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Writing to Learn
Embracing the vulnerabilities and strengths of exploratory writing
I often think about how to learn more effectively. Two tools are crucial for my learning: Anki, for spaced repetition (thanks to Michael Nielsen’s Augmenting long-term memory), and more importantly, writing. I’m increasingly convinced that I don’t understand things well unless I write about them.
But writing becomes a struggle as I delve into new disciplines. I’m comfortable writing about topics close to my life, like work and self-improvement, but how do I approach something like an economics course I’ve just completed? Sharing my notes seems useless to others, and I’m hesitant to analyze the economy with limited knowledge.
I stumbled upon a book Writing to Learn by William Zinsser, the author of On Writing Well. He distinguished two types of writing (although he said he generalized “outrageously”):
Type A, which transmits existing ideas, and
Type B, which allows us to find out what we want to say.
I was in the mindset of type A writing, that I should write what I already know. But he said both types “are equally valid and useful.” He describes type A as mostly a technical skill, while type B is “a voyage of discovery into the self”:
Only by going into uncharted territory […] can a writer find his potential and his voice and his meaning. Meaning, in fact, doesn’t exist until a writer goes looking for it.
Exploratory writing has led me to unexpected insights. Last week when I wrote about culture and memes, I thought I was writing something grand, but in the end it led to personal reflections on my investing behavior.
I think my fear of being wrong also makes it difficult to write about complex things.
If I share my personal opinions and experiences, there’s not much you can argue with me. But if I write about economy and science, it feels like I’m exposing my ignorance and open for attack. What goes by the name of “I want to write what’s true” may be “I’m scared of looking stupid.”
But that is how we learn. As Karl Popper writes,
The way in which knowledge progresses […] is by unjustified (and unjustifiable) anticipations, by guesses, by tentative solutions to our problems, by conjectures. These conjectures are controlled by criticism; that is, by attempted refutations. — Conjectures and Refutations
So, I’m not exposing my ignorance; I’m inviting criticism to improve my ideas.
With psychological hurdles cleared up, two tactics I find useful:
In his typically whimsical style, Zinsser said,
Writing is learned by imitation. I learned to write mainly by reading writers who were doing the kind of writing I wanted to do and by trying to figure out how they did it. S. J. Perelman told me that when he was starting out he could have been arrested for imitating Ring Lardner. Woody Allen could have been arrested for imitating S. J. Perelman. And who hasn’t tried to imitate Woody Allen?
Instead of asking “How to write about X?”, ask “What examples can I find about X and imitate them?”
I found that Ben Kuhn wrote a few pieces about effective altruism when he started to understand it. He later called them “uninteresting.” But even those writings are worth publishing, as he argues, not in a sense of going viral, but something “your friends enjoy reading, makes acquaintances feel more positively towards you, etc.”
2. Write for yourself.
Though writing online has many benefits, the ultimate goal (and the path) is to write for yourself.
When Zinsser became the editor of Yale Alumni Magazine,
I never stopped to ask, “Who is the typical Yale alumnus? Who am I editing for?” One of my principles is that there is no typical anybody; every reader is different. I edit for myself and I write for myself. I assume that if I consider something interesting or funny, a certain number of other people will too.
It’s much less stressful when I freely explore my own interests, rather than aiming for instructing others.
It works for both the writer and the reader. As Morgan Housel says, “Writing for yourself is fun, and it shows. Writing for others is work, and it shows.”
I hope you find this helpful! If you have any thoughts, questions, or simply want to connect (I love making friends), reply to this or DM me on X.
Until next time,