This is Why Writing Well Matters

There are two articles I want you to know about. They are about the power of writing. They made me cheer.

One is Writing and Speaking by Paul Graham, the programmer and venture capitalist. His essays appear only a few times each year. I look forward to each one.

In this essay, Graham eloquently explains something that’s easy to forget: Speakers can be captivating, convincing—and devoid of ideas. There’s something about the act of establishing rapport with an audience that transcends content. In fact, it might render content irrelevant.

Graham arrived at this insight after he spoke at a conference:

There was another speaker who was much better than me. He had all of us roaring with laughter. I seemed awkward and halting by comparison. Afterward I put my talk online like I usually do. As I was doing it I tried to imagine what a transcript of the other guy’s talk would be like, and it was only then I realized he hadn’t said very much.

Graham writes out his speeches before delivering them, taking time to test ideas and polish sentences. This presents him with a tradeoff. On the one hand, he delivers solid content. On the other, he ends up reading parts of his speech—the passages he recently revised—directly from his notes. At these moments, he loses some connection with his audience.

It’s worth it, Graham writes. And here’s the reason:

Audiences like to be flattered; they like jokes; they like to be swept off their feet by a vigorous stream of words. As you decrease the intelligence of the audience, being a good speaker is increasingly a matter of being a good bullshitter. That’s true in writing too of course, but the descent is steeper with talks. Any given person is dumber as a member of an audience than as a reader.

Of course, there are speakers who have the best of both worlds. They offer good ideas and also engage audiences. Graham’s point is that these speakers work hard in order to transcend the limitations of their medium.

The second post I like is by Cal Newport, who blogs over at Study Hacks. In You Know What You Write, he presents his “textbook method for ultra-learning.” The essence of this method is “describing and organizing information in your own words”:

I call this the textbook method as you’re essentially writing your own textbook on a topic. One thing I like about it is that it works nicely with different levels of required detail. Whether you just need to organize what’s known about a subject, or build a deeper understanding of how results are derived, the textbook method seems to extract an optimum amount of learning out of the time spent.

In short, writing is the medium par excellence for crap detection. If everyone in America graduated from high school with this skill, imagine the political system we’d have.


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