Don't Think and Write, They Say

Online writing beyond bowel movements.

Marco Giancotti,


Even the ancients knew that writing helps you think and understand. Seneca recommended an alternation between reading and writing, "so that the fruits of one's reading may be reduced to concrete form by the pen." The Renaissance statesman and philosopher Michel de Montaigne—the father of the modern essay genre—said that writing essays was his way of studying himself. There are also the famous quotes by Forster—"how do I know what I think until I see what I say?"—and Didion—"I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear"—so you can pick the flavor you fancy the most.

More recently, Paul Graham has made this point repeatedly, for instance in his "Writing, Briefly" mini-essay:

Writing doesn't just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you're bad at writing and don't like to do it, you'll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated.

I've seen this over and over myself with my own work. I had vague ideas floating around in the back of my head for years, but for three decades I did nothing about them. They were disconnected sketches that would pop up in my consciousness and immediately disappear, never to be seen again.

Then, the instant I found a convenient way to write things down in an organized way (the note-taking tool Obsidian), the ideas started pouring out in text form at an astounding rate. I began writing an amount of notes equivalent to more than a full book every year, without even trying to be prolific.

Through writing, I can not only make my thoughts more concrete, but linking and assembling them into larger, novel concepts has become much easier than I ever hoped. New, sharp ideas emerge sometimes as if by themselves, all because of the habit of typing things down.

Writing for oneself is invaluable, but writing for others is an even stricter test. Every Plankton Valhalla essay I write—and I consciously call them "essays" for this very reason—is a titanic effort for me. I only start a new piece when I know exactly what I want to write. I always have lots of notes about each idea I want to convey in the essay. Yet the work of piecing them together into something coherent and easy to follow is full of false starts and of going back to the drawing board.

It is not rare for me to take a PV essay through three or four or even five drafts. In one case, I've taken more than six months to finish an essay, because I realized that my framing wouldn't work—either in general or for that website's intended audience—so I had to radically re-frame it a couple of times until I was happy with it.

That writing can be slow, painful and emotionally exhausting is another old story we've all heard and witnessed, but I think it's another face of the same coin. Thanks to those laborious months of rewriting now I have much better framings in my hands to talk about those complex ideas.

This feels very healthy. If you like or need to think deeply, all you have to do is spit some blood writing. But—as is often the case—there are strong incentives in the unhealthy direction. Listen to the online gurus, and you'll soon find that the First Commandment of Online Writing is to publish as fast and as regularly as you can. So Max Read tells us:

The internet and feed-based social platforms have constructed an insatiable demand for content, so if you can produce content mechanically, without requiring expensive resources (such as time, wit, or subject-specific knowledge), you’re in an excellent position to take advantage. But most importantly, this demand is so insatiable that there is currently no real economic punishment for content overproduction. You will almost never lose money, followers, attention, or reach simply from posting too much. [Emphasis theirs.]

In other words, if you want to be successful with your writing, don't waste your time thinking while you type: just type something, anything, and throw it at your readers. They won't mind.

I find this mindset mildly infuriating, because it seems to undermine the wonderful thought-focusing side of writing that I described above. At the same time, I find it infuriating because he's right. It's true, as Read writes in the same post, that the most successful online writers all share the trait of logorrhea.

In a footnote, Read explains that "regularity" expresses the skill necessary for an online writer better than "consistency":

“consistency” sort of implies quality to me, and reliable quality is of only passing importance compared to reliable production. “Regularity,” on the other hand, reminds me, appropriately, of bowel movements.

This reminds me a passage from one of Natsuhiko Kyogoku's novels (a passage that I read some 15 years ago and that I'll have to paraphrase because I can't find it any more). In it, the protagonist—a minor post-war author—reflects on the boastful claim of one of his fellow writers, who told him that he wrote so regularly that his work came as automatically as his bowel movements. The protagonist reflected for a while (and not without some envy), until he came to the unexpected realization: "isn't that equivalent to admitting that you're selling your feces to your readers?"

To be fair, Read is writing in the very specific context of "how to aggressively monetize your writing", preaching to an audience of aspiring online creators, so he has to approach it from a pragmatic, businesslike angle. "Thinking is great and important," he seems to be saying, "but it's not going to buy your baby's diapers if people can't find what you wrote."

He would be right to say that. The reason that kind of reasoning annoys me is not that Max Read is a corrupted soul or a liar (he seems like a nice guy and writes lots of good stuff). The reason it annoys me is that he's plainly exposing a sad reality about the world: the internet—and perhaps the world of publishing at large—is built to punish thoughtful writing. Being prolific, not reflective, is what earns you an audience and possibly your bread. Implicit in this seems to be the observation that those successful logorrheic writers just happen to have interesting things to say without the need to spend much time thinking about them.

