Writing as Thinking

Writing is a method of thinking. An essay, for example, is a trial of an idea. It literally means “to test the mettle of”. Yet even in poetry, writing is an exercise in thinking. In all manner of writing, ideas can be rearranged and refined. This allows weak ideas to be discarded, and strong ideas to be sharpened. Strong ideas, whether in poem or essay or song, are critical to existence.

Why are strong ideas so important?

Ideas change the world. Ideas are the very fabric of what we believe is the world. We do not (and can not) directly intuit the truth of our existence. We perceive a world around us through a concoction of senses that are processed and abstracted into thoughts, into ideas. These ideas help us to make sense of our world. Whether it is a religious or scientific idea, or a political ideology, “ideas” are the single most powerful force in all of human existence. And this awesome power is shaped and formed by the process of writing.

Whether you like it or not, you are, in each moment, perceiving a delusional world constructed from abstract ideas. These ideas predict (imperfectly) how the world around you behaves. If you are unable to write well, then you are unable to think as clearly and as powerfully as those who do write well. The world will make less sense, and you will suffer more. Writing allows you to be competent, to determine good ideas from bad ideas, and to determine “the truth” from “their truth”.

Consider the following (conventional) wisdom:

It is not what you say, but how you say it.

In the context of persuasion, this is absolutely correct. “The truth” simply does not matter when we are speaking or listening. All that matters is the persuasiveness of an idea. We cannot know truth but from abstract ideas. As a result, our thoughts and perceptions are not shaped by “the truth”, but instead by the most persuasive ideas.

Writing can transform a disgusting idea into a pristine and persuasive idea. The power of writing can be used for the greatest good or the greatest evil. And it is this power that corrupts the art of writing and turns it into propaganda. Writing can be the sword of truth, or the blade that murders the truth. And it is here, on this distinction, that many half-educated writers go to die.

If you commit yourself to speak the truth, you’ll find (if you’re at all honest) that you have nothing to say. Instead, writing can allow you to seek the truth, so that eventually you might have something useful to say. Writing can even empower you to live the truth, so that your life may be filled with meaning.

How to write well?

In other words, how do you write competently? How do you transcend beyond mere persuasion and propaganda? How do you seek “the truth”? How do you live the truth?

Start in the only place you can start: with chaotic formless thoughts. Put those thoughts into words, badly. Once the words are in front of you, refine and edit those formless chaotic words, your word salad, into proper sentences. And then revise and edit every sentence and group them into what will eventually become paragraphs. Repeat this process over and over until you have something worth saying (not just reading, but something worth saying). Listen, really listen, to the ideas you have written. You may never be done, but you may one day discover the good ideas from the bad ideas.

Lastly, and as the conventional wisdom goes: know your audience. But if you want your writing to transcend beyond propaganda, understand that the audience is you. Read what you have written and ask yourself:

Is it true?
Is it welcome?
Is it helpful?

If you can answer “yes” to those questions, then you’ll have formed a truly powerful idea, an idea that may change the world. Through writing we can communicate with our future selves. We can communicate through both time and space. And by reading we can commune with the dead (even our own past selves), learning wisdom that no one living may tell us. Most importantly, through writing we can evolve our current ideas, shaping the future as it unfolds. There is truly nothing more powerful than this.