Adam Zerner

Writing to think

There are a lot of things that I want to write blog posts about. I find myself feeling like I have something useful to say about a topic, and I want to say it. But when I actually sit down to get started, I run into problems.

  • Sometimes I don't know how to explain what I want to say.
  • Sometimes -- no, quite often, I can explain it reasonably well abstractly, but I can't think of good, concrete examples, and without those the post doesn't feel good enough to be worth posting.
  • Sometimes the subject matter feels like it's not important enough.
  • Sometimes I feel like I'm on to something, but the subject matter is something I only have an amateur's understanding of, I don't want to make noob mistakes in the post, but I also don't want to spend the time doing the research. Or maybe I still have trouble understanding it even after I do the research.
  • Sometimes I just question whether or not my idea is actually a good one.

There's an insight I learned from Paul Graham in The Age of the Essay that I think addresses all of this. A lot of people want to collect their thoughts first before starting the process of putting them down on paper. To address all of the hesitations I mention above before getting started. You don't want to publish something that has these issues, so you may as well resolve them before you start writing, right? Seems pretty logical.

Here's the problem though. The act of writing can help you to resolve the issues. Actually, that's a huge understatement: it's enormously helpful. Someone who writes in this exploratory sense has a huge leg up on someone who tries to resolve the issues in their head. It's almost like trying to solve an algebra problem in your head vs. with paper and pencil. Writing seems to have a way of boosting your IQ by 20 points.

Here's an interesting thought that's never ocurred to me before. There are various bloggers/writers who I keep up with: Scott Alexander, Robin Hanson, Paul Graham, Tim Urban. They're all smart and have lots of great ideas. I've always assumed that in order to be a good writer like them that you have to be smart and have good ideas first. Ie. that it's a prerequisite. But what if it's the opposite? What if they're smart and have good ideas because they spend a lot of time writing? Maybe the arrow of causality is reversed. Strictly speaking, I'm presenting a false dichotomy here. It's not one or the other. But I suspect that a big reason why these guys are all so smart is because they spend a lot of time writing.

I'm not sure why writing is this powerful. It doesn't seem like it should be. A small boost makes sense, but a superpower isn't something I would have predicted in advance.

Here's my hypothesis though. I think it has to do with working memory and mind wandering. Think of writing as putting a linear sequence of thoughts on paper. What's the advantage to them being on paper? Why not just think them in your head in that same sequence?

Well, one thing is that you might forget stuff in your head, but if it's on paper you can refer to it. It doesn't get lost. It seems like you should be able to maintain a pretty decent sequence of thoughts in your head, but I'm always surprised with how much I struggle to do so.

I'm able to do a much better job of not losing track when I am having a conversation though, as opposed to being alone with my thoughts, so it seems like the raw capacity to keep track is there. I suspect that mind wandering is the bigger issue. Both conversation and writing have a way of bringing you "back on track". Writing has always felt very meditative to me, and now that finally makes sense: meditation also is about preventing mind wandering and bringing yourself "back on track".

I hope that this post is the first of many. I want to start writing a lot more. I think that writing is a superpower. I'm on the bandwagon. Why not take advantage of it if it's available to me? I do have one big hesitation though: publishing.

Writing to think makes sense. But what if the end result still turns out crappy? What if it's meh? What if it's good but not great? Should you publish it to the world? I'm someone who leans towards saying no. I like to make sure it's pretty refined and high quality.

But that leads me to a catch-22: most thoughts I want to explore don't seem promising enough where I'd end up publishing them. Or, rather, they usually seem like they'd take way too much time to refine. And if I'm not going to publish them, well, why write them up in the first place?

Because of the title of this post: write to think. Duh. That's what we've been talking about this whole time. But somehow the monkey in my brain doesn't understand that, or just won't cooperate. I just can't motivate myself to write if it's not something I plan on publishing. Most of my ideas don't seem publish-worthy, so I end up not writing. But this is a very bad state that must change. Writing is a superpower, and I want to use it.

Part of the solution I'm going to attempt is just lowering my standards. Fuck it, you guys are just going to have to deal with my writing being shitty sometimes. I'd like to be able to look through my list of posts and feel content that each and every one is something that I put into the world because I am really proud of it and it deserves to be there, but that mindset just leads me to the catch-22.

Actually, I think it leads to a second catch-22 as well. When I look back at my old posts, I'm horrified by a lot of them, despite the fact that I tried to hold myself to this high standard for publishing. It's to the point where I want to say "that author is my past self, not current-me, and I don't want to associate with that past self. But this post right now is purely exploratory, and it feels like it's turning into one of my better posts. I suspect that by lowering the bar, it'll continue to lead to paradoxically high quality posts. To some extent at least.

Another part of the solution I'm going to attempt is to view blog posts as my motivation for learning something new. Let me explain. I was talking to a friend a few weeks about about learning. I'm the type of person who reads textbooks and likes learning for learning's sake. He's the opposite. He needs a more concrete, practical reason. "Learn X because I want to achieve/solve Y. and X will help with that." I think I need to adopt that mindset more, and maybe publishable-quality blog posts that I'm proud of can be my Y.

I've been talking about writing from the perspective of it being a superpower that makes you smarter, more insightful, and a clearer thinker. Those are all things that I care about. However, there are two other reasons to write that I think might be even bigger.

The first is for mental health reasons. This is a great example of something I hesitate to write about because I have no expertise in mental health. But it's an insanely important topic. "Huge if true". Anyway, I do have a pretty strong intuition about the importance of writing for mental health, and I have read some books. You could probably say that I have a strong amateur's undersatnding of the field. Hopefully I'll expand on this in the future, but for now check out James Pennebaker's research and the research on memory reconsolidation if you're interested.

The second reason other than smarts why I think writing is crazy powerful is because it's fun! At least for me. But I strongly suspect that it is for you too. If you give it a proper chance. I think it's a human thing, not a me thing.

I remember when I was in college and started writing blog posts for the first time. I was working on a startup and wanted to write a few posts about the subject matter. But then I lost my mind. I enjoyed it so much that I stopped caring about the startup and started writing posts that had nothing to do with the startup I was working on. I felt guilty because it wasn't what I was "supposed" to be working on, but hey, whatever works! A strong sense of happiness like that is hard to come by, so I think that there's wisdom in just running with it.

If you have any thoughts, I'd love to discuss them over email:

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