Writing as a Tool for Better Thinking
In an age of digital communication, the ability to write effectively has never been more important. Writing is arguably the most efficient way to communicate our ideas not only across disparate groups but across spans of time as well. Beyond writing’s effectiveness as a mode of communication, however, there is a second, less obvious but equally powerful way that writing empowers us — as a tool for better thinking.
Thinking on the Page
Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, is widely regarded as one of history’s greatest thinkers. Although he boasts a long list of impressive scientific accomplishments, he is perhaps most famous for his ability to teach — he came to be called “The Great Explainer.” His lectures and books are renowned for breaking highly complex concepts down into remarkably simple terms — an ability many argue is the mark of true mastery.
How did Feynman go about gaining such mastery? And what can we learn from his approach? Interestingly, Feynman believed that the best way to learn a new concept was to teach it. Additionally, Feynman argued that the best way to teach a new concept was to write it out in the simplest terms possible. The so-called “Feynman Technique”, a popular learning method for mastering complex topics, is based on this principle:
The best way to learn is to teach.
The best way to teach is to write.
Feynman’s approach to learning through writing made him into a prolific notetaker. On one occasion, seeing Feyman’s impressive collection of notebooks, a journalist remarked about this “wonderful record” of Feynman’s thinking. Feynman quickly replied, “No, no! They aren’t a record of my thinking process. They are my thinking process. I actually did the work on paper.”
This is a subtle but profound distinction. Feynman was arguing that his writing wasn’t a byproduct of his thinking, rather it was the method he used to form his thoughts in the first place. In other words, writing is not merely a way to communicate our thoughts; rather, it is a tool for improving our thinking, for deepening our understanding, and for generating new ideas.`
Don’t Fool Yourself
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” —Richard Feynman
So why is it that writing is such an effective way to improve our own understanding of a topic? In short, writing creates distance between ourselves and our thoughts. And this distance is crucial for our own ability to find and plug the holes in our own understanding and logic.
Hundreds of thousands of years of evolution have wired our brains to seek pleasure and avoid pain. When it comes to knowledge work, this is not a trivial matter. The brain’s eagerness to make us feel good is the reason we are so quick to gloss over inconsistencies in our own thinking. Only by writing arguments down do they become fixed enough to be properly scrutinized.
Writing affords us a degree of objectivity that we simply cannot attain if the ideas exist only in our heads. Formulating an argument and scrutinizing it are two different things. By getting the former out of your head and onto the page, you can free up mental resources to focus on the latter.
Keep it Brief
At OneVision, where I work, we created an internal tool we refer to simply as “briefs.” We use these in numerous situations, and the format and length can vary, but the underlying goal is always the same — to force clarity. If, for example, you have an important suggestion, an idea for a new project, or need help working through a complex challenge, you will often be asked to first summarize your thoughts in a brief before bringing it to the team for further discussion. A few things to note about this practice:
Briefs do not have to be lengthy: In fact, we call them briefs precisely because they shouldn’t be lengthy. We see effective briefs as short as half-a-page long. Write only as much as you need to clarify your thinking. Any more than that is not only unnecessary, it is distracting.
Briefs create friction, and that’s a good thing: By asking your team members to write a short brief on their ideas, you improve your company’s signal-to-noise ratio. People are forced to think more critically about which ideas warrant serious consideration and which are just fleeting thoughts that need more reflection before bringing others into the fray. In an age of automation tools and productivity hacks, we shouldn’t forget that easier is not always better. Effort is a good filter for value.
Don’t “over-template”: Your briefs should be somewhat structured. Use headings to divide information. Focus on core building blocks like problem statements, suggested solutions, lists of pros and cons, open questions, etc. But do not fall into the trap of thinking your briefs should be entirely templated. Brief writing is a creative process. Don’t force everything into a box. Allow the format of the final deliverable to be dictated by the question or topic at hand.
The good news is that you can get started right away. Writing is free; anyone can do it; you don’t need any special software; you don’t even have to be a good writer. When you recognize that the true value of writing as a practice does not lie in producing highly polished articles or blog posts, but rather in furthering your own understanding of a topic, the pressure goes away. You’re not trying to be a good writer; you’re trying to be a good thinker, and who wouldn’t want that? Only by recognizing that writing is not simply a byproduct of our thinking process, but rather a critical component of it, can we unlock the true power of the written word to improve our lives, our relationships, our communities, and our businesses.