Don’t write to teach, write to learn

“Write every day” is the answer, but what was the question?


I’m a big fan of people who write. They don’t have to be writers per se. They don’t have to do it publicly. They don’t even have to be subject-focused. They just write because they want to, or feel the need to.

Quoting from Rework, “a good writer is a clear thinker and a great communicator.” I think it stands true as writing is an extension of what goes on in our heads, and that’s probably why the Internet is full of writing advice. “Write something every single day,” says Seth Godin. And Austin Kleon. And others before them.

But writing needs a purpose. Before we know how to write and what to write about, we need to know why. Now, of course the answer might seem fairly obvious: we write because we want to put ideas out there. Because of self-expression. Of course. But what if we ask “why” again after that? Why do we want to put ideas out there? Why do we feel the need for self-expression?

I think of writing as a very educational tool. This can mean at least two things:

  1. If a clear thinker is a good writer, then a good writer writes to share with others what he’s figured out, right? The writer as a teacher.
  2. But if writing is an introspective process, it’s arguable that the writer also writes for himself. Here the audience is a “nice to have” but not necessarily the point, because the writer doesn’t write to teach, he writes to learn. The writer as a student.

Writing to me is a way to keep my own ideas and worldviews accounted for. They’re letters to my future self, to let that guy look back and review how far (or not) he’s gone since that particular idea was marked on paper (or a blog). Of course, it’s always nice when some of those conclusions end up being educational by providing value to someone else, but in the writer as student mindset the main quest isn’t fame, it’s self-assessment.

I agree everyone should write every day if it gets them going. It’s a good mental exercise that keeps the mind sharp. The question then becomes, sharp for what.

Are we writing to teach others or writing to learn about ourselves? Is the goal of those words to confirm what we already know, or to question what we thought we knew? Do we aim to be admired or to realize how much there is to admire within the fringes of what we’re writing about? Writing to teach might be a noble pursuit. But before teachers we are all students.