“I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found. By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well. This to me is a miracle.”Kurt Vonnegut
Reading is important. Writing is too.
I have previously written about reading, and this piece on writing is hopefully an adequate extension of that. My intention with this 2-part series is to both encourage the development of, as well as provide some practical advice for, two of the most important skills you can ever hope to acquire.
Those are my goals.
Later, I will suggest that writing an essay is about answering a question. So, before we come to that point, it might be beneficial to state the general questions that I have tried to answer with this piece of writing. This should give you a better indication of what follows.
The questions I have asked myself and tried to answer are:
What do I believe good writing entails? And, more generally, what do I think about writing?
To start with, however, I will say that I know no other skills comparable to reading and writing when it comes to improving one’s thinking; which is why I have tried to connect the two together.
Improving your thinking is important, as the benefits attainable when one improves their thinking is essentially endless. Better thinking is the cause of a better life, both in regard to how you appraise your life at this very moment, as well as the absolute improvement you can realise over time.
And, that’s only when we apply the process of better thinking to ourselves.
Better thinking is also required to solve the more substantial problems that limit global human welfare. For this reason, better thinking is the key to a better world — not only for ourselves and others, but also those who do not even exist yet. With the tools of reading and writing, I believe all of us can make small and incremental progress with our thinking; and, as such, improve everything we are a part of and connected to.
As I said, better thinking is the key. I will write about what — I understand, at least — is required to improve one’s thinking more directly at a later date.
Today, however, I want to try both motivate and equip you with what is required to begin that journey on your own. I believe reading and writing to be the primordial parts of that puzzle. They are like the corner pieces; if you can get them right, and get them right early, then you gain traction with everything that follows.
That is the primer on my perspective.
However, this is a long piece — coming in at over 12,000 words — and you may not be interested in seeing it all the way through to the end, so I will summarise below for you. If, however, you wish to explore the depths of my thought-processes to a greater extent, then I would, of course, be appreciative if you did read on.
(Alternatively, if you would prefer a PDF copy because this is effectively the length of a short e-book, please feel free to get in touch. I would be happy to send it though.)
· Writing helps to form a better understanding of the world, which is a platform for better ideas. Writing also aids in capturing and communicating good ideas once had.
· High school essays are a poor model for writing. Rather than aiming for persuasion, a better approach is to use an essay as an attempt at trying to figure something out.
· Good writing is useful; treats the reader as an equal, and provides an adequate on-ramp for the reader to get-up-to-speed. Without a well-constructed on-ramp a reader will struggle to deal with the complexity and ideas contained within the piece.
· Subtitles and section breaks are useful for breaking up your writing, which avoids overwhelming the reader. However, they are also useful for you as a writer, as they help to highlight how smoothly and sequentially you have linked your ideas together.
· The developmental explanation for why writing is difficult is that someone only acquires the ability to write after they have first learned to speak and then read. An evolutionary explanation also suggests that we acquired the tools for writing late in the evolutionary process, hindering our innate propensity towards the skill.
· The most common causes of poor writing are considered to be a lack of knowledge or adequate deep-thinking about the topic, as well as the curse of knowledge (forgetting what it was like to not know something). These are difficult skills to balance, but skilled writers learn to overcome these issues.
· Writing a fast first draft and then placing greater emphasis on editing will be one of the simplest and most effective practices you can implement for improving what you produce.
· The simplest and surest method for becoming a better writer (that I know of) goes as follows: Write consistently, consume a variety of information, process your thoughts, publish and listen to feedback. Repeat.
Now, with all that said, we will first talk about why writing is important, then discuss some of the reasons it is difficult, and then finish with some strategies that I have found useful for improving my own.
Why It’s Write to Right
The three R’s that all children are taught early in their schooling are powerful because they are open-ended skills. You learn a process, and that process can be applied to an infinite number of domains. It could even be said that the three R’s are the prerequisite-skills to the skill of skill-acquisition.
As we are talking specifically about writing today, I will only focus on that. The point that I am trying to make, however, is that writing is wildly multidimensional; an intellectual and emotional Swiss army knife. Above I highlighted writings ability to improve how one think, however, the route we can take to get there can vary substantially. One may wish to write for any number of reasons — all of which can be valuable — and for that reason, writing carries vast amounts of utility within it.
I think this quote from my friend Luke Tulloch conveys a sense of the deep power contained within writing. The following appeared in Luke’s article Why You Should Write:
“ … writing has an inherent reflective quality to it. This makes it a powerful tool for introspective work; that is, developing your sense of self, examining your beliefs and ultimately evolving your understanding of yourself in the world. It also facilitates better understanding of the external world. Writing is an effective way to strengthen the neural connections of memory in the brain, bolstering fact retention and connecting ideas. This is helpful for developing hypotheses and gaining a more sophisticated understanding of life.”
The essence of Luke’s words, here at least, I will boil down to improved understanding.
The thing I particularly enjoy about the point he makes, though, is that Luke highlights that the understanding generated is not just of the external world; it can also be of your own internal landscape via reflection and introspection, too.
What I will then add to Luke’s point, is that writing also provides us with an ability to communicate understanding. I think the two, ultimately, need to go hand-in-hand.
I believe that idea generation and communication must go hand-in-hand, because I think that, in general, having good ideas in the first place is probably harder than communicating an idea, regardless of quality. So, anything we can do to increase the rate at which good ideas are generated, we should most likely do. (I believe writing helps with generating better ideas, potentially by enhancing understanding as well as creativity, but I am speaking more broadly than that.) However, because good ideas are so rare and valuable — at least in relative comparison to the cost and prevalence of bad ones — we need to ensure those good ideas are captured, communicated and given a chance to spread.
Of all the good ideas that have ever been had in history, the ones that were captured is likely to be substantially less than that. Additionally, of the ones that were captured, the ones that caught on are even less again. Therefore, by writing, we give good ideas a better chance of A) being had in the first place, and B) being accepted and actioned.
Whatever your cause, (skilled) writing is an invaluable ally.
As an example of why ideas must be communicated, and not just conceived, consider the humble lightbulb for a moment. The lightbulb was a novel and useful invention, however, what made it so valuable was the proliferation of its use. Imagine if Thomas Edison had created this interesting little doohickey that was a superior replacement to a candle, but then didn’t tell anyone — he simply died after living a very well-lit life. That would be a tremendous amount of value left uncaptured.
For these reasons, writing is important not only to help improve the quality and quantity of the inventions produced atop our psychological workbench; but also, so they can be spread, reaching individuals and populations who need them.
Sharpening Our Pencil Into A Point
We have so far established that writing helps refine what we think, and then allows you to share those thoughts with the world.
