The secret about writing that no one has the balls to tell you

The secret about writing that no one has the balls to tell you

The core of what I do for a living is writing, and when writing is brought up in conversation, someone inevitably says:

“I’m not much of a writer.”

And until now I didn’t have the testicular fortitude to say exactly what I thought about that. As far as I know, not many people do. But I’m going to let you in on the secret now.

Writing is Thinking

It’s simple. The amount of information our brains can fit into our short term memory at once isn’t a lot. If you never have thoughts that require notes, then all your thoughts are small or unoriginal enough to fit into your tiny short term memory.

Writing allows you to record your short term memory into a format that you can examine and reflect upon, so you can suss out what makes sense, and how it makes sense, and then expand on the original seed. When you expand your thought all the way into a piece of coherent writing, it becomes complete. It would have been impossible for you to have that size of a thought without writing–your brain just isn’t powerful enough.

If you’ve never written anything thoughtful, then you’ve never had any difficult, important, or interesting thoughts. That’s the secret: people who don’t write, are people who don’t think.

What about Readers?

You live in a world made up of disconnected sound bites and reflections of other people’s old ideas

Maybe you aren’t stupid. Maybe you read about big ideas, so you know what I’m talking about even if you don’t write. That’s not good enough. You’ve never created a big idea. You live in a world made up of disconnected sound bites and reflections of other people’s old ideas, that you’ve only evaluated one chunk at a time. It’s just not the same as having an idea, then sitting down for a few hours to write about it until you figure out what the idea was in the first place.

Writing is a Skill

The bad news is that writing is hard. The good news is that it’s not an inborn talent, it’s a skill. Of course people who don’t write aren’t good at it. That’s only natural: writing takes practice like any other skill.

Here’s a writing exercise for people who want to start thinking: consider a belief you hold. Maybe something about politics or religion. Write 1,000 words about that belief. Explain it as though your audience has never heard of it. Explain why you hold the belief–all its underlying values. Explain the alternatives.

When you’re finished, tell me if you’ve learned anything new about the belief you thought was clear in your mind.

Responses

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  2. Jack ()

    “The amount of information our brains can fit into our short term memory at once isn’t a lot. If you never have thoughts that require notes, then all your thoughts are small or unoriginal enough to fit into your tiny short term memory.”

    Yes. How do I fix this? (Reply)

  3. Pete ()

    Do my exercise from the essay — write about a belief you hold. The goal is to figure out why you believe it, and probably why you actually shouldn’t believe it. (Reply)

    • Abdul ()

      Well no, but i wonder why people are scared of writing and do not want to think. have gathered a lot from from the essay which i am sure will help me in my writing skills. (Reply)

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  5. Tom Leys ()

    I read your post and began to wonder – how well have I expanded on my ideas in writing in the past?

    Then it dawned on me. Programming is a very precise form of putting your ideas into writing. As I write a computer program, I have to work through my ideas or those of my employer until they are concrete enough for a computer to execute.

    Like you said, there is no way for me to fully comprehend a complete computer program all at once. So it is with a big idea. To flesh it out, you really do have to put it in writing.
    .-= Tom Leys´s last blog ..Selling the Dream, putting Sales before Software =-. (Reply)

  6. george ()

    Pete, thank you for the thought provoking essay. You must write a lot.

    While it may be true that writing assists in the organization of thinking, the true value comes from the fact that writing is distilled thought which is permanently recorded in a form which can be communicated to another human being.

    Writing is communication, which requires intense thinking. Like many parts of your body the more you exercise your brain the more proficient it becomes. In this way practiced writers become good thinkers.

    Samuel Butler said “A definition is the enclosing a wilderness of idea within a wall of words.” Using words and language to define things is often times detrimental to the vastness of true thought. It also takes a lot longer to write something down than it takes to think it.

    Therefore, writing is not thinking, but writing frequently does make you a better thinker. (Reply)

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  8. Fasih ()

    I’ll make the obligatory reference to Phaedrus and Socrates’ view on writing, thought I don’t necessarily fully agree. “… when they came to *letters,* This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; it is a specific both for the memory and for the wit. Thamus replied: O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours [writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.” (Reply)

  9. Donny M ()

    Maybe those whose primary thought mode is linguistic will overvalue non-linguistics’ need to write to think clearly. Other people think logically, musically, visually, kinesthetically, interpersonally, etc. (Reply)

  10. Dimitris ()

    “If you’ve never written anything thoughtful, then you’ve never had any difficult, important, or interesting thoughts.”

    Not quite.

    Talking is also thinking.

    You can have “difficult”, “important” and “interesting” conversations, therefore thoughts.

    In fact, one could argue that discussing is more important than writing. (Reply)

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  12. Parnell Springmeyer ()

    Your argument isn’t valid, writing is not thinking because writing is a manifestation of thinking.

    Writing is a representation of thought, an expression of thought. As you said it, writing is a skill, it requires thinking to write. You must think to talk, create art, sing, make music, etc… Human expression is derived from the desire to express thought and its varied substance.

    If you’ve never written anything thoughtful, then you’ve never had any difficult, important, or interesting thoughts. That’s the secret: people who don’t write, are people who don’t think.

    Really? That is a bold statement to make in light of cultures that do not “write”. What of the dialectic sessions in Greece and Rome? What of people who do have original thought but may not have had the “social conditioning” (yes, language is a social standard) to clearly express those thoughts?

