why write? because it keeps you honest

January 26th, 2008

I have to admit that this writing business is a little eccentric. I mean who writes? Isn't that for authors? Most people don't even do much reading, let alone writing. And those who're not interested in reading more are definitely not inclined to start writing. What for?

I had never written anything before I went to junior high. Before that learning a language was all about you know, learning the language. Then they recast it as, well, using the language. They wanted to have discussions in class. And they gave us essay questions. It is a strange thing to do. You pick a topic off a list and you have to write an essay about it. About something you have no opinion on. I mean to what end? But once you learn the game, it's not hard. You just make up a standpoint and argue it. It doesn't matter what you decide, just as long as you can write a coherent argument. Of course, one other thing you learn is to lie. If the essay question is asking whether schools should assign more homework or less, you obviously argue for more. You give the people what they want, and they give you the higher grade. Telling people what they want to hear is a useful skill.

So that's what they teach you in school, to argue for standpoints. And to be... flexible in your stand. Frankly it makes no difference: what you write in an essay is not going to affect anything, so you can fake it without repercussions.

I guess I would be surprised to hear this back then, but this essay writing turns out to be a useful exercise. It's practical to be able to write arguments. It's not precisely the skill you need to get your job done, but it tends to come up, now and then.

So writing is a bit eccentric. And you may wonder why you should. Certainly, there are plenty of people writing about why you should be writing. Some will respond that they don't have anything to say, and therefore nothing to write. Others might say that they find reading more useful, because it gives them a chance to read material at a level they themselves could not produce.

Here is the thing. Writing is not some sort of special activity that comes with a license. If you have thoughts, you can write. Because that's all it is: expressing thought. It is a very different form of "thinking" than thought itself. It is impossible to just "write down" your thoughts, because they are all over the place. Your text, on the other hand, has to be something that holds together. So the process of writing is applying structure and plot (a progression) to a thought.

You may wonder why this is useful. Then think about how we communicate. We do not plug our brains together and synchronize our thoughts. We have to go through this process of taking a thought, verbalizing it in a specific, structured manner, and sending it across to the other person. This is the only way we know to interact. And however different this is from thinking itself, we are stuck doing this, it's the only way we can exchange ideas.

So where does honesty come into it? Let me motivate that. Verbal communication is a chaotic and erratic activity. It is also not accountable. If I tell you at the beginning of a conversation that I believe students should be assigned more homework, and if I later realize that this is an inconvenient standpoint in light of where the conversation has gone, I can change it. I can tell you that I never said I thought more homework was a good idea. And you can't prove that I didn't say it. I'm the authority on what I said, because I know my motives. And there is no record, all you can say is that you remember I said something different from what I'm claiming now. But I'm refuting that accusation. There's nothing you can do to make me accountable.

Notice that this is only the simplest example. I can twist words, I can take things out of context, I can be very unfair to your statements. And because it's a progressing, verbal exchange, it's quite difficult for you to pinpoint where I'm cheating and call me out. Do you think I could get away with the same thing if I had to put it in writing? I couldn't. Because you could point out any two spots in my text that are mutually contradictory and prove that my statement isn't even coherent. Or you could point to a place where I'm twisting words or taking things out of context and say that I'm cheating. It's easy to do that when there is evidence.

Given a choice, which would you rather have? Would you rather convince me with an argument that isn't coherent, but where the flaws are so well hidden that I can't figure out why your argument seems to be right even though something doesn't quite fit? Or would you rather have an actual coherent and convincing argument to present? Heck, even if you could convince me with completely flawed reasoning and I wouldn't know a thing, where only you would know the deception, wouldn't you rather have an honest argument?

In a sense, this is what writing is all about. It is taking a train of thought that seems to be a convincing argument and fleshing it out so that when you articulate it as a statement, it is coherent and convincing. And therefore it is about applying a certain rigor to a train of thought, checking whether something that seems convincing really is.

What might surprise you is that practicing to write not only improves writing ability, it also makes you more convincing in conversation. It happens because you begin to apply the same rigor when composing a statement in conversation that you do in writing. This counters the intuition that some people have about the internet. I'm talking about the school of thought that says talking to people on the internet isn't real, why don't you get a life. As if what we do "in here" (a strange name for a globally interconnected network) is completely disconnected from what happens "out there" (in your local neighborhood). But the mind is not so disjoint, when you practice writing arguments it affects how you construct arguments in speech as well. And it helps keep you honest, because even though cheating is much easier, you think to yourself I could not get away with this in writing.

Of course, there are many other reasons why writing is useful, and as I alluded to, there are plenty of bloggers out there who encourage blogging for various reasons. I don't find all of them convincing, but the one thing you can say for certain is that it's a different way of interacting with your thoughts. And it's a way to be precise about thoughts and have that train of thought on the books for something you can return to.

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