Writing helps me think (and stop thinking)
Writing helps me think (and stop thinking)
Let me first mention reasons that aren’t why I’m writing posts on this blog
- Becoming a thought leader. My readership is pretty low, unless it reaches the top of HN/reddit. This has only happened once or twice, so I’m in no danger of achieving popularity.
- Becoming a paid writer. Writers who cultivate a following generally stick to a topic, even if it’s a broad one. There’s no theme to my writing other “whatever is on my mind right now”.
- My social circle thinking of me as “well read” or “intelligent”. I’m honest enough to admit that the opinions of my peers matter to me, but only a tiny subset of my friends read what I write.
Why I write
- To stop ideas rattling in my head. Most of these posts start as half formed abstract ideas. I keep dwelling on them, thinking about them one way or another. My memory is limited too, so often the same thoughts run through my head repeatedly. I can’t control this. I find when I write an idea down, I’m able to set the idea aside and stop thinking about it. That’s a relief, especially if it’s a subject that has been upsetting me.
- To clearly state ideas. These ideas aren’t fleshed out or even coherent. They might be a feeling, a conviction that something has to be so without any words backing it up. Writing forces me to state the hypothesis, gather the evidence and make the case for it.
- To distill the ideas to their essence. I edit the posts a couple of times, removing unnecessary words, sentences and phrases. I rewrite unclear passages and remove superfluous ones. I force myself to use simple language because that makes me think clearly. I’m satisfied only when there’s nothing left to remove. Once the thoughts are on paper, it’s easy to make these edits. In contrast, editing thoughts in my mind is challenging enough that I just end up thinking in circles.
- Feedback from friends. I’m lucky to have friends who know a lot about a wide range of subjects. Whenever I talk to them I learn something new or a different way of looking at something I thought I knew. Their insights help polish ideas to a novel or worthwhile one. Although I can and do talk to them when I have something on my mind, I find sharing a written post respects their time better. Editing removes the chaff, meaning they get the gist of the idea quicker. Also, they can respond at their convenience, rather than immediately.
I don’t know what I think until I write it down.
I find Orwell’s recommendations and Hemingway’s style guide helpful to write well.
Apart from immediate peace of mind there are some benefits to this I could reap.
- My memory is unreliable and malleable. I know why I believe the things I do today, but I don’t remember when or how those views evolved. What conversations led to them? What books, articles and people influenced my thinking? I didn’t keep a record, and can only vaguely recall answers to those questions. For example, I used to oppose reservation (aka affirmitive action) when I was younger. Now I support it. I don’t remember when I changed my opinion or what catalysed the change.
- In 10 years, I’ll be surprised if my views on some things hasn’t changed. In 20 years, I’ll be disappointed if nothing has changed. It would mean that I’ve stagnated intellectually; learned nothing new that forced me to re-evaluate my beliefs. Since I expect my views to evolve, a written record makes it easier to chart this evolution.
Instead of writing, I could keep a journal that would get my ideas on paper. But I don’t edit journal entries, so those ideas never get polished like my public posts do. Also, my friends can’t weigh in on a private journal entry. It would stop the idea from rattling in my head, but I would lose the satisfaction of seeing a clear, succinct idea, stripped of the cruft.
Publishing could ossify my thoughts. I mentioned earlier that I stop thinking about topics I’ve already written about. If I never think about the idea again, my opinion would be frozen in time. I might also be reluctant to change my views from something I’ve publicly soft committed to on a post, to avoid looking like I’m flip flopping.
With any luck, my awful memory will help here. I’ll forget the posts I’ve written so I can think about them anew from fresh angles.
I hope I keep writing and reading. I hope I keep changing my mind as I learn new things.
When the facts change I change my mind. What do you do?