It is a simple, yet still odd truth to consider, but we read for the purpose of thinking what someone else has thought. Therefore, by writing, we give others access to the very thing that makes us, us; the information contained within our nervous system.
As I have outlined, writing is a broadly applicable skill and there are many types one can spend time on. Therefore, going forward, when I speak about writing, I am going to most particularly be speaking about that of the essay. What I say here is not entirely specific to essays, but it is the variety of writing that I am most familiar with and was most often holding in mind as I wrote this piece.
(While I am both optimistic and open-minded about what my future holds, I am doubtful that I will ever be writing an article that conveys what I know about writing poetry…)
What An Essay Isn’t
Before we proceed any further, we first need to somewhat destroy your previous conception about what an essay.
The first thing I’ll say is this: Highschool, unfortunately, is a horrible representation of what — in my opinion — essays are and should be.
When I think back to high school, with the rigidity of the way in which you were supposed to write, and what you were supposed to write about, I can easily see why most stop writing as soon as they possibly can.
When it came to writing essays in high school, for some reason unbeknownst to me, most were supposed to be persuasive. At least in my experience, anyway. This is interesting upon reflection, because during that time, as a sub-eighteen-year-old, my depth of knowledge could more accurately be described as non-existent than incomplete.
This begs two questions:
1) How was I supposed to know enough about anything to then try and convince someone of that opinion?
And, maybe more importantly…
2) What kind of world are we constructing where we try to teach adolescents the tools of persuasion before they even know how to think and have some semi-reliable method for arriving at what is true?
The answers to these questions, as I see them, respectively, are:
1) School becomes more about gaming the system and less about learning and understanding. Writing essays becomes a process of trying to figure out what will catch your teacher’s attention, making you shine and compare more favourably to your classmates; rather than a process of formulating your own understanding of something and then trying to convey that.
By no means is it binary, and elements of both take place. I do, however, think that this process is somewhat responsible for kids consistently focusing on the need to shine, only to then leave school and realise that they actually have such a poor understanding of the world, and so few valuable skills, that they are probably at least two decades off shining in their profession in the same way they were just doing in school. A bitter pill to swallow.
James Clear has said, “School requires you to learn about things after the answer has already been decided. Life requires you to learn about things while the answer is in the process of being decided.” I think that summarises my view well. However, if that is at all true, I certainly would like to think we can do better.
2) The answer to this is a lot easier; a world that values influencers and celebrities more than it does artists, scientists, engineers and philosophers.
A Brief Interlude to give Credit where it’s due
I was going to put this in a footnote, but I didn’t think it was entirely appropriate to hide praise away down there. So, for the sake of doing some justice, I would like to quickly say the following:
While I may be somewhat sceptical of many current educational practises, I should not insinuate that I was entirely without good instruction throughout my schooling. I really do appreciate the work that all my previous teachers did, especially considering the context of the environment and evident disinterest of most students, including myself, most of the time.
Specifically, in relation to English/literature, I had an amazing teacher named Mrs. Van Lierop, who was nothing short of eternally encouraging of myself and others during my time at school. Mrs Van Lierop was so supportive and so welcoming of creativity, that she let me (stupidly) nickname her “Minivan,” and also allowed myself and one of my best-mates to (again, stupidly) re-enact our chosen scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, as a parodied version of the song TikTok by Ke$ha.
So, Mrs. Van Lierop, thank you! If it wasn’t for you then I probably wouldn’t ever have decided to write words for a few random people on the internet…
What an Essay is
I have contended that high school essays are a bad model of “proper” essays, and now I’m going to show you why. However, in order to best understand the construct of an essay, we need to assess where the idea and term came from.
If we were to base it off the high school version of an essay most think of, it would not be unreasonable to presume that a bunch of teachers were simply sitting around in a staff meeting one night, drinking tequila, puffing away on Cuban cigars and counting how many detentions they handed out that day, and then someone said, “Hey, we need a name for the type of writing we are going to make the kids do that they will hate…”. They then proceeded to throw five darts at a chart of letters and came up with E, S, S, A and Y.
As far as I’m aware, though, this is not the most accurate version of history.
In actuality, the essay traces back to the late 16th century; with philosopher Michel de Montaigne being credited with its conception. This birthing of the essay was most specifically the publication of Montaigne’s “Essais” in 1580, in which the author attempted to convey his thoughts about himself and human nature, with as much frankness and clarity as possible. It is here we begin to more appropriately understand what an essay is about.
Montaigne selected the name “Essais,” because, as a Frenchman, “essayer” meant “to try” or “attempt.” So what Montaigne was getting it, was that the pieces of writing he published under the title “Essais” were an attempt to put his thoughts into writing — or even to try and figure out what he thought to begin with.
Well, maybe not; depends how much of a life you have I guess. Regardless, it is this notion of an essay is an attempt that we will be carrying forward from here.
Now that we have established that, we can begin working back towards more practical purposes i.e., how to improve your writing.
I don’t expect this following to be exhaustive, or even, that I consider myself an expert in the matter. However, I figured it would likely be useful some, and if not, it would at least be useful for myself.
This is just an essay, an attempt; and here we are.
Pieces of the prose puzzle:
In his brilliant piece “How to Write Usefully” Paul Graham (someone whose wisdom will appear many times throughout this article) begins by asking the question: What should an essay be? Or, put differently, what is an essay’s purpose?
Unfortunately, Rick & Morty fans, it isn’t to pass butter.
As indicated by the title, Graham concludes that a good piece of writing should be useful, its purpose is to provide utility. Additionally, if the piece is useful then it should inherently be persuasive.
Graham goes on to explain what he considers useful writing to be…
“To start with, that means it should be correct. But it’s not enough merely to be correct. It’s easy to make a statement correct by making it vague. That’s a common flaw in academic writing, for example. If you know nothing at all about an issue, you can’t go wrong by saying that the issue is a complex one, that there are many factors to be considered, that it’s a mistake to take too simplistic a view of it, and so on.
Though no doubt correct, such statements tell the reader nothing. Useful writing makes claims that are as strong as they can be made without becoming false.
Precision and correctness are like opposing forces. It’s easy to satisfy one if you ignore the other. The converse of vaporous academic writing is the bold, but false, rhetoric of demagogues. Useful writing is bold, but true.
It’s also two other things: it tells people something important, and that at least some of them didn’t already know.
Telling people something they didn’t know doesn’t always mean surprising them. Sometimes it means telling them something they knew unconsciously but had never put into words. In fact those may be the more valuable insights, because they tend to be more fundamental.”
From this passage, we acquire an insightful framework.
