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Matt Holland

Writer (In Training)

How To Think Clearly By Writing

Read time: 9 minutes. If you’d rather watch the video about it click here.

Humans write to persuade, inform, tell stories, and change history. Writing is more impactful than ever with vast and instant distribution. On the internet (or before the internet), one person’s writing can change the trajectory of the world. I’m writing more in 2021 because it will clarify my thoughts. I want to think better so I can do better and be better. It’s also fun to look back on what I’ve previously written. I’m curious to see how my thoughts change with time and (hopefully) see how my writing improved.

If you write to think better then with better thinking you’ll write better next time. Writing is challenging for me. The English language has not been one of my strong points. In fact, no language has ever been. I’ve always struggled and my grades reflected this challenge. I read and wrote two grade levels below my classmates. But writing is a skill and anyone can improve. We read more than ever as a society and the world’s literacy rate is the highest it’s ever been. We’re also writing more than ever. This means that there’s a lot of competition for attention. There’s also more noise, false information, and distraction than ever.

Mathematicians have whiteboards and writers have paper. By placing your thoughts on paper you can offload and start critically examining them. When I start to write my thoughts down I realize the actual scope of what I know about the topic. It’s never as much as I think and I tend to find holes in my logic. Therefore, the more I write and analyze the writing the more I should improve. However, in order to think better you have to know how.

The Thinking Process

Thinking is an action (you’re doing it). Writing thoughts down brings them in the physical reality. A thought stands alone in time, static, especially on a piece of paper. The words on the page are unchanging if left untouched and transcend the present moment. By thinking better you end up with better static thoughts. Thinking is the process by which you get to that static thought. The advantage of writing is you can start thinking about your written static thoughts and dissecting them. You can challenge, edit, fact check, and even change them. Over time as you edit your thoughts on paper I think you also start editing them in your mind. No matter how you digest a thought (reading, listening, or otherwise), the criteria for a good one would be the same. There are three qualities for thinking better that I will expand on: clarity, conciseness, and certainty.

1. The thought is clear.

“One should use common words to say uncommon things” – Arthur Schopenhauer

For a thought to be good it needs to be received clearly. Any noise will get in the way of a clear message. Types of noise include physical, semantic, psychological, and physiological. Good logical flow, spelling, and grammar can help prevent noise. Most people who’ve been through a formal education will have enough of these skills in this area to get by. Readability is also important for clarity when writing. The Gunning Fog Index is a good tool to use to gage the readability of your writing. It estimates the number of years of formal education a person would need to understand the text in their first reading. The index score for this blog post is 8.5. Winston Churchill is commonly used as an example for clear writing. He kept his message simple so that everyone, including children, would understand. For example, his message below had an index rating of 9.7 and the only three or more syllable words are blue.

churchillgunningfog

Source

2. The thought is concise.

“I apologize for such a long letter – I didn’t have time to write a short one.” – Mark Twain

A person’s time is limited and this should be reflected in your writing. Avoid unnecessary words. Keeping your writing concise helps to keep your readers attention. If the person isn’t giving you their attention then it does not matter what you write. ****If you are able to delight your reader (or listener) to keep their attention then you can get away with more fluff. Telling stories is a good way to delight. Especially if you’re able to get people’s emotions drawn into your narrative. After all, every good story has some form of conflict and resolution. Remember one thing: get to the point and cut out the unnecessary. A long sentence can mean that you don’t understand the topic.

3. The thought is certain.

You don’t know what you know until you try to express it. – Michael A. Covington

Strive to always provide the truth. If you’re thinking from first principles, like I discussed in my last blog, then you’re off to a good start. Truthfulness helps with persuasiveness, but it’s not necessary. Truth prevails, but other narratives can be persuasive. By reading your writing back you can critically analysis it for factualness. Strive to be certain with your words. I use the word “strive” because regardless of how hard you (or I) try, there will be errors and mistruths in your writing. It is important to address these and improve for next time. We are but human.

The Writing Process

There are four steps that need to be completed in the writing process. I’ve incorporated the 3 ways to think better above into the writing process below.

