Writing for insight

The self-administered Socratic dialog

I held myself back from writing and publishing for the longest time because I believed I didn't have much to write about. A recent conversation helped me reframe that belief and start writing daily. The shift was to realise that the only way I'll have things to write about is to write - thinking is the outcome of writing, not the other way around.

When you start writing about your ideas you realise how flimsy they are, how fragile the assumptions you take for granted in conversations or in your inner monologue. That's because before you start writing, you haven't done much thinking. Thinking in the outcome, writing is the process.

In this piece I want to lay out how I try to write for insight. My process for writing with the purpose of thinking: noticing, struggling, and iterating.


My siblings, mother and fiancée gifted me a camera for my 27th birthday. It's a beautiful object and I take a lot of joy in learning to use it. It's a bit of a cliche - pun intended - but it has changed the way I see things. When I walk with a camera, I notice the world in ways I wouldn't otherwise. Sometimes, I am able to capture these things in an image that others can appreciate. Most often though, I can't. The picture is blurry, the subject moved too fast for me to capture it, or the picture is fine, but they just can't see the point - it's not an interesting picture to them.

Seconds before biting my thumb with might

But in truth it doesn't matter what they think because I've already enjoyed the benefit of a walk with my eyes wide open: noticing beauty, hunting for interesting scenes, or creating them. The point is not the picture, it's going out with the intention to put something into focus and perhaps having the good fortune of finding something worth sharing.

When I make writing a regular practice, I read with more attention, listen to conversations better, and am more receptive to stories and metaphors in all situations. In a digital space filled with information and great conversations, I know that when I write I no longer feel like I'm drinking from the infinite internet content firehose. I am deliberate with what I choose to give my attention to, and how I engage with that content.

Reading or listening to a book or a podcast takes on a conversational quality. I am not merely absorbing the prose of a nameless figure, but I pay attention to the arguments, how I would have phrased them, whether I agree, and I notice ideas. These become the starting point of a train of thoughts that becomes my own. Reading becomes a conversation.


What I've noticed is that it doesn't really matter what I start writing about - my thinking naturally converges on the topics I am curious about. I can choose an arbitrary starting point, and ultimately my I gravitate high-density to themes or ideas.

Once I have my starting point, a theme, an idea, a metaphor - I start pulling on it like a thread. I write a sentence, and that brings a question which then pulls my thinking in a given direction. Sometimes it leads to great and new ideas. Sometimes not, and it's fine. I'll catch it later and delete it or improve on it. This is where I typically form new ideas and connections that I wouldn't have otherwise done.

Take this piece: it started out with a title - 'How I write' - because I had been thinking about reading and writing quite a lot in the past few days. My first thought when I see that title is the question "why do I even write?" The next thought is the camera as a great analogy for how writing helps me look at things differently. And thought after thought, we eventually get to the idea of writing for insight.

The difficulty I often face at that stage is that the ideas I come up with are typically banal generalities or unfounded claims. I used to see this as evidence that I had nothing interesting to say. Now treat it as a signal that I need to keep writing until I land on something better. I once read about the metaphor of the writer's mind as a water cistern with mud at the bottom. When you turn the tap on, at first only murky water trickles. Your job as a writer is keep the tap open and let the mud go because after a while, the water becomes clear and flows in abundance (great visual explainer).

Editing - or iterating

What I've describe above is not entirely dissimilar to a self-administered Socratic process, a sort of monologue for insight. The process of giving birth to ideas is a messy one because not all ideas are equally good and well supported. That's why the third step of the process is going back to my writing with a critical eye.

I start by looking at the ideas themselves and their ordering. To evaluate individual ideas, I ask "why?" and "so what?" for each proposition. It's a forcing function to a) root your ideas in a cohesive argument, and spot where that argument is not so strong, and b) make sure the implications of a proposition are fully laid out.

The editing process is also a time to re-order ideas. Most ideas aren't new but there is much value in ordering them insights and concepts that makes sense of a given situation. To make that process easier, I write sentence by sentence - every time I am done with one, I hit enter to go to a new line. I can then evaluate each sentence on its own and re-order them when I start building paragraphs from individual sentences.

The final, and perhaps hardest phase of the editing process is bringing someone else in the document. Having a third-party's perspective on your text is a forcing function for clarity, insight, and brevity. One practice I'm working to develop is asking for specific feedback around the parts that surprise them, and those where they disagree. That helps me identity which sections are the most valuable, and those that need more work to make my point clearer and my argument more compelling.

The last part of the "editing for insight" process is a ruthless trimming of anything that doesn't serve the main point. There I'm optimising for insight to word ratio - it's the biggest predictor of the content I enjoy and aspire to create.

There's my process for writing. In truth, it's not so much a process as it is a cycle, that I try to go through at a high pace: notice interesting things and ideas, develop a point a view, and critically test it to improve it, and back to writing about the newfound ideas.

Thanks to Patrick Mayr for our conversations and the inspiration I draw from his own writing practice.

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