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February 21st, 2020
This episode is a response to Paul Graham’s wonderful essay “How to Write Usefully.”
Why should someone sit down to write? Many people would say that it’s because someone has something to say. But this is wrong. Those who do write might disagree vehemently, making bold claims about a drive and an impulse to put letter to page. There’s no reason to argue with such claims, but there is good reason to understand why this urge can’t be described as the prenatal kick of an idea that just wants to get out.
This urge to express is familiar to all. We experience it every time just before we open our mouth to speak. Unfortunately many people are content with just speaking, using family, friends, coworkers and even strangers as an outlet to cure themselves of this urge.
The writer, however, is a person who has figured out a hack for this urge, one that has benefits that extend far beyond the mere resolution of an urge. The writer leverages this urge to produce something far more useful than relief. Unlike speaking, writing is a record of thought process in action. With talking, a speaker is constantly cramped for time by the structure of conversation. One has to return the volley for response. The writer in solitary pursuit has no pressure against their own wish to pause. While many speak in reverent tones about the much sought ‘flow state’, where it just ‘pours out of you’, the act of stuttering while writing has benefits we don’t appreciate in conversation. The paused writer is like a bloodhound that stops for a moment to sniff a little in a couple different directions. The bloodhound knows something is there, the only question is which way to go? The same is true for the writer. The urge to express is simply a whiff of an idea, far from fully formed.
The act of writing, unlike speaking is a dedicated method to figure out what that idea is, to discover it, and test it through interrogation by description.
This is not how writing is described when kids are given writing assignments in school. Teachers are in a hurry to cram a structure into their students. This writer -for one- can remember asking “why?” over and over as a 5th grade teacher adorned with a PhD tried to describe how I should be writing. “You’ll need it for later,” was the best explanation I got. But with years of education still to come, wouldn’t this structure become obvious with so much practice? What’s the harm with going off the grid for a little bit? The sad truth is that this educator, despite being laden with a PhD couldn’t give a better answer because she didn’t have a clear idea of why we sit down to write in the first place. She was teaching in order to examine without recognizing the real application of writing, that is, to discover.
It turns out that the best writing doesn’t follow the structure taught in schools. The best writing, the most persuasive and useful writing follows it’s own structure – a structure determined by the unique needs of the subject.
This is part of the reason why the writing of someone like Paul Graham is so good. His essays read like stories. The writing tells you where it’s going but it still surprises you.
This freshness, this surprise isn’t so much planned or contrived as it is an effect of the process. The writer is discovering it while writing just as much as the reader is while reading. The writer is attempting to go somewhere new, a place they sense might exist.
Paul Graham’s essay “How to Write Usefully” ends with this notion of discovery. But the whole essay operates on the assumption that the reader is a writer who has maintained a practice and a passion despite all the educational harpoons that get lodged in the minds of students. The failings of education are bemoaned constantly -there’s no need to flense that whale here- but what remains is a huge number of people who have no idea how useful writing can be from a personal point of view.
The writer doesn’t simply serve up an idea for other people to chew on; you become clearer to yourself by writing. Not just in terms of what you think about a given topic, but how you think. But none of this is clear while learning to write as a student.
Graham’s “How to Write Usefully” reads like a stand alone master’s course in writing. The perspective is not just subtle, and convincing, it’s about as useful as it gets. But for those who have never devoted any real free time to the act of paint balling a word document with letters, the wisdom of such an essay, and most importantly the final point about discovery might probably go totally unused and unnoticed.
For those who might be willing to give the begrudged activity another shot with a fresh perspective infused with a sense of discovery and problem solving, Graham’s prescription for such high quality is maybe not ideal. The dictum from the tech world to ship the product as soon as it’s viable, is perhaps a better starting point. The sense of accomplishment for simply having something complete might be more important than quality. And as we can see by looking back at the great musical composers, quantity eventually produces quality.
Indeed, this platform - Tinkered Thinking- is a casual experiment to explore the practice of writing and publishing a micro-essay every single day. While this could not be further from the useful advice Graham details in his essay, the exercise has turned up far more than previous years of writing where dozens - if not hundreds of hours - were spent on single paragraphs and even single sentences of fiction. Not to mention that every micro essay on Tinkered Thinking is a first draft with only the most cursory scan for spelling and grammar mistakes. Nonetheless, many people have expressed a gratitude for the fact that this writing has been shared.
It’s curious to wonder if this platform would have been more impactful with less writing but more time devoted to editing. It’s without a doubt that the quality could be higher, but what about trying to write better first drafts? And covering more ground? As with everything, these are trade-offs with quality. Though, now there is ample material to sift and hone into something more useful.
After nearly half a million words on this project and hundreds of essays, one thing has become clear about ideas: they are fleeting.
When some notion comes close, the scent of an inkling, the light tug on attention, the first step for a writer is to:
Get it down, get it out.
P.S. This episode was written in under an hour.
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