Writing as a thinking tool

Reading time: 4 minutes

Writing has many science-based benefits. It can help you develop your self-authorship, reflect and create metacognitive routines through journaling, and has been shown to make you happier and healthier. For something that’s completely free, it’s a pretty good deal. Beyond these benefits, writing is also a thinking tool. Not only for personal management, but for ideation as well. From consuming information to creating your own content, writing can be used every step of the way.

Write to select what content to consume

By deciding you will write a short note about everything you read, you will naturally slow down and reduce your content consumption levels. You may think that’s a bad thing—after all, you’re a curious mind and want to learn as much as possible. This is exactly how writing about the content you consume can help.

Instead of reading a lot of random pieces of content on interesting topics, deciding to write about what you read, watch, or listen to will force you to do a little bit or preliminary research to make sure you select high quality information sources to learn from. Since you won’t have enough time to read all the material available about a specific topic—which would have been true regardless of your decision to write about it or not—you will become more intentional with your information diet.

Write to better understand content

“Ce qui se conçoit bien, s’énonce clairement,” once said Boileau (1636-1711), a French writer. It could be translated to: “What is clearly thought out is clearly expressed.” This is the principle behind the Feynman Technique, named after Richard Feynman (1918–1988), a Nobel-prize winning physicist who has been dubbed The Great Explainer. (Bill Gates called him “the greatest teacher I never had.”)

“Without using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own language.” — Richard Feynman, Physicist.

Anytime you struggle to write about something you just read, watched, or listen, make sure to take the time to understand properly. The fact that you’re struggling to express it in your own words often means you haven’t completely grasped the new idea.

Write to improve your memory

Writing is being kind to your future self. The generation effect, which was described in a research paper published in 1978 in the Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, is the phenomenon where information is better remembered if it is actively created from one’s own mind rather than simply read in a passive way.

Instead of passively taking notes, writing what you want to learn in your own words ensures you are in active learning mode, and form connections between new and pre-existing knowledge, which will make it easier to retrieve information later on.

And if your memory inevitably fails you, you will always be able to go back to your notes to refresh it. It may even be the opportunity to edit your existing note to add more information or rephrase it in a way that’s more memorable to you.

Write to create unique content

While creativity in the conventional sense of the term is a myth, combinational creativity relies on your ability to connect existing ideas together to create new ideas. To be able to form such connections, you need a way to retrieve, explore, and edit ideas that pop into your mind. Writing is a great way to create such a searchable database of ideas so you can connect some of them together and generate your own ideas.

Most unique content is created by exploring a topic or addressing a problem from a new angle. Writing your thoughts down will help you track the evolution of your thinking and provide unique material to create unique content. While many people have the same thoughts, the pathway to these thoughts is often different from mind-to-mind. Track the life of your thoughts and share the journey with others.

Write to receive feedback

Write in public. Sharing your work multiplies the power of writing. By sharing your work—”working with the garage door open” as Robin Sloan said—you create a feedback loop allowing you to improve your thinking, and maybe even learn something new or discover a different way to tackle a problem.

Don’t wait until you have a perfect draft of an article. Consider building a digital garden so people can comment on your work in progress and early ideas (this is mine). Share in order to learn, not in order to shine. Incorporate relevant feedback in your next draft.

Writing is more than a wonderful tool—it’s a way to think better, both on an individual and collective level. To make the most of it, write more, write often, and share your writing with the world.

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