Why I Write

30 Jul 2023 - Jack Hullis

It is a fallacy that we should know everything we are going to write before we write it. In reality, most of our ideas get generated throughout the process of writing them down.

I have so many different thoughts and ideas about different topics. I spend the majority of my time thinking about them - arguably too much. But because of this, there are bound to be many contradictions between them, where two or more ideas are based on opposing logic.

The ideas in my head quickly become tangled. Old assumptions get carried forward without being reconsidered. And worst of all, I occasionally find myself in a cognitive pitfall - a trap where one false idea leads to a line of others. But thankfully, writing is the perfect antidote for the negative side effects of thinking. It forces you to reconsider all of your assumptions, to consolidate your ideas, and when you get stuck, it highlights where the gaps in your understanding lie.

In this way, writing humbles us when it makes us realise that maybe we didn’t know something as well as we thought we did. When we cannot explain something, we realise that perhaps it is because we have errors in our understanding. Through writing, we are able to identify assumptions, biases, and contradictions in our thinking that we otherwise wouldn’t have known existed.

By working through the gaps that writing has exposed, we make our understanding more concrete. And through eliminating errors like contradictions, we are able to make our ideas more consistent with one another and in turn hopefully make them less wrong. This is a similar concept to how in science, even though we cannot prove our theories are true, their positions are strengthened when other scientific findings support them.

“You must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” - Richard Feynman

If we don’t write about our biggest beliefs and core ideas, we’ll never know how concrete they really are. And this can mislead us into thinking that our ideas are complete, fooling ourselves into believing that we have a better understanding of something than we really do.

This idea, where a lack of understanding correlates with high confidence, is summed up neatly by the Dunning Kruger effect.

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias whereby people with low ability, expertise, or experience regarding a type of task or area of knowledge tend to overestimate their ability or knowledge.

Only by attempting to put our ideas into writing can we ever know if we fully understand them - and from my experience, there’s always room for improvement. It follows that those who haven’t written about their own ideas have not fully understood them.

Further motivations

Writing also serves as a time-capsule - a window into your younger-self’s brain. We can use this to see how our thoughts and predictions change over time. For example, when reading an old essay, we might realise that we now disagree with some of the things we used to think, which might have gone unnoticed if we had not read them back. It’s important to keep track of where we stand on ideas if many of our other ideas depend on them. In order to maintain consistency, these dependent ideas must be rethought about and updated too.

And finally, writing also allows me to keep track of my thoughts. Similar to reading a good book, over time, our memories of what we learned start to fade. By writing my ideas down, I am ensuring that the time I spent developing my understanding of them is not lost, both for myself and for other interested people. And perhaps one day, if I do forget these motivations, this very post may serve to reinvigorate my desire to write.

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