"Clear writing gives poor thinking nowhere to
hide." —Shane Parrish
I've been thinking about that quote a lot lately as I'm
working on a Hard Thing. If you are also working on a HT (now an acronym—just decided), then... Hi. I see you. You're doing great.
Here's how the quote might manifest in our HTs:
You think you have a handle on a problem or a situation or a topic. You sit down to write: hands hover over laptop, claws ready to clack the keys, itching to go! Let's GO!
<is it a minute already?>
Your mind wanders. Is it true that Flintstones vitamins are the
best-selling pharmaceutical of all time? You saw something on Twitter about that. Err... X. Still can't get used to that... the rebrand. Also, I wonder if Carole responded to my WhatsApp yet? I should check.
No. Do not check notifications! Do. Not. You really should write something
down—something you can work with later. The Ugly First Draft... and all that.
Fine. Are vitamins considered
pharmaceuticals or dietary supplements?
You glance at the clock and you're startled to discover that the last hour has been 4 minutes.
* * *
When I have a writing
problem, it's usually because I have a thinking problem.
The clear-as-mud writing (clear-as-an-X-rebrand?) or the lack-of-writing usually means I don't know what I'm trying to say. Because I haven't yet clarified my point of view.
I have a Poor Thinking Problem I need to solve. Not a Poor Writing Problem I need to resolve.
You can't copyedit your way out of poor thinking.
(Also, I'm fighting the urge to turn Poor Thinking Problems and Poor Writing Problems into the acronyms PTP and PWP. What is it with me and acronyms today.)
* * *
You can't copyedit your way out of poor thinking. Saying it twice. It's important.
So, what do we do about our Poor Thinking Problem? Don't do it Ann.
How do we solve our PTP? Welp. The acronym. I did it.
There are two approaches to better thinking:
1) KEEP WRITING.
2) STOP WRITING.
I know. Counterintuitive. But stick with me.
The root of PTPs is that our brains weirdly work against us.
Our brains crave completion like Tuesdays crave tacos. Our brains want us to get things done. Check the box. Finish the task. It's enormously satisfying to cross something off a list.
(Sometimes if I accomplish something that's NOT on my list, I write it down afterward just to get the satisfaction of crossing it off. You, too?)
We need to slow down our brains to gift them the time to think.
Let's look at the two approaches:
🏁 1) KEEP WRITING.
Writing slows down your brain because writing is slower than thinking.
The act of translating our thoughts from inside our head down our arms and out
through our fingers to the keys and onto the page slows us down.
It helps us focus our thoughts. Gives us time to make connections, correlations, and 100-dollar words like concatenations.
To notice associations you didn't even see were standing right beside you. And to reject ideas. To realize you're wrong. To surprise yourself.
When I've talked about how writing is thinking... that is what I have meant.
Writing slows down your thoughts. Your thoughts are no longer in the high-speed lane... whizzing by at 120 miles an hour. You now notice the make and
model of each thought as it moves by, out for a leisurely drive through the buttercups.
If that approach doesn't work, move to the next item please.
🚫 2. STOP WRITING.
The second way to counter a PTP (Poor Thinking Problem—I forgot the acronym already too) is to stop writing completely.
Step away from the keyboard. Move your body. Get offline. Get outside. Go analog. Get busy doing something else.
In Thinking Fast and Slow, a genius book which I read most of (LOL), Daniel Kahneman identifies two parts of our brain: the fast-thinking System 1 pressuring you to get things
done; and the thoughtful, deep-thinking System 2.
System 2 knows you are a genius. System 1 is an impatient, zero-attention-span toddler on cocaine.
(DK didn't characterize it like that, exactly. He's a Nobel prize winner and a Serious
Person. This is my interpretation.)
We need to distract that toddler so your thoughtful brain can for Pete's sake can I get just a single blessed moment to *myself*? Your brain needs space to figure things out. You need time to fuse, sort, slap, slice-and-dice ideas into new shapes.
That's why we have good ideas in the shower. Or while walking the dog. You're assigning your body an activity to distract the toddler so the grown-up can work things out.
There's a lot of science around this that I don't have time to get into now—rooted both in Kahneman's work and elsewhere.
But the through-line in all the science is that we can manage clarity and creativity.
We can actively incubate better, stronger, genius thinking. There is a way to embrace the slow moments to fuel our success. So that we can think through the HT. (Hard Thing—did you forget that acronym, too?)
"Clear writing gives poor thinking nowhere to hide" is 100% true.
Also true is the opposite: Poor writing hides clear thinking.
But it's all fixable. We've got this.
And in the end, our clear thinking will emerge from the shadows, into the glory of day.
* * *
P.S. Flintstones Vitamins are dietary supplements originally introduced in 1968. Sales in
2020 hit $100 million. Other brands gross more, including Kirkland Signature (sales of $59 billion in 2021) and Nature Made (sales of $324.9 million in 2021). But Fred, Wilma, and the gang definitely are among the most successful vitamin brands, especially considering their staying power.
on my Hard Thing soon. Not ready to talk about it yet. But it's a new direction and I'm excited to tell you about it.
EVERYBODY WRITES Writing Tip of the Fortnight (WTOFfffff)
The stripped-down version of a word is often the strongest.
Sent in an application > Applied
Differentiation > Difference
It's our understanding > We understand
Ways by which > Ways
In order to > To
Much more where that came from here.
THE COLLEGE GOODBYE
parents this month are sending kids to college. Dropping them off at dorms, depositing them on airplanes. Send them this.
DEPARTMENT OF SHENANIGANS
Do you ever think about dying?