Sasha Chapin’s recent screed against note-taking systems crystallized in my mind a topic I’ve been meaning to touch on for a long time: my own opposition to note-taking, “productivity systems,” and over-organization in general.
In the internet writing world, you will encounter a lot of people with elaborate note-taking and organizational practices. Many write about them, more tweet about them, and some even sell courses where you too can learn their ways. An entire digital ecosystem has sprung up of productivity gurus who claim that taking notes on what you read and organizing your ideas the way they do is the secret to supercharging your creative output.
I think all of this is bullshit.
My own note-taking “system” is extremely minimal and stupid. It consists of roughly 2,000 completely unorganized entries in my iPhone notes app, stretching back thirteen years. These could be, among other things: an interesting fact I learned, an idea for an essay, something funny one of my friends said, a dream I had, a shopping list from 2011, or a weird name I made up. (One of my favorite parts of writing fiction is making up characters’ names. Some recent favorites include Yasmina Stellenbridge and Orley Watercress.)
These notes are not organized in any way. Everything from earlier than, say, the past six months is effectively lost to history, except in the rare occasions where I randomly scroll through the entire list for inspiration or out of boredom.
There was a time in my life when I believed that this disorganization was a character flaw, and that a better man would have the gumption and stamina to maintain a better system. Many times, I explored some other app or some specific method, but every time I was stopped by two things: my general laziness, and the vague sense that what I was doing was just so incredibly lame. I barely took any notes in college, when I was actually being graded. So why would I voluntarily start now?
Eventually, though, I realized that my supposed laziness had actually led me, unintentionally, down the right path. Outside of highly specialized contexts like writing an academic paper or studying for a test, most note-taking is, at best, a waste of time. You won’t become a better writer or a more creative person by building up a huge personal library of organized notes. In fact, doing so is likely to be counterproductive.
My number one piece of writing advice—really, my only piece of writing advice—is that basically everything that isn’t writing, revising, or editing is a waste of time. This is especially true for beginners, who are prone to procrastination in the guise of planning. At least once a week someone asks me if they should publish on Substack or Wordpress, which is basically the platform equivalent of asking if they should write in Garamond or Times New Roman. Taking elaborate notes on what you read is even worse, since it’s busywork that disguises itself as productivity. How many people are out there convinced they’ve taken the first step towards being an insightful blogger or essayist, when really all they have is a folder full of a bunch of other people’s ideas?
The best writing comes when you sit down with a pen and paper and something just starts pouring out. When something doesn’t just start pouring out (which, let’s face it, is most of the time), the most reliable trick is to consult a prompt, or to force yourself to write and discard a bunch of nonsense until you feel the faucet start to warm up. Consulting notes can help here, but it will usually be in the form of “that random Hannah Arendt quote I wrote down reminds me of a dream I had in 2018, maybe there’s something interesting there,” not from working your way through an organized, interconnected web of concepts about the green revolution or AI risk or whatever. After all, much of the best writing comes from connecting multiple seemingly unrelated ideas. And your best writing is going to be something only you can write—which, almost by definition, is unlikely to start from a bunch of notes you took on what other people said.
That’s not, of course, to say you won’t be influenced by others. (Like I said up top, it was reading someone else’s work that inspired me to write this piece.) But at best it happens on a subconscious, mystical level. Forcing it almost never works.
People often look at my large collection of books, or see the articles I tweet about, and ask, how do you remember everything you read? And the answer is, I don’t. Remembering is for chumps. I’m not reading to remember, I’m reading to be influenced. It all goes into the big, messy bucket that is my mind, and I trust that enough of it will be retained and mixed together, and emerge later. Sometimes in distorted or misremembered form, perhaps, but that just makes it all the more worthwhile. Much creativity comes from mistakes.
George Saunders described a similar version of this process recently in his excellent newsletter Story Club. He’s speaking about reading and writing fiction, but I think the same general idea applies:
Here’s how I think analyzing stories helps us write our own.
Imagine that we each have a huge silo over our head.
What we’re doing is adding these stories we’re reading, plus our attempts to analyze them, into our personal silo. Someday (according to me) when we’re struggling with an artistic problem, the contents of our silo will be there, to subtly inform our solution…Whatever we’ve “learned” will appear, now and then, in the form of an instinct, or an aversion, or an expansion of ambition.
So, we’re having faith in the idea that learning to analyze stories technically will, in a way that we can’t exactly explain, improve our taste, and thereby make us better writers (and readers).
Once we’ve done the work, we can just…forget about it. We don’t need a list of takeaways or maxims or resolutions re what we are always going to do when writing, or never going to do. Whatever we got from the experience is in us, and will come forward when we need it.
I met George Saunders once, a decade or so ago, when he guest taught one of my college classes. I was wearing one of those t-shirts that was popular back then, with a bunch of large Helvetica names separated by ampersands: John&Paul&George&Ringo, Jerry&George&Elaine&Kramer, that sort of thing.
Mine said Serena&Dan&Blair&Chuck, the four main characters from the original Gossip Girl. And George Saunders took one look at me and said, “Hey, I love Gossip Girl!”
I can’t explain why it felt right to end this piece with an anecdote about how George Saunders watched Gossip Girl. I suppose our influences swirl around inside us and emerge in mysterious ways.
Yours in having been horrified to discover recently that I am now older than the teachers in the new Gossip Girl,