Writing to Learn

There are those who, seemingly without effort, conjure streams of thought on paper much like how magicians pull out long cloths out of their hats. Then there are people like me — those who struggle to even put a single sentence on paper. I hate writing, or to be honest, feign hatred to mask my absolute inexperience for the art. I have never been the writing kind. I find it bothersome. I find that it takes too long. I find no utility in it.

But I’m a voracious reader. As a kid, I remember reading illustrated encyclopedias not because I wanted to but because they were the only books in the house. This habit carried through today. In fact, I have 50 items on my Amazon checkout cart, and all of them are books. So when a friend recommended a book on writing, I was more open to the suggestion despite my less than favorable opinion on the subject.

Little did I know that it would change my thoughts on writing. It still takes me 30 minutes, give or take, to even put down my thoughts but I think of writing in a more positive light. I find that it aids in understanding. I find that it’s useful for fleshing out your thoughts. I find that it’s a great way to know what you don’t know.

The book is William Zinsser’s Writing to Learn. What stuck with me was the first few words in the preface.

I thought of how often as a writer I had made clear to myself some subject I had previously known nothing about by just putting one sentence after another — by reasoning my way in sequential steps to its meaning I thought of how often the act of writing even the simplest document — a letter, for instance — had clarified my half-formed ideas. Writing and thinking and learning were the same process.

Utterly convinced, I started writing to reinforce concepts or even learn about things I don’t know. It’s hard work. It’s hard work because it demands clarity, focus, and precision. I usually start thinking I know everything there is to know, but the pretense is quickly shattered after just a few lines. I’m forced to stop and acknowledge this gap. This, for me, is the greatest benefit of writing — being made aware of what you don’t know.

As David Mccullough — an American author, historian, and lecturer — puts it.

When you start to write, things begin to come into focus in a way they don’t when you’re not writing. It’s a very good way to find out how much you don’t know because you learn specifically what you need to know that you don’t know at the moment by writing.

Even in cases where I have a good handle on the subject, half-formed ideas are made whole, fuzzy understanding are made clear, the uncertain made certain. I find that there’s such a big difference between passively knowing and actually putting what I think I know into words. Logically arranging one sentence after another is an exercise in reasoning, and it gets me deep into the subject matter reinforcing what I already know, refuting long-held erroneous ideas, and connecting seemingly distant concepts.

For learning, for mastery, and for all the other things that writing has to offer, do write.