How to Use Writing to Sharpen Your Thinking: Advice from Tim Ferriss

With the rise of AI tools like Chat­G­PT, which can gen­er­ate essay after essay near-instan­ta­neous­ly from even the sim­plest prompt, sure­ly the skill of writ­ing will soon go the way of arrow­head-sharp­en­ing. That would be easy to believe, any­way, amid the cur­rent tech­no­log­i­cal buzz. But ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist Paul Gra­ham, a man as well-placed as any to grasp these devel­op­ments and their prospects, sees things dif­fer­ent­ly. “Peo­ple are switch­ing to using Chat­G­PT to write things for them with almost inde­cent haste,” he wrote in a Twit­ter thread last year. “This is going to have unfor­tu­nate con­se­quences, just as switch­ing to liv­ing in sub­ur­bia and dri­ving every­where did. When you lose the abil­i­ty to write, you also lose some of your abil­i­ty to think.”

Gra­ham is also well-known as an essay­ist, and in recent years the iden­ti­ty of writ­ing and think­ing has become one of his major themes. He opens “Putting Ideas into Words” with the obser­va­tion that “writ­ing about some­thing, even some­thing you know well, usu­al­ly shows you that you did­n’t know it as well as you thought.” And “if writ­ing down your ideas always makes them more pre­cise and more com­plete, then no one who has­n’t writ­ten about a top­ic has ful­ly formed ideas about it.” In the video above, Tim Fer­riss (anoth­er fig­ure, like Gra­ham, well known in the greater Sil­i­con Val­ley uni­verse) offers a few tips on just how to form and improve your own ideas through the process of writ­ing.

“With­out writ­ing, it’s very hard to freeze your think­ing on paper so that you can sharp­en it,” elim­i­nat­ing “words that aren’t well-defined” or “things that don’t need to be said.” The first step to mas­ter­ing the craft is to “write any­thing” reg­u­lar­ly, with­out regard to struc­ture or qual­i­ty, which expos­es “where you are sharp and where you are dull in your think­ing.” From there, you must bear in mind the old saw that “writ­ing is rewrit­ing,” going on to per­form round after round of edits from your own per­spec­tive or dif­fer­ent imag­ined ones. Gra­ham sug­gests mak­ing the effort to read your writ­ing as if you were a com­plete stranger, some­one “who knows noth­ing of what’s in your head, only what you wrote.”

Fer­ris then rec­om­mends ask­ing peo­ple you know to read over your writ­ing. If you don’t have any con­nec­tions to pro­fes­sion­al writ­ers, any­one with legal train­ing should be able to bring a keen crit­i­cal eye to the task. Even a non-spe­cial­ist can help by point­ing out the parts they find con­fus­ing. Who­ev­er Fer­ris enlists as a proof­read­er, he employs what he calls the “ten per­cent rule,” request­ing that the read­er of the text indi­cate “the ten per­cent I should keep no mat­ter what.” Even if you have no desire to write pro­fes­sion­al­ly, this prac­tice will keep you in men­tal shape for your cho­sen pur­suit in life, or indeed, for the task of life itself. As Gra­ham tweet­ed last year, “Read­ing won’t be obso­lete till writ­ing is, and writ­ing won’t be obso­lete till think­ing is” — though the aver­age day on social media may con­vince you that the lat­ter has already come to pass.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Craft of Writ­ing Effec­tive­ly: Essen­tial Lessons from the Long­time Direc­tor of UChicago’s Writ­ing Pro­gram

George Orwell’s Six Rules for Writ­ing Clear and Tight Prose

Three Huge Vol­umes of Sto­ic Writ­ings by Seneca Now Free Online, Thanks to Tim Fer­riss

10 Writ­ing Tips from Leg­endary Writ­ing Teacher William Zinss­er

Umber­to Eco’s 36 Rules for Writ­ing Well (in Eng­lish or Ital­ian)

Neil Gaiman Talks Dream­i­ly About Foun­tain Pens, Note­books & His Writ­ing Process in His Long Inter­view with Tim Fer­riss

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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  • Aaron Merrill says:

    If triv­ial ram­bling in online forums or some ran­dom com­ment sec­tion hap­pens to count, I very well might be the sharpest thinker on my block.


    Seri­ous­ly though, I appre­ci­at­ed this reminder, and it’s a con­cept well worth con­sid­er­ing for those who haven’t.


  • Ted King says:

    I won­der how many mil­len­ni­als have ruined their lives by lis­ten­ing to this guy and think­ing that they just don’t have to work hard.

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