Useful writing is writing that is correct, yet precise, which tells the reader something that has a degree of novelty, whilst also being important.
How hard can that be?
Graham admits that this formula might be excessively reductive, yet he contends — and I agree — that it still holds true.
A key component of this, though, is that it is relative and dependant who you are writing for. Not everyone will find what you write as novel as the next person, and depending on your chosen topic, they might even consider the correctness to be contentious. However, you should be able to get a general gauge of how these metrics apply to the average individual. If you think that they will be sufficiently satisfied, on average, you’re likely onto something.
If you’re onto something, then this is your essays founding idea, a kernel of insight that can be expanded into something greater.
Once you have that, the next consideration is your style of presentation.
In his book The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker argues that style matters for (at least) the following three reasons:
“First, it ensures that writers will get their message across, sparing readers from squandering their precious moments on earth deciphering opaque prose. When the effort fails, the result can be calamitous-as Strunk and White put it, “death on the highway caused by a badly worded road sign, heartbreak among lovers caused by a misplaced phrase in a well-intentioned letter, anguish of a traveller expecting to be met at a railroad station and not being met because of a slipshod telegram.” Governments and corporations have found that small improvements in clarity can prevent vast amounts of error, frustration, and waste, and many countries have recently made clear language the law of the land.
Second, style earns trust. If readers can see that a writer cares about consistency and accuracy in her prose, they will be reassured that the writer cares about those virtues in conduct they cannot see as easily. Here is how one technology executive explains why he rejects job applications filled with errors of grammar and punctuation: “If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use it’s, then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with.” And if that isn’t enough to get you to brush up your prose, consider the discovery of the dating site OkCupid that sloppy grammar and spelling in a profile are “huge turn-offs.” As one client said, “If you’re trying to date a woman, I don’t expect flowery Jane Austen prose. But aren’t you trying to put your best foot forward?”
Style, not least, adds beauty to the world. To a literate reader, a crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life’s greatest pleasures.”
So, while this is the ideal outcome of elegant style, how do we actually go about producing it?
Pinker, among other language critics and experts, suggests that the best style of writing is known as classic style. Classic style can be described as follows:
The objective of classic style writing is presentation, and your goal is to help someone to see the world — hopefully; better. However, your motive is disinterested truth, meaning that classic prose should not be a marketing campaign for your worldview. You are not trying to brainwash someone into your way of thinking, but instead, you are simply trying to show, rather than tell, the reader something and letting them make up their own mind.
The clarity of classic prose comes from distinct examples, “such as” or “in the same way that” and other phrases that help to conjure up vivid mental imagery.
This leads to passages like, “Can you now see that we are not exempt from the laws of thermodynamics? As such, just like in the example of Jane’s bank account, in order to lose fat (which we determined was reducing the size of our cells which contain fat) we must…”
Writing in this style allows you to satisfy one of the foremost characteristics of classic style, which is the treatment of the reader as an equal. Concrete examples enhance the likelihood that learners will have that “Aha!” moment, and by providing your reader with them, you are indicating that you see them as an intellectual equal. You view them as someone who is capable of grasping what you are attempting to convey.
This differs, however, from two other prominent forms of style.
The first is oracular, which is, to put it frankly, treating your reader as an intellectual inferior; a “dunce” if you will. To go back to our metaphor of showing the reader something, oracular style is characteristic of telling the reader something. This kind of writing tends to serve the purpose of ego-inflation for the author, as they can present themselves as the gatekeeper of knowledge and truth but does little for the reader. This kind of writing is exemplified by excessive use of nomenclature and other hard to comprehend terms. Language, in these instances, is used to keep understanding out of the reader’s head, not to weave it in.
The second prominent form of style is the opposite of oracular. In this case, which could be referred to as self-conscious prose (which academia is criticized for commonly), the writer is writing in a timid, almost fearful manner, attempting to avoid condemnation by the reader. It is as if the writer is trying to explain something to the reader, but they are fearful the reader knows more than them and are attempting to avoid saying anything that is concrete, as concrete may mean concretely wrong. This style of writing is exemplified by unrelenting amounts of hedging, with phrases like “relatively,” “so to speak,” “in part,” “virtually,” “in most, but not all” and any other number of phrases that function as a semantic defence-system.
In regard to style, the final thing I shall say is that style is more than presentation for mere aesthetic purpose. Style is like a garden for the seed of your idea, its purpose is not just to present the eventual flower, but to help it blossom in the first place. A seed must be placed within an environment that will permit it to flower. In the same way, ideas will be developed more effectively if placed within a framework that allows for their honest analysis and development.
When writing, and elsewhere, this tends to occur, in part, when linguistic legerdemain, semantic sophistry and neurotic hedging are relatively scarce, so to speak, and concrete examples are somewhat in abundance.
Or, phrased differently: Treat your reader as you someone you respect and think is worth having a conversation with. You need to trust them, and also write in a way where it’s possible for them to trust you.
After you know the idea that will form the core of your essay and the style to write it in, you need to consider its structure.
In this section I will address three components that I consider when attempting to structure my writing: I) the use of subtitles to create sections; II) length; and III) how to deal with complexity.
I have found subtitles useful for two primary reasons.
The first is readability. I think this is relatively self-explanatory; it is overwhelming to look at slabs of text with no respite in sight. If your writing is to be useful, it must transmit a non-trivial degree of information to the reader. This is extremely difficult, if not impossible if you send them into a state of cognitive overload.
The second is the complete formation of ideas. The more explicit the ideas contained within sections, as well as how you link them, the more clearly it can be seen whether you have taken a wrong move or skipped over an important logical step. This applies not only to the reader, who is then capable of more critically assessing what you have written, but also allows you to more reasonably appraise your own ideas whilst still in the writing process.
When it comes to naming your subtitles, this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about, and I’m genuinely not sure what the right approach is. To be fair, I’m not sure it matters that much, but on the other hand, maybe it does — things of substantial qualitative difference are that way because of a vast, compounded number of small and seemingly insignificant differences (if they were to be looked at in isolation).
A lot of books, pop-science ones especially, tend to have quirky and cryptically humorous titles for their sections. I presume this is to try and evoke curiosity while breaking up sections of potentially dry science with a sprinkle of personality. For sake of illustrating my point, I just flicked through two books which were within arm’s reach, Robert Sapolsky’s Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (a title which is an example of the exact thing I am referring to) and Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. After a few moments of flipping through these two books I glanced upon section-titles such as: “Bowels in uproar”; “A causes B causes A causes B causes…”; “The sugar daddy of science”; and, “What’s so good about men?”.
