Everyone should write—not just professional writers.
You might say it’s easy for me to say that because I’m a writer. A singer can just as easily say, “Well, I believe that everyone should learn to sing.” But, out of all the creative means of expressions available to human beings, none intrinsically champions critical thinking, enhances creativity and improves clarity of thought quite like writing. Writing makes us smarter.
Here are some reasons (backed by science) why that is so:
1. Writing helps us untangle the messiness in our minds and allows for clearer thinking.
This is perhaps one of the most beautiful things about writing. In her book, Why We Write, curator Meredith Maran interviewed writers on why they write. Nearly all of them gave self-serving reasons, but there was a delightful, recurring motive of why people write: Writing provides a pocket of time in the present moment to reflect, digest and think deeply.
Joan Didion, author of Play It as It Lays said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.”
Armistead Maupin, author of Tales of the City explained, “I write to explain myself to myself. It’s a way of processing my disasters, sorting out the messiness of life to lend symmetry and meaning to it.”
It’s not uncommon for one to think they have totally grasped a concept until they write it down and realize there are aspects of the concept they hadn’t quite thought about.
Writing, then, is a way to organize our thoughts. It allows us to reflect and helps us gain new insights and achieve new perspectives. You think more deeply when you write, and that helps you see things more clearly.
2. Writing helps us absorb information better and learn significantly more.
Not only do you see things more clearly when you write, you also absorb information better and learn significantly more when you write down information given to you. That explains why students and attendees at conferences and meetings who take notes of lectures or speeches learn more than those who just listen to lectures and don’t write anything down.
Interestingly, according to a study published by Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer from Princeton University and University of California respectively, students who take notes on paper learn significantly more than their peers who take notes on a laptop.
The researchers found that laptop users generally type almost everything they hear without devoting much thought to what they are writing. Basically, they are not processing the meaning of what they are taking notes on; rather they are mindlessly transcribing. Transcribing doesn’t require much cognitive activity.
Those who take notes by hand, however, obviously cannot write down every single word the speaker or professor speaks. So they have to listen more attentively, summarize the lesson, list only the key points and, consequently, learn significantly more. Your brain is fully engaged in the process of comprehension when you write by hand, which means you remember the information delivered to you better.
Yes, we live in digital age and I bet you can’t imagine not using your laptop for work or studying, but you shouldn’t totally neglect writing in the good old fashioned way using a pen and paper.
3. Writing helps us process negative feelings and improves our emotional intelligence.
A 1994 study conducted by Stefanie Spera, James Pennebaker and Eric Buhrfeind tasked 63 unemployed engineers with writing to see the effect writing would have on their stress levels.
The participating engineers were divided into three groups: A writing control group (wrote about their plans for the day or activities in their job search), a second control group (did no writing), and the experimental group (did “expressive writing” where they kept journals of their deepest thoughts and painful experiences).
The engineers in the experimental “expressive writing” group wrote for 20 minutes every day, describing their feelings of loss, rejection, financial stress and so on in their search for a job. Three months later, “Five subjects in the experimental group got jobs, no writing control subjects got jobs, and two non-writing control subjects got jobs,” wrote the study authors.
Eight months later, only 24 percent of writing control subjects had accepted full-time jobs, 14 percent non-writing control subjects had accepted employment, and a whooping 53 percent of experimental subjects found full-time employment. The conclusion from the study:
“Writing about the thoughts and feelings surrounding job loss may enable terminated employees to work through negative feelings and to assimilate and attain closure on the loss, thus achieving a new perspective. Doing so may create a shift in the individual’s orientation that allows getting past the negative emotions, preventing them from resurfacing and perhaps sabotaging the job search in, for example, a job interview.”
In other words, the researchers discovered that suppressing negative feelings is a heavy burden, and writing it out, not for publication but for oneself, is like a balm to chapped lips. Writing it out makes you emotionally intelligent and apt to deal with unpleasant situations.
The psychological benefits of writing (particularly using a pen and paper) are like the gradual benefits of exercising. You don’t often see the gains immediately, but the transformation is happening underneath. When writing, ideas are crystallizing; emotions are examined and questioned (not merely glossed over); and, creativity peaks as dots are connected.
And yet, like exercise, even after understanding how beneficial it would be to your life and work, many people still actively shun writing. Those who write, though, speak and think clearer and are often much smarter.
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