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How to Use Writing to Improve Your Thinking

“Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” — David McCullough

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Just like wood, nails, and concrete build the physical structures you live and work in, thoughts, ideas, and beliefs are the building blocks for your mental world.

The best houses are designed by teams of world-class architects and engineers to create something that is beautiful, functional, and efficient all at the same time. Even the simplest of houses are built to be strong and hold up under pressure, but it’s an unfortunate truth that we put nowhere near the same amount of effort into the structures of our minds.

The ability to think clearly and logically is the foundation for a good life. The higher the quality of our thoughts the better we can solve problems, make decisions, and communicate effectively. Yet, even though it may just be the most valuable skill one can develop, thinking is not a subject commonly taught in our classrooms, and many live their entire lives never understanding its importance.

Another common error is attributing the skill of good thinking to natural talent rather than dedication, patience, and deliberate practice. Thinking, like anything, can be improved with effort. Specifically, thinking can be improved through writing. As the historian David McCullough once said: “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.”

More specifically, writing can help improve the clarity and quality of thinking in two key ways:

  1. Increased self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and mental health
  2. Better organization and understanding of the structure of your thoughts and ideas

In the rest of this article, we will explore how writing allows us to achieve these aims through research, personal experience, and specific exercises you can use to practically apply these ideas.

Self-Awareness, Mental Health, and Emotional Intelligence

According to the Harvard Business Review, self-awareness is defined as:

“…having a deep understanding of one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, needs, and drives. People with strong self-awareness are neither overly critical nor unrealistically hopeful. Rather, they are honest with themselves and with others. People who have a high degree of self-awareness recognize how their feelings affect them, other people, and their job performance.”

In many ways, self-awareness is freedom. Without self-awareness we have no way to evaluate ourselves and what we need to work on — we’re flying blind, and that’s dangerous. We can’t become a better version of ourselves unless we know what we need to get better at, and it is only when we can see ourselves clearly that we can control the direction in which we want to go.

It’s easy to dismiss the power that emotion has over our decision-making processes. Although we may want to believe that we are perfectly rational creatures, that is far from the case. The choices we make are the combination of rational thought and emotion. Whether you are feeling anxious, stressed, angry, happy, or sad, it affects the way you think.

Self-awareness helps us understand who we are and build mental resilience. If we understand who we are and what we are feeling we can better understand how our emotions may be affecting our judgment. The more honest your relationship with your emotions the less they will cloud your decision-making abilities.

So, how exactly can we use writing to go about achieving these increased levels of self-awareness?

The most basic exercise is to simply write. No structure. No rules. Just writing. Often called morning pages, this exercise allows you to dump all of your thoughts, feelings, and ideas on paper. This can be anything from what you’re feeling to your plans for the day or your fantasies to moonlight as a wrecking ball worker.

Although simple, this is an effective tool. In his article How to Get Better, bestselling author Mark Manson outlines his theory on why journaling is so effective at improving mental health. He explains that our minds can be divided into two parts: the subject (“the seer”) and the object (“the seen”).

Generally, we are the subject of our minds while something external is the object, or “seen” (for example, the article on your screen is currently the object of your consciousness). The problem is that as long as we are the “subject” of our minds we can’t observe or analyze our thoughts, feelings, opinions, etc. And, that is where journaling comes in. Journaling helps us make ourselves the object of our attention.

Think about it this way. At any given point you can observe the people and world around you, but not yourself. Similarly, when we are the subject of our minds we cannot “see” ourselves, or our thoughts and feelings. Think of journaling as having an out-of-body experience. It allows us to clearly and objectively see ourselves and how we are interacting with the world. Then, once we have a clear view, we can best decide how to move forward and deal with those thoughts.

When we write down our thoughts it helps us recognize that our thoughts and feelings are separate from who we are. We are not jealous or angry or sad; we are just feeling jealous, angry, or sad. Writing helps us identify negative beliefs and work on exchanging them for more positive, healthy ones. This is especially effective because we can review our thoughts and feelings after the heat of the moment is passed.

Spending a designated time each day or week or month writing will help you develop the habit of reflecting and thinking deeply. Instead of accepting societal norms or values or beliefs at face value, you will learn to question your underlying assumptions and discover who you truly are underneath.

Organization and Understanding

Writing can also help us better organize our thoughts and understand complex ideas. By freezing our ideas on paper we can better analyze and revise them.

A famous French writer once said, “Ce qui se conçoit bien, s’énonce clairement,” or “What is clearly thought out is clearly expressed.” Only when we have a deep understanding of a subject can we clearly explain it to someone else. This is especially true for writing. If we can’t simply communicate the concept at hand, we must re-evaluate whether we actually understand it as well as we think we do.

