Why You Should Write

Fiction or non-fiction; published or unpublished.

Arjun Madgavkar

Mar 30, 2023

It might have been said with more brevity, but not with more piquancy. -

Gillespie Lamb

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A regular writing practice is on par with exercise or meditation or socialization or nutrition: it is essential to a healthy life. Though different types of writing can produce different benefits, there exists a general set of rewards that exists regardless of the genre. Just as all gym-goers improve their overall health while their physical changes depend on the differing workouts, all writers improve their intellectual lives whether they write novels or essays.

That said, there are certain exceptions to the rule as some modes of writing are at best neutral and at worst harmful. Logistical emailing devoid of depth is an example of the former as one does not improve his thinking by green-lighting project plans; and tweeting and texting are often examples of the latter—the medium of short-form rapid communication tends to discourage nuance and encourage lazy language.

The practices that are valuable, then, are focused periods of time that promote lucidity, eloquence, and introspection. In the past, technological constraints forced men and women to regularly engage in such work through the practice of letter writing, but we are far away from that world now. We are staking our claim as one of the first generations to break this habit since it developed in the 1700s.

The consequences are both dire and unsurprising. Even though we are more “educated” than ever, few in modernity think clearly, appreciate language, and speak well. This mental dilapidation is frighteningly visible: look at our political leaders; look at the daily activities we engage in; listen to the vacuous discourse that is commonplace amongst even the most well-educated.

Picking up the pen will not fix all of these issues, but it is one of many necessary steps. Whether or not one publishes his musings, the very act of writing regularly is a rehabilitation against this degradation: it will clarify our thinking, and it will restore our appreciation for language.

But, until one begins to write regularly, it can be hard to see the need for it. We default to believing that private thought or shared discourse is intellectually sufficient without understanding that the process of writing itself aids in the formation of new ideas, helps to discard illogical ones, expands upon half-baked musings, and chisels away at excess material until crystallized notions are all that remain. Paul Graham states these ideas succinctly in his essay The Need to Read:

A good writer doesn't just think, and then write down what he thought, as a sort of transcript. A good writer will almost always discover new things in the process of writing. And there is, as far as I know, no substitute for this kind of discovery. Talking about your ideas with other people is a good way to develop them. But even after doing this, you'll find you still discover new things when you sit down to write. There is a kind of thinking that can only be done by writing.

The type of writing that one does can generate different versions of clarity. Poetry and fiction tend to shine a light on the internal world, whereas essays and non-fiction generally explore the external. More often than not, however, the borders between these worlds are blurred: 1984 is the acme of political analysis, and Into the Wild is a deep exploration of natural beauty and the workings of the adventurous mind.

The common thread that runs through all forms of writing is that the process illuminates dark corners of the author’s mind. It forces you to re-examine your thoughts: Was that metaphor really the right one? Is there a more subtle word I can use there? What assumption underlies that point? How would a skeptical reader disagree with that sentence?

Regularly engaging in this process does not only change our minds as we write, but our experience of life outside of it.

To take one of many examples, imagine that you go to the beach this afternoon. The scene is lovely, so you take a photo and post it online. How much did you notice about the world around you? How much did you pay attention to how it made you feel?

Now, imagine that you’ve decided to write a short descriptive piece each day. Did you notice the strength of the breeze? Did you watch the color change in your friend’s eyes? Merely knowing that you will eventually write brings you into the present moment and makes you vastly more observant than you would otherwise be.

And if you instead decide to write essays, as many benefits will come your way though they might be slightly different in nature. Inevitably, you will sharpen your perspectives on certain issues and—if you write in good-faith—you will understand other view points more deeply. In turn, it will become easier to spot logical gaps and reach more concrete truths in daily life.

All of this is to say that the connection between thought and written expression is closer than most of us think. George Orwell expressed this sentiment beautifully in his essay Politics and the English Language (emphasis mine):

[An] effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.

But the cycle does not stop there. The more one writes, the more he develops mastery over language, which in turn leads to improved oral communication as I detailed in Dead Poetry Society:

[It] is a hellacious task to become more articulate through speech. Since you are operating in real-time, you do not have access to a dictionary or a thesaurus, so the best you can do is try to choose the right word from your existing knowledge base. But even that is difficult: the listener on the other end has limited patience for minute-long pauses while you search for a word that’s a few (important) degrees off from the one that immediately came to mind.

Conversely, we have an abundance of time and resources when we write letters. This abundance is part of the reason that writing is the best way to expand our vocabulary. Reading is a close second, but the words that we learn while writing stick more because it is an active pursuit: we put more time into searching for exactly the right word, and then we use it in a personal context, which makes it hard to forget.

Of course, there are many components that constitute compelling speech—ranging from eye contact to cadence—that writing does not help with; but it is difficult to find an exercise that is more useful for developing story-telling abilities and control over a wide range of language that can be applied to different audiences.

This mastery of dialogue should not be taken lightly—it is nothing short of a superpower. As my friend, Ben, once said: “The right words in the right order can get you nearly anything you want.” Writing helps us put together the right sentences that are still unsaid.

Yet this interest in language takes us even further by awakening a voracity for reading that lays dormant in most people. A growing hunger for well-written passages naturally changes our preferences for entertainment, and with little effort on the part of the individual, he is more inclined to spend his days losing himself in high-quality literature rather than attention-grabbing clips. Indeed, this is why Haruki Murakami is uninterested in social media:

Generally speaking, the quality of writing isn’t very good. Reading good writing and listening to good music are incredibly important things in life. So, to phrase it from the other way around, there’s nothing better than not listening to bad music and not reading bad writing.

The compounding effect of writing more frequently is tremendous, and so the practice of putting thoughts to paper should be taken as seriously as the other facets of a life well-lived—no matter if you are writing poetry or prose, no matter if you are writing for yourself or others.