1. Planning – Start With A Brain Dump

You’ve already decided on the topic to write about. Get all your ideas about the topic written down. Pull them out from your brain. Sometimes this is called a brain dump. You’re only going to know so much about a topic before needing to go to external sources. Don’t worry about this, you’ll fill in the gaps later. Depending on your knowledge of the topic, you may want to start with step three (research) and then move back to this step. Step three can be completed as many times as necessary and at any time. After all, it is critical that your writing be certain. You are not writing for clarity or conciseness at this point. The point of this step to to get all your original thoughts onto the paper.

2. Drafting – Organize The Work Logically

Once the brain dump is completed it is time to logically organize the content. Find themes and similarities between the ideas and look for content that contrasts. This will be easier if you’re using a word processor for your writing. I usually start adding bolded, larger titles at this point so each section shows up. This allows me to visually see the main themes. I place my ideas into these main theme buckets by cutting and pasting. If you haven’t already asked yourself “why are you writing this?” and “who is the audience?” now would be a good time. Setting an absolute direction isn’t important from the start because as you write and research you’ll potentially find new directions. At this time you’re working on developing the clarity of the piece by creating a logical flow. A philosophy that can apply everywhere in life is to reduce the friction. Our actions tend to flow on the path of least resistance. Apply this to your writing for better audience retention.

3. Research – Learn And Write With Certainty

Once you’ve got some logical structure to your work, go through your draft and highlight areas that need more information. Unless you’re an expert on a topic with a phenomenal memory then you’re going to need to do some research. There’s someone smarter out there who will be able to teach you more about the topic. Start doing research on each individual topic you’ve highlighted to find out more. At this point you’re still growing your piece of work. Look for facts that strengthen the persuasive case. Some questions you can ask are where the incomplete or weak arguments, what is missing, and what needs to be fact checked and referenced. The beauty of this step is learning new information. I find this to be one of the more enjoyable parts of the writing process. This is also a time to learn from other thinkers and understand the opposing views.

4. Polishing – Write For Clarity And Conciseness

Writing turns into rewriting. At this point you have a structured draft with all of the research completed. It is now time to apply the thinking process to your work and look for: clarity, conciseness, and certainty. Start with clarity and ensure that the writing isn’t noisy. Check the readability of the work and that there is an easy flow to it (frictionless). Next, cut out unnecessary words, sentences, and paragraphs. It can feel like cleaning out your closet where all of a sudden you’ll feel attached to everything. This is known as the endowment effect: in psychology and behavioural economics, the endowment effect is the finding that people are more likely to retain an object they own than acquire that same object when they do not own it (Wikipedia). If you struggle with this I suggest having an archived section at the bottom of your document and cutting and pasting away sentences or paragraphs you delete. This is what I do. Writing cleanly is writing leanly. Finally, check your work for certainty. To the best of your knowledge be able to certify your work as factual. Once this is complete have a proofreader or two go over your work.

But Why?

When you put your thoughts to paper it allows you to freeze them so that you can think about them. This is metacognition or thinking about thinking. The brain only has so much working memory and by putting the thoughts on paper you can offload this memory. Now that it’s offloaded you are able to use your full capacity to analysis your thoughts. I personally use this to help build self-awareness and to reflect on myself. Write daily in the form of a short journal entry or less often but in more detail. This is how writing better can lead to thinking better. If writing doesn’t interest you then apply the same offloading principle by recording a video or voice note of yourself talking about your thoughts. A life unexamined isn’t a life lived.

There are several present day thinkers on writing I could recommend. A few of my current favourites are David Perrell, James Clear, and Tim Ferris. I think there is a positive relation between being a good writer and thinker. I’ve currently written three (including this) blogs of my goal of 25 for this year. I also have goal of posting 25 videos on my **YouTube channel** related to each written piece. This has so far proven to be a larger task than I anticipated. However, I hope as I get better at writing the process will becoming frictionless.

Writing is an amazing invention. I’ve got a long way to go and have done my best to simplify how to use writing to think better. I will leave you with this quote:

What an astonishing thing a book is. A flat object made from a tree on which funny dark squiggles are imprinted. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another. Maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, they speak directly to you. — Carl Sagan

I appreciate you.

M

 

References

My thoughts are subject to change and I will get some things wrong. I promise to keep learning and strive to keep doing better. I'm by no means an expert on any topic I may write or make videos about so always do your own research as well. I try to keep an open mind. If I can teach you something and also learn something from you then I'm doing what I set out to do. Thanks for reading. These are just some thoughts.


“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” – Maya Angelou

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