This is part of a series on writing. See part 1 and part 2.


The way we write fundamentally hasn’t changed since the invention of the word processor.

As an engineer bent on hyper-efficiency, that’s unacceptable. Obviously, there’s a reason writing hasn’t really changed. Let’s dive into why it hasn’t changed. Maybe Microsoft missed something…

To start, we’ll look at the competition and the current state of writing.

A Brief History of Electronic Writing

With the advent of Microsoft Word, gone were the days of manually erasing, scribbling, and scrunching up balls of paper. Writing became an iterative process whereby you could cut-and-paste, undo-and-redo as much as you liked. Not to mention being able to insert pictures, graphs, and Word Art.

No more scrunching up balls of paper.

The internet changed the way we read. Documents could be shared electronically, no printing. Multiple people could work on the same document simultaneously from their phones, tablets, or computers.

Then people realized they didn’t actually need Word Art and the million other features Microsoft Word offered. They moved to seemingly minimalist word processors. At a glance, you’d think all you could do was write. However, these processors allowed users to do their entire job in a single program. They could embed videos, todo lists, calendars, and more into their documents.

Microsoft Word is still by far the dominant word processor with each subsequent generation having less and less market share. There simply isn’t enough reason for people to switch to the latest minimalist word processor. Even I find myself switching between Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Bear, Ulysses, and Apple Notes. This is highly suboptimal, but each has their own strengths and weaknesses.

How can we convince people to drop all their other word processors?

No Microsoft Word. No Google Docs. Only Lee Docs.

We need to create something that makes people write 10 times faster and 10 times better. To do so, we need to understand writing at a fundamental level.

Asking “Why” five times is a technique to find the root cause of a problem. If I can count, we'll ask "Why" three times in this piece.

An artist's impression of, "We need to go deeper" from the movie, Inception.

What Even Is Writing?

Writing is a way of freezing your thoughts and knowledge at a single point in time. Reading is a way for other people or yourself to revisit what you were thinking or knew at that time.

The writing process requires digging up memories from your mind and reading information from other sources like the internet.

Digging for old memories

Dusting off memories is as reliable as the toss of a pancake. It seems like I can never recall the memories I’m looking for until a few weeks after I need them. Sometimes my brain comes up with new insights for a topic I’ve already finished writing about. How can we make it easier to remember relevant memories and insights?

Finding the information you need in the modern world’s firehose of information is no easy feat. Mastering Google DuckDuckGo is a lifelong process in itself. Most of the time you won’t find exactly what you’re looking for because everyone has a different perspective and take on the same topics. Even you may have different perspectives on the same topic as your ideologies change over time. The technical depth required by a domain expert is far greater than that of a newbie.

To recap, here’s what we know about writing:

  1. Writing freezes your thoughts and knowledge at a point in time
  2. Reading allows people to revisit what a person was thinking or knew at a point in time
  3. It’s difficult to remember relevant memories and insights when writing
  4. It’s difficult to find the information you need on the internet and in literature

1. and 2. are simply for understanding. Let’s take a look at how we can address 3. and 4.

Creating Superhuman Memory

If we can help people remember memories and develop insights when they’re writing, they can write faster and with a better understanding of their topic.

Following the 5 Whys technique, let’s investigate how information/ memories are organized, so that we can more easily access them. Previously, I’ve written about how information is organized by space and time in a tangled graph. Let’s use some examples to recap what this means.

Space

The recipes in a cookbook are physically and conceptually related. In terms of the knowledge graph, the recipes are very close to one another. On the other hand, a dog and a recipe are likely to be far from each other on the graph.

Ice cream and cheesecake are related Dog is not related.
Time

When preparing a meal, plating always comes after heating and cutting. The different stages of meal preparation are related in terms of time.

What would happen if you plated the food before cooking and cutting?

Temporal (time) organization also carries implications when writing. Thoughts may appear in your mind for a short time then disappear. In order to memorize things, you must revisit the same information multiple times.

Temporal organization has to do as much with the sequence of events as it does the way the brain mentally organizes thoughts.

A word processor that helps with recall would go a long way to making writing quicker (no more blank face memory recall) and more insightful (more information means more connections can be drawn).

I’ve come up with two possible features for creating superhuman memory, but there’s definitely room for a lot more improvement.

  1. Be able to write down thoughts as fast as possible because they could disappear at any moment.
  2. Use spaced repetition to flash information at increasing intervals of time to help with memorization

What’s Your Opinion?

It’s difficult to find information with the right technical depth and perspectives when searching online or in literature.

This might be a problem for Google DuckDuckGo to solve, but what if word processors weren’t just for writers? They could also become tools for readers.

One feature could allow readers to “zoom” in and out to receive information about the same topic in varying levels of detail. Zoom in to read more technical details. Zoom out to see the bigger picture.

Zooming into technical details

Have We Created a Better Word Processor?

Our proposed word processor would have three features:

  1. Be able to write down thoughts as fast as possible because they could disappear at any moment.
  2. Use spaced repetition to flash information at increasing intervals of time to help with memorization
  3. Allow readers to “zoom” in and out to receive information about the same topic in varying levels of detail. Zoom in to read more technical details. Zoom out to see the bigger picture.

Summarizing this into a single solution:

One potential solution is connecting your own and the world’s knowledge-bases into a single graph. Like a microscope, zoom in to receive more advanced information. Zoom out to see the bigger picture. Scroll around the graph to find relevant information in space or time. Shortcuts will allow you to quickly write down thoughts, which are then automatically organized into the graph. When you’re writing about a topic, you’ll receive suggestions for related information.

Artist's impression of our solution

We’re definitely far from an actual solution and people would probably keep using Microsoft Word, but I’m sure someone or future me will figure it out one day.