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Writing is Thinking (petermichaud.com)
91 points by pmichaud on Dec 13, 2009 | hide | past | web | favorite | 35 comments

While "writing is thinking" clearly overstates the case, there is no question that writing about a topic is a form of discipline that helps us to think more deeply about it.

Writing is a lot like exercise. It has salutary benefits over time for anyone who consistently undertakes it. Much of life is habit. If we sit about passively absorbing all that we think we know, we will suffer from a surfeit of derivative knowledge that perhaps deludes us into thinking we know more than we really do. In a way, we then "know" things but we really don't understand them. Writing - and particularly the habit of writing regularly - forces us to think about things and, as we think more deeply about a thing, we tend to make it our own - and thus our second-hand thoughts are replaced more and more by original thinking of our own. This original thinking may or may not be useful to those about us. This depends on the quality of what we have to say. But it will be our thinking and that is no small thing.

This assumes too that we strive for originality in expressing ourselves in writing. All too much of academic writing is passive-voice-ridden "it is asserted" and "it is believed" type of writing, stuffed with scholarly citations, and utterly unreadable and useless. In law school, I did a scholarly piece for law review that was like that. It actually got published. There was not an original thought in it. But even that was not a useless exercise. Once I saw the limitations of that sort of derivative writing, I was able to get beyond it and what a liberating feeling it is to just get to a point where you can express your own thoughts as you develop them instead of merely mimicking others. Writing well and often will help many people get to this point. I think this is the main point the author is making.

In this sense, this piece is highly encouraging to writers and should be taken in that spirit. The author says, in effect, it is hard work but by all means write and write often - the benefits are great and it is all there for anyone to learn if he only applies himself. I commend this spirit and wish I had those about me in my day to encourage me in this fashion.

That said, not everyone can be a good writer because there is an innate intelligence of some kind upon which good writing must be predicated and not all people have this. At the same time, as others have noted, all kinds of people can think who do not necessarily write, and it is a mistake to say or imply that the two are invariably correlated.

>That said, not everyone can be a good writer because there is an innate intelligence of some kind upon which good writing must be predicated and not all people have this.

If you are writing correctly you are exercising cognitive skills, and I think can actually improve them. It has already been shown physical exercise is positively correlated with iq. I don't think anybody has done the study but I imagine a similar correlation would hold for intellectual exercise, writing being a main example.

I think we agree on the basic point but my added qualifier really arises from my experience as a lawyer, where I have seen quite a few people over the years who never quite attain the ability to write really well because of intellectual limitations, though they can write at some level and though writing no doubts helps them develop the cognitive abilities they do have.

I suspect the author of this piece is generalising from one example


The author probably does not possess the mental traits required to formulate big ideas without the need to write them down but I'm sure there are those that do. Of course writing ideas down is probably a useful technique for everyone and it is almost a necessity if you want anybody else to act on those ideas.

The post's big idea resonates with me and with HN's core values. While we think all the time, and we think we have big thoughts. But a thought that is unexpressed is equivalent to a business idea. "Hey, let's deliver packages overnight!"

The value is in working out the details, in logically organizing things. Writing an actual business plan is hard, in most part because it forces you to think things through, to stop hand-waving. That's the big leap, from "business idea" to "business plan." In writing? In presentation form? As a speech? Doesn't matter, the key is going from an idea to something that you share with someone else.

Sure, we can argue that speaking aloud for an audience has the same effect, as does writing a program or composing music. I'd argue that painting does as well. But the core idea here is that organizing thoughts such that they can be communicated to another human being is thinking on an entirely different scale of magnitude.

Albert Einstein was asked by the mathematician Jacques Hadamard what role words played in his thinking. His reply said, in part:

"The words of language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be `voluntarily' reproduced and combined."

It's from Hadamard's book "The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field". The full letter is extremely interesting, containing several remarks on Einstein's self-perception of how he thought. Unfortunately, I don't immediately see it online, and I don't have immediate access to my hard copy of the book.

You have to think to write. But you don't have to write to think.

