A pre-history of weeknotes
12.46, Tuesday 24 Jul 2018 Link to this post
The following was originally posted on the Job Garden blog and has since been moved here.
A pre-history of weeknotes, plus why I write them and perhaps why you should too (Week 16)
Have a look at the title where it says “Week 16”: there’s a format to these posts. I report and reflect. The format is called weeknotes.
There’s a decent-sized community of people who keep weeknotes. Check out Web of Weeknotes which brings together a couple dozen adherents.
I have a few friends whose weeknotes I always look forward to reading. Tom Armitage does that lovely thing of reporting progress abstractly week by week, using only project codenames, then revealing when the work ships what the codename was so you can connect the dots all the way back. His Week 227 is a good example. With Tom there’s always the joy/risk that halfway the post goes into a rabbit hole of (as in this case) soldering microcontrollers and what it feels like when today you don’t quite have the dexterity. And that kind of perspectival swerve is the fun of reading weeknotes.
I’m not sure Warren Ellis’ Orbital Operations (subscribe here) counts as weeknotes because it doesn’t self-identify as such and it’s an email newsletter, but unlike most newsletters it shares many of the weeknotes qualities: there’s a weekly rhythm; the spine of each edition is a weekly report of Warren’s work and observations, rather than following the popular newsletter formats of topic-driven essays or link lists; you see projects coalesce from Warren’s musings and interests through to codenames and, later, emerge as comics and Netflix seasons; you get a crazy privileged insight into whatever he’s reflecting on. To pick up on that last point, take this snippet from a recent Orbital Operations email:
I have (checks clock) sixteen days to finish a movie script. This is actually fine. A thing I learned from John Rogers is to write-over. Each stage of the job - beat outline, treatment, screenplay - is built on the other. Copy the rough beat outline into a new document and rewrite and add and expand until it’s a treatment. Copy the treatment into Final Draft and rewrite and add and expand until it’s a screenplay. That way, you only start with a blank piece of paper right at the very start of the process. Every other stage comes with scaffolding and a base coat. Works for prose and comics too. Try it. Just copy the previous document into the next one and start rewriting and adapting it. Might not work for everything, but it might give you a leg up.
Insane. Where else would you hear this kind of report from a ridiculously-accomplished culture-alchemist? Nowhere else, that’s where.
A third weeknotes-author I look forward to reading is Phil Gyford. Here’s Phil’s w/e 8 July 2018 which bounces between exhibitions attended, and nuggets of things learnt. In this particular edition (?)/episode (?)/transmission, Phil has made an acting showreel and summarises the process in seven bullets - hard-won knowledge generously shared- before ricocheting directly to his uncertainties re his craft:
I’m uncertain about my performance, but we’ll see how it looks. I felt pretty lost and useless, unable to conjure up the required emotions. Maybe my preparation hadn’t been right or enough but, ugh, I felt so dry. Nothing there. An emotionless husk.
(1) Reading: These moments of vulnerability are wonderful to read, and I feel a sudden and greater personal connection with Phil, in addition to feeling less isolated in my own moments of uncertainty.
(2) Writing: I know from experience that naming and recording these wobbly feelings is valuable because, at some point in the not-too-distant, you come back to your own work and say, “holy shit, that’s amazing, how was I capable of that,” and then you read the historic weeknotes and realise that at the time you were miserable about what you are now delighted by, and closing the loop like that gives you perspective during self-doubt moments in the future.
I always enjoy and appreciate Phil’s sign-offs. In that one: “I can cry! Wipe your happy tears, and I hope you have a good week.”
A pre-history of weeknotes
I wrote the first ever weeknote in August 2009 at BERG and here it is: Week 217. Like anything new, the origin is fuzzier than that.
I thought it’d be interesting to start giving a weekly update here of what we’re up to in the company.
Even in that proto weeknote the format is there already: a little reporting on the life of the business; a little off-road rambling; a single person’s individual perspective; a strong feeling of in medias res.
These posts continued for years, eventually rotating round the studio so everyone could (had to…) have a shot in their own particular way. Timo’s posterised video Week 335 is a particular favourite.
Weeknotes weren’t called weeknotes when I wrote that first one.
In September 2009, the following month, Bryan Boyer started writing weekly updates, inspired by that first one at BERG, and finally in November I noticed that Bryan had named them “weeknotes” and so I adopted the tag. A few other studios had also started writing by then. Bryan created weeknotes.com which aggregated these posts. Now gone, it can be found in the Wayback Machine. (Here’s a screenshot from December 2009.)
And then Russell Davies wrote about weeknotes in his monthly Wired column! On the structure of time (May 2010):
Weeknotes detailed what they were up to that week, what had been going well, what hadn’t. They were just blog entries, updated weekly, nothing more remarkable than that. Except they struck a little chord with people - and other companies and individuals started doing the same thing.
They seem to have a pattern and rhythm that people like. A few paragraphs about what you’re up to. No need for big insights or revelations, just a bit of sharing and perhaps a moment of reflection. They fit neatly into that globally distributed culture of small creative businesses and people. Individuals and small companies such as these need to share to learn and to find like-minded partners and employees - the Weeknote matches the rhythms of their work, and the blog and RSS are the perfect way to deliver it.
RSS! Remember that?
It helps to see that other people struggle with deadlines and clients, that big projects can fall apart and still get put back together, that finance is taxing but that this or that software package can help. Above all, it’s nice to realise that everyone else is also just making it up.
And we still have weeknotes today.
What about before August 2009?