    The premises of your argument on memory are also flawed. There are many thoughts I’ve held for many years that I haven’t gotten around to codifying in an essay or article – but I still think them and expand upon them. What do you think people did before they had the tools or standards to write? They re-membered.

    This very article, of which you intended to inspire original and interesting thought is the opposite. This article lacks originality, is short-sighted, shallow, and uninteresting. Your logic is faulty.

    In short: your chain of logic (thought) is broken and your expression of it is exact.

    Writing is a social standard, a standard for other participants of the social hive to understand you and vice-versa. Lucid writing is just a higher degree of accuracy in the representation of what one was thinking, observing, or relaying.

    Here’s a writing exercise for people who want to start thinking

    Again you are supercilious in this statement. Maybe you should take the time to stop writing and instead, think.

    Matter of fact, that is a good exercise: stop talking and writing, think. Meditate on your own thoughts. (Reply)

  13. Pete ()

    Cultures that lacked writing were uniformly less advanced technologically, and often culturally as well. The invention of writing precipitates every historical occurrence of stable civilization, advanced reasoning, and mathematics. Those aren’t trivial achievements, and it they were made possible by writing.

    Further, the intention of the article was not to be original, or to highlight some special skill I personally have. The point was to light a fire under those people who are perpetually “meaning” to write, but never actually do it. Judging by the considerable response, I suspect I achieved my goal.

    It’s hardly scientific, but every person I’ve ever met who thinks deeply, also writes regularly. Separately, the people I’ve met who do not write and do not care to write, have never once in my experience been deep thinkers.

    One corollary though. Commenters have pointed out rightly that writing can take many forms, and that disregarding those forms in this essay for the sake of succinctity was perhaps not wise. They may be right, so let me just say for the record:

    Writing takes many forms, prose being only one of them. Math, programming, certain visual art, certain music, and I’m sure other expressions that aren’t coming to mind are equally valid in recording our short term memory for the purpose of reflection, expansion, and perhaps completion. The more general case I’m trying to make is that reflective creation is necessary for penetrating insight. I stand by that point. (Reply)

  14. Natalia ()

    I realize that I risk sounding like a “raving feminist” but I always get this knee-jerk reaction to statements like “I didn’t have the testicular fortitude”. I don’t have balls. I’m a woman. Does that mean I will never be courageous? I know I know. It’s just an expression, but I can’t help but think that on a deeper level we’re making neural connections that may set women back just a little. “You don’t have the balls – you’re a pussy” drives me crazy.

    Sorry for the rant. I had to get that off my shoulders. (Reply)

  15. Pete ()

    You’re right, Natalia, it does subtly undermine the notion of a bold female. If it makes you feel any better, I surround myself with women who are completely ferocious. I don’t buy the stereotype of the meek woman, so I’ll be more careful in future not to promote it. (Reply)

  16. Parnell Springmeyer ()

    The more general case I’m trying to make is that reflective creation is necessary for penetrating insight. I stand by that point.

    I would stand by that statement as well.

    Cultures that lacked writing were uniformly less advanced technologically, and often culturally as well.

    Thought (in the case of your post, writing is thought) != advanced technology; advanced technology is a result of the rational thought process.

    Advanced culture? Advancement is a comparison of where they are in relation to where we are; which is silly, thought as an object is only comparable within the context of its social system – language is one way of expressing that comparison.

    I do not call my mother less advanced culturally or intellectually because she cannot write Python scripts to automatically sort her email… However, within the programmer/hacker culture, she would be compared as less advanced in terms of programming and computer systems knowledge. Context is important to remember, especially when dealing with cultures, societies, and conventions alien to the paradigm one operates within.

    Judging one thing as less than another because it does not use the same conventions for self-expression is limiting.

    they were made possible by writing.

    I would rephrase that as: they were made possible by thought and employed the tool of writing to express the formulated thought (whether prosaic, mathematical, logical, artful, etc.).

    The point was to light a fire under those people who are perpetually “meaning” to write, but never actually do it.

    Then why not write about what lights your fire or what topics inspire you to write. What self-reflective states of mind induce your writing? These things, examples, are a statement – a communication – of who you are. Not what someone else is not or is lacking.

    The post could be titled: Self-reflective writing for penetrative insight. A much better epithet for what your stated intention is.

    I also think the post would be much more efficacious had your secondary intention been to “be original”. (Reply)

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  18. Rich Sedmak ()

    Pete – I agree with you. I think I can account for some of the disparity – talkers vs writers. I think the emphasis of what you’re saying is on the preparation for writing, the mental exercise that one goes through before hand. As a writer and a talker, I go through a very similar exercise of refining my thoughts, testing for flaws, etc before I bring up a topic in conversation.
    .-= Rich Sedmak´s last blog ..Interesting Company Building/Career Building Parallel – “On vs In” =-. (Reply)

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  22. Laura C ()

    Retweeted! Your post sounds condescending at first, but you’re on to something here. I agree with the comment above. You’ve said a lot in a short post, which is even harder than writing in the first place:

    “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” –Mark Twain
    .-= Laura C´s last blog ..Two Simple Ways To Become a Freelance Editor =-. (Reply)

    • Pete ()

      I Love the Mark Twain quote, it’s gold.

      And yeah, sometimes I think I need to grate people the wrong way to get them to pay attention. (Reply)

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