Describing them as humorous may be a step too far, but the point I am trying to make is that they are not purely (and often even close to being) descriptive. The sections are not titled things such as, “The effect of stress on gastrointestinal performance and regularity,” or “The complexity of bidirectional relationships.”
As I have said, I have not settled on a theory of effective subtitling. If I was to state my preference, however, I am extremely drawn to the elegant simplicity of Roman numerals as section-breaks. My favourite writer who uses this method is Scott Alexander, of SlateStarCodex fame. I am not suggesting he invented or popularised it, just that he is the author of the most work that I read that utilises this practice. I find Alexander’s thinking and writing to be so expansive and intriguing, that I relish in the fact that he does not signpost what is coming up — it adds to the suspense and magnifies the impact of the lateral moves he makes when demonstrating a point.
If in the future, you notice that I have adopted the modest approach of breaking my writing into sections headed by nothing more than a Roman numeral, you can be certain that it is an act of pure mimicry on my behalf. Indeed, the use of them in this section was a hat-tip to Alexander. Maybe the transition has begun already…
(I swear I have way too much of an obsession with being meta that it might, in fact, border on being bad for my health.)
My approach to length is simple and it goes as follows: keep writing until writing stops being interesting. Hopefully, readers of my writing follow a similar principle, and importantly, tend to make it to the end of my articles.
Writing, for me, typically stops being interesting once I have explored what’s at the end of a long strand of thoughts. It is not determined by page count or time spent on a piece.
As I have said, writing should not just be the transcribing of your thoughts, but, also, a process of finding out what you actually think. Admittedly, articulating and detailing this process means that I can go all over the place at times. But, if my intentions with these pieces are to demonstrate where my mind goes on these issues, then I think doing anything else risks being unauthentic.
Also relating to length, in the postscript of his book Fooled By Randomness, Nassim Taleb expounds on the success of the first edition, and the explosion of writing opportunities it brought him. He mentions, however, that each of these offerings was accompanied by the question, “How long should it be?”
Taleb goes on to say…
“What? How long? For the first time in my life, I experienced a loss of pleasure in writing! Then I figured out a personal rule: For writing to be agreeable to me, the piece of the length needs to remain unpredictable.”
I think this encapsulates my views well.
Additionally, making writing enjoyable for yourself is so, so integral to the process. For example, I have had a few people comment about how I could likely reach a larger readership if I wrote shorter pieces. And while that may be true, that isn’t how I want to write, or even why I write. I truly think that you should write in a manner that is intrinsically valuable to you, and then hope to hone your craft and develop an audience from there. At least if you do that, then you already have one satisfied customer: You. Even if no one else reads it, you’re still ahead.
That is not to say that you need to write long pieces in order to enjoy writing. All I am saying is that you need to write pieces that you enjoy writing — that is the only way to prime yourself to do more of it; which is a requirement for getting better. And while I think all feedback can be valuable, I do think you need to appropriately weight it against your intrinsic values as well. This is important because when someone says, “I think you would get more readers if you wrote shorter pieces,” what they typically mean is, “I prefer reading shorter pieces.”
We all, so often, confuse the subjective for the objective.
Finally, on the topic of length, I would like to add one more point.
When you write, you want to do the topic, and your point, justice. Shorter pieces, when executed effectively, can be mind-blowingly impactful. However, they can also be like only hammering in the first 10% of a nail — no real effect will be had and whatever was put in, will likely fall out shortly after.
Again, I am not saying that you need to write long pieces. However, I do think there is some value to the slow and gentle massaging of someone’s thoughts.
When I think back to all the writers who have influenced my thinking, some of them write longer pieces, and some write shorter ones. But in order for them to have had an impact on me, I typically had to read a lot of their shorter pieces. So maybe, really, it is all about how you want to get your ideas across. Are you going to bake one big cake? Or a lot of little muffins?
I think the important takeaway here, is that quality and quantity are related. You don’t ever want to push quantity too far, to the point where you’re belabouring, but in order to generate substantial change, you need to expose someone to an important point for a significant amount of time.
I guess that’s why people ask questions of successful people about which books they should read, and not “what infographic/tweet/fortune cookie has had the largest impact on your life?”
In this section, I will discuss the issue of how to deal with complexity — or, at least how I currently conceptualise it. I am by no means an expert; though, I believe my model can be useful for navigating this territory.
For the most part, I ascribe errors in dealing with complexity to structure; hence its appearance here. What I mean by this, is that writing that is too difficult for the reader to interpret, is not due to a lack of prior knowledge or technical nous on the reader’s behalf, but an error related to the writer; and more specifically, how they have structured their essay.
To use an analogy, I see a reader’s (in)ability to interpret complexity as a product of how fast they are required to accelerate into the piece, not a failure of their “top speed” of comprehension.
Think of it like this:
Essentially cars that are at least semi-modern can reach a top speed that exceeds the legal speed limit. If the speed limit is 100km/h, then — in all but a few cases — it doesn’t matter whether Car-A has a top speed of 110km/h or Car-B has a top speed of 220km/m.
What matters at this point then, is how fast each of the cars can accelerate.
Consider a freeway with three lanes. Lane-1 the cars are travelling at 90km/h, and then 95 and 100km/h in the subsequent lanes.
Even though both Cars A and B have the potential to reach a speed that exceeds the maximum speed that cars are travelling on the freeway, the more pressing question is whether they can accelerate fast enough to merge safely with the traffic. If they cannot, then the cars can either try, which will cause a crash; or be forced to take a different route to their destination.
But what if the freeway is the only way to get to that specific location?
In that case, the specific car that cannot merge cannot get to that destination.
But what does this have to do with writing and complexity?
Well, just as the phrase “so-and-so is up to speed” implies that so-and-so understands something, the same meaning applies here. A failure to merge, to get up to speed, is a failure to follow the author’s train of thought. And if the reader cannot keep up and merge with the writer’s thoughts, they cannot get to the destination that the freeway of ideas is trying to take them towards.
Hopefully, this makes it somewhat clearer why I think dealing with complexity is a structural issue. The manner in which we layout and design a piece of writing is the on-ramp for the reader. A longer and more gradual on-ramp tends to allow for greater accessibility to the freeway than one with a shorter and more sharply inclined one, which would only allow the more powerful cars with rapid acceleration to access it.
For the most part, I think more forgiving on-ramps are how we want to design our writing. Doing so allows for the vast majority of people to follow along and gain insight from your ideas. And, in the case where you have started too slowly for the powerful cars, they can still move through the earlier sections more quickly and reach the freeway faster. But this is not to say that you should have an exhaustively long introduction — you want to make your on-ramp as long as needed, but no longer.
