Implementing a Spaced Repetition Writing System

Dec 28, 2020 · 11 minute read

As people start to discover that traditional learning is not an efficient way of acquiring new knowledge and skills, we are turning to other methods to enhance our learning process.

Writing is one of these methods. Distilling what you learn into your own words makes you face the fact that thinking you know something is different from actually knowing it. If you’ve tried the Feynman Technique, you know what I am talking about.

Spaced repetition is another popular learning technique that lets you remember large amounts of information using a small amount of time. It is an efficient and evidence-based learning method and it is popular among medicine and law students, as well as language learners.

How can we combine the two into a learning practice?

Spaced Repetition and Writing

Writing is hard. It requires focus, practice, and dedication.

Coming from a field where writing is mostly something done by academia, I found myself hitting a wall when trying to write my first blog article. In an attempt to improve my writing skills, I kept looking for non-traditional ways of writing. One of the low-friction, high-reward approaches I found was spaced repetition writing. It combines two evidence-based learning techniques into a writing practice that is both maintainable and rewarding.

Several people have explored the idea of spaced repetition writing. Andy Matuschak talks about using spaced repetition to develop “inklings”, which are writing threads you keep track of. During each writing session, you go over the open writing threads, expand on the ones that seem interesting and skip the ones that don’t. Threads you skip are seen less often, while threads that prove fruitful are seen more often, similar to easy and hard flashcards in spaced repetition.

SuperMemo has a page talking about incremetally writing and assembling ideas without working linearly on a final text. Their system leverages the inspiration from granular ideas and incrementally assembles them into a more cohesive piece.

This approach to writing is appealing if you are trying to develop your writing skills but still struggle to what to write about. By keeping several threads open at the same time, you can just write about the ones you feel like in the moment. By working more often on the threads that prove interesting and fruitful, writing becomes a rewarding experience and your favorite ideas will develop naturally.

Before going over implementing a spaced repetition writing system, let’s look at how these two ideas come together. Feel free to jump to this section, if you wish to skip to the implementation details.

Finding and Collecting Writing Ideas

One of the first problems we face when trying to write is finding what to write about. Once we find it, we may set expectations to produce a complete piece of writing before working on another topic. Take reading for example. If we start a book and want to finish it before reading other books, what if one day it feels boring? We probably won’t read that day. If we had multiple books to choose from, we could pick another one and not miss a day of reading. Writing can be approached the same way. It makes it more enjoyable and easier to do regularly.

Having several open threads facilitates writing but we also have to find what to write about. Sitting down and coming up with ideas on the spot is hard. Ideas rarely happen this way. They pop up randomly during our day at unexpected times, like taking a shower or talking to a friend. Instead of forcing ideas, we can just collect them as they come to us.

That is the first step towards a successful writing practice: record anything that you find interesting during the day and put it in an idea inbox. This includes posts, videos, articles, images, and raw thoughts. Anything that sparks your curiosity goes to the idea inbox. You don’t have to write about it immediately after finding it though, you only note down enough to express the idea clearly. For those familiar with GTD, the idea inbox works similarly but instead of gathering to-do’s, you gather raw ideas.

The concept of the idea inbox is not new. The sociologist Luhmann took “fleeting notes” to remember what he was thinking while reading and doing research, and later he reworked these notes into “permanent notes”. These “fleeting notes” acted as his idea inbox. 1

Putting items in the idea inbox should be fast and frictionless. Include enough to remember the idea and move on. Some people use post-it notes, others use apps like Evernote and Todoist. Use anything that works for you. Personally, I use Roam’s daily notes as my idea inbox.

The idea inbox does not contain the actual writing threads though. On every writing session, you go over the idea inbox, toss anything that feels stale, and elaborate on anything that excites you. That’s the gist of it. But how does spaced repetition come into play?

Expanding Writing Threads

Using an idea inbox to have interesting writing topics is a huge improvement and liberates you from staring at a blank page. In fact, that alone can make a productive writing practice. But managing several writing threads and going over all new ideas can quickly get overwhelming. You don’t want too many options at the same time; you want the right options at the right time. That’s where spaced repetition comes in.

In spaced repetition learning, the review interval of a flashcard is calculated based on how long ago it was seen and how easy it was to remember it.

In spaced repetition writing, the review interval of a writing thread is calculated based on how interesting it is and how fruitful it is to write about it.

So, what exactly happens when reviewing an open writing thread?

  • If the writing idea is easy to expand on and there is still room for more, schedule it soon for another review.
  • If the writing idea is still interesting but writing about it right now is hard, schedule it for later.
  • If the writing idea is not interesting anymore, remove it.
  • If the writing idea is finished, mark it as complete and archive it.2

That’s it, those are the principles needed to integrate spaced repetition into writing. Let’s now turn those ideas into a real writing practice.


This section goes over how to implement a spaced repetition writing system. While the process assumes you are using Roam, any tool that supports organizing items by buckets or tags should do it. Notion and Evernote are well-suited options but Roam lets you easily connect writing threads to each other.

This system follows 4 guidelines:

  1. Writing threads are saved as individual pages in Roam. The titles are a one-sentence version of the writing idea.

  2. Spaced repetition is done with an adaptation of the Leitner System, where each box is represented by a tag in Roam and each writing thread has one of these tags.

  3. Every writing session, the idea inbox is reviewed and any interesting writing threads are added.

  4. Writing threads are moved to a more frequent box or tag if they are interesting. They are moved to a less frequent box if they are hard to write about. They are removed if they are not interesting anymore. Finally, they are archived if they are complete.

Before explaning why these guidelines were chosen, let’s go over the concrete steps needed to implement a spaced repetition writing system.



