History doesn’t celebrate great thinkers. At least, not if their thoughts go unwritten. Everyone that we now regard as a great ”thinker” certainly was, but what we’re really celebrating is the translation of their thoughts into writing.
Often, the thinker and the writer were the same, though not always. Celebrated philosopher Socrates, for instance, wrote nothing himself, but he did quite a bit of teaching and debating, providing ample material for the Dialogues his student Plato would later compose.1
No matter how great the philosopher you may be, it’s not enough just to have great thoughts–you have to write them down and put them out into the world for them to matter.
Yet writing is not just a byproduct of thought, a mere transcription of thoughts into words. Writing is thinking.
Maria Popova put it best:
“Thinking in public, that’s what writing is…that’s what art is.”
– Maria Popova, in an interview with Tim Ferriss
More precisely, publishing your writing is thinking in public. The act of writing is more like thinking in private, except that with writing (as opposed to pure thinking), you can compose and shape your thoughts.
Thinking on the page is very different from thinking in your head. It’s agile and kinesthetic. When I get into the ”flow” of writing, it feels performative, as if I’m pressing piano keys instead of buttons. This flow of words proceeds from a flow of thoughts, thoughts pouring out of my brain, into my fingers, onto the page.
David Allen might call what I’m describing a ”brain dump”: getting ideas out of your head and onto paper so that they don’t clutter up your mind and sap your energy.
Brain dumping doesn’t just apply to productivity; it applies to crafting a piece of writing as well, in that fresh ideas often come when you write, not only because you’ve made room for them, but also because you’ve invited them.
These fresh ideas branch off of what you’ve written and expand all which way.
And this is just in one session of writing. Imagine what you could do with multiple sessions of drafting and editing.
BS Alert (?)
I know this all sounds rather mystical, but that’s because it is!
I mean, come on, to write at all is a miracle. It shouldn’t be possible.
Even more remote is the possibility that we can do it with competence or style or even genius.
Make no mistake: despite the prevalence of bad writing today, the standards are higher than they’ve ever been. How much did ancient people think about the craft of writing beyond scratching words onto a tablet or papyrus? Did they worry over verbs and usage and style and spelling and all that? I imagine that for them the very act of writing at all was so miraculous that no one bothered with any further concerns.
Nowadays, people at least expect you to be able to spell and use decent grammar. And if you’re going pro…needless to stay the standards are rather high (as they should be).
Still, every time you get frustrated with writing, remember this : to write at all is a miracle.
Overcoming Writer’s Block
I find the mantra “writing is thinking” helpful for overcoming writer’s block.
Whenever I find myself staring off into space, I remind myself that writing is thinking. Not that pondering a word or a sentence is a bad idea–active thought applied to the problem can sometimes be helpful.
More often, however, it’s best to keep going and come back to the trouble spot later. Mark it if you like. I generally find that after taking a break from the trouble spot, the correct word or phrase is evident.
It’s hard for me to follow my own advice, though. Even in the course of writing this post, I caught myself pondering instead of typing.
Resist the urge.
Type it out.
Slap it on the page.
No one cares.
No one’s watching.
That’s the beauty (and often the curse) of writing: it’s solitary and not overtly performative. Unless they’re trained as writers, people watching you can’t offer the kind of armchair critiques they might to a dancer or a football player, for example.
Even if they do, they won’t stick around long. Unlike dancing and football, most people don’t find writing particularly interesting to observe.
Even people who say they enjoy reading about other writers’ processes don’t really mean it. What they enjoy is reading the writer write about his or her process. Translation is essential to the appeal. Actually watching someone write is pretty mind-numbing, unless they’re doing it in fancy script (which verges more into visual art anyway).
So go ahead. Write down the crap in your head. I mean, you have to get it out somehow. Better that it’s on the page than in your brain. Think of it as a detox if you like.
If you’re struggling, setting a time limit really helps with this. In drafting this post, for instance, I gave myself thirty minutes. It didn’t matter how much I ultimately produced (or how good it was)–all that mattered was putting in the time. With this approach, I wrote over 700 words. Most of them crap, of course, but the seeds of something decent were there.
If you want to be really hardcore about it, you could write in a program that doesn’t allow you to backspace. I remember that when I learned to touch type in school, we had both masks over the keyboards and also a program that made backspacing or deleting characters impossible.
This was a pain in the ass at the time, but it worked. You learned to type at a steady space without overusing the backspace key. Nowadays I don’t always write that way, but I still try to keep my use of the backspace key minimal, at least in the drafting stage.
Do yourself a favor and aim to do the same.
“Today everybody in the world is writing to everybody else, making instant contact across every border and across every time zone. Bloggers are saturating the globe….But as always, there’s a catch. Nobody told all the new computer writers that the essence of writing is rewriting. Just because they’re writing fluently doesn’t mean they’re writing well” (xii).
– William Zinsser, On Writing Well
If writing is thinking, then rewriting is thinking deliberately. Since 2006, when Zinsser wrote the above words, the connection among people and saturation of written communication have only increased. There are more blogs and more ways of connecting. Clear thought (and by extension clear writing) is more important than ever.
If you want to stand out from the noise of blogs out there, you must write with clarity and purpose.
But before you can do that, you must dare to write at all.
Go ahead. I dare you.
- Information on Socrates and Plato from the following links: http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/athenians.html and http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/plato/
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