February 18, 2015

Skill Series: Writing Is Thinking

By: Matt Mitchell

This is the second post in a series on writing. Part 1.

writingThere is a common notion—reinforced through years of procrastination—that writing is the last step. The idea is that you should think, plan, research, gather data, mull it over, and then finally write. This is backward. As Deirdre McCloskey once put it, “The real problem is the premise that you can split content from style.” The fact of the matter is that for most people, the very act of writing helps shape their thoughts. This is because there is a mysterious connection between our brains and our hands. As we type—or better yet, handwrite— our brains are activated. You may have noticed when you were in school that if you read over a proof or a rearrangement of an equation in a math textbook, you retained some of the information. But if you took the time to actually write out the equation on your own, something miraculous happened: You comprehended and remembered the lesson much more easily. The same is true of writing. As McCloskey put it, “You do not learn the details of an argument until writing it in detail, and in writing the details you uncover the flaws in the fundamentals.”So don’t plan and think and ponder. Write.

And write early. Don’t wait until the last minute. Start building an outline as early as possible. This will help you understand where you need to do more work, gather more data, or rethink your premise. As James Buchanan used to tell his graduate students, the key to successful writing is to “apply ass to chair.” You can take breaks every so often (within reason). Try going for a walk or getting a cup of coffee. Psychologists have found that the brain actually works much better when people subconsciously process a question for some time (Smith). But return to the chair and write. As you do this more often, I promise that it will become less painful.

Matt Mitchell is a Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center. This post is an excerpt from the IHS “Creating Your Path to a Policy Career” guide.