When faced with the task of writing, many of us are quick to admit, “I have a wealth of ideas, but I struggle to find the right words to express them,” or “I’m well-versed in my subject, but I can’t organise my thoughts in a clear and interesting way.” If you resonate with this, you’ve come to the right place. My consistent writing journey over the past two years has taught me that writing isn’t as enigmatic as it seems. In reality, it’s about mastering certain skills, many of which you already possess. Don’t misunderstand me; writing is indeed challenging, but it’s not unique in that regard. Many aspects of life are difficult, yet we learn to navigate them proficiently.
I believe the primary obstacle with writing is our tendency to fixate on the end product of writing, neglecting the actual process of writing. This issue is further compounded by the widespread belief that writing ability is an innate talent, which can serve as a significant deterrent.
My perspective on writing transformed after reading “Thinking On Paper” by V.A. Howard, PhD, and J.H. Barton, M.A. Their book introduced me to three key propositions about writing that have significantly demystified the process for me. These insights have not only helped me understand writing better, but also paved the way for me to hone my writing skills for a variety of practical purposes.
Three propositions about writing
In the following sections, I will delve into these three propositions: Writing as meaning-making, writing as a staged performance, and writing as a tool for understanding. These concepts have been instrumental in my journey towards mastering the art of writing.
Writing is meaning-making
At its core, writing is an act of thinking. It’s a process where the writer creates meaning using words, and the reader, in turn, uses those words to reconstruct that meaning. Let’s delve deeper into this concept.
It’s crucial to understand that written communication is rarely perfect and seldom complete. When we write, we strive to create meaning with words, and readers attempt to use those words to recreate that meaning. However, words, even among speakers of the same language, don’t always convey the full meaning. Our understanding is limited by our grasp of language, which is influenced by many factors, including context. For instance, the phrase “stand up” might seem straightforward, but its meaning can shift dramatically depending on the context. It could mean physically rising to your feet or metaphorically standing up against oppression. If the context isn’t adequately conveyed in the writing, the intended meaning may not be fully transmitted. There’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to fully articulate your meaning or that your reader will fully comprehend it. The potential for success or failure exists on both ends.
This realization leads us to an important conclusion: the primary goal of writing is not communication, but meaning-making. We use words to translate our innate understanding into tangible meaning on a page. This perspective is liberating for two main reasons. First, it means that everyone can—and indeed should—write freely and often, without the pressure of intending to share our work with others. The act of writing serves to articulate our thoughts, giving them structure and clarity. Second, it relieves us of the pressure to produce perfect or complete writing. Our writing is merely a snapshot of our current understanding, representing our best attempt at creating meaning from that understanding. Initially, the goal isn’t to communicate our ideas as clearly as possible, but to transfer our thoughts from our minds to the page.
This understanding underscores the importance of writing as a tool for personal growth and learning. Whether or not you intend to publish your work, writing can help you clarify your thoughts, structure your ideas, and learn to articulate them clearly and concisely for maximum impact. It’s a process of self-discovery and self-improvement, a journey that evolves with each word you put down on paper.
Writing is a staged performance
Consider this scenario: if you were asked to chat with a friend at home about a topic that interests you for five minutes every week, you’d likely accomplish this with ease. Each week, you might have new insights to share or fresh perspectives on previous discussions. Now, imagine the same task, but instead of conversing with a friend, you’re speaking with Oprah on her live TV show. Suddenly, the task seems daunting, and you become hypercritical of your words. The task becomes challenging, even though speaking is second nature to us and we know what we want to say. The difference lies in the awareness of an audience, particularly one that intimidates us. Writing follows a similar pattern.
As a writer, the moment you become conscious of a potential audience (including your future self), writing transforms into a staged performance. However, it’s crucial not to view it as a performance until you’re ready for it to be. Initially, writing should be a private activity, a means of articulating your thoughts on paper. The shift to performance mode occurs when you step back to analyze your work, scrutinizing its sound and the clarity of its message. Writing, therefore, involves two distinct stages: free-flowing, uninhibited articulation, and critical revision of initial thoughts. We oscillate between these two states of mind—the struggle to articulate and the struggle to communicate. However, it’s essential to keep these stages separate; attempting to do both simultaneously will probably be counterproductive.
This understanding is liberating because it allows me to switch off my “audience awareness” during the early stages of writing and focus solely on my thoughts and ideas—the discovery phase. This stage encourages full exploration, speculation, intuition, and imagination. When the time is right, I transition into “communication mode,” focusing on critiquing and reshaping my work for presentation. This separation is vital because the processes of discovery and criticism often disrupt each other. They have divergent objectives and require different mental attitudes. Notably, criticism, with its ruthless penchant for rejection, stands in stark contrast to the exploratory nature of discovery.
The primary aim of writing, much like reading, is to understand. It’s only after gaining this understanding that we can share it with readers. In this context, writing serves as a tool for thinking. Once our thoughts are penned down, we have the opportunity to critically evaluate them and compare them with ideas from other sources, leading to a more robust and balanced understanding of the subject. Therefore, even if your private notes may seem unintelligible to others (or even to your future self), their value as thoughtful explorations should not be underestimated.
This perspective encourages us not to shy away from writing that may never see the light of publication. These seemingly throwaway writings play a crucial role in enhancing our understanding and serve as the foundation for successful writing.
This is not to downplay the importance of writing that communicates effectively. Instead, it underscores the idea that the act of writing itself can pave the way to producing content that communicates well. After all, editing requires a text to refine.
Putting articulation before communication also reminds us that whether thinking silently, aloud, or in writing, we do not so much send our thoughts in pursuit of words as use words to pursue our thoughts. Later, by revising the words that first snared our thoughts, we may succeed in capturing the understanding of others.
— V.A. Howard, PhD and J.H. Barton, M.A, Thinking On Paper: Refine, Express and Actually Generate Ideas by Understanding the Processes of the Mind
Writing is thinking
As I continue to develop in my writing journey, I’ve come to appreciate the profound interconnectedness of writing and cognitive processes. Writing, in essence, is an externalized form of thinking. It’s a tool that allows us to articulate our thoughts, provide them with structure, and clarify them, regardless of whether we intend to share them publicly or not.
Once our thoughts are penned down, we can easily compare them with ideas from other sources, bypassing the limitations of our memory. This process fosters a deeper and more robust understanding of the subject at hand. It’s only after this stage that we should consider writing as a performance, critiquing our work with the intention of presenting it to an audience.
The ability to articulate thoughts clearly and effectively is a potent tool. As Jordan Peterson says, “If you can think and speak and write, you are absolutely deadly. Nothing can get in your way.” Moreover, the ability to formulate coherent arguments and present them effectively can pave the way to success.