imitate writers you like. Find books that balance (1) generalizable structures across meaningful disciplines with (2) depth in the periphery of your technical domain.

Interact with books as you read them. Develop systems to precisely index interesting excerpts. Write comments in the margin. Be aware of common threads with other books. One way is to read multiple at once in a way that may create disparate, yet coherent braids.

Over time, you’ll accrue an external library, while books will fade from your internal library. That’s ok. Your books are indexed. If they’ve faded completely go back and type all the indices into workflowy, as a form of spaced repetition. [1]

Transcribing is also useful as a primer: it brings back into your mind the dense (arguably less edible) meat of the book. Choosing when to workflowy books should be done with some intention, but not too much, or you’ll certainly miss the most interesting associations. You should be setting yourself up with tools to ferret out the unexpected, and tight clusters are expected.

Following the unexpected is exploration. And exploration is so much more rich when its a process of slurpin’ up a vortex of swirling hierarchical taxonomies. Eatin’ trees as if you were lookin’ for Unobtanium.

But this part is difficult, because you don’t want to just quote various authors. If you’re not writing in your own words, you don’t understand it. Take this one step further: if you can’t verbally talk about it, you don’t grok it. Therefor, synthesizing should first take the form of giving a live presentation to a knowledgable audience.

During a presentation you will see (a) where you stumble over awkward phrases and (b) which bits are boring. The peer pressure of a live talk may also force you to empathically entertain the attention of your audience, which is useful if your default style is more dry and academic. Presentations also force you to use a lot of visuals, which makes for a more enjoyable post

Watch the blue twirly thing until you forget how bored you are by this essay

But again, the largest benefit of giving a presentation is that it makes what you don’t understand blatantly obvious. It also forces you to describe things in a conversational tone, which I suggest is more than just a tone.

You know you’re around a useful audience when the conversation meanders. Ideally, it should cut and fill your relevant thoughts in order to emphasize the central thread, like an illustrator inking over a pencil drawing.

However, in conversation you don’t think about a sentence for longer than it takes to say it. Any given person is dumber as a member of an audience than as a reader. But the conversations create an internal synthesis of your essay.

Fundamentally an essay is a train of thought- but a cleaned-up train of thought, as dialogue is cleaned-up conversation. And my favorite trains roll over the shoulders of a handful of relevant books, and through a good taste for nonfiction authors. The necessity of a small mind is broad shoulders, because as we’ve seen: brute strength is what’s really important.


[1] When indexing books, I mostly use a “ok to change lanes while driving in your car” line to mark things that summarize the current topic, a solid line for a more important piece, and a double line for a really important piece. This can correspond to *, **, and *** accordingly when you type these excerpts into workflowy.