Think first, then write

Cal Newport recently published a post titled ‘In Defense of Thinking‘ where he writes about the importance of spending time thinking about what to say before writing. He argues it is the deep contemplation, not the writing, that is important. This idea is in direct opposition to writers’ advice to just sit down each day and get in a predefined word count done.

My working habits are simple: long periods of thinking, short periods of writing.

Ernest Hemingway

When I started studying at the LSE, I had not written an essay in several years. In the first few weeks, I read the university’s ‘Strategies for success’ study skills handbook guidance. The guidance given was that a large portion of the marks came from the quality of the answer to the essay question rather than just writing everything you could remember about the topic. The argument should be laid out in a single sentence in the introduction, with the rest of the writing build around this. The handbook said to think of an essay as a game where you show you can think and have read widely and then evidence your knowledge, analysis, critical skills and understanding. 

The typical format of the exam essays was to spend 45-60 minutes on a single question. From this time, we were taught to use 5-10 minutes to plan out the answer and structure of the argument. Within the 45 minutes, the aim was for around 1000 words that included a structured introduction, conclusion, and at least four paragraphs, each covering a specific justification of the answer. This structure was critical in making you think about the reasoning of your argument and structure theories, examples, rules, and texts to support it.

Writing guides like Writing that works by Keith Roman and Ninja Writing by Shani Raja suggest you start by structuring the narrative as bullet points before you write it out in continuous pros. Andres Erricson in Peak suggests that good writers start with what they want the reader to do before building an argument. The 5-10 minute essay plan, the bulleted narrative, and beginning with the call to action are tools to help you think about what to write before you start to put it into extended writing.

Experts do it differently. Consider how my coauthor and I put this book together. First, we had to figure out what we wanted the book to do. What did we want readers to learn about expertise? What concepts and ideas were important to introduce? How should a reader’s ideas about training and potential be changed by reading this book? Answering questions like these gave us our first rough mental representation of the book – our goals for it, what we wanted it to accomplish. Of course, as we worked more and more on the book, that initial image evolved, but it was a start.  

Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool

When you pick up books on writing that talk about the practice of writing as a method to beating writers blog, question if the approach being given will lead to quality writing. That last 45 minutes of actual writing might be the end product of hours of reading and thinking before sitting down to work. Separate your thinking from your writing and only write once you have something meaningful to say. This practice is about quality over quantity in your writing and about making you more intelligent in the process.