Calisthenics for the brain

We probably all know some great quotations about clear thinking and good writing. Here’s a celebrated one from David McCullough, for example: “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” Anyone who writes at work knows the writing process can be tortuous unless you clarify what you want to say before you get too immersed in growing words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs. Achieving that clarity isn’t always straightforward, especially if you’re working in collaboration and dealing with complex issues.

While the advantages of getting your thoughts straight are clear, it’s also worth remembering that the benefits flow the other way. The act of writing can help us to explore new ideas, clarify what we know and don’t know, and test the mettle of our views. And so it can help us to develop richer, more useful, more valuable, more considered interpretations of the world.

Making our ideas manifest on the page is like bringing an object out into the light. Once something is written down it becomes separated from our mind, and that provides critical space between what we thought then (when we wrote it) and what we think now (as we read it).

Putting words on the page doesn’t necessarily mean publishing it to the world; sometimes it’s simply about publishing it to yourself. The natural extension of this is to read your words out loud – always a great test of whether you’re making sense.

Here are three excerpts that draw out the value of writing as part of the thinking process. The first takes us back to David McCullough, and a remark he made in a recent Time magazine interview:

We don’t write letters on paper anymore. How will this affect the study of history?

The loss of people writing – writing a composition, a letter or a report – is not just the loss for the record. It’s the loss of the process of working your thoughts out on paper, of having an idea that you would never have had if you weren’t [writing]. And that’s a handicap. People [I research] were writing letters every day. That was calisthenics for the brain.

The second passage is from the first chapter of EH Carr’s wonderful book What is History:

Laymen – that is to say, non-academic friends or friends from other academic disciplines – sometimes ask me how the historian goes to work when he writes history. The commonest assumption appears to be that the historian divides his work into two sharply distinguishable phases or periods. First, he spends a long preliminary period reading his sources and filling his notebooks with facts: then, when this is over, he puts away his sources, takes out his notebooks and writes his books from beginning to end. This is to me an unconvincing and unplausible picture. For myself, as soon as I have got going on a few of what I take to be the capital sources, the itch becomes too strong and I begin to write – not necessarily the beginning, but somewhere, anywhere. Thereafter, reading and writing go on simultaneously. The writing is added to, subtracted from, reshaped, cancelled, as I go on reading. The reading is guided and directed and made fruitful by the writing: the more I write, the more I know what I am looking for, the better I understand the significance and relevance of what I find. Some historians probably do all this preliminary writing in their heads without using pen, paper or typewriter, just as some people play chess in their heads without recourse to board and chessmen: this is a talent which I envy, but cannot emulate. But I am convinced that, for any historian worth the name, the two processes of what economists call ‘input’ and ‘output’ go on simultaneously and are, in practice, parts of a single process.

The third passage is from writer Jamie Jauncey’s excellent blog:

I’ve just received the first copies of Room 121, my new book, co-written with John Simmons. Those three months over last winter when we were writing it, exchanging on an almost daily basis the blog posts that form each chapter, were a period of deep thinking because the time was ring-fenced; it had to be or we wouldn’t have met our deadline… But as soon as we finished it, hyper-connected life crashed back into the almost sacred space we had created for ourselves and the deep thinking time was lost. Now I’m left with the frustration that while my life seems particularly rich in experience, my resulting view of the world feels only half-formed because I don’t have enough time to reflect on it.


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