Writing is a method of thinking. An essay, for example, is a trial of an idea. It literally means “to test the mettle of”. Writing doesn’t always have such a predefined goal. Writing, if done properly, can extend the limits of thought.
In all cases, writing is an exercise in thinking. Ideas expressed in writing can be rearranged and refined. This allows weak ideas to be discarded, and strong ideas to be sharpened.
Why are strong ideas so important?
Ideas change the world. Ideas are the very fabric of what we believe is the world. We do not (and can not) intuit the truth. We perceive the world through a concoction of senses that are processed and abstracted into thoughts, into ideas. We are at the mercy of these ideas that help us to make sense of the world. Whether it is a religious or scientific idea, or a political ideology, “ideas” are the single most powerful force in all of human existence. And it is by this simple process of writing that we shape and wield this awesome power.
Whether you like it or not, you are, in each moment, perceiving a delusional world constructed from abstract ideas. These ideas predict (imperfectly) how the world around you behaves. If you are unable to write well, then you are unable to think as clearly and as powerfully as those who do write well. Writing allows you to be competent, to determine good ideas from bad ideas, and to determine “the truth” from “their truth”.
Consider the following (conventional) wisdom:
It is not what you say, but how you say it.
In the context of persuasion, this is absolutely correct. Truth simply does not matter when we are speaking or listening. All that matters is the persuasiveness of an idea. Our thoughts and perceptions are not shaped by “the truth”, but instead by the most persuasive ideas.
Writing can transform a disgusting idea into a pristine and persuasive idea. The power of writing can be used for the greatest good or the greatest evil. And it is this power that corrupts the art of writing and turns it into propaganda. Writing can be the sword of truth, or the blade that murders the truth. And it is here, on this distinction, that many half-educated writers go to die.
If you commit yourself to speak the truth, you’ll find (if you’re at all honest) that you have nothing to say. Instead, writing allows you to seek the truth, so that eventually you might have something useful to say. Writing can even empower you to live the truth, so that your life is filled with meaning.
There are some truths in life that you simply cannot say, that you cannot capture as an idea, that you cannot listen to in a sermon or from a politician or a guru, but that you can act out over time. It is these meta truths that I find so captivating. And it is these meta truths that can only be discovered by writing.
Writing transcends. Through writing we can communicate with our future selves. We can communicate through both time and space. And by reading we can commune with the dead, learning wisdom that no one living may tell us. Most importantly, through writing we can evolve our ideas, shaping the future itself.
How to write well?
In other words, how do you write competently? How do you transcend beyond mere persuasion and propaganda? How do you seek “the truth”? How do you live the truth?
Start in the only place you can start: with chaotic formless thoughts. Put them into words, badly. Get the ideas out of your head. Once the ideas are in front of you, refine and edit those formless chaotic words, your word salad, into proper sentences. Try to capture each idea into the most concise sentence possible. Revise and edit every sentence and group them into what will eventually become paragraphs. Repeat this process over and over until you have something worth saying (not just reading, but something worth saying). Listen, really listen, to the ideas you have written.
Most importantly, know your audience. And if you want your writing to transcend beyond propaganda, that audience is you. Ask yourself:
Is it true?
Is it welcome?
Is it helpful?
Is it beautiful?
Is it inspiring?
Is it simple?
If you can answer “yes” to those questions, then you’ll have formed a truly powerful idea, an idea that will change the world.