How I Write: I Think

Posted: February 1, 2013 in Instruction, Philosophy

It is said that in order to become a great jazz artist, one must first study the works of the artists who defined the genre.  Each artist introduced something new, as an addition to what was currently being played.  You would not want to study Bill Evans before you were introduced to Fats Waller or Red Garland because Mr. Evans incorporated the styles of Waller and Garland into his own style.

You must learn the fundamentals of an art. As it applies to writing, the first fundamental is thinking. You can’t write well unless you know how to think well. Learning how to think well is one of the benefits derived from philosophy.  Notice that I did not write “the study of philosophy”.  If you study what others thought, that does not teach you to think, or how to think – it only teaches what others have thought. Like jazz, I can listen to the music of Jelly Roll Morton, but I am not doing Mr. Morton until I actually play music in that style. The study of philosophy is important too, but it is the practice of philosophy that helps you learn how to do it.  So the fundamental of writing is thinking, and the way you learn how to think is to practice thinking.

What shall we think about? Some thinking isn’t going to help us improve. Let me demonstrate with a few examples.

1. What will I wear tomorrow?

2. What will you wear tomorrow?

3. What was the first outfit ever worn?

The first question is pretty easy. It would be difficult to get that one wrong. Now think about the question itself. Why is it easy to answer? If you can discover why this question is easy to answer, then it might follow that other similar questions would also be easy to answer, for similar reasons.  When you discover those similarities, you are creating a set of rules that can be applied to similar questions.  The more difficult questions offer the greatest opportunity for learning, but the easy questions must be mastered before you attempt the more difficult ones.

Question #1 requires a person (you) to make a determination.  The correctness of the answer is also determined by you. The answer relies only on you to make it, and you to judge if it is the right answer. You are the subject and there is nothing about the answer which requires any other actor’s knowledge, or a standard of right and wrong to be imposed by another actor.

Question #2 introduces the idea of objectivity. A person seeks to determine the action/decision of something/someone other them himself/herself. You noticed all the slashes in the sentence. As you expand your thinking from the subjective case to the objective case, you encounter options. The alternative meanings and answers increase. The question is more difficult to answer.  The practice of thinking (i.e. philosophy) would encourage discovering every possible meaning in a question. That is the only way you can discover every possible answer. If you can think deeper about a subject, you can learn to write with greater depth.

Question #3 asks you to determine an answer that cannot be known with certainty. There are some obvious difficulties. You have no idea who the first person was. You have no idea where the first person was, when he existed, if he was a he or a she or an it, and so forth.

You could spend a lot of time thinking about these three questions. After a day or two, you might see that these questions are similar to many other questions. You might find something so unique during your contemplations that you become amazed that you never before considered the possibility. Most people do not like to think about things like this because it exhausts them. However, most everyone will think a long time about things that have a direct effect on them, and quite often derive a poor answer because they were unwilling to learn how to think about the things they didn’t want to think about.

If you are going to write about things people have not thought about, then you better think about those things. Your writing will reveal how much thought you invested in the subject.

Organizing Your Thoughts

The points I made so far are not exhaustive: there is more to think about. But let me move on now to the topic of organizing your thoughts. As a writer you must have empathy. You must be able to convey ideas in a way that the reader is able to understand those ideas. Good writing is just a recipe.  The topic may be difficult to write about, but the organization of the ideas is the same for every topic. A simple recipe for organizing your ideas goes like this: 1.) Tell them what you want to tell them, 2.) Tell them why you told them, 3.) Tell them again.

In the last paragraph, I included a heading. You really do not need to read that paragraph in order to understand that I (the author) place an emphasis on the importance of organizing your thoughts. A lot of people read quickly; they skim. As an empathetic writer, you know this and account for it in your writing style. You separate your paragraphs with headers when there is a shift in the topic.

Putting It All Together

You already know what this paragraph is about because you read the header. Let me return to the first part of this essay and insert headers to show you how their use increases readability.

Learn in the Correct Order

It is said that in order to become a great jazz artist, one must first study the works of the artists who defined the genre.  Each artist introduced something new, as an addition to what was currently being played.  You would not want to study Bill Evans before you were introduced to Fats Waller or Red Garland because Mr. Evans incorporated the styles of Waller and Garland into his own style.

First Learn the Fundamentals

You must learn the fundamentals of an art. As it applies to writing, the first fundamental is thinking. You can’t write well unless you know how to think well. Learning how to think well is one of the benefits derived from philosophy.  Notice that I did not write “the study of philosophy”.  If you study what others thought, that does not teach you how to think – it only teaches what others have thought. Like jazz, I can listen to the music of Jelly Roll Morton, but I am not doing Mr. Morton until I actually play music in that style. The study of philosophy is important too, but it is the practice of philosophy that helps you learn how to do it.  So the fundamental of writing is thinking, and the way you to think is to practice thinking.

An Example

What shall we think about? Some thinking isn’t going to help us improve. Let me demonstrate with a few examples.

1. What will I wear tomorrow?

2. What will you wear tomorrow?

3. What was the first outfit ever worn?

The first question is pretty easy. It would be difficult to get that one wrong. Now think about the question itself. Why is it easy to answer? If you can discover why this question is easy to answer, then it might follow that other similar questions would also be easy to answer, for similar reasons.  When you discover those similarities, you are creating a set of rules that can be applied to similar questions.

A Closer Look at the Possible Answers

Question #1 requires a person (you) to make a determination.  The correctness of the answer is also determined by you. The answer relies only on you to make it, and you to judge if it is the right answer. You are the subject and there are nothing about the answer which requires any other actor’s knowledge, or a standard of right and wrong to be imposed by another actor.

Question #2 introduces the idea of objectivity. A person seeks to determine the action/decision of something/someone other them himself/herself. You noticed all the slashes in the sentence. As you expand your thinking from the subjective case to the objective case, you encounter options. The alternative meanings and answers increase. The question is more difficult to answer.  The practice of thinking (i.e. philosophy) would encourage discovering every possible meaning in a question. That is the only way you can discover every possible answer. If you can think deeper about a subject, you can learn to write with greater depth.

Question #3 asks you to determine an answer that cannot be known with certainty. There are some obvious difficulties. You have no idea who the first person was. You have no idea where the first was, when he existed, if he was a he or a she or an it, and so forth.

Invest Time Improving Your Thinking

You could spend a lot of time thinking about these three questions. After a day or two, you might see that these questions are similar to many other questions. You might find something so unique during your contemplations that you become amazed that you never before considered the possibility. Most people do not like to think about things like this because it exhausts them. However, most everyone will think a long time about things that have a direct effect on them, and quite often derive a poor answer because they were unwilling to learn how to think about the things they didn’t want to think about.

If you are going to write about things people have not thought about, then you better think about those things. Your writing will reveal how much thought you invested in the subject.

Conclusions

A writer is a thinker. A great writer has practiced the components of writing for a long time. Those components, as I discussed in this writing, are thinking, organizing, and empathizing. There are many additional features that great writing includes. I believe the three I covered in this writing are fundamentally significant, and might help other writers consider what import they place on thinking, practicing, organizing and being considerate of their readers.

If you agree, then you will stop reading about what I think, and you will spend some time thinking about what you think.  And if I keep writing, I will be keeping you from thinking about what you want to think about. So I will stop now.

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Comments
  1. Thank you, Kent for introducing me to a way of thinking about writing, that will (hopefully) help me to begin to write better. One thing that struck me as I was reading this post was how much easier it is to write about things that I’ve thought about a lot. It’s really just a process of organizing and editing what I’ve often looked at over and over in my mind.