We can write down more than what our memory can process at any given time, this allows us to consider a broader range of ideas at the same time. We can also identify holes and flaws in our logic or information and make connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. Here is a step-by-step process of how this could work:

Step #1: Choose a Topic.

Obviously, the first step is to choose a topic or idea you are interested in gaining a deeper understanding of. Often, it is helpful for this topic to be phrased as a question as it adds clarity to the purpose of the peice. The Zettelkasten Method is a great way of keeping notes over time and finding unique and interesting ideas through connections.

Step #2: Research.

Take a decent chunk of time to read widely and deeply about the topic at hand. Try to expose yourself to as many different thoughts and ideas as possible and gain a deep understanding of the subject. Don’t limit yourself to books that directly answer your question as the best ideas often come from connections between seemingly unrelated topics.

Step #3: Ramble.

Once you feel like you have a solid understanding of the ideas, thoughts, and opinions surrounding your topic, the next step is to get your thoughts onto paper. It doesn’t have to be pretty, you just have to write. It doesn’t matter if you repeat points, jump randomly between disconnected ideas, or if your writing is a hot mess of unintelligible garbage- just get everything down on paper.

Step #4: Reverse Outline.

After you have your rambling mess of thoughts recorded, the next step is to create a reverse outline. Typically, you would create an outline before you start writing, but in this case, you will create an outline based on your rough draft. Even if you think the order is all wrong create the outline as an exact replica of the current structure of your piece. This will help you better identify gaps or inconsistencies. in your knowledge.

Step #5: Research More.

After reflecting on your understanding and identifying holes in your knowledge, the next step is to hit the books and fully flesh out your research. Be deliberate with this. Ask yourself, “What exactly do I need to know to clearly explain my ideas?”

Step #6: Mindmap.

It’s around this stage that I like to create some sort of mindmap to record my thoughts on paper. I think of it as the pre-outline. Not only is it fun but it helps me visualize all my thoughts, ideas, and research in one place and see connections I may not have before.

If you’ve never done one before, the concept is pretty simple. At the center of the page put down the main idea, then draw lines outwards to connect it to the other sub-ideas. Here is an example:

ACS Distance Education

You can even use different types of lines to make different kinds of connections. For example, lines with arrows can symbolize a cause and effect whereas a dotted line can mean “loosely correlated”. Or, you could use different colors to separate examples from research from opinions from facts.

Step #7: Outline.

Next up is a basic outline. At this point, it should be much easier to outline a clear, concise structure for your “essay”. I like to use a simple bullet point list, but how you outline is up to you. The end product will serve as your reference point when writing your next draft, so keep that in mind.

Step #8: Re-Write.

Using your outline, re-write your draft. At this point, you should have a good idea of what you’re trying to say, so it is just about putting everything together and doing it in a way that sounds pretty. Remember, you can always go back and repeat steps. I tend to repeat steps #4, #5, #7, and #8 over and over before moving on to step #9.

Step #9: Proofread

Once you have a draft you are satisfied with, it’s time to share your work with the world- or part of it anyways. You don’t need a professional editor for this either, anyone willing to help will work. In fact, you can train people to be better proofreaders by giving them specific instructions. Tim Ferris recommends you ask them the following:

  • What is confusing or unclear?
  • Where do you feel your mind wandering?
  • If I could only keep ten percent what should I keep no matter what?
  • If I had to cut at least ten percent what would you cut?

If possible, try to have them explain why they answered the way that they did. Also, ask for any additional feedback that they may have. And, whether you agree or disagree with their critique, be sure to say thank you!

Step #10: Revise & Edit.

Based on the feedback you receive from the proofreading stage, make final edits and revisions until you are happy with the final product. As you look over your piece, check for evidence of clear thinking, or the lack thereof. Do you define important terminology? Is the writing tight and clear? Do you back up statements with careful evidence and reasoning? Do you cover all the main ideas? Etc.

Step #11 Share.

The final step is to share your thoughts with the world. We are wrong about everything almost all of the time, but by sharing our work with the world and opening up discussions on difficult topics we can become slightly more educated. We will never be one hundred percent right about anything, but we can become slightly more so with deliberate effort.

This process will help you gain a much deeper understanding of concepts and/or ideas you are curious about. Especially in today’s world of divisive politics and fake news, it is important to think deeply about a topic before you form an opinion. When you’re truly educated on a subject you understand how little you actually know. You are humbled and that leads to better discussions, better decisions, and a better life.

Final Thoughts

To conclude, writing is an excellent tool to sharpen your thinking. Not only is it effective, but it’s fun and free too! With just a pencil and a few sheets of paper, you can completely change your life. For fulfillment, entertainment, success, and more, writing is one of the most important skills you can practice. The world needs better thinkers. Good luck!



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