One of the foremost pieces of writing that follows this principle, in my view, is the opening chapter of The Feynman Lectures on Physics.
Richard Feynman was an exemplar of conveying ideas in a way that made them accessible — he provided a viable on-ramp for essentially all listeners and readers. His lectures are highly regarded for making one the most inaccessible subjects known to humans accessible. Feynman achieves this feat by inciting in the consumer a mixture of both curiosity and vivid imagery — a hallmark of understanding — along with the incremental introduction of technical terms and general principles.
In his lectures, over the span of only a few pages, he takes the reader through a journey from what science is; the difference between theoretical and experimental physicists; the trade-off between easily taught but only approximately correct general laws, and the more precise yet difficult to convey actual laws (as they are currently understood), as well as a number of other introductory, yet still intriguing concepts.
That is even before he tells the reader to imagine a droplet of water under a microscope that has been magnified 2000-times (making a droplet of 1-inch on the side appear as if it was now 12-metres wide), as he begins to explain the importance of the atomic hypothesis of matter.
“…but here and there small football shaped things swimming back and forth. Very interesting. These are paramecia. You may stop at this point and get so curious about the paramecia and their wriggling cilia and twisting bodies that you go no further, except to perhaps magnify the paramecia still more and see inside. This, of course, is a subject for biology, but for the present we pass on and look still more closely at the water material itself, magnifying it two thousand times again.”
The passage following this one then contains highly practical phrases such as, “it [water under a microscope] looks something like a crowd at a football game as seen from a very great distance”; or, when attempting to attach something meaningful to the vague term of ‘angstrom’ Feynman states, “Another way to remember their size is this: If an apple is magnified to the size of the earth, then the atoms in the apple are approximately the size of the original apple.”
At this point, the reader likely feels as though they have a better understanding of physics then they ever have previously, but Feynman does not stop there. From here the reader is encouraged to understand the pressurisation of gas (which increases the speed of its atoms) by visualising how a Ping-Pong ball comes back in the opposite direction, with more speed than which it struck initially, when it makes contact with a forward-moving paddle; and the reader is then enlightened to the fact that the hexagonal symmetry in ice is what accounts for the six-sided appearance of snowflakes.
All this occurs in the space of 4 pages. However, this act of edification is possible, because Feynman has provided the reader with what they need to understand each paragraph in the paragraphs preceding it (with the first paragraph having a requirement of nothing more than a little common knowledge). He constructs the reader’s understanding from the ground up, using terms and images the reader is familiar with.
The question then becomes, Dear Reader (and Writer), how do achieve this?
The first suggestion I would give, is to familiarise yourself with consummate educators and sharers of ideas, such as Feynman. I truly believe that knowledge should be as democratic and readily accessible as possible, whilst maintaining its truth-value, and Feynman is someone who exemplifies this belief.
While it may feel rewarding to one’s self if they can understand the prose of an elite scholar or self-appointed pedagogue; it does little to teach one about the art of teaching — and the ability to teach it or pass it on, which is actually what makes knowledge worth acquiring in the first place. As I said earlier, good ideas are only really as good as their ability to be spread and communicated to others. Endeavour to be clear; because when you are not, you are often fooling yourself as much as you are anyone else.
The second general tip I would provide when it comes to structuring and your ability to deal with complexity is to begin your piece by initially writing “down” rather than “across.” What I mean by this is that the first portion of the writing process should be mapping out the logical trajectory of your journey. I’m not suggesting that you need to know exactly what you are going to say ahead of time, but you should know the rough ideas you have and how they connect up. I believe it is important that you get the landscape of your idea down before you start to add in the details.
I think of this process as adding in the floors or levels of a new building, before trying to perfect each step of the staircase. Staring at a blank page is like being on the ground floor, when you need to write a 4-story essay. However, you want to construct the general frame of those four levels before you start worrying about each individual step. Once the frame is in place, however, that is when you can begin focusing on expanding each story, etching in the details and ensuring that there is a smooth transition from one floor to the next. But you will lose yourself if you try to do this process all at the same time.
Additionally, by getting the majority of your floors in place first, you can assess what belongs and what does not. However, when you write entirely from the bottom-up, step by step, sentence by sentence, micro-idea by micro-idea, no single deviation is that far from the last; but upon reflection, you may find that you have built 2 entire levels to your building that are completely redundant. A balance between an inside and outside view is required.
The important thing, however, is worth reiterating.
And that point is: before you turn your piece over to the readers, you must ensure that they can access it from the ground level. It does not matter if you build to a level of complexity that is as high as a house or Mt Everest, start at ground level each and every time.
Your goal should be to leave a reader feeling like a genius, not an idiot. You can write for the purpose of your ego, trying to sound as smart as possible, but I would refute that you are if you’re mostly just confusing people. Alternatively, you can write to try and convey knowledge. The latter is the type of writing that people want to read more of.
To close out this section I will combine two quotes from Mr Albert Einstein: If you can’t explain it simply, then you don’t understand it. And, make it as simple as possible, but not simpler.
And in the pithy words of Ludwig Wittgenstein, “If it can be expressed at all, it can be expressed clearly.”
Why Writing is Difficult
Now that we have explored some ideas that writing should aspire to, it might be worthwhile exploring what prevents that from being the norm.
There are a number of reasons why writing is difficult for us, and while this is only a domain of persona-interest, something I am by no means an expert in, I will lay out my understanding.
Humans possess innate abilities for language, where we grow and how we are raised determines how what language those abilities learn to speak, and how fully our talents form. Writing is an extension of these built-in capacities; however, it sits a considerable distance away from what allows it to occur. Because of this, we could possibly say something along the lines of, “human nature allows for the development of writing skill, but it does not actually come naturally to us.”
Primarily this is because:
1. You must first acquire language (verbal communication), before you can recognize written words and read. You then must be able to read before can write. Writing, therefore, will always be the third step in a three-step process.
2. Writing requires tools/technology and we acquired those long after we acquired mouths and a voice box. As such, writing was not as prominent throughout our evolution as verbal communication was.
Moving beyond our innate abilities, there are some theories about what breeds poor writing that seem contradictory prima facie.
Steven Pinker, who we met in the section on style states, “The better you know something, the less you remember about how hard it was to learn. The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose.”
However, others may appear to disagree slightly.
Many suggest that the single most common cause of poor writing is a lack of understanding, and that poor writing is by-and-large more indicative of shallow knowledge than anything else. Inverting this logic tells us that good writing is more a product of deep thinking about a topic than any textbook grammatical skills.
Personally, I believe this latter contention to be true.
If you worry more about the content and meaning of your words, rather than syntax, your writing will take desirable shape. Both on the page and the ideas it expands out into within someone’s mind.
