Append-only writing

In photography, taking photos with an analogue or digital camera can make a significant difference: whenever I use the digital format, I tend to have a rough idea of how I want a photo to look and then work towards the final photo by taking lots of photos, playing with different camera settings and looking at the intermediate results. When shooting on film, two essential factors turn this process upside-down. Firstly, looking at intermediate results is not possible anymore as I can't develop the film right there, on the spot. Secondly, film is expensive so I can't take arbitrarily many photos of the same subject. As a consequence, the entire process of working towards the final photo is relocated to my mind; framing, exposure settings, direction towards the light source and more need to be determined before I trigger the release shutter.

As an experiment, I would like to achieve a similar process for my writing. Think, phrase, re-phrase, and think again before writing words down. An initial set of rules:

  1. Any written words are final, they must not be erased.
  2. New words can only be appended to the current piece of writing. This setting is nothing new. At school, we would use unerasable ink on paper for years. I remember my German teacher repeatedly examining us on being able to come up with a story ad-hoc and write it down without any preparation. I'm not expecting this set of rules to enable better organised or more sophisticated essays. For now, it's merely an experiment and an interesting task for my mind.

I observed a few things using these rules to write this very note. It is difficult to work on the same piece of writing over a couple of days as I can't just write down what ideas I have for the next bit and then pick up from there. Every time I sit down to continue to write, I need to re-read already written words to refresh my knowledge of what I wrote about earlier. This has two effects:

  1. I spend more time considering different options in which direction my writing should go.
  2. Just before I finish my writing session, I have at least one specific idea of how to continue. When I pick up the writing process the next day, I usually have no idea at all and need to re-read the words written so far a couple of times to spark a new idea. Especially the second point makes me think that there seem to be a lot of good ideas getting lost by using this writing process. Eventually, it comes down to the question of whether the ideas generated during the writing process are better than the ideas generated by re-reading the text so far. I find that sometimes, having some distance to an object can help to objectively evaluate it. When I sit down the next morning to pick up from where I left the text yesterday, it almost feels like I'm reading another person's text.

I'm not sure whether the loss of ideas that come up during the writing process constitutes a too large disadvantage of this writing process. Maybe a variation of the ruleset could be beneficial: the writer is allowed to write down the directions they intend the text to go whenever they stop writing.

It would be interesting to test this set of rules on a larger piece of writing. Currently, I'm using a generic text editor, relying on myself to be disciplined enough to adhere to the writing policies (I'm not, I keep catching myself correcting minor typos). It would be an easy task to write a simple command-line tool which strictly enforces the rules. I'm certainly keen to further experiment with this.