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Learning to write is learning to think. You don’t know anything clearly unless you can state it in writing.

—S. I. Hayakawa

Writing is recorded thinking—whether you do it on paper, on a computer, or even when sending a text on your phone. The more you write, the more layers of thought are peeled back to reveal deeper layers of thought. When we write, we force understanding through the filter of language, and it gets converted into something that can be communicated. At the same time, our understand of it deepens because writing about it makes us rotate the idea in our minds and explore its different nuances. The best writing tends to come from the best thinking, and one feeds the other. 

One of the best ways I have expressed it is in a book I recently worked on with Jim Dotson entitled Taking on Goliath. The day after he experience an earthshattering termination from the job he had excelled at for fifteen years, he sat down to journal:

For about a half hour, I just wrote. One of the nice things about writing is that once something is on paper, you don’t feel the need to dwell on it any longer. One thought transcribed makes room for the one that was just beneath it before, the one you were previously oblivious to because the other was shouting so loudly. I often found, when I had the time to really sit down and write, that realizations would emerge that normally got lost in the noise of daily living. Ideas half-recognized took full form. From time to time I was even able to clear away enough of the clutter to recognize something God had been trying to get me to understand for a long time. As ideas emerged, I thumbed through the hard copy of my journal, looking at other times I had written like this, and what they had revealed. (Taking on Goliath, 101)

This “peeling back the onion layers of thought,” as you might call it, is just one of the benefits of writing to me. Here are a couple of others:


When the writing is hot—I am drafting away with my internal editor muzzled and in pursuit of the next layer of revelation—I am at my most focused. I am “in the zone” or “in the flow” as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow. Though there are numerous other ways to get into this kind of focus, I find that sitting down, setting a timer or time limit, and then plunging into writing knowing that there is nothing else I have to worry about until the time is up is a great way to get writing done, exercise focus, and discipline my mind to think.

Writing (and Reading) Are a “Flight Simulator” for Living

Recent studies discussed in Forbes, Harvard Business Review, Scientific American Mind, and elsewhere suggests that by diving into the minds of characters in fiction, we find a way to better understand and empathize with others. The Psychologist called engaging with fiction, “The mind’s flight simulator” for “fictions are typically simulations of the social world, therefore . . . people who spend time reading them will become more socially skilled than people who read non-fiction.” Though the research has not yet gone this far, if that is true of reading fiction, how much more true is it of writing fiction?

Synthesizing Research and Experience

When you write on a topic—even if you are journaling—you are casting experience or research into your own words. Once this is done, you can look back at it later to analyze the accuracy of what you just put to paper. When I am writing non-fiction—which is what I do most of the time when writing—I find myself going back and forth between my sources and what I am typing, constantly double and triple-checking that what I am drafting is faithful to the ideas I hope to see shared with new audiences (as well as, of course, making sure I get the footnote information right!). Again, this is a honing process which I believe carries over to any other kind of thinking and teaching that we do.

Now these are just off of the top of my head and I am sure I will dedicate other posts to this line of thinking in the future, but, from reading this, are you getting an inkling of what writing regularly might do for you?

Do you have any “Aha!” moments that came while writing? Can you think of any ways that writing has made you smarter?

Please share your thoughts and answers in the comments below.