So, with that said, where does that leave us in regard to Pinker’s claims about the curse of knowledge?
I think Pinker is also correct. I said that the theories seemed contradictory prima facie — on face value — not that they actually were. A lack of understanding is the most prominent cause of poor prose in general, however, the curse of knowledge helps explain why people who have acquired a deep understanding are still prone to linguistic drivel.
For these reasons, we have two general hurdles to navigate in order to construct quality pieces of writing.
The first is to have thought deeply and understand the topic at hand; possibly recapitulating already recognized ideas or contributing something novel. The second hurdle, though, poses a problem that is dichotomous to the first; if we had to climb over hurdle number one, we must crawl under hurdle number two.
Once we understand something at a fundamental level, having the ability to integrate the complexity and nuances of the subject into a model without overwhelming ourselves, we then need to recall what it was like to not have that ability.
At this point, you are effectively trying to determine what it was like to not have a certain set of neurons communicating to one another in a certain way within your brain. Then, as if that wasn’t hard enough, you need to try and work out what you need to do in order to help someone else’s brain get to that point. By no means an easy feat, but it is undoubtedly possible.
If you can manage to overcome these issues — through a mixture of climbing and crawling — your writing will be read, understood, shared and appreciated. It will separate itself from everything else that fails to do so. This is important because quite honestly, everyone would rather read good writing on a topic that didn’t interest them, than poor writing on one that did. If you don’t make your content consumable, it doesn’t matter how interesting or profound it is.
In the next section, we will explore some more practical aspects of how to achieve that. We have moved from the abstract, looking at things such as purpose, style and structure, and now it’s time to work with more specific advice.
This section will aim to give you more specific behaviours to target. There should be little (or less) confusion regarding how to go about these recommendations. The previous sections contained a mix of my philosophy and guiding principles, whereas the following will be more likely described as recommendations. These won’t be rules, they can be broken, but the aim is to give you a greater degree of tangibility over what you are either adhering to or ignoring.
However, with that said, I believe it is a cardinal mistake to only value the tangible. Provided you are working on the following behaviours on a frequent basis, you will become a much better writer over time if you are also consistently considering the more abstract themes that preceded this section.
I understand that it can be frustrating to be given vague advice, and most are hungry for the things that can have the most direct impact, but I think both are essential for maximum results. Practical advice tends to be very useful for navigating your local and immediate environment, but without some guiding principles at a global level, you can still very easily get lost. The GPS in your car can only give you actionable advice, such as turn left or right, because it understands the direction you are facing and which way North is.
Keep that in mind as we begin to get closer to navigating the streets of writing.
Fast, Then Slow… Drafts & Editing
I would say that the single hardest piece of writing wisdom to accept, is that good writing is more about dedicating time to editing and revising, than it is immediate genius on the page. No one really likes spending time re-reading and re-writing. However, good writers see it as a necessary evil. Those who produce the best work are mostly those that are willing to spend the time re-writing, and incrementally improving on what appears before them.
With that in mind, I want to return to the words of Paul Graham twice more, as he has insights relevant to us here.
The first is from beginning of one of his short pieces titled “Writing, Briefly.” Here Graham highlights the sheer time discrepancy between writing and re-writing:
“In the process of answering an email, I accidentally wrote a tiny essay about writing. I usually spend weeks on an essay. This one took 67 minutes—23 of writing, and 44 of rewriting.”
Graham spent double the amount of time re-writing as he did initially writing out his ideas. This alludes to a point that I will demonstrate with another quotation of his, this one from his excellent piece titled “Hackers and Painters.”
He is speaking specifically about writing computer programs, but the fundamental logic applies here:
“I was taught in college that one ought to figure out a program completely on paper before even going near a computer. I found that I did not program this way. I found that I liked to program sitting in front of a computer, not a piece of paper. Worse still, instead of patiently writing out a complete program and assuring myself it was correct, I tended to just spew out code that was hopelessly broken, and gradually beat it into shape. Debugging, I was taught, was a kind of final pass where you caught typos and oversights. The way I worked, it seemed like programming consisted of debugging.”
I want to restate the crucial sentence in that passage once more: I tended to just spew out code that was hopelessly broken, and gradually beat it into shape.
This is extremely illustrative of what the creation process — of anything — is like. Writing is no different. Once we grasp this concept, which we might simply consider as writing is a craft, then we can begin to better understand and navigate the writing process. It is here that the wisdom of a fast first draft comes from. You want your early phases of writing to mostly concern with getting the ideas out of your head; getting your chunks of intellectual clay onto the page before you begin to cull what is unnecessary and smoothing over what is jagged.
This is a skill of making use of both “Babble” and “Prune.”
The terms Babble and Prune come from this series of articles on thought-production. The author conceptualises thought — and the sequence of events that follow it, such as what we say and write — as the balance between Babble and Prune.
These mostly opposing, but not entirely dichotomous processes are the conceptual artist and critic. Babble is the almost-entirely unrestrained, pseudorandom, alternative generating bingo-balls of subconscious thought, being plucked out and pulled into the (often dim) light of consciousness.
Prune, conversely, is the finely-tuned, restrictive, filtering process that utilises strong coherence heuristics in order to place or arrange these bingo-balls in a manner that is deemed satisfactory (which depends on the severity of the Prune–systems settings).
In non-cognitive science terms, we can basically consider this as generation and selection. Babble creates options and alternatives, Prune helps to refine them and select the higher quality ones.
Neither is inherently good, however, and the appropriate balance must be found between them. An overly aggressive Prune-system creates a fearful Babble-system, resulting in fewer options being generated. Conversely, a hyper-productive Babble-system creates a tired and overly permissive Prune-system, which result in lower quality options beginning to slip through.
To return to our conceptual archetypes. The artist who is reduced to anxiety by unrelenting lambasting by the critic will stop producing. However, the artist that mass-produces to such an extent that they fail to even be recognised as an artist anymore will not receive the attention of the critic. A balance between production and criticism of what is produced is required.
When it comes to writing, we want to make the most effective use of our Babble and Prune systems. However, just like the accelerator and brake on your car, they are best used intermittently, not at the same time. A fast first-draft, with its bias towards free-flowing Babble; followed by copious amounts of editing, re-working and demanding of quality by Prune, will help you produce writing pieces that not only are you proud of, but that others will appreciate.
I will give a final caveat to this section, however.
As with anything that is pushed too far, results will diminish rather than improve. The same also happens here. While Prune should be turned down while constructing a draft, it shouldn’t be turned off. If your initial writings are so loose that they border on reckless, editing them to the point of completion will seem like an overwhelming task. A sculptor starts with a lump of clay, not a mountain; just as a carpenter starts with a block of wood and not an entire Oak tree.
