Degrees of certainty in creative work (with emojis, yay!)

This has been an old post on the Zettelkasten, Linking Your Thinking forums and my own website, but since this was met with some interest (thank you), I thought this could be of use as well since MPU, productivity and knowledge work intersect a lot. Reposting it here in the hope it might be useful, it comes from my personal experience writing hopefully enjoyable lies (read: fiction). I mostly write, but I also code and do electronic music, and I’ve seen the same patterns in all disciplines. Writing, however, relied the most heavily on this since writing is by nature a discipline inscribed in time (we read, and write, word after word).

So: I write SF&F, so about worlds other than our own, but at its core, fiction is always about a world other than our own (if only because fictional characters are depicted). After years of writing novels and trying to negotiate a workflow than could give some form to the inevitable chaos that represents, I have come to a cycle of information (which takes some inspiration from the GTD model).

The problem or joy with art (depending how you look at it and how close your deadline is…) is that everything is always in flux until the very last moment. It’s also the case with academia, but in creative writing, it’s often the case that you find, in your material itself , a tiny detail at the very last moment that sheds an entirely different light on all your work and that explains to you what it has been about all along. For that reason, a novel, theoretically, can always fundamentally change until the very last moment. Therefore, I think the facts of creative writing establish themselves on a scale of certainty as you build the whole thing. (That can translate quite well to any kind of creative work, I believe.) It’s not governed by a succession of tasks (or, rather, they shift so rapidly that’s it’s not really worth tracking them), which is why, if you go deeper than the surface, the GTD model (with its sacrosanct actionable items) starts to crumble. At its core, creativity is about emergence, not about ticking the task “write 10 pages”. (Wish it was that simple.)

At first, you have ideas . Random thoughts, images, scenes, possibilities that come through your head – “wouldn’t it be cool if…” They can be huge (an idea underpinning a whole saga) or small (a cool line of dialogue). The need to be captured, in the GTD way, to make sense of later.

Then you organise (process, in GTD terms) those ideas to make sense of them, realise where they fit (and if they fit). People with Zettelkästen have a lead here, because they can already lay the relevant zettels out. That organisation becomes plot threads, characters, lines of thought that you have chosen or discarded. At this stage, you realise where the holes are (where you haven’t explored to get the whole story in plain sight). You will explore those holes based on what you already have, which becomes, in effect, hypotheses . You can alter them as along as you want, but they’re the firmer material on which you start building new material.

Now the fun begins. Hypotheses and new ideas start to represent a world from where laws and rules emerge. If you envision a character with a given past, then it will probably influence how they see the world. Ideas and hypotheses therefore draft necessities . “If things work that way, that means that…” Necessities will orient your exploration, and give new ideas and hypotheses.

Once you have enough material (depending what kind of writer you are), you start writing. What is written tends to take a life of itself, creating more and more necessities as the story unfolds.

Then – to steal a term from Star Trek and Star Wars fandoms – what is published becomes canon . If you want to write a sequel or another story in the same world, you cannot go back onto what has been said. Canon creates its own kind of necessities and ideas.

So it’s a cycle –

(pardon my French… it’s taken from my blog / website)

Bonus emoji: I found that using emoji in documents, mind maps, outlines, tags even works extremely well to separate the degrees of certainty associated to each kind of material:

  • :bulb: for Ideas (I know there’s fun there, I can look for that when looking for inspiration, I’m also free to capture but also disregard whatever I want)
  • :arrow_right: for Hypotheses (reminds the implication mathematical arrow: “this is what there seems to be, pursue that line of thought”)
  • :question: for to-dos (these are fundamental story questions I need to study to move further in order to build safely)
  • :exclamation:for Necessities (things I cannot evade, or that I have to mention, or that I have to remember not to contradict)

Canon cannot (or at least should not) be contradicted. Or at least, it’s very firm ground. Maybe, in the context of a PKM, that could map itself to evergreen notes.

