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You Need to Overdocument

I cannot say this enough: if you’re working on a project — brainstorming, developing, testing, refining, whatever — have a pad & paper or a voice recorder handy. Document everything. Document until you feel silly for writing something down because it seems obvious. Then document some more.

During the creative process, overdocumenting cannot hurt you. But not writing something down because it was “obvious” or because you’re “totally remember it later” will. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve lost thoughts because of those excuses for not writing something down. No, really, I can’t, because I don’t remember all those times.

It happens as we’re drifting off to sleep. When that happens, I’ll type myself a note on my phone or use the voice recorder function if it’s more complicated, and email that to myself so I can check it out the next morning.

It happens while we’re testing something. When that happens, have a piece of paper around to jot notes on. And then when the testing is done, go back and see if you still understand your shorthand. If you do, rewrite it in a way that’s clearer to someone else — trust me, you’ll regret leaving notes in shorthand. If you don’t, ask the group what that note could have meant. Likely they’ll be able to tell you.

I was recently talking with a friend about his playtest. He was telling me about the stuff he learned from it, and I asked (because I always do), “Have you written that down?” He said no, that he’d remember it. I just glared at him, because I wish someone had done that to me every time I thought the same thing. Eventually, he started writing down his thoughts.

On another playtest where I was a participant, the designer was working out some issues in his game & had some epiphanies. He was new to this, so whenever this happened, I would say “you should write that down.” It’s a habit we’re not use to when we’re just playing games, to stop and write down thoughts mid-process, but it’s necessary when we’re making something.

This applies to fiction as well. If you have a thought about a scene idea in a story, but you’re not at that point or up to writing it at the moment, jot it down. And here’s where I can get to a specific example from me. Last night, as I was taking the shuttle home, I had an idea for a scene for a story in the upcoming Don’t Rest Your Head fiction anthology[1]. I didn’t immediately grab for my phone, because the shuttle & my medication tends to make me dizzy. Instead, I closed my eyes until the 20 minute ride was up.

And guess what I didn’t remember? Yeah. Luckily, I have other ideas, but that’s not the issue. By not penning it down, by not writing or speaking into my phone a couple dozen words, I’ve denied myself the option of choosing that. Maybe whatever ideas I come up later will be better, but there’s no way to tell. More than that, I’ve denied myself the option building on that to make something stronger.

I know some people would say “well, if you can’t remember it, it probably wasn’t any good.” Those people are ignorant fucks who know nothing of this process we go through. As creators, we’re constantly responding to stimuli, synthesizing that with our experience. Let the mind go blank for whatever reason — in this case, to combat nausea — and you could lose the idea when other stimuli hit you. A billboard, a near-fatal car accident, a cute guy or gal, cacophonous traffic, whatever.

That’s why we need to document. Because then we retain what we have synthesized previously. We don’t have to reproduce it, with whatever changes we accidentally introduce. And only when we do that do we have the choice to use something we’ve come up with. If we forget something because we didn’t document, we cannot choose to use or build on it.

Which is to say: documenting isn’t making a commitment. You’re not saying “I am going to use this” and certainly not “I must use this” when you write something down. You’re saying “This might be useful, for this project or maybe for another.”

Now, yes, there is one sizable flaw in overdocumenting: if you have a shitty organization scheme (or no organization whatsoever), then you might be causing yourself a lot of headache with overdocument. But, then, is overdocumenting really your problems?[2]

– Ryan

[1] And for more, you might want to check out Monica Valentinelli’s post about her involvement, since it’s currently the only post I can find about it on a quick Google search.

[2] Here’s a hint: nope.

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6 Responses to You Need to Overdocument

  1. Carl Klutzke says:

    Hear, hear. This is why I always:

    1. Carry a voice recorder. (This was first app I tested to see if I wanted an iPod Touch.)

    2. Keep a backlog of potentially useful future ideas for each project.

  2. Good stuff, man. I hate when I’ve got one of those ideas that got away from me. I’m getting better about writing it down when it happens, but it still happens.

    Interesting to see a differing viewpoint from the “If it’s good, it’ll come back to you” crowd.

  3. EZ says:

    This is why I love Scrivener. I can put everything into one place per project. If an idea feels like a side note, I can put it into the research section. And that place is always files in my DropBox folder, so I can always access it at work or home (assuming I close the file when I’m done so there’s no risk of data loss from having a file open in multiple locations).

    I use a physical notebook over a phone because I prefer writing to typing or talking, but Evernote is a GREAT app for phones, tablets, and desktops that lets you put pictures or notes, and notes can be text or audio, or text with audio, video, image, or file attachments. And it syncs across all the previously mentioned platforms.

    Between the two (three if you count DropBox) you can conquer organization problems.

  4. Eric Lytle says:

    The story about forgetting a Don’t Rest Your Head story idea by snoozing on the bus instead of recording it sounds, itself, like a story idea for DRYH anthology story.

  5. Wayne says:

    I normally always have a digital voice recorder in my pocket, absolutely invaluable. I also keep notes for game design ideas in my iPod Touch so I can update them when I’m having lunch or whatever. Back in the 90’s when we had landline phones, I’d call and leave myself messages on my answering machine as I didn’t like the tape recorders of the time.

  6. runester says:

    There are a million and one online tools for storing and organizing notes. There is very little excuse, today, for not keeping everything documented, somewhere. I prefer Evernote, and can add photo’s, PDF’s, and audio notes along with text and URL’s. I can email into my Evernote account, so doing the audio-note-to-evernote thing while on the road is super easy. There are many, many, many other tools just like that.

    Anyway, I like your point and as I get older, I find myself relying more and more on notes and documentation than just saying, “I’m sure I’ll remember that!” and then wandering off to do something else.