At the completion of your first draft, the work of Babble, some semblance of shape should still be there. And if it is, then you can turn it over to Prune and its toolbox full of fine-grain sandpaper.
Some (Hopefully Helpful) Shorter Thoughts
Before I conclude, I will try to provide you with my views on certain common problems of the writing process. Up until this point we have covered my broader philosophy, the principles I try and work by, what makes writing difficult, among many other things, but now we will touch on some common stumbling blocks, adding the proverbial sprinkles to the top of the cake.
1. Write Frequently
Write frequently, daily if possible. This has many advantages; many of which I will mention in this section. For example, by writing frequently, it becomes part of your routine and identity; you produce a greater amount of content over time; the soft skills of the process become engrained; and, any given day you can basically put on your editing-hat and piece is ready for publishing. If you write infrequently, however, then you will likely have to do longer sessions, spending time both writing and editing during some of those sessions — which is hard with tired eyes. Therefore, the more frequently you undertake the practice, the more you have the ability to split up writing and editing.
2. Shorter tends to be sweeter; but a healthy diet can’t be all treats
Practice writing short sentences, using short words, with each sentence making a statement. On average, this is a good idea. At the end of each sentence, the reader has a minor chance to mentally breathe and catch their breath. You don’t want your reader too puffed. However, there are exceptions. Sometimes leaving them hanging on just a little… while… longer… can be a good tactic. When done well, writing should have rhythm.
An example is as follows:
3. Big words and foreign terms
Use words you know, but also aim to stretch your vocabulary. Effective use of a thesaurus can make decent writing pop. Overuse, however, results in even the best ideas sinking beneath the surface in a sea of linguistic buffoonery.
I recognize the importance of using simple words and think the overuse of extravagant or exotic terms to create an illusion of wisdom is nauseating. However, I do not shy away from occasional and strategic use of possibly unknown terms. I believe part of treating the reader as an equal, is accepting that they may have to look up a word if they are not entirely sure of its meaning.
You don’t want them to have to do this every sentence or paragraph you write, but I also don’t think they should be entirely exempt from this. As a writer I believe you want to help expand the limits of your reader’s knowledge; and that includes their vocabulary.
4. Rules can be broken, if you (roughly) know what you’re doing
Don’t fear rules such as: You can’t start a sentence with “And”
The best writers of the past have on many occasions broken these “rules.” This is not to say that rules like this don’t serve a purpose, just that great writing does not HAVE to follow these rules. They should be considered more like guidelines than anything. Try to figure out why they exist before you flaunt them; however, once you know, you can strategically deviate when it suits your goal. Remember: the purpose of your writing is to give someone an enjoyable or educational subjective experience, not to satisfy some grammatical checklist.
The former without the latter will still be considered good writing. The latter without the former will not.
5. Brain dumping is ok, provided you have a place to put it
I personally don’t create a plan, as I find plans to be rigid and constraining. However, direction is important. In order to achieve this, early in the writing process I will write rough subheadings, and then categorise my brain spews roughly under the heading I think they apply to. This is what I described earlier as writing “down” rather than “across.” You don’t need to prevent brain dumping, you just need an appropriate place to put them.
There is absolutely no way that I write in a manner that could reasonably be described as linear, everyone’s mind goes all over the place. The first thought that comes to mind is not the opening line, though sometimes a piece of writing begins in such a way, moving forward from a premise. However, most commonly, at least in my experience, is I spend the most time thinking about the juicy part of a concept or idea. Once I believe I have found some hearty central ideas, I then need to concern myself with how to build up to them, as well as how to close them off.
Your writing will improve if the sporadic thoughts you have in your mind, don’t then translate into sporadic prose. If a random thought appears, and it seems important, write it down, but recognise it might not be best placed immediately after your current sentence.
Good writing tends to entail a lot of shuffling.
6. The lack of feedback in the writing process
In a conversation there is immediate feedback. Writing is different; it is slow. Reading it can be slow too. And even if many read your writing, most may not reach out and tell you what you think about it. However, I think this can be an advantage at times. In order to formulate your own ideas, sometimes, often even, you need them to be insulated from excessive feedback. I would suggest channelling that.
I like the following quote by Pete Dupuis:
“If you’re not feeling the slightest bit of uncertainty or hesitation before publishing content, you’re not innovating — you’re saying the same shit you and someone else has likely already said. Embrace discomfort.”
7. Start with a question
To produce a good essay, you need to basically move from a good question, to (or towards) a good answer. Simple enough in theory. So how do we achieve this?
Having questions first entails noticing things. Having good responses to questions requires thinking deeply and noticing previously unseen connections. I think solid advice for achieving both of these things is to slow down.
When you slow down you can begin paying more attention to what’s around, or within you. Once become more mindful of your internal and external environment, you will notice things that seem peculiar. Lean into that. Then, try to undertake the difficult task of putting what you experience into words.
It won’t work out well initially, but leaning into what seems peculiar, trying to describe it, then repeating, is how you will bring new insights to life.
8. Have a persona that you are writing for
Writing is easier when you have an idea of who it is for.
So, create an idea of who it is for; based on what you want to put out! Write for you people like your mum, or people your age, maybe those who grew up similar to you, whatever. If nothing else, try to write something that you would enjoy reading.
9. Write seriously across all different formats
The idea of “how you do one thing is how you do everything” definitely has some merit. If you write sloppy emails, it’s going to be really hard to shift into a more careful state of mind when you’re trying to craft prose for ideas you care deeply about.
The brain, generally speaking, has rather multipurpose modules. It doesn’t tend to operate on the basis of “this is how you write for work” and “this is how you write for an essay.” It operates much more along the lines of, “this is how you write,” which is likely arrived at by factors such as, “this is how long a sentence should be,” or “this is how strongly you need to believe something in order to call it true.”
It’s very common for people to try and justify one thing in one context and believe that they will be different in another, when they want to. This is valid and true in some ways, and false in many others.
When it comes to developing skills or qualities that are desirable — and thus difficult — to curate, I would opt for taking the “how I do this will impact how I do other similar things” approach. So, with that, I suggest you take care with your emails; when you write social media captions, or even (if you’re like me) text-messages to your nan.
10. Trial analogies & explanations
I mentioned earlier that writing often leaves you siloed-off from immediate feedback, and that can be a good thing. That is true, however, you don’t want that to be the case for all of your thinking. Often I will read something where someone has made use of a metaphor that just doesn’t at all make sense to me (I may have committed that exact crime myself, and you may not have understood all of mine in previous sections) and I think to myself, “this person really needed to try and have a conversation with someone first using this analogy before they put it on paper.”
