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Why You Should Write

Mar 25, 2020

There are many reasons to write. Setting aside marketing or financial reasons, 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.

There’s an analogy to be made between the editing process that every piece of writing should go through and the self-reflective process of personal evolution. Writing forces you to turn a spotlight over what’s on the page and edit with a critical eye. This is a valuable and necessary task to turn out better writing. A similar workflow should apply to our internal environment, but doing this during quite periods of self-reflection can be difficult. I’ve often found my head filled with a swirling mass of ideas without shape or sequence. Using writing as a conduit for these ideas helps me organise and refine them. It’s easier when you can see ideas on the page rather than floating in your mind.

We intuitively use writing to get a handle on their emotions or life problems. Everyone is familiar with a journal, and some people write letters to significant people in their lives to the same end. When I was very young, I had the common experience of not knowing how to express myself in the middle of an argument or heated conversation, then afterwards thinking of the perfect comeback. I used to write little notes to my parents explaining myself better or apologising when I felt guilty. I still do this sometimes. Sometimes I deliver the note, sometimes I don’t. Either way, it’s a great method of exorcising stormy emotions or working out if you’re truly in the right or not.

Writing in a journal is the same thing. The main value is not in reading the passages again, but in expressing yourself.

From a professional or academic perspective, writing is also incredibly valuable. Again ignoring the potential financial benefits of having eyes on your work, the writing and editing process is a path to better understanding. It’s tangible, it’s frank, it’s indifferent. That means it has a unique ability to highlight where the gaps in your knowledge are, or where your arguments fall flat. I’ve often experienced something akin to revelation when writing on a topic I thought I knew well, only to discover my knowledge was thinner than I realised, or that there were facets of a topic I hadn’t even considered. This type of writing is different from journal-writing, and takes the form of an article or essay rather than stream-of-consciousness reflective writing. It’s strategically laid out. It seeks to answer questions and solve problems. It must be accurate and well-researched, because it must stand up to criticism.

Writing not only crystallizes your thoughts, but it allows you to explore new ideas and think up different possibilities. It helps bridge the gap between theory and practice; in other words, it lets us perform simulations and match problems with solutions. It’s not uncommon to know someone who is incredibly academically gifted, who can memorize information with ease, who can ace university exams with little preparation. There is a major difference between this type of feat and solving real-world problems in different contexts. In this way, writing helps to apply knowledge into problem-solving, which are two distinct but related skills. The most effective and productive people I know are those who practice both skills.

In fact, writing in this way develops the ideas of others, too. Many people are afraid to write because they’re terrified of being unoriginal. This is an irrational fear! None of us are truly original. We’re all influenced, consciously or subconsciously, by the things we’ve heard or read or watched. Indeed, the scientific method makes a point to build on the ideas of others. Often, it’s in small increments that a breakthrough is finally achieved, and it’s only made possible by collaboration and iteration of previous work. Given that we’re an amalgamation of our past experiences, each of us has a slightly different take on the same topic. That makes every viewpoint valuable. Even points that seem so obvious as to be uninteresting should be explored and expressed, for a couple of reasons. First, it’s very difficult to assess what you don’t know. Some things that are obvious to you may not be obvious to others. Second, since each of us are the product of our own experiences, even our obvious, common ideas are all slightly different when examined closely.

I must note that while writing is a powerful tool, it must be honed. While setting pen to paper is a valuable first step, writing and editing are skills that need to be developed through practice.

Some tricks you can use to facilitate practice: imagine yourself writing in various formats with different purposes. How would you write course notes to a university class? How would you write a script for a TV episode or a podcast on your chosen topic? How would you write an academic essay? This technique shores up knowledge and strengthens mastery of the material, but it also tests practical application. There’s no point in having an idea if it can’t be communicated.

It’s not easy, but that’s not an excuse to avoid starting. In fact, the earlier you begin the better.

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