November 19, 2022


My Writing Process with Obsidian and Notion

Back in my college days, I got a few opportunities to write for a few startups, online and print magazines. This was long before I pivoted to a career in Product Design. Tools of the trade for my writing were medieval when I first started. I used to write in a physical notebook first, then type it all on my laptop. A friend had mentioned that he wrote his blogs directly on his laptop, which blew my mind at the time. Eventually, I moved to write directly on Google Docs, then to Obsidian + Notion.

Today, my writing process starts from my database of some 1150+ notes. This is where I capture key ideas from books and articles and my own thoughts. I start writing an article as a way to develop and explore one or more of these ideas. The first draft comprises of organising all related ideas on a single page. Then I re-write and edit through many iterations trying to improve the writing – fixing typos and grammar, cutting the fluff, and so on. Once I am happy with the final results, I hit publish.

This article is about that process in a little more detail.

Pre-Draft: Capturing Ideas, Notes and Resources in Obsidian

Instead of starting with scarcity, start with abundance – the abundance of interesting insights you've collected in your Second Brain.

Tiago Forte, Building a Second Brain

I capture a lot of the ideas from books, articles, videos, etc first into my journal, then to my personal knowledge management database (PKM). Often I add notes based on my own undeveloped ideas such as this one. I browse through this collection of notes improving them along the way.

These notes act as a solid foundation on top of which I can write an article. That might involve mixing different ideas or expanding on the ideas from a single note. In any case, it saves me the trouble of starting from scratch and staring at a blank page. In a way, the process of writing something starts much earlier than sitting down to write.

Outline: Creating a Structure

I shuffle between calling this step an Outline or a First Draft depending on how close I am to the finish line. I create an outline either from existing notes or from scratch.

1. From Existing Notes

First I choose what topic I want to write about and give it a title. I make this decision when I see some themes emerging from the 1150+ notes in my collection. The next step is to compile all related points from many notes into a single page. After this, I group similar points into sections/headings. This becomes a rough outline for the article.

I create this outline in Obsidian because that’s where all my notes are, and because it's a low friction environment for jotting things down.

2. From Scratch

In the absence of notes to draw from, I create an outline before I write any word. I draw inspiration from other articles on similar topics, internet research etc. This outline prevents the writing to go haywire. It follows a particular structure – headings for each of the sections, then some key points in each of those sections. Things may take a different turn when I expand each of those points later on, but this outline helps define the direction I want to move in.

I create this type of outline directly on the Notion page.

First Draft: Expanding on the Outline with Free-Writing

A creative endeavour begins with an act of divergence. You open the space of possibilities and consider as many options as possible.

Tiago Forte, Building a Second Brain

Writing the first draft is difficult. Even more so for an amateur like me. But it’s also the most important artefact to get things moving. First draft is the first step on a path to clarity. When writing the first draft, I expand on each idea from the outline with coherent sentences and paragraphs. That may entail internet research, and re-writing some points I already have in the outline. Other times, I use references and supporting arguments from the book highlights in my notes collection.

At this stage, I write without imposing any constraints on myself. This is free writing in action. The goal is to express freely without worrying about being concise, grammar, accuracy, etc. Sometimes I find myself veering away from the main theme, but that’s okay at this point. I can cut the fluff later.

In my world as a Product Designer, sketching ideas on paper is the direct equivalent of this process of free-writing. It’s important to get all ideas on paper, good or bad. Once I have a tangible sketch/draft to look at, I can refine it, and mold it into a much better version.

Free-writing is divergence in action.

Second Draft: Cutting Out the Fluff, Editing with Hemingway/Grammarly

Convergence forces us to eliminate options, make trade-offs , and decide what is truly essential.

Tiago Forte, Building a Second Brain

I am a big believer in keeping all versions that don’t make it past the cutting room floor. I have the same principle in design, writing, and photography. As for my writing process, usually, my second draft is the final draft.

The purpose of the second draft is to aggressively edit the first draft. I identify the type of article this would be based on the four primary kind of discursive writing specified by Stephen Downes – argument, explanation, definition, and description. I rewrite the introduction to ensure it supports the rest of the article based on the type of the article. Also, I remove all fluffy ideas that veer away from the main theme of the article. This fluff turns into a new article occasionally.

Once I am happy with the final result, I pass it through the Hemingway App and/or Grammarly to improve the readability and grammar. This draft is now ready to be published. Although, sometimes I continue editing even after publishing.

While the first draft is an act of divergence, the second draft is convergence in action.

Time to Publish

Once I have the final draft done and dusted, I move to Figma to design a Cover Image and create some supporting creatives for the blog. Then I export these images, optimise them using TinyPNG, and save them in a local folder.

After this, I move the entire thing to a new blog entry in the Webflow editor. Here, I add the title, and the featured image, and write a summary. In the content section, I paste the final draft from Notion and format it accordingly, adding the creatives in the process.

Finally, it’s time to hit publish.

Final Thoughts

As you can imagine, my current writing process is full of roadblocks and lots of friction. It takes me many days to write, edit and publish an article that I am satisfied with. But I stick with this process as I get an end result that I can live with.

For undeveloped thoughts and notes, I created another category on my blog called Notes. I don’t have the same mental block of chasing perfection here so I publish to my heart’s content.

My first pieces of writing were horrendous. Even today, I continue to find faults in my articles long after I hit publish – grammatical, structural etc. Still, I will continue to be on this quest to write better.

I am on a quest to improve my writing skills. If you have any suggestions, resources or just want to yell at me, please share via Twitter or LinkedIn. 🙌