The Faintest Ink

Every other week, this space is devoted to a discussion of things (articles, news items, or blog posts) that I have recently found interesting. I choose things that are connected—sometimes closely, sometimes only tangentially—to academic writing. Responding to other people’s ideas allows me to clarify my own thoughts and to draw your attention to other approaches to the issues central to this blog.

Most of my links posts come from the range of links that I archive during my daily reading. But this one instead comes from something that came up in class and that was then reinforced by some comments in my Twitter feed. In my thesis writing course, we were recently talking about the perils of not writing ideas down when first they strike. In fact, I was stressing the importance of doing more than just jotting down an idea. In most cases, we need to elaborate on the idea so that it may be useful to us later; that is, we need to explain how that idea might play out or why it might ultimately matter or how it relates to our own work. It can be a pain to stop whatever else we are doing when inspiration strikes, but I have learned that finding an old idea without any elaboration is usually a baffling experience. It seems to be human nature to imagine that our future selves will have tremendous recall especially concerning matters that are clear to our current selves. Do you ever find these sort of cryptic notes in your files? ‘This connects to an earlier idea expressed by the second speaker in the fourth panel: it’s a dichotomy’. I made that up, obviously, but have a look at your own conference notes. Chances are, they are full of obscurity (this?), references requiring context (second speaker? fourth panel?) and words that fail to convey any enduring meaning (dichotomy?). It can be a painful experience to find one of these inexplicable notes. Imagine yourself triumphantly concluding ‘it’s a dichotomy!’ and obviously thinking that this was a valuable insight. And maybe it was, but now you’ll never know.

While I was reflecting on this issue, I saw a tweet from @RohanMaitzen that summed this phenomenon up nicely: “Now, if I could only remember why the word ‘superfluity’ seemed so important to my Eugenides review that I got out of bed to write it down.” She later tweeted that she had remembered the significance of superfluity, so her story has a happy ending. Shortly thereafter, I saw the following tweet from @thesiswhisperer: “I had 3 great ideas for my new workshop ‘If the CV is dead, what should I do?’ but was at gym and didn’t write it down. damn.” (I’m not sure how her story turned out, although I have every confidence that her CV workshop was great.) I even encountered a discussion of this phenomenon on Mad Men. In Season Three, there was an episode called ‘The Color Blue’ in which Paul woke up—hungover and still at the office—remembering that he had had a great idea for a campaign but with no memory of what it had been and, more significantly, with no written notes. Peggy encouraged him to tell Don the truth, and he reluctantly agreed, expecting a full measure of Draper scorn. But Don surprised him: he wasn’t scornful, he was sympathetic. The only explanation for this unexpected burst of human kindness is that even Don Draper understands that ideas get forgotten if they aren’t written down. The Chinese proverb that Paul quotes in despair is the perfect expression of this idea: ‘The faintest ink is better than the best memory.’

So, unless you have been granted a freakishly good memory, make it your basic assumption that you won’t remember later what seems obvious to you now. Write it all down with an eye to your future self: make sure that you note whatever you will need in order to work with this idea in a week or a month or however long it is likely to be before you’ll have a chance to return to this idea.

Finally, some related links. Here is a helpful blog post from The Thesis Whisperer with some guidance on how to use a notebook effectively during your graduate study. The ProfHacker blog recently addressed how to make notes on the go. If you are more likely to take notes on a computer or mobile device, here is an overview of Evernote, also from the ProfHacker blog. And if all else fails, maybe the post-it watch will help you when sudden inspiration strikes.

2 responses to “The Faintest Ink

  1. Worryingly, I found a sentence in the first draft of my thesis which completely baffled me, I had no idea what I had meant at the time, but luckily I kept it in in the hope that I would remember at some point. It was a few months later reading someone else’s work that inspiration struck, and adding the other reference to it made it all so much clearer. At my viva it was that very sentence which the examiners said was one of my main original contributions, and which in my (minor) corrections they wanted me to expand upon!

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