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Thinking by Writing: Improve Your Decisions by Writing Them Out

Thinking by Writing: Improve Your Decisions by Writing Them Out

May 8th 2015

Writing is a heck of a tool. You should develop and refine it. A good place it start is by reading On Writing Well, by William Zinsser.

Most commonly, people write to communicate with others—maybe a client, fellow employee, court, or even the general public. But an underappreciated benefit of writing is that it can clarify your thinking.

Some ideas and decisions are complex. You can mentally reason through them, but your thinking might miss key details or may lack the systematic discipline necessary for understanding important nuances.

For example, you might face a decision with five primary sub-points or issues. When you mentally consider the decision, your biases or emotions may cause you to consider one or two at the expense of others. You might not even consider one or more of the issues within the decision.

But thinking by writing introduces a discipline that is more likely to bring out each of the issues. As you put one point on paper, you may develop it, but then you can easily move to the other issues, without worry. Writing the first issue down makes it easier to move to the others because you have captured it and it isn’t going away. That is tougher to do in your mind, which for most people doesn’t play as systematically.

In addition, writing about something will help you expose any flaws so you can either abandon the idea or improve it. And if you can’t articulate it in writing, the idea needs to be developed further. The writing process can actually help with that because writing is typically step-by-step so you can put together the details—thinking about them along the way—as you write.

As an attorney by training, I’ve learned over the years that, particularly for new or complex arguments or idea, sometimes you have to “see how it writes,” before you know whether it is worthwhile.

Writing requires a discipline of thinking that can illuminate the strength of an argument or idea. It often does so in a critical way, by exposing flaws. But it can also do so through creativity, particularly if you can reach a state of flow, where the ideas pour out. What is great about that is that as the ideas flow, you capture them right there on the page.

Thinking by writing also has implications for your approach when writing for others. Many people like to prepare detailed outlines, then just turn those outlines into prose. Each person, of course, is different and has their own approach. Nothing wrong with that.

But if you are too regimented in following your outline, you lose the creative and critical benefits of the writing process. You may better optimize the value from the writing process by creating a rough outline, but allowing yourself to deviate from it as ideas develop while writing.

And sometimes—depending upon what you are writing—skip the outline and just start and see where you end up. You can edit it later. 

If you liked this article about writing, you may also like our article about reading: The Benefits of the Portfolio Method of Reading.

If you want to improve your writing, check out our article about five books that will help you do so.