Good Thinking ≠ Good Writing

Twitter has had a cluster of quotes and conversations about writing well being thinking well in the past few days.  This is one of those opinions that is so misleading and so unhelpful, but yet will weigh heavily on the minds of would-be and already writers.  Please know, at least in my experience, it is categorically untrue.

I didn’t have the luxury of being a wunderkind writer that wrote a brilliant debut at 18 and went on to success after lucrative success.  I’ve been hugely lucky in that I’ve been able to spend my career focused on words, but that’s been a function of putting my obsession with words into the service of some pretty mundane environments.  Over the years, I’ve served as an editor for a lot of people, a lot of smart people, working in the biggest bureaucracy we’ve got.

Every one of them, I promise you, thinks.  And thinks well. The vast majority of them do not write well.  And the vast majority of them believe that, just because they can think, they can write.  Which makes convincing them of the need for an editor quite difficult.  When you go to someone and ask them to re-arrange a paragraph, or break a sentence up, and they write like they think, all of a sudden, you’re criticizing their thought process.  That’s a pretty personal criticism.  Most of us feel like we’re scooping a bit of our brain out when we write and smearing it all over the page.  To have someone say “do over” creates defensiveness and resistance.

Which is unfortunate, because it is categorically wrong to say that thinking well translates into writing well. Maybe I am misunderstanding.  Maybe the implication isn’t that think well = write first draft well.  But even if that wasn’t what was meant, that’s too often how it is taken, so I’m going to carry on. There are a two reasons why equating thinking well and writing well spells disaster. In no particular order:

1) Thinking is not always orderly.  You jump from sensation to impression to memory to intuitive leap and back.  When you’re thinking about an area that you have significant expertise in, you jump whole steps in the chain of logic because those are thoughts you’ve already had before and you can short-cut them.  Get an engineer writing a paper for the CEO and the CEO is going to be annoyed because it isn’t going to make sense.  Why?  Because the engineer is going to assume that the CEO knows some of the same things the engineer knows and so he’s going to skip those parts, which is going to make the CEO feel stupid or annoyed or convince the CEO that the engineer is stupid, none of which are good outcomes.  This problem shows up in fiction too – I can see everything that I’m writing about clearly, I know how everyone feels and why they do what they do.  That may or may not be clear to a reader, though, and if I don’t go back and adequately line up the bread crumbs, my audience is never going to get where I’m going.  We think first and then impose logic second.  But if we want an audience to come along with us, whatever the subject or the goal is, then we’ve got to offer them the second iteration, the part that has been subjected to logic; not the first, the initial random blurt of knowledge, impressions, imagination, feeling, and assumptions.

2) The initial draft in writing is about the writer.  What do you know, what do you want to say, what do you see, what do you feel.  That’s the only place the writer’s ego should be allowed to play.  Every subsequent draft is about the reader, and making it about the reader is an entirely different mindset, a whole new set of skills.  If all you care about is what it looks like from behind your eyes, keep a journal.  If you want to write for an audience, figure out how to care more about what they need than what you need.  If you ever find yourself saying “just read through the first thirty pages, it gets really good after that” then you haven’t made the leap.  An author asks strangers to give up both money and time to join them on a journey.  That’s pretty damn presumptuous, and the author has to earn the right to that presumption.  That means editing.  That means that thinking well does not mean writing well.  Because if it did, you wouldn’t have to re-write and edit until your eyes bleed.

It is true that disciplining yourself to writing well over a period of years – and many years – makes it easier to create a first draft that needs progressively less editing.  I’ve been doing this for so long that I write to order my thoughts instead of writing, then creating order out of the initial blurt.  I think more clearly when I write, my writing doesn’t improve because I’m thinking more clearly.  In fact, the messier it is up there, if I can cram more ideas into the space between my ears and leave them alone to rub up on each other, the more depth I can bring to the page.  I’m better as a writer when my thinking is messier.  It is in the writing process that order is imposed.

But I’d never try and bring that initial mess to an audience as a book they were supposed to pay good money for.  I’m asking them to trust me.  I have to earn that trust, and the first step down that road starts with putting away the notion that every word, exactly as it flows forth from my fingers, is perfect and perfectly arranged because I’ve been granted the gift of thinking flawlessly.

So if the assertion that thinking well means writing well has intimidated you or empowered you to ignore the need to edit everything ruthlessly…  in the first case, take a deep breath.  It’s a rotten assertion.  In the second case, get over yourself.  Smart does not make you aware of the audience.  The thing you create through writing is an act of service to the audience.  That places some heavy demands on you, the author.  The first of which is to set your ego aside and admit that your first draft is going to suck.  It’s okay, though.  You’re in good company.

“The first draft of anything is shit.”  ― Ernest Hemingway

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Good Thinking ≠ Good Writing

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