  1. Use an idea inbox to collect topics you want to write about.

  2. Create a page called [[Spaced Repetition Writing System]] in Roam.

  3. Write the following into that page (replace <> with specific dates):

    • [[SRW1]]: [[<TODAY>]] (Every day)

    • [[SRW2]]: [[<3 DAYS FROM NOW>]] (Every Monday and Thursday)

    • [[SRW3]]: [[<1 WEEK FROM NOW>]] (Every Monday)

    • [[SRW4]]: [[<2 WEEKS FROM NOW>]] (Review every 2nd Monday)

    • [[SRW5]]: [[<4 WEEKS FROM NOW>]] (Review every 4th Monday)

    • [[SRWS]]: (Suspended writing ideas, review at will)


  1. Review the idea inbox. Create a page for each new interesting writing idea and tag it with [[SRW1]].

  2. Go to today’s Roam page. Any pending writing tags for that day will show up as “Linked References”.

  3. Open the pending writing tags and go over their writing threads. Follow the rules mentioned before to move a writing thread between tags.

  4. After working on the writing ideas of a tag, go to [[Spaced Repetition Writing System]] and update the tag’s review day based on its frequency.3

About the Guidelines

One-sentence Page Titles

Each writing thread has its own Roam page. The titles of these pages are a one-sentence version of the idea we want to write about, so it is natural to connect threads to each other. For example, if you want to write about learning and how reviewing makes us think we learn, the title can be “Reviewing feels like learning but it is not 🌱”. Then using Roam’s bidirectional links, we can refer to this idea in another thread:

Learning happens when new knowledge is connected to existing knowledge. [[Reviewing feels like learning but it is not]] because recognizing ideas is different from understanding them. Creative writing forces us to connect what we read with what we already know.

Notice how we preserve the flow of the text while connecting two writing threads. This encourages us to find connections between ideas, possibly forming new ones in the process.

Tags and the Leitner System

The Leitner Spaced Repetition System uses boxes with different review frequencies to organize items and moves them from box to box depending when they were last seen or how hard they were to remember. In our system, the boxes are represented by Roam tags. There are a total of 6 tags with different review periods:

  • [[SRW1]]: Every day.
  • [[SRW2]]: Every Monday and Thursday.
  • [[SRW3]]: Every Tuesday.
  • [[SRW4]]: Every 2nd Wednesday.
  • [[SRW5]]: Every 4th Friday.
  • [[SRWS]]: Suspended threads, review at will.

Why those particular reviewing periods? A goal of this system is to maintain a consistent writing practice so its most frequent tag is reviewed every day. Also, to avoid overwhelming ourselves with ideas, no more than 2 tags are reviewed on the same day. The system is not perfect though, and you are encouraged to adjust it as you go.

For example, what if writing every day is not possible? Not a problem, take out the first box and have your writing sessions on Mondays and Thursdays by using the following tags:

  • [[SRW1]]: Every Monday and Thursday.
  • [[SRW2]]: Every Monday.
  • [[SRW3]]: Every 2nd Thursday.
  • [[SRW4]]: Every 4th Monday.
  • [[SRWS]]: Suspended threads, review at will.

I quickly found out that writing every day while having a full-time job and other hobbies was not sustainable, so I switched to this set of tags instead.

Feel free to play with the days and frequencies to what works best for you. Consistency is better than intensity.

Reviewing the Idea Inbox

The idea inbox is the input to the writing system. Every writing session, take a look at the idea inbox. If an item looks interesting, place it in the first box by using the tag [[SRW1]]. If an item seems promising but you don’t feel like writing about it, place it in the second or even third box, so you see it later in another state of mind. Toss out anything that is stale or boring, you’ll get more ideas later.

Moving and Completing Writing Threads

When you are working on a writing thread, you’ll notice immediately if it is easy or not to expand on it. Follow these rules when working on a writing thread:

  • If you wrote several lines without much effort, move it to a more frequent box or keep it in the same one.
  • If you like the idea but it is hard to write about it that day, move it to a less frequent box.
  • If the writing thread is now boring or unappealing, remove it or suspend it.
  • If you feel the writing thread is finished, archive it.

How do you know when a writing thread is finished? Usually, they turn out to be one or two paragraphs of concise thoughts. Don’t set hard limits, though. There may be times when some of them keep growing and connecting to other ideas. As long as they feel productive, keep working on them. These long threads can become central pieces in your practice, so keep an eye for them.4

What’s Next?

The objectives of this practice include accelerating the learning process and improving our writing skills. Writing leads to clearer thinking and a more detailed understanding of the topics we write about. But what this practice produces can also be an input to other activities.

For example, you can start a digital garden with the notes you create. There is a community of digital gardeners that are doing exactly this and cross-polinating ideas between their gardens. I work on my digital garden 🌱 using this practice.

Since the notes you write are being connected to each other, putting them together in a cohesive structure can give birth to an article or essay without a lot of effort.5

Writing does not have to be something that we dread doing. It takes time to become a good writer but that doesn’t mean the path there can’t be an interesting experience.

Are you also interested on writing as a learning method? I’d be excited to hear about your experience. Feel free to contact me on Twitter with any thoughts you have.

Thank you for reading.

  1. LessWrong has a great article on Luhmann’s note-taking system called the Zettelkasten. [return]
  2. What we do with completed writing threads is another topic but, in this context, it simply means it won’t be scheduled for review anymore. [return]
  3. Use Roam Toolkit to increment dates using keyboard shortcuts. [return]
  4. You can read more about this in Andy Matuschak’s thoughts on Evergreen notes. [return]
  5. This article started as one of my digital garden notes 🌱 that I worked on using this system. [return]