“Telepathy, of course,” wrote Steven King. He captures how wildly mundane it is that if I write: “elephant balancing on a beach ball,” you teleport the idea from my mind into yours across time and space. All that, yet writing is not some futuristic technology, it’s an ancient one.
When I ask people what writing is, they basically say “expressing ideas.” But this early onset definition, along with telepathy, is mistakenly narrow.
In high school, you’re taught to write essays to prove you understand a subject. First: recall what you know, then: write it down. But outside school, people don’t care that you know something – they care if it’s valuable. To coerce teachers to read highschool essays, you’d have to pay them. The essence of writing is not in expressing ideas, but in generating valuable ones. That’s evident from the word, “essay.”
“Essayer” is French for “to try.” In 1580, Michel de Montaigne published his first book of “essais,” or attempts. In them, he didn’t start with a thesis and support it with formulaic paragraphs, like in high school. That’s because he didn’t have a thesis – the essay was the attempt to figure that out. He discovered that writing, not just sitting and thinking, is what most develops your ideas.
Condensing words from the vapor of thought fixes (both “repairs” and “sets in place”) your ideas by contending with gaps in your knowledge and flaws in your logic. Gaps in your knowledge will feel like empty segments of rail destabilizing your train of thought. Flaws in your logic won’t feel like much, until you lay out your premises and spot errors, like showing your work on a math test. Writing, rather than other mediums, best resolves gaps and flaws because the errors you commit to the page are laid bare, permanent, nudging you to revise them away.
Writing also integrates ideas into your understanding. Handwritten notes are easier to remember than typed ones (or worse, photos), because to overcome writing’s slowness, you have to synthesize and prioritize the core ideas. The secret to learning isn’t in the graphite, but in inducing active engagement with the material. That cognition helps you easily recall what you’ve written in later conversations, regardless of ever revisiting your notes, since you’ve already thought it through.
Most of all, writing produces brand new ideas. Words on a page let you consider more ideas at once, helping you draw more surprising connections between thoughts both on and off the page, and both during and after you’ve written them. And the more connections you notice when writing alone, the more intuition you’ll earn for identifying them throughout your day. Which gives you more material to write about, and so on, spinning the idea-generation flywheel.
Paper and pencil and “expressing ideas” is merely what writing looks like. But words on a page are just the visible artifacts of an invisible process. Writing words and choosing good ones is a process we found that propels hard thinking, and it’s that underlying thinking that is what writing really is.
But thinking hard is more work than not. Most people only dust off their opinions when a relevant discussion presents itself. It doesn’t cross their mind to write about things; drudgery for no reason. Yet the added cost of writing is a bargain for the added benefit to your thinking. And if you don’t develop your ideas given unlimited time to think, you won’t manage it all when time-constrained or in a live discussion.
Writing about a topic almost always fixes or develops your ideas about it. Someone who doesn’t write about a topic misses the more fully formed ideas they could have had. And worse, someone who never writes at all will rarely have fully formed ideas about anything.
Luckily, starting is simple.
Write about what you love until you love to write.
Banishing the epistemic status disclaimer to the comments, since it clashes with the target audience and reading experience.
Epistemic status: briefly consolidated insights on writing to think, for newer audiences. Partly interpolates Paul Graham, Herbert Lui, Larry McEnerney.
Writing is uploading for the poor and lowtech bros