Don’t think to write, write to think

This is one of the lessons that every writer comes to appreciate: writing is thinking. Writing is not the artifact of thinking, it’s the actual thinking process. There’s no shortage of great quotes on this topic, the implications are less clear:

Writing is the planning process and the final product: You don’t design a final piece of writing the same way you might design a computer on paper. No writing emerges complete; everything has a starting point, and it’s usually a really crummy first draft. (It might also appear as an interview, a note, etc.)

Writing as start and end point: With other processes, there are different tools for preliminary work—many things start with pen and paper, but most things transition into either different software of some sort, or into the physical realm. If you’re making a film, for example, you’d probably start off writing a screenplay, or drawing storyboards (it used to be on pen and paper, I’m sure there’s software for it now). After sketching out a design, say, you’ll load up Figma. By contrast, the materiality of writing is confusing because it starts and ends with ink on paper (or characters on a screen). Writing can start and end in Google Docs; this leads many people to think the writing process is an end point, and neglecting it as a starting point. It can be either!

Writing a crummy first draft: If you only read books or polished articles, you might think that this is how all writing should simply be. If you’d started seeing people’s first drafts, or journal entries, or notes, you’d realize it was completely the opposite; the writing only ended up like that after a ton of revisions. A lot of writing starts off as wastewater.

Write for fun, even if it makes you look stupid and feel embarrassed: Don’t be afraid to write something that reads poorly thought out, entirely dumb, or completely whimsical. Writing is when you can allow your inner idiot to come out and play, to cause a ruckus, and to leave; your more critical self can then poke around and see what they left behind. As long as you’re having fun and not hurting anyone, you’re allowed to be as dumb as you like. In fact, as you pursue your personal interest, you’ll find that discovering your own personal inclinations and unconscious interests makes you luckier. (“Chance IV is the kind of luck that develops during a probing action which has a distinctive personal flavor.”)

Writing is sketching: I’ve always loved the title of the book, Why Architects Still Draw; author Paolo Belardi makes the case that amidst more efficient, tech-driven, methods of putting plans together, drawing by hand is an integral part of the architect’s working process. The same goes for writing. Just put the words on the page; with enough words, something interesting will emerge. 

Writing to collaborate: If you practice articulating your thoughts on paper every day, you’ll get better at putting what’s on your mind into words that other people can then work together with you on. You can communicate concerns, possibilities, and action items, more clearly. You’ll write faster, and better.

Writing is just putting words on a page: It’s really that simple, and that difficult. Have fun!

Writing to think shares the same premise as my book, Creative Doing: Great ideas aren’t found, they’re made, through consistent creative practice. Creative thinking comes from creative doing. If this post resonated with you, you’ll love the book—learn more here.

13 responses to “Don’t think to write, write to think”

  1. But some people are just better at it. Thats what kills me. I’m reading Jordan Mechners journal about making Prince of Persia.

    The guy can write.

    While making POP he takes a break to try to sell a screenplay. Yep. While making Prince of Persia, he wrote a non-shit screenplay. Surely words fall freely from his mind unlike the deluge of dreadful which daily pours from mine.

    He has it. I don’t.

    Do you think daily writing will turn me into him?

    • Hi Ant, thanks for writing and this really resonates because it’s a pattern of thought I experience as well. I don’t think anything—including daily writing—will turn either of us into him, because you’re you, I’m me, and only he is him!

      If you’ll excuse me being pedantic, your question is more about skills and talent—I’d say that writing daily gets you closer to being the writer or artist or creator you were meant to be, and enables you to realize more of your potential. My form of daily writing is not deliberate practice, so I don’t think it’ll make me a better writer skill-wise—however I think it does help keep me practiced and lean, so that a creative block doesn’t build up.

      Will daily writing get your or my skills to a place where your work will bring you or me accomplishments like Jordan Mechner’s? Probably not!

      Does daily writing bring me fulfillment and joy every day? Absolutely! Does it help me put together more exciting and interesting ideas, and to think more clearly? Undoubtedly. I hope it could do the same for you too; and in turn, your writing can bring joy, reflection, or insight into someone else’s life.

      External accomplishments are absolutely lovely—and part of my motivation too!—though they generally tend to get in the way of generative creative work. You don’t need the extra pressure to be creative; you need to be comfortable to allow your creativity to flow out. (Isaac Asimov wrote 400+ novels, “only” a handful of which are remembered today.)

      We don’t control the results, only the effort we put into it. I write a lot more about this in Creative Doing, particularly in the section Make Your Work a Craft (see Relinquish Results).

    • There was a meme that did the rounds on the internet a couple of years ago that basically went: “It’s easy to make a millionaire feel poor and that’s by getting them to compare their wealth with that of a billionaire.” While that may be true, the fact remains that he’s still a millionaire.

      So what if you not Jordan Mechners; you’re not Fred Flintstone either.

    • I don’t think you’re giving yourself enough credit! Just basing my opinion of your writing on how you composed your comment, I would say you’re closer to him in skill than you might think.

      Keep practicing..
      Sooner rather than later you’ll be where you want to be.

      Keep it up!!

  2. Great read. Particularly the “even if it makes you look stupid and feel embarrassed” is what I practice a lot these days, and it IS fun. I find that writing really helps me slow my thinking down, and thus allows me to think more thoroughly, to go a level deeper than I would otherwise.

  3. I am a natural at “writing as process as well as product”. I have not analyzed my process, as much as Herbert does it in this post, but when I read it I felt I was reading this to my self. I would also like to add further that when I write, I find that I have increased perseverance, chance of success at final product increases greatly,

  4. This is a great way to look at it.
    To address what the gentleman above said, I kind of get where he’s coming from. My domain of writing is personal thoughts, college writing, and technical writing. There was a time when I’d look at people’s work and feel discouraged because I wasn’t turning out these weighty pieces that flowed from start to finish. That was a mistake though.
    My aim shifted from trying to meet their standards, to simply coming up with satisfying bodies of thought.
    And what you’ve said is how it all starts.
    I bang out some sentences, even if they’re lame (ie, “This program does stuff”, if I’m writing about some code I want to write). Yet, those sentences get elaborated on (ie, “Some of that stuff has to do with xyz”). At some point, I’m stringing together sentences that just make sense. After a while, I’ve ended up with something that’s very, very descriptive, and feels like it really express the nugget that it seems I was digging for in the first place.
    At that point the satisfaction comes from accurate expression, not how I measure up to the standards of other writers.

  5. Thank you for this! I’m just getting started on my journey of writing more. Love this way of framing it that it is my new way of thinking rather than this thing I’m not good at yet. Will help push me to keep at it!

  6. I found this article on refund and it’s a pleasure to read, I’ve been thinking of taking up the mantle of writing more to think, and this is the kind of encouragement I needed! Thank you reminding me it’s okay to be dumb on paper.

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