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Incremental Writing — One step at a time

Piotr Wozniak is one of the important names in in the field of digital Knowledge Management. He created supermemo in (1985), which introduced powerful concepts like spaced repetition, active recall, and incremental reading among many other things to the digital world for the first time. Today, however, we will be looking at one of the less talked about feature of Supermemo called Incremental Writing and its advantages and the disadvantages when used with different styles and formats of writing. And we will be talking about Incremental writing out of its native context i.e., within Supermemo and try to extend it to other softwares and generalize its use cases.

Incremental Writing

Incremental Writing, as Piotr likes to put, is a method of writing in which ideas are written down and assembled incrementally. It requires almost no linearity as most of the pieces can be disjoint in their raw form when writing, and only have to be reconciled with the narrative of the main piece when assembling. The wonderful thing about incremental writing is that it allows you to be lazy as well as prudent with your writing at the same time. Incremental writing's non-linear mechanism allows you to take as long as you need to create a vast collection of resources related to your main narrative, which then you can carefully select or prune based on the requirements. This allows for a really interesting side-effect: serendipity. As you collect more materials and write in a non-linear manner, you can then re-use the materials in different forms and with different essays as the chunks are not tightly coupled to any particular piece.

Incremental Writing as a Philosophy

Although incremental writing is a feature provided by Supermemo and created by Piotr Wozniak, it must also be noted that it is not a novel idea by any means. People, whether fiction or non-fiction writers, have been practicing a form of incremental writing since the dawn of the medium(of writing). Authors and Writers write use chapters to incorporate incrementalism all the time, in fact, many fiction writers like GRR Martin in many places have talked about how they build their world in a non-linear manner and then find the right place for this non-linear stub in the story once they start writing. So this should show us that incremental writing is not merely a feature provided by a piece of software but a way of approaching the art of writing.

Now, writing is a difficult activity and there are no two thoughts about it, especially when you are writing professionally. From the very basic activity of proof-reading to handling subtle issues of political correctness, it can be a very demanding activity. Incremental Writing handles this very efficiently by allowing one to go about managing these issues by breaking the complexity into smaller pieces thus allowing for finer control over the material in the first place than what would have been possible if you'd gone about writing an essay in one go. And to complement this, the sub process of assembly provides you with a second chance to see how things fit together and correct things that are not correct. In a nutshell, I believe incremental writing is the only form of writing that tacitly optimizes for both reducing the mistakes and increasing the value for a writer, and interestingly it does it by providing room for more fun without sucking the soul out of the writer in the name of deadline and productivity as the writer is not bound by the topic and can explore anything he/she likes and follow a more connectionist approach to writing.

Note: Adjacent idea to this is that of "Zettlekasten" by Niklas Luhmann, but it is more about collating notes and resources in a connected manner than actually writing. Also to be noted is that incremental writing has note-taking and resource collation built into it, but it exhorts the users that they do all of that in their own words.

Extending Incremental Writing to Other Softwares

Truth be told, apart from tinkering with the software a couple times, I do not have much experience when it comes to Supermemo, but the idea impressed me so much that I didn't want it to stay inside the bubble. Also given the complex and extremely cluttered/unintuitive interface of Supermemo, there was no way that new features in Super memo would ever make it out to the outside world unless someone really puts any effort into bringing it out.

And if you think about it, it is one of the most easiest thing to bring to the table among all the features of Supermemo, for most of what is need for writing is already provided by most note-taking/knowledge management softwares.

Incremental Writing algorithm as described by Piotr: Incremental Writing Algorithm

Examples of existing writing tools and how you can use them

  • Tools like Onenote, Evernote, Notion, etc already provide a notebook like structure where in you can easily split your writing into atomic notes in different pages of the same notebook or different notebooks.
    • These notes can then be used during the assembly stage. If there is no need for it one can still see how these snippets fit with each using the block-linking features(mentioned in the next point) — Found in Onenote, Evernote, Notion, Roam, Remnote.
  • Many of these softwares also provide something called "block-level linking"/partial transclusion which can then be used to embed/point to the piece without having to re-write anything each time you need to use the snippet for an essay.
  • If you are a hardcore text-editor fanatic, you already have integrations such as vimwiki, orgroam, foam, sublime-zk etc that allow you to take advantage of your favorite text-editor while providing an easier writing experience as most of these integration support the zettelkasten method which can then be extended to the incremental writing approach.
  • Even with vanilla text-editing this can be achieved by taking advantage of the various quirks of the editors such the modal nature of vim or the homoiconic configurability of emacs through elisp for easier and quicker editing experience which can reduce friction when working (incrementally) with a big project.
    • Another tool being Version Control Systems that can used along with these files to maintain version history and differences for a better editing/assembly(stage II) experience.
  • Tools like Notion and Remnote allow for prioritization with their reminder features, which can be used to work on projects incrementally but in a structured and scheduled manner. Something that Supermemo boasts itself of.
  • Tools like Remnote, Anki, Mocha allow you to incorporate the spacing element of IR/IW. In fact, almost all the above mentioned tools have some kind of extensions/plugin ecosystem that integrates well with anki.

Although supermemo has a distinct advantage when it comes to the cohesiveness of the environment with its priority and scheduling algorithms outperforming pretty much all the tools in the list. It is still possible to take advantage of this feature with other apps, all without sacrificing a lot.

Advantages of Incremental Writing

  • The dendritic nature of incrementalism allows you to work bottom-up rather than top-down.
  • The atomic and incremental nature reduces friction when working on a large project.
  • The connectionist approach allows one to make new connections from old text a.k.a Serendipitous encounters.
  • Eases the search process when writing as now one can search for the overall themes and chapters instead of words as most of the notes are atomic and non-linear in nature.
    • Compare it with writing in one go where you can't help but search by keyword.
  • Gets rid of the dreaded word i.e., productivity as one need not be bothered with the linearity when working on a project and can instead work on adjacent topics that piques their interest without hampering the overall narrative.
  • Exhorts natural creative cycle, that is, one can just stop/start whenever they feel like it instead of waiting to be done with the entire thing as the incremental and atomic nature ensures that the effort are used efficiently.
  • Creative elaboration works best when it is incremental. This makes it possible to employ natural creative cycle without worrying much about the big picture.
  • Can be practiced with any tool. Doesn't require any specialized toolset. See: Above Examples
  • Best suited for fact-based and anecdotal writing.

Disadvantages of Incremental Writing

  • Possibility of redundancy due to disjointedness.
  • Can backfire in fiction writing as object permanence, in this case world/character permanence can be hampered by the non-linearity. That is, it can cause inconsistency in the character arc or the story since the non-linear nature can encourage the author to take multiple routes.
  • Assembly can become extremely difficult if situations like the one's mentioned in the previous point occur pretty frequently.
  • Unsuited for poetic and figurative style of writing, as gluing them is next to impossible unless you put tremendous effort into bringing all the different pieces together. In which case, you'd be better off writing things from scratch in a single sitting.