Reflections on Using Roam After Three Monthss

April 1, 2020 ☼ ToolsRoam

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Introduction

Since the start of the year, I’ve had a stereotypical New Year’s Resolution to write more. I’ve had this resolution for the past few years, but given that I wrote like three blog posts last year and I don’t have a credit on a book or something, you can see how successful this has gone. I did get published in Gamasutra though!

But this year is different! I have been writing more, and much of this I attribute to what has been almost daily usage of Roam. Every morning I get up and I write approximately 750 words, a practice first mentioned in the book The Artist’s Way. This is also not the first time I’ve tried writing 750 words as a daily practice. I picked it up sometime early last year and was using the tool 750 Words, which was honestly pretty nice! It gives a structed way to write the morning pages, and has a lot of features geared around the idea that you’re only writing 750 words. It gives you cool things like this:

But this post isn’t about 750 Words, as I did eventually drop using it (I think I didn’t like that it was only web-based and also charged for usage after a trial). It’s about the new hotness all the productivity-heads are talking about, Roam.

Roam

Roam is a lot of things, but its killer feature is something conceptually very simple: it ambiently backlinks your writing to reference itself. Said differently, if you’ve ever used a wiki’s editing tools before, you know that you can inline reference a page that doesn’t exist to create a new page for that word. You can then reference that same (new) page on any other page by inserting a link to your new page in the existing pages. This is basically how the internet works as well.

However with Roam, links automatically point to the proper page, and will backlink to pages you created before that use that page’s name. Imagine you wrote about Nintendo once a few months ago, but only today you decide to create a dedicated page for Nintendo. In the wiki style, you’d need to go back to your previous entry and manually replace your reference of Nintendo to link to your new Nintendo page. In Roam though, this happens automatically. If you go to your new Nintendo page, you’ll see your previous page linked in as it simply used the word Nintendo.”

Roam considers this an unlinked reference,” and shows it regardless. The idea here is that you can just write things as normal, and sort of get the linked aspects of your writing by default due to the near frictionless process of both creating a new page and linking in writing.

Here’s an example of my page on game design”:

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If I drop down the Linked references I can see places I’ve directly tagged in Game Design”:

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These are places I intentionally thought oh this is related to game design” and tagged it as such. But what’s more useful is expanding the Unlinked References” - the idea is that you can start to excavate and understand your own writing and how it all intersects with itself. Additionally, Roam is a great place to basically copy and paste in articles your like, and have those articles become part of your network. If you’re interested in this process I definitely recommend watching this video. (Some) of the unlinked game design references:

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Notice too here in the red outlined area that if I wanted to properly link those sections to become a Linked Reference, I can! Beautiful!

Roam for Morning Pages

This linking is what makes Roam such a great tool for writing morning pages/artist pages/two pages/750 words - you start to build up a network of things you talk about and start to see how those things intersect with each other. Sure you could writing them in seperate google docs everyday, but the idea that you’re building up a collection of interconnected writing is really cool.

What’s also been nice, given how Roam lets you easily start tunneling into topics and creating new links and such, is that the practice of writing morning pages in roam has made me start doing ambient research and capturing of knowledge as part of this morning process. For example, one day I randomly started talking about Bioluminescence and was able to quickly capture a ton of knowledge about the space:

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I was just dumping in research papers I found and could start exploring them in a networked fashion instead of needing to read and parse them linearly. It felt… amazing?

More Efficient Writing

Not only this, but while Roam doesn’t somehow inspire me to write, the combination of morning pages + networked writing makes it really easy to produce additional writing around a topic I’m interested in because I can back reference and explore any thoughts I had on a topic that I want to synthesize into something.

I had this experience for the first time writing The Burden of Worldbuilding, where, because I had talked in bits and pieces about the general idea over the course of a few morning pages, I could look up key terms and references I knew I wanted to bring up in the piece and find other places where not only I, but other people who’s articles I ingested into Roam brought up some of the ideas I wanted to talk about and incorporate that into my writing:

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Not only did it feel like I had things to reference in the writing, it felt like the writing was already done and I just needed to synthesize some subset of all the related stuff I had in Roam. This generally felt way different from how I typically approach writing something. Usually I have a general idea and then work on the writing and do the research in the same breath (I suspect this is what most people do). Here, instead, I had my own private internet I could sift through to find not only my opinons about something, but what other people said that I thought were relevant enough to jot down.

It felt good. I’m starting to feel something of a pipeline forming for my own blogging now as well. Something comes up in a morning page one day and over the next few days or weeks I keep bringing it up and tagging it in or otherwise referencing it. The node starts to reach a crtical mass, and basically pops out into a written piece.

Now, granted, I’m only three months in now, so my internet” is still pretty bare, but over the course of using it for a year or more there is going to be so much to draw on and work with of my own creating, provided I’m Using Roam Properly. Which is something I want to talk about.

Network” Effect

It’s hard to use Roam and not think about the concept of productivity”. The scenario I mentioned above is more or less what the thing is made for. Their early alpha was shut out to anyone except scientific researchers (or something). So when you’re writing in the tool, it doesn’t feel neutral” in the way writing in something like Word of a Google Doc may feel like.

Writing in Roam feels like the software is challenging you (productively? maybe?) - it’s saying Hey write some STUFF down worth CONNECTING. Roam is not a place for lazy language or haphazard notes, it really demands structure from your writing, and I don’t mean this conceptually. For something to link you do need to make sure you’re calling things the same thing and doing so in a standardized manner. Connor, the lead dev, has said they plan to make aliases (right now dnd” and dungeons and dragons” are sperate pages), but this doesn’t really solve for the semantic issue.

Specifically, if I’m talking about game design but don’t explicitly write game design” or some version of that in my writing, what I’m writing won’t be linked to the idea, even if I’m talking about it semantically. This means you need to sort of hold the whole graph in your head to be an effective user of a Roam. I suspect nobody does this, and instead people generally talk about a few similar topics that may share their own similar subtopics, and as such do eventually become networked.

However, this doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel like I always need to be connecting my writing. Should I tag in game design here? Oh made I should add in game development as well? What about these 10 other tags?” Roam makes it incredibly easy to add these links should you think of them, but basically needing to keep the idea of what I write needs to be part of the graph” in your head at the same time you’re trying to just write anything can be distracting and disorienting.

ALL THAT SAID THOUGH, I do really enjoy using Roam and don’t plan to slow down. I’ve become an evangelist for the tool, telling basically everyone I know who writes in some way to give the tool a shot. It feels like it has literally no competition in the space it’s in and is so good at delivering its key value proposition that I suspect I’ll keep using it for a long time.

Check out Roam here: https://roamresearch.com/


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