If you’re reading this, chances are you think you hate writing.
You’re not alone: in more than a decade of teaching, I can’t recall students brimming with excitement on the first day of a writing class. It’s perhaps even worse in the business world, where it seems people would rather do just about anything other than be responsible for writing documentation, project charters, requirements, letters, or technical analyses.
But one must learn to write just as surely as one learns to breathe — our lives depend on it, because learning how to write is the very same as learning how to think.
Many people mistakenly feel the most difficult part of writing is putting pen to paper (or hands to keys) and spelling out the words, likely informed by unpleasant memories of cramped wrists and fingers from past exams written. But I swear to you that the most difficult thing about writing, by far, has nothing to do with the act of writing out language, but what comes before (and after): Thinking. I don’t mean it as an insult when I say most people don’t like writing because they don’t like thinking. It’s no wonder, however, because thinking is difficult.
Writing can be loosely categorized into four non-exclusive genres, including expository (establishing facts), persuasive (which I am trying to do in this essay), descriptive (crafting a mental image), and narrative (telling a story). I bring up these rhetorical modes because learning to write well in each one means honing our cognition in a crucial area. Remember that the way we do one thing is generally the way we do everything, and so by writing better, we’ll unavoidably be thinking better, too. Let’s break it down by genre and cognitive skill, starting with expository writing.
Learning to write expository texts means learning how to organize concepts logically so they can be learned by others. But is logical organization that important? Absolutely, because logical organization requires many cognitive sub-skills, as well. To logically organize and explain facts, this means you must be able to look at something, such as a car, software application, or manufacturing supply chain, and understand it (learning). Then, you must be able to organize all the entities comprising that thing into a hierarchy in a way that makes logical sense: i.e., pistons are a sub-component of an engine, and an engine is one of the primary mechanisms within a car. While wheels are important, too, they are not a sub-component of an engine, and should be organized differently, etc. Simply put, learning to write expository texts well means learning how to learn, learning how to analyze a system and organize it logically, and learning how to assess importance and create value hierarchies.
While persuasive writing depends quite heavily on expository writing as a pre-requisite in order for facts to be communicated, it also leans on thinking objectively and with empathy for others’ perspectives. Accordingly, it’s no surprise that the first rule of persuasive writing is to understand your audience. Thinking objectively (from different perspectives) is one of the most important sub-skills of critical thinking; it helps us separate ourselves from our egos and biases towards our preferred narratives, helping us take a step back from the zeitgeists of the age and do a self-diagnostic: does what I’m being told really match up with what I’m seeing? Who benefits? What incentives do I have to believe this is true? How does the scale balance once the evidence has been honestly stacked up? You might be surprised that what you’ve been taking for granted as the truth has been anything but.
Descriptive writing — the skill of being able to create mental imagery in our readers — isn’t just for aspiring novelists. Firstly, to describe something, one needs to notice it. Life is made up of the little details, and learning to appreciate them won’t just help you enjoy life, but it will help you develop an attention to detail that is necessary to be highly proficient in almost any pursuit. To be descriptive also requires that we choose our words carefully, with precision and a mind on how they will affect our audiences, helping us be more considerate and empathetic. Crucially, this means we will then also learn to think more carefully. Finally, being able to skillfully describe places, people, feelings, or other experiences is an excellent way to ensure you have the full attention of people when you communicate.
You don’t need to want to be the next Stephen King to learn to write narratives (stories), either. In his non-fiction book on the craft itself, aptly titled On Writing, King likened writing to digging around in dirt and excavating bones and artifacts that tell a story. I would like to modify his analogy somewhat. Narrative writing is not just the excavation of buried remains that tell a story, but a sort of archeology of the self: discovering what we have ourselves once buried and forgotten. When you sit down and write stories that draw from yourself, you are engaging in self-expression and discovery. You don’t need to publish it anywhere, even, but to put that which was hauled from one’s own hidden depths onto paper is to express what was crying out to be expressed. To understand yourself is to understand all of humanity.
If we don’t learn to properly think, we do so at our own peril. The world we live in is awash in examples of what happens when people only know how to follow rather than think. We will fail morally as we follow others into disaster without question, fail to communicate our wants and needs to those closest to us, fail to find our true selves through lack of expression and understanding, and ultimately fail to uphold our responsibility to ourselves in this world by falling far short of our potential. The mind is a weapon. Learn to wield it by learning to write, lest you be unwittingly wielded by others.