The core of what I do for a living is writing, and when writing is brought up in conversation, someone inevitably says:

“I’m not much of a writer.”

And until now I didn’t have the testicular fortitude to say exactly what I thought about that. As far as I know, not many people do. But I’m going to let you in on the secret now.

Writing is Thinking

It’s simple. The amount of information our brains can fit into our short term memory at once isn’t a lot. If you never have thoughts that require notes, then all your thoughts are small or unoriginal enough to fit into your tiny short term memory.

Writing allows you to record your short term memory into a format that you can examine and reflect upon, so you can suss out what makes sense, and how it makes sense, and then expand on the original seed. When you expand your thought all the way into a piece of coherent writing, it becomes complete. It would have been impossible for you to have that size of a thought without writing–your brain just isn’t powerful enough.

If you’ve never written anything thoughtful, then you’ve never had any difficult, important, or interesting thoughts. That’s the secret: people who don’t write, are people who don’t think.

What about Readers?

You live in a world made up of disconnected sound bites and reflections of other people’s old ideas

Maybe you aren’t stupid. Maybe you read about big ideas, so you know what I’m talking about even if you don’t write. That’s not good enough. You’ve never created a big idea. You live in a world made up of disconnected sound bites and reflections of other people’s old ideas, that you’ve only evaluated one chunk at a time. It’s just not the same as having an idea, then sitting down for a few hours to write about it until you figure out what the idea was in the first place.

Writing is a Skill

The bad news is that writing is hard. The good news is that it’s not an inborn talent, it’s a skill. Of course people who don’t write aren’t good at it. That’s only natural: writing takes practice like any other skill.

Here’s a writing exercise for people who want to start thinking: consider a belief you hold. Maybe something about politics or religion. Write 1,000 words about that belief. Explain it as though your audience has never heard of it. Explain why you hold the belief–all its underlying values. Explain the alternatives.

When you’re finished, tell me if you’ve learned anything new about the belief you thought was clear in your mind.