Writing to Learn

I start the same sentence over and over again. I struggle to get my ideas to behave on the page. I discover that what I thought was clear in my mind is complete nonsense when turned into words.

Yesterday I started reading some well reasoned arguments in a year old document at work. It was simple and clear. I started thinking that I really ought to find out who wrote it so I could delegate some work to them. I still can’t be sure that the words are mine. I don’t remember writing them, but it sounds like me. The voice is assured and more than a little pedantic. Those words seem to have escaped completely and are living on their own.

Professionally, words are my emmisaries. They string along like little agents spawned from my view of the world. I may get credit for them or I may not. They’re out there doing their work even without my knowledge or permission. I write more clearly now than during my academic career. My writing then was as convoluted as my theorizing.

While the writing produced can be useful to others, I generally no longer need the words I’ve written. I know what I think. It’s the act of writing that is useful to me personally. Simple prose demands clear ideas. Sometimes a thought distilled evaporates completely. More often the residue is true but unoriginal and can go off to do its work.

At this moment I am writing to learn to write. I’ve been reading books and essays on writing to hear what’s said about the process and craft. I’m writing to understand what I’ve been told.

Writing about writing is hard to pull off. An author talking about words on a printed page can’t avoid the self referential nature of writing about writing. The reader checks the writing itself to see whether what is there before them reflects the author’s views. a poorly written book about writing fails by defeating itself. Just as a parent loses authoritiy by screaming at their kid not to scream, a long sentence about writing short sentences is unconvincing even if perfectly lucid and coherent.

Many years ago I read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. The book is a classic, providing a simple and lucid account of how to write non-fiction simply and lucidly. Zinsser learned his craft as a journalist. I’m sympathetic to the style because most of my writing is for science and business, settings that are journalistic in their goals. My initial training came from journalists. In the late 1990’s, I was writing for The Motley Fool. The Fool had become one of the first big draws at America Online based on the active message boards and well written content that attracted novice investors like me. As they transitioned to the web and professionalized their writing staff, I left the orbit of the Gardner brothers, but the lessons I learned writing for them are with me still.

I’ve now been writing internet content for almost 15 years. The size of my audience has fluctuated as has the volume and quality of my output. For long stretches, I’ve written nothing, turning my attention to photography or life itself. The need to write comes back, asserting itself as it does right now.

I must need to learn something now. I’m reading about writing. I’ll read and write until I’ve had my full. Publishing is now easy and without cost. Instant access to so much material for free elevates the problems of learning to new levels. With so much to read, writing to learn is the way I’ll see it through.

My trips to the public library as a child also provided access to more books than I could read in a lifetime. The university libraries I had access to in college and medical school were even larger collections of content. Researching the scientific literature consumed weeks of my attention at a time during my faculty years.

For the information to be used and not just consumed, some output is required. What do I think? How do I imagine the life on board a British ship during the Napoleonic Wars? What is the role of intracellular calcium in brain damage during and after a stroke? One learns quickly that the information swirling about in the mind evaporates like mist when asked to explain it to some one else. The transfer of understanding from one mind to another is why we write. But it can’t be done, until we learn.

In Writing To Learn, Zinnser tells us that the best path to learning is the writing itself. Assembling, synthesizing and expressing thought in written form is a method of clarifying and codifying knowledge. Extending the arguments of On Writing Well, he places clarity and simplicity of expression as the ultimate goals of writing to lead thought itself to clarity and simplicity. Zinnser being Zinnser, he pulls off the trick of writing about writing once again.

Clarity and simplicity are the goals. Volume is the challenge. There are so many authorities and so many facts. The universe is incomprehensibly huge and our own small world to big to know. What is it about writing that can distill that complex and chaotic experience into something manageable and known?

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