It's funny, I was going to point out in the essay that I think the exact opposite of what you said above: You have to write to think, but just because you write, doesn't mean you've had big thoughts. It's necessary, but not sufficient.

Programmers can code to think. Illustrators can draw to think. Musicians can play to think.

One can think without writing, coding, drawing or playing. But putting your thoughts into form makes a huge difference because it lets one build.

Thus my emphasis on have. You can do all of that to stimulate thinking. But you don't have to.

On the other hand, you have to think to write(anything other than random letters, though even that might require some thought).

Yeah, I agree with you. I didn't get into it in the article because I was trying to be succinct, but you're right.

I think it´s a substantial omission, not worth the value of being ´succinct´.

Saying that ¨people who don’t write, are people who don’t think¨ is an insult to anybody who expresses their thought in music, social interaction, design, in-the-flow decision-making, etc. -- a very large number of people who have made major contributions to our world.

Yeah, I agree with you. I didn't get into it in the article because I was trying to be succinct, but you're right.

It's a solid piece and it's important to be succinct, but I think in this case your succinctness might cause some readers to miss your main point. You might consider replacing "writing" with "the act of creation".

Agreed and I'd wholly agree with the general point of "if you don't create, you don't think".

Humans by nature are data processing machines, our entire life is just data. We remember images because we have saved a biological jpeg in our brain, we remember words and sentences because we've got text and audio biologically saved. However it's the act of creating that distinguishes thought from action.

When I write, or draw, or create a song I am creating something new. I'm creating data that has in essence never existed before. It's not a hard coded biological function and it's not something everybody does.

The act of creating shows our distinction as individuals, and perhaps prove to ourselves and others that we're not just p-zombies faking our way through life.

My parent and grandparent comments exemplify the true nature of the situation -- that writing and thinking are correlated, but there is no causation between them.

Writing stimulates thought. Thought stimulates writing. One does not necessitate the other.

To write anything beyond random characters, you have to think. The amount of thought can vary, indeed, depending on what you are writing. Even if you wrote the word "dog"--there are some units of thought(concious or subconcious) involved.

On the other hand, we think without the physical act of writing all the time.

I don't think taking dictation would qualify as thinking in the sense meant by this article. Pretty much any action a human could undertake would qualify if that was the case.

You usually have to make a lot of marks on some physical medium in order to have highly developed thoughts. They might not be writing - they might be diagrams, or equations. I doubt there are many physics Nobel winners who didn't use up a lot of chalk, or pencil, or ink. This is not to say that there are no exceptions, just that it's a pretty strong generality.

"If you’ve never written anything thoughtful, then you’ve never had any difficult, important, or interesting thoughts."

Socrates would have disagreed.

Great point. Some people see the flaws in their argument when they write it. For others, dialogue serves the same purpose. You still have to state you ideas in an understandable way, so that they stand up on their own. And there are more than 2 ways.

I think this quote sums things up "Writing is nature's way of telling us how lousy our thinking is" Leslie Lamport

Lamport is a renowned distributed systems researcher, inventor of Paxos, and creator of LaTeX.

Writing is difficult for two reasons: (i) writing requires thought and thinking is difficult, and (ii) the physical act of putting thoughts into words is difficult. There’s not much you can do about (i), but there’s a straightforward solution to (ii) — namely, writing. The more you write, the easier the physical process becomes. I recommend that you start practicing with email. Instead of just dashing off an email, write it. Make sure that it expresses exactly what you mean to say, in a way that the reader will be sure to understand it.


Bonus quote from Lamport, and I will stop, I promise. (Although I can give several similar quotes from Dijkstra also.)

Math is nature's way of letting you know how sloppy your writing is; mathematical rigor has proved a solid foundation for other engineering disciplines — why not ours?

> people who don’t write, are people who don’t think.

Pfft... In protest, I won't even bother to write a retort to this unsubstantiated claim.

I'll just think it.

I think the assertion has some merit in as far as writing allows us to communicate our thoughts with a higher level of precision.