I wrote that first weekly update inspired by a blog post that Russell had written two months earlier at Newspaper Club (company previously mentioned in Week 15) which was down the hall at the time. Here it is, Week One. They carried on writing these update posts for a little while, but I think just for the first chapter of the company.
The transparency and diary format reminded me of (and this is going to sound slightly weird so apologies for the remainder of this paragraph) The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, being his retelling from his contemporaneous diaries of his participation in Scott’s 1910 expedition to the Antarctic - often called ill-fated but reading the book much of it was ill-their-own-bloody-faults - which I had read not long before, and which I loved for the adventure and tick-tock unfolding and the meandering thinking-out-loud-ness of it all, and I wanted to write something with a similar sense of road trip.
Although it wasn’t in my head at the time, I have also always been a fanatic of lab books in which you write, each day, what you’ve been up to in the laboratory, recording experiment results, musings, and anything else that occurs relevant or ir-. To prevent retrospective editing, you sign off the pages at the end of each day.
I have a physics background and enjoyed enormously my time in the lab. You can’t tell, in the middle of an experiment, what will be important. So write down the millilitres of whatnot and the pitch of the diffraction grating and the hypothesis you’re chasing down, but also whether you’ve shaved because there might be crystal seeds in your beard and what the weather is. You don’t know what is important until you’ve had a chance to look back and reflect.
So that was where that came from. And if nothing else, it demonstrates the depth of deviousness to which Russell is able to stoop to generate column fodder.
My habit at BERG, for some years, was to go to the studio on Saturday mornings and reflect on the week. One of my most rambling, longest, personally-most-enjoyable weeknotes was Week 315 and it came from a morning like that. It’s a series of notes of whatever was on my mind, and word-sketches about studio life.
Idling: They say dreaming is the brain’s way of processing the day’s events and emotions. A necessary process of defragmenting, filing, and letting things come to rest and join up. Idling is a waking dream, time to be with work but not to be working, to let events and activity settle out and resolve, and let ideas and strategy take form in an unforced way. A necessary process.
So you’ll read some thoughts about attention and risk, plus a record of what I had for dinner. A lab book!
I try to keep this weekly space for reflection going even now, though it more regularly happens on Fridays.
One of my favourite and shortest weeknotes, Week 243:
This moment, sat on the windowsill with my laptop on my lap, drawing interfaces and technical architectures in red felt tip pen, cutting paper and covering walls, writing rules that will govern us for weeks or more to come, this is the only moment, the legitimacy of kings is written in blood, and this is the reality of life in Scenario 4.
I’m at home right now. We got back from hols on Sunday and yesterday - mod a meeting or two - was a write-off. Today I’m writing about the history of weeknotes in part because there’s no Job Garden software development to report, and mainly to warm up my fingers after the break.
I was sitting in a caf’e writing and drinking coffee early this morning, although really it’s much too hot for coffee, and I came home to meet a FedEx delivery which in the event arrived early but managed to leave its package anyway, and missed a UPS delivery which I didn’t know was coming and left its package inconveniently about a kilometre away and I’ll go out to fetch that later.
I also use private weeknotes.
For the past couple summers I’ve run teams on innovation projects in the Android team at Google. They got weeknotes.
The per-project weeknotes are a little more structured, sure, but what I like about them is they’re not simply a reporting tool. There’s space to bring up weak signals and also anyone can be added to the distribution list, whether they’re in the project chain of command or simply an interested party. By being open about what’s not yet fully baked, and liberal with the subscription policy, fellow travellers encountered earlier in the project can jump in with opportunistic assistance.
Why write these things anyway
I’ve not been involved in the public weeknotes scene for some time. It’s grown and become its own culture which is delightful (though capped by the general decline in blogging over time, which is a shame but perhaps reversible).
This article, The why of weeknotes, captures the motivations well:
Anyway I found these seemingly simple updates a fascinating peak behind the curtain of a design studio that were generally just doing really interesting things but also being open as to the how and why of it all. They regularly (at least early on) were more than status updates and instead provided an interesting narrative. It was a geek serial.
That’s about reading. The real magic comes in why to write. The article continues:
most obviously they are an amazing aide memoir
And it also cites (I summarise):
a regular check intostate of mind; finding, within an organisation, “new stealth readers in leadership or HR type roles”; sharing problems; providing a conversation starter.
That last one is a biggie. I think of blogs like a green “available” light on Skype. I’m here, alive, and ready to chat!
For me, keeping weeknotes while I’m building and thinking about Job Garden, there’s another benefit in that I’m relying on compound interest to develop this product. I’m not doing much each week, but if I take a step every week, I should get somewhere. That’s the theory. In practice, in the middle of events, when you’ve left the near shore and the far shore is not yet visible, progress can be hard to discern and energy harder to find. So the passing mile markers of weeknotes give me some kind of reassurance.
However the weeknotes format has evolved, I think three qualities endure:
- some kind of rhythm. Obviously. Weekly? Probably. Possibly. Aspirationally anyway.
- a feeling of being in the middle of things. The rhythm helps with that: a regular sampling frequency means you don’t just report on projects and ideas when they’re finished, which is the normal temptation. Benefit: the “work in progress” feeling encourages others to jump in.
- written by an individual. The person with the conch might change week to week, but in my view the single perspective is vital. Individuals have fully rounded interests: yes this person is reporting on projects, but they’re also alive with feelings, and oh by the way they’ve also gone out and got ice creams for the office because it was hot this week.
I’ll add a last: the joy of weeknotes is just as much in the writing as the reading. If marketing happens too that’s a happy side-effect.
But honestly, there’s no dogma. Everyone has their own style.
If you start writing weeknotes because of this post, let me know.