Writing forces sharper understanding

Writing is a great way to put pressure on your thinking: it’s hard to summarize something you don’t sharply understand. By trying to explain an idea, you’ll naturally try multiple framings, flesh out its edges, and see new connections. This is part of why Evergreen note-writing helps insight accumulate and why you should Write about what you read to internalize texts deeply.

The additional step of making associations and integrating that writing with prior notes (i.e. to create Evergreen notes, particularly since Evergreen notes should be concept-oriented) makes this effect even more powerful because you have to understand how a given idea relates to other ideas. And when you’re comparing the new ideas to the old, you can see what’s not being said in the new work.

This practice is a rough kind of metacognitive support: Metacognitive supports as cognitive scaffolding.

This observation appears to be true even for non-prose writing: Many eminent thinkers need a writing surface to think

Backlinks


Kant, I. (1996). An answer to the question: What is enlightenment? In A. Wood (Ed.), & M. J. Gregor (Trans.), Practical philosophy (pp. 11–22). https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511813306.005 (Original work published 1784)

Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority. Minority is inability to make use of one’s own understanding without direction from another. This minority is self-incurred when its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! Dare to be wise!

Don DeLillo, on why he became a writer (via Michael Nielsen):

I have an idea but I’m not sure I believe it. Maybe I wanted to learn how to think. Writing is a concentrated form of thinking. I don’t know what I think about certain subjects, even today, until I sit down and try to write about them. Maybe I wanted to find more rigorous ways of thinking. We’re talking now about the earliest writing I did and about the power of language to counteract the wallow of late adolescence, to define things, define muddled experience in economical ways. Let’s not forget that writing is convenient. It requires the simplest tools. A young writer sees that with words and sentences on a piece of paper that costs less than a penny he can place himself more clearly in the world. Words on a page, that’s all it takes to help him separate himself from the forces around him, streets and people and pressures and feelings. He learns to think about these things, to ride his own sentences into new perceptions. How much of this did I feel at the time? Maybe just an inkling, an instinct. Writing was mainly an unnameable urge, an urge partly propelled by the writers I was reading at the time.

Ahrens, S. (2017). How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers.

If we try to fool ourselves here and write down incomprehensible words, we will detect it in the next step when we try to turn our literature notes into permanent notes and try to connect them with others.

Writing notes and sorting them into the slip-box is nothing other than an attempt to understand the wider meaning of something. The slip-box forces us to ask numerous elaborating questions: What does it mean? How does it connect to … ? What is the difference between … ? What is it similar to?

Experienced academic readers usually read a text with questions in mind and try to relate it to other possible approaches, while inexperienced readers tend to adopt the question of a text and the frames of the argument and take it as a given. What good readers can do is spot the limitations of a particular approach and see what is not mentioned in the text.

Writing notes and sorting them into the slip-box is nothing other than an attempt to understand the wider meaning of something. The slip-box forces us to ask numerous elaborating questions: What does it mean? How does it connect to … ? What is the difference between … ? What is it similar to?

Barbara Tuchmann, quoted in The Independent Scholars Handbook - Richard Gross:

“I do all my own research,” she said, “though reviewers have speculated that I must have a band of hirelings. I like to be led by a footnote onto something I never thought of. I rarely photocopy research materials be- cause, for me, note-taking is learning, distilling. That’s the whole essence of the business, In taking notes, you have to discard what you don’t need. If you photocopy it, you haven’t chewed it.”