Writing Well

A desperate attempt to justify the existence of college writing classes by articulating the importance of writing well, in order to make me feel better about how I’m forced to take them instead of the other 3700 courses offered at Harvard.

Why Learn Writing?

The Short Answer

So we can articulate, communicate, and think with nuance, elegance, and grace. Thereby bringing us, then others, away from half-truths. At a minimum, this makes for more interesting discussions, because subtleties and intricacies are far more fascinating than the clichéd “night in which all cows are black.” At most, it makes for a better world with less deception and more truth, truths that have the potential to increase flourishing and decrease suffering.

But Now, the Longer Version

A) Articulation

The more important a matter, the harder it is to say it right. Writing well enables us to accurately represent our thoughts. This prevents us from defaulting into common cliches that brush over all nuance. Without the ability for sophisticated writing, we have only slogans at our disposal. Unfortunately, slogans, which literally means “battle cries,” are useful in promoting hatred, anger, and division, but not peaceful positive-sum engagement.

Writing well is therefore powerful. It enables us to articulate new ideas and fresh perspectives that break out of the prison of bastardized truth-sounding falsehoods that we resort to when we can’t say what we think. Examples—extremely pro-life/pro-choice, pro-Putin/anti-Putin, pro-vaccines/anti-vaccines, utilitarian/Kantian, loving/hating a person.

B) Communication

Beyond enabling us to say what we think, writing well is doubly powerful for enabling us to communicate the new-found anti-cliches to others. It is hard to do so with grace, that is, without being misinterpreted, because we always comprehend things using our old conceptual structures (metaphors, analogies, and all that), and it is much easier cognitively to immediately put ideas into a pre-established box—c.f. politics. Only by writing things well, really well, with precise words and the right flow of ideas (in the form of sentence and paragraph order), do we have a chance to break the box into the communication of nuance.

And more, it is much more fun to read things that actually say something. Since good writing says more than bad writing, it’ll win over bad writing over time, even if bad writing garners more attention short term for sensationalism. See how documents like company PR statements, welcome addresses, and hit pieces, which can be skimmed over without any loss in content, have no staying power, and how the Gettysburg address, which was not extraordinarily popular in its time, managed to survive through the generations.

C) Thinking

In articulation and communication, writing was thought as representational activity that enables us to capture the thoughts that are already there. This is sometimes the case. But writing also helps us think by enabling us to dwell prolongedly on a single topic and forcing us to organize our messy cauldron of thoughts into a narrative. It intervenes with thinking not just at the end, by collecting it, but is generative of good thinking and truths, and is therefore all the more important.

A CS analogy is apt here. In The Mythical Man Month, Brooks talks about how the “the incompletenesses and inconsistencies of our ideas. Thus it is that writing, experimentation, ‘working out’ are essential disciplines for the
theoretician.” Writing well does not only help us communicate our thoughts. It is the prerequisite for thinking.

Now here’s J.A. Prufrock, in the famous poem, unable to talk about his frustrations and impasses in love.

That is not what I meant, at all;

That is not it, at all.


It is impossible to say just what I mean! 

Oh poor Prufrock. I bet he didn’t take writing classes in college. Warren, don’t be resentful that you have to take College Writing. See. It is important.

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