Writing to think

post by adamzerner · 2020-11-17T07:54:44.523Z · LW · GW · 16 comments

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.

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 occurred 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 ago 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 understanding 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 [LW · GW] 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.


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comment by adamShimi · 2020-11-18T16:07:13.032Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's definitely true for me. My journey as a writer also follow steps you mention, maybe not in the same order: write fun stuff without worrying -> start to worry and write less -> realize that a crappy first draft can end up in a drawer or your hard drive -> write crappy first drafts so that you have clear ideas for the rewrite of the actual post.

As for why writing is a superpower, I have another hypothesis, in addition to the working memory: writing forces you to commit your ideas to a specific form. While they're in your head, it's really easy to adapt them whenever something slightly wrong appears. Same in a conversation: you can explain away, or in a different way, so that in the end it seems the other one has understood you. But paper is ruthless, and writing something down means you can't get away with changing it without a thought. If it's wrong, you need to change the words. And that forces you to go further intellectually.

comment by adamzerner · 2020-11-18T17:17:02.014Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like that hypothesis of paper being ruthless. I think there's something there.

comment by Yitz (yitz) · 2020-11-19T02:15:47.166Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

seconding that; I often find that I'm forced to confront problems with world-models that I've long assumed were true when I try to write them down, and in fact trying to write down a list of reasons for why I believed what I did ended up leading me to the conclusion that Orthodox Judaism is not self-consistent, which eventually brought me here.

comment by crl826 · 2020-11-17T18:39:22.516Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

100% Agree.  

Similarly, I often force myself to write summaries of books I have read.  I often "feel" like I learned something even though I can't articulate what I learned or what I would do with that knowledge.  Summaries help ensure that I'm not just taking that feeling of learning something at face value.

comment by adamzerner · 2020-11-17T21:15:44.121Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, me too. About writing summaries and about that feeling of having learned something being deceiving. I wonder if the latter is something that has been formally studied at all.

As for writing summaries, it's something I am hoping to do a lot more of (on top of my desire to write more in a more general sense). I'm planning on writing summaries of the Rationality from AI to Zombies books. Doing so seems like a low hanging fruit that few rationalists have plucked.

comment by crl826 · 2020-11-18T01:45:46.385Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't know about formality, but Scott Young has frequently talks about the "Feynman technique" (writing summary as a way to learn) as a way to study.

comment by Yitz (yitz) · 2020-11-19T02:17:03.289Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

please do that and post your results here! That seems like an incredible use of time, and a potentially excellent resource for the rationalist community

comment by adamzerner · 2020-11-19T02:29:06.164Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks! I plan on writing it as a separate post.

comment by purge · 2020-11-18T22:55:32.405Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

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.

Another reason to be less strict about quality before publishing: you're not a perfect judge of the quality of your own work.  Sometimes your writing is better than you think it is, and filtering too hard means that some good writing won't be published.  If you don't lose any of your bets, you're not taking enough risks.

comment by cousin_it · 2020-11-18T14:26:37.870Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For some reason "writing to think" never worked well for me. I can only figure out stuff with nonverbal thinking and imagination, then try to put it in words.

comment by adamzerner · 2020-11-18T17:15:28.293Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting. If anyone else has this experience I'd like to hear it.

comment by digital_carver · 2020-11-25T14:27:33.601Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's elements of both for me. The central thesis or idea always develops from (mostly) nonverbal thinking, but writing helps me define its boundaries and connect it to other mental models I have.

One thing I've learnt regarding that is that, if while writing it seems like my central idea itself needs changing, it's more likely that I've just gotten lost in the weeds and need to expand my view, than that the idea itself is wrong. It's tempting to "change your mind" in the middle of writing, to feel like you're growing and learning, and but (at least for me) that's often a result of availability bias and isolated demands of rigor on myself.

comment by abramdemski · 2020-11-19T15:19:53.471Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It sounds like you don't keep an idea book or dairy or anything similar. I'm totally on board with the idea that lowering the bar for publishing posts could actually increase average quality, but another thing you could try to get yourself out of the catch-22 is to keep something like that -- if you know you're writing for yourself, maybe the monkey in the brain would not be so tempted to think it's pointless if you don't publish. (Keeping it in a handwritten notebook or something could help tell the monkey that you're not making a blog post draft, since it would not be easy to copy/paste into LW.)

This could also help inspire more ideas for blog posts.

comment by adamzerner · 2020-11-19T18:35:38.315Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I do have a bit of an idea book. On LW and Bear Blog I keep some ideas in the drafts.

Still, oddly enough, I have a really hard time bringing myself to use it if I am not planning on it being something that I publish. My monkey is weird.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2020-11-20T03:23:45.601Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have basically the same attitude towards writing, and found it really helpful over the years to write with a mind to publish, even if all I was doing was rambling and posting on Facebook to a somewhat limited audience. In fact, for a while my Facebook feed was full of long, rambling posts of me just working out ideas in writing and trying to find ways to express ideas.

Lowering the bar to what you will write and publish if you have this impulse I think is key, though doing that on LW can be a little hard because of downvotes and critical comments, so depending on how you respond to those finding a space where you feel you can just write what you want without consequence first can be really freeing to get things going. For me that was Facebook, but I could imagine it being LW short form, Twitter, or something else.

comment by adamzerner · 2020-11-20T03:38:12.565Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That's really comforting to hear that I'm not the only one with these issues :)

In fact, for a while my Facebook feed was full of long, rambling posts of me just working out ideas in writing and trying to find ways to express ideas.

Yeah I considered doing the same but I don't have any social media accounts and don't want to create any because it's too dangerous of a time sink for me.