In the specific context of fiction writing, I found that using emoji as signallers (especially in a PKM) is tremendously useful (works visually, and in search: combine that with embedded queries in Obsidian and you are building yourself a killer dashboard for creative work). I have adopted a whole slew of them beyond those four, which I can post if you think that’s relevant (and that I have not been rambling too much already… :sweat_smile:)


As long as you’re referring to content in documents, not filenames in the filesystem. :thinking:

Dropbox dislikes them indeed, but iCloud and Obsidian sync accept them. I agree, one needs to be wary, but with compatible systems, no hiccups. :slightly_smiling_face:

I consider myself a writer as I love to write. I mostly write kids stories and some non-fiction. The only writing course, aside from English Comp 101 and 102, I ever took was in Advanced Spanish. Much to my amazement, I did quite well.

You are so right-on that it could scarcely be possible to write creatively and tick off steps a la GTD. I don’t really care for GTD although I really should be more familiar with it to make that statement. That is not to say it is not an effective method for some.

I took an Immersive Spanish course one summer out in gorgeous San Diego. In order to avoid making errors on the California exam for bilingual teachers, we had to write simple compositions. Opening paragraph, delineating your points, three paragraphs expanding beginning with a telling sentence and all of it ending with a paragraph summing up each point. Five paragraphs. No one cared if your essay is cogent.

Well, try as I might, I just couldn’t do it. I just write. I am far more concerned with what I am trying to say than writing to a formula. I probably drove that teacher bonkers.

But that is fascinating that one part of your novel (or fiction et al) could totally change by one point. You could have stuck to an original outline (assuming you do that) and I’d predict the story would be a lot less amazing and that you might not be as satisfied with it.

Creativity must be mostly open-ended. I do digital scrapbooking and I have a general idea of what I plan on doing. I usually have a photo in mind. But mostly I think it through as I go. And I can scarcely predict what goes together well without a great degree of open-endedness (new word variation a la Styron). I mix and match from various designs.

That’s my take on it.

Can you share your website? I think I might enjoy it.

Emoji would work REALLY very well with kids. In fact, it is rather brilliant!

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Thank you for asking! Yes, here it is although I only write and publish in French at the moment:

Creativity is wonderfully summed up by @kourosh I think: it’s play informed by work. We need both the free roaming and the rigorous discipline of putting things in a meaningful order. But it’s a very personal balance and a difficult line to tread at times which is why I find emergence such a very useful lens to view things through.

All the best to you with your writing!

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Thank you!

After I asked you, it dawned on me that your website was most likely in French. Well, I can look for cognates and see how far I get. Looks nice, attractive!

La guerre de Cent Ans. The War of the Century _____ ? LOL!

It’s funny. Based essentially on the Spanish I speak, I can read simple Portuguese. It totally amazes me because I cannot even identify it when I hear it… other than it is the language that inevitably stumps me. It is a mixture of everything. And I don’t speak a word of it!

I think that is a fine summation on creativity as it is so much play but you need to be disciplined if you are actually going to get beyond an idea brewing in your head. Plus it is best to dedicate yourself to approach writing as you do working eg to put aside for a certain amount of time most days.

That is seemingly particularly true of writing novels and anything with some length. I’ve never even tried that! I’d probably write myself into a corner but who knows?

Have you ever done NaNoWriMo?

Writing yourself into a corner is actually a great way to find unexpected ideas :slightly_smiling_face: sure, it’s terrifying, but that’s when you get great stuff! You have to keep at it and trust the process.

I’ve never done NaNoWriMo officially, or rather I’m doing it every day: it’s more or less my writing cruising speed all year long. I have not had any other main activity in years now. So I don’t do NaNo since I’m already working on things that are getting sold. :slightly_smiling_face:

French is indeed a baffling language at times. La Guerre de Cent ans translates as the Hundred Years’ War. Long period of strife between France and England mostly, which saw Joan of Arc arise. My latest series is extremely loosely based on her, in a postapocalyptic fantasy setting. :slightly_smiling_face:


Joan of Arc was a fascinating lady! What a terrific character!

Maybe writing myself into a corner shouldn’t be so off-putting, after all. There is something to be said in having unpredictable results particularly in terms of creativity. Thanks for sharing your insight!

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This is my favorite (rather short, highly fictionalized) story of Jeanne d’Arc The Death of Joan of Arc by Michael Scott: 9780375899928 | Books

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