The cognitive dissonance within me, not Max Read, is what bothers me.

But there's another side to this realization, something that affects not only the aspiring writers but all readers on the planet. It's that we, the readers, are the victims of a race to the bottom for the amount of re-thinking and re-evaluating of one's ideas.

A smart, prolific writer will always have some interesting idea off the cuff, something that they can write in half a morning and receive kudos for. If that was interesting, imagine what they could have produced if only they had spent five, ten, twenty more hours thinking, doubting, musing about it.

Of course, you might say, they can always re-think and deepen their thoughts later on in their rich torrent of future writing. I agree that could happen, at a certain level, and for certain writers. But it's against the social side of human nature. People hate admitting they were wrong, and smart, successful writers tend to hate it even more. How many popular authors have you seen write "thinking about it, my previous opinion was superficial and short-sighted, so I've re-thought it from scratch"? There are exceptions (Wittgenstein famously did just that), but that's what they are: exceptions.

Even assuming, however, that the best fast writers were all eager to denounce their own mistakes and disown their old thoughts (aka "working in public"), that might not be very good news for us readers. Sure, it might be interesting and instructive to see the evolution of an idea, and small tidbits of past iterations may still bring usable insights even after the core ideas have been rendered obsolete. But I'm not sure it's worth the opportunity cost.

Having all writers iterate in public would mean that we're forced to read their half-baked, interesting-but-provisional views most of the time, only to be told, later on, that we might as well not have read them at all. And for what? Only because those writers want to jam the foot in the door, because they want to avoid being buried too deep under the daily steaming pile of other people's half-baked writing. It's nothing short of a tragedy of the commons. All roads seem to lead to the intellectual's equivalent of TikTok.

Yet they're right. People's memories are ultra-short, and if you, the writer, don't publish something, the readers' eyeballs will read what another, less inhibited writer has published. You should, indeed, publish more often if you want people to read what you write. So what can the writer who wants to write thoughtfully do in all this?

Short of rebelling against the system (ping me if you have ideas), the aspiring thoughtful writer can reframe things. I especially like the framing given by Visakan Veerasamy in some of his Twitter threads.

the cool thing about writing is that very often the coolest things you say are not the things you're trying to say, but the things you accidentally-peripherally invent on the fly to support you trying to say the thing you're trying to say

Visakan Veerasamy

Thinking deeply while writing might be great for you, but it's not necessarily or always how the good writing happens.

If you want to write well, I think you may need to spend more time identifying good writing than actually writing.

Visakan Veerasamy

Finding the gems in the midst of things you've already written is faster than iterating through a single piece until it's perfect.

There’s almost always something interesting about everything if you find the right angle on it. The cool thing is, you don’t actually need to find the smart angle! Writing is cheap, basically free. Write all the angles. Whatever comes to mind, whatever tickles your fancy. Write stupid, edit smart. By using your own taste to retrospectively identify what’s good.

Visakan Veerasamy

Visa (the author of these quotes) produces a stunning amount of insights, mostly on Twitter but also in the form of books, videos, and more. He's clearly doing something right. What he's saying is superficially similar to Max Read's bleak message: you have to write a lot and fast. Maybe too fast to think very deeply about it. But his explanation is very different. He proposes that writing fast can still lead to good writing—not out of an innate ability to spit out good ideas, but out of serendipity, contingency, and good taste.

More than that, maybe thinking too deep about what you're writing isn't a guarantee of good results. There is a point beyond which thinking more gives you diminishing returns. You get to the sweet spot by writing fast enough to roughly explore a vast space of ideas, then you learn to filter the good ideas—and only those you actually want to develop—at the editing stage. No need to throw stuff that you know is crap at your readers, trusting that the next micro-video they watch will make them forget about it. With this approach, you can maintain a certain level of quality and polish, but it's probably going to take less effort than writing one painstaking, final piece at a time.

There is one more, complementary, approach that might be worth trying, though. Why not look for a middle ground between the fast-and-mechanical and the tortuous-and-deep? Why not do the thinking on the page, not as a long series of pedantic re-writings, but as a relatively self-contained "stream of reasoned thought"? Begin with a question, try to answer it, try to answer it again and again, all in the same text, discovering as you go where it will take you. And don't expect to always find a definite answer.

This way of writing might not be suitable for all contexts and audiences, but it's faster and allows for some healthy evolving uncertainty. In fact, I tried that on this very page, and I'd love to know from you how it went. ●

Cover image:

Photo by Claire Muller, Unsplash