It's relatively easy to have a vague idea about something but it's a different matter to explain it with well reasoned arguments.

With programming it is the same. It is sometimes easy to conceptualize the steps required to solve a particular problem or implement a particular algorithm but when the time comes to translate it to program code it can be more difficult as we have to think about all the little details.

Which is why I discuss them with my close friend who is a hard intellectual opponent. No writing required.

He is falsely equating writing with thinking. Writing is a manifestation of thought, just as other forms of expression are.

His claims and logic come across as supercilious, too.

Language is just a standard for communication amongst group. Thought, thinking, etc., is an individual process one in which we use language to convert thought into terms that can be understood. The diffusion of ideas, thought, etc., by way of language in writing, reading, speaking, hearing can stimulate thought and even introduce new forms of thought. But language will never be thought.

If his claims are true, then he is casting out gifted individuals in music, dance, sculpture, and other art forms; people that love dancing but may never write an article on the philosophical implications of their art form in their entire life! These are and are not intelligent, thoughtful, original, and interesting people!

I don't know about the author but as far as "big thoughts" go, I can frequently wrestle with ideas in my head that take about 20 minutes of description end-to-end without much of a sweat. Long periods of doing pure thinking in my head has trained my memory to such an extent that this is routine.

Personally, I find I can get only the smallest and simplest of my ideas down on paper. The language inside my head is far more interactive & descriptive than mere words as it includes animations, diagrams, forces, visualizations, abstract mappings & deliberate ambiguities.

I try and avoid writing down stuff for as long as possible as what often happens with my big thoughts is a type of shift where the basic premise remains the same but the method for thinking about the problem changes. Writing makes this process less fluid.

Along the same lines, I had a professor who once said that you "can't have thoughts for that which you do not have words for". This refers more to vocabulary than writing, but I feel that there is some truth to it.

Although the author may overstate his case a little, I do think that the discipline of writing does force a person to learn how to articulate thoughts in a clear manner, which is always a good thing.

An old English teacher of mine tried to convince us that you couldn't be bored if you didn't know the word "bored". You certainly can.

There are no words for the feelings many people have. We have a whole system of literature for this, which we call poetry.

Boredom isn't a thought, it's a feeling. As for having thoughts you don't have words for, people do it all the time, and you just make up a new word for it, it's how language evolved.

Ben Jonson agrees with you: >"Neither can his Mind be thought to be in Tune, whose words do jarre; nor his reason in frame, whose sentence is preposterous;"

On a similar note, programming is not typing, it's thinking.

I first came to the realization that writing is thinking after trying to put my startup idea down in words, especially in a YC application format.

Provocative article. Really solid advice to write 1000 words about a belief. Too bad he starts with such a sexist preamble.

Haven't you ever had wordless thoughts?

I often find that wordless thoughts are much more efficient to work with mentally than wordy ones. When you need to communicate, or the thought is intricate or important enough to require a deliberate fleshing out, THEN you write.

Here's an example of a wordless thought: you see a figure that is almost symmetrical and you consider why it isn't exactly symmetrical. It's possible to do this consideration without wording your thought - the reason for asymmetry exists in a wordless form in your mind.

Here's another: you're sitting and you suddenly want to pee. You just get up, go to the bathroom, and pee. The idea of peeing is definitely in your mind when you go to the bathroom - it's rarely explicitly worded out.

Yet another: when you're doing minor re-factoring to your code, much of your thoughts are actually wordless.

I'll appropriate a term from psychology for the process of converting wordless thoughts to wordy ones: focusing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Focusing). Wordless thoughts are basically purely experiential in nature. Wordy ones are deliberate, analytical, and well, wordy. Focusing is the process of converting the former to the latter. You hold the wordless thought in your mind's eye and deliberately covert it into a verbal form.

I am of the opinion that much of philosophy is simply converting wordless thoughts to wordy ones - just as artists are experts in drawing what they see, philosophers are experts in focusing.

My yet another hunch is that experts often think wordlessly about matters their field. It's just too inefficient to word out every thought process.

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