Talking with other people is one of the best ways we can get out of our own head. This can be a bad move when your head contains many good ideas. However, when writing things that other people should be able to read and understand, you need to speak with them and see if they can grasp what you are talking about. It’s very easy to bluff yourself that you understand something, or that your analogy is A-grade. Having a conversation with someone else can be an acid-test, however.
If your goal is to get better at writing, or just more generally conveying ideas, you should frequently be talking to people about what you think, but then always following up with, “Does that make sense to you?” and “What do you think about that?”.
11. The best writers are avid readers
I said it earlier and I will say it again, reading and writing have a synergistic effect. You cannot maximise your skills or value acquired from one without the other.
The novelist Annie Proulx said it best when she said “You should write because you love the shape of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write.” It’s hard to argue with that.
By reading more, in addition to your writing, you will slowly but surely pick up the ideas behind good writing. This won’t be entirely conscious, but it will happen. The more you read, the more you will detect what makes a word better in one in one context than another; the way that words, sentences and passages should flow; the effective use of punctuation, among many other things, of course.
One of these additional benefits of reading is the ability to sprinkle in Easter eggs or other forms of additional and interesting, but slightly tangential information.
12. Easter eggs & additional bounty
One of the best ways to improve your writing is to provide what we will call “Easter eggs and additional bounty.” I say this based on purely subjective grounds, but I think it holds true to good principles.
An “Easter egg” in forms of media are hidden messages, meaning or characters. Disney films are often fine exhibitions of this. Google is renowned for this subtle cheek as well. For example, if you search “recursion” in Google, you will get a “did you mean: recursion” response back. It’s not you’ve made a mistake in your spelling, it’s the Google engineers planting an Easter egg due to the definition of recursion.
Continuing on from the previous recommendation, by reading more, you pick up more ideas and clever tricks for your own writing. These little additions of flair can greatly enhance the reading experience and build personality into what you create. Additionally, by reading more, you acquire greater depth and breadth of knowledge, and you can speckle some of that into your writing.
You don’t want the entirety of writing to be off-topic or a personal display of how broad your general knowledge is. However, the curious reader will appreciate the additional bounty you can share with them.
Personally, as a reader, I love little more than reading an article on X and coming away, unexpectedly, knowing a little more about Y than I did beforehand. Weaving in value that is somewhat lateral to the specific theme of your article, is a good way to keep your readers interested and coming back.
13. Edit after a delay
When you are in writing mode (the adding of words), you get stuck in this frame of mind that everything you have is important. And because you are so immersed in the content, and you are effectively just transcribing your stream of consciousness, you think everything is of value. Even if you recognize it isn’t all best work, there is difficulty in being objective with it, and experiencing it as a reader would.
Editing after a delay is an immensely powerful antidote to this problem. Returning to a piece of work even just a few hours away from it, though days would be more ideal, helps gives you a degree of objectivity that you wouldn’t have otherwise possessed.
At that point trimming what is unneeded and fixing what is flawed is much, much easier.
14. Read it aloud
I have made the point that editing is important numerous times already. The reason that most don’t do as much of it as they should, however, is that it is often difficult, mundane and laborious. One of the simple methods for making this process easier is reading what you have written out loud.
Whilst editing there will be many occasions instances where you recognize that a sentence is clunky, a word seems out of place, or a paragraph does not have the appropriate peaks and troughs — but you don’t where the exact issue lies. To recognize that something is wrong is only the first part of the problem. Very commonly, you will find that something seems off, but don’t know what exactly, or what to do about it. Reading what you have written out loud can give you better insight into this problem.
If you have a second set of ears available, reading what you have written to someone else will further enhance how effective this process is.
15. Improve your typing
There are multiple bottlenecks you must overcome within the (successful) writing process. Each aforementioned point attempts to help with this.
This one is potentially the most indirect of all, however, I have found it useful myself.
When learning a new skill set, there is an idea that you should consider “overlearning” the foundational components. What this means, is that you engrain certain key processes to such an extent, that they are essentially automatic and can be completed with subconscious ease.
The value of this, when a task is overlearned, means that it does not require the most powerful of our cognitive machinery to implement. This essentially frees the more powerful parts of your brain to be put to use elsewhere, on other, larger, more complex and abstract problems.
An example of this for writing would be typing. I have found that as my typing skills have improved, the ease at which I can get my thoughts onto the digital page is easier; but also, the thoughts I put down are better. This is likely a product of less of my total cognitive power being funnelled towards the minute movements of my fingers.
This is important because a thought is similar to a dream. If you are disturbed and thrown awake, there is no guarantee you will return to the point at which you left. Because of this, the more seamlessly you can get your thoughts out, the better you’ll be able to describe them and link them together. Which is, in essence, what the writing process is.
A Simple Algorithm
There is a lot we have explored today.
However, in actuality, I believe becoming a better writer is relatively easy. It doesn’t have to be complex, you only need to have a few key components of your life in place. I will try and strip back everything we have covered today and distil it down to a simple recipe for you to follow.
The first step is having a relatively consistent time for writing.
I prefer to write in the morning. There is an excellent piece on morning writing by one of the elite long-format bloggers Gwern. In the article, he discusses the possibility of a morning writing effect, which a nontrivial number of writers seem to report. A small, morning-specific effect may exist, however, for our purposes, I believe the predominant value is to be gained by simply setting up the habit. By writing on a consistent basis — such as every weekday morning — you progressively amass a body of work. Something that’s pretty essential if you want to be recognized as a writer. To be a writer, you must first have written.
Once you’re getting words out on a consistent basis, the objective then becomes to make those words better.
This is a product of playing around with better information. Doing this is a mixture of getting better ideas into your head, as well as constructing more useful things out of what is already in there. You will need to read, listen, watch, but also avoid the trap of becoming an insatiable “infovore.” Consuming a variety of ideas and information is important, but only up until a point. You will need plenty of silence, solitude and processing time in order to make the best use of what has been poured into your head previously.
Then it’s a case of publishing, receiving feedback and repeating.
Write consistently, consume new ideas, process your thoughts and then put them out there; it’s pretty much as simple as that. Do that for a few weeks and watch the improvement in your writing come rushing in. Do it for a few months and people will really begin to notice. Do it for a few years and… well, I don’t know yet.
I guess I will have to get back to you on that last one.
And with that, we have finally reached the end. Thank you immensely for reading. However, I pushed you to read more in a previous piece. Now, for your benefit, and that of those around you, I ask you to write more.
You never know where it may lead.