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Writing: The Most Misunderstood Activity

Ahmed Soliman
4 min read
Writing: The Most Misunderstood Activity
Leonid Pasternak's The Passion of Creation

Two problems with writing: first, it looks easy because it uses the same symbols of speech; second, everyone who was taught the alphabet and basic sentence structures can produce something similar to writing when it’s not. Writers, however, know it’s painfully hard to produce one readable, unambiguous paragraph. On the other hand, casual text producers (read: the majority) think it takes nothing special to write. This amateur attitude makes writing the most misunderstood activity.

A lot of people misunderstand writing—including the brightest knowledge workers. I’m one myself and have worked with designers, engineers, developers, and marketers. Most sucked when it came to putting words on the screen. Every time I looked closely at their text I could peer into their minds, and inside lay a thought process oblivious to what writing really means.

Let’s change that. I used to misunderstand writing too, and my style suffered severely as a result. Now not only is it miles better, but I’m also a smarter human thanks to realizing the true meaning of writing. To get there, I had to spot the misconceptions I’ve been fed about writing. Reading this piece, I’m sure you’ll at least identify a couple you can build on to change your writing mindset.

1. I wrote only when I was told

I’m starting with this one as it falls under the I can’t believe I used to do this category. I used to write when, and only when, I was told.

This misconception encompasses all the writing assignments I received at school, the emails I had to write at work, the government forms I often filled grudgingly. If there was no outside need to write, I didn’t bother.

It was obvious I was allowed to write about whatever, whenever; I knew I had the freedom to manipulate words however I wanted. But when you’re taught to treat writing as a clerical activity, your brain tends to overlook the many lead-ins you can get from intrinsically deciding to write.

If you have never done it before, I can’t stress how empowering it feels to sit down and write out of sheer desire. There’s no grade, no deadline, no judgment, and even no audience. You’re doing it because you’re wrestling with a matter—maybe you’re considering your next move or learning about something you deeply care about. Surprisingly, I realized you often get rewarded for writing willingly.  

Once you break away from the fallacy of needing an occasion to write, you’ll be pleasantly startled by the new possibilities and creative openings emerging from your words. Fresh ideas, new angles, and unorthodox (even obvious) answers will come rushing, propelling you to a flood of potentials. Best of all, you’ll have recorded all your thoughts, affording you the luxury of owning an ever-growing tree of knowledge.

2. I wrote only to document

Remember when I described the majority as casual text producers? I did so because there’s a big difference between actually writing and merely producing text. If you write only to document, you’re not a writer, but a text producer.

What do I mean by this? Text producers don’t add to the conversation. They don’t write to generate ideas, but to record existing ones. They’re not involved in the activity nor attached to the result.

Think about the sad essay we all used to write for your (insert language here) class: back then you didn’t have permission to generate original ideas. You were forced to cite as many sources as possible to prove your piece is well-researched. It didn’t matter if the work failed to offer a new take as long as you followed a depressing format and quoted whatever papers your instructor was a fan of. Then came work: you wrote emails nobody wanted to read or repeated phrases everyone wanted to hear.

That’s how I used to write: coming up with new ways of looking at things wasn’t the goal. Instead writing served either as a tool of record or proof of attendance. Tragically, because of this misconception I didn’t think I had anything to say. I passively consumed books and courses without even considering the possibility of contributing. Since I mistook it for a simple documentation tool, it didn’t occur to me that writing also worked for generating ideas. But now, things have changed: this realization transformed my writing from a simple tool of text production to a sophisticated system of meaning-making.

You can start now: open your favorite text processor and pick a topic you’re wrestling with. A project they’ve been debating at work? Stop saying Thanks for the update and let them know what you really think. A book stirred something in you? Go beyond highlighting paragraphs and write new ones. Instead of inertly listening to ideas, participate with your own. Make it a point to write only to create, rather than writing only to document.

3. I wrote only when I was ready

How can I tell what I think till I see what I say? –E.M. Forster

I made a lot of progress upon realizing I could write without permission. I went even farther when I knew the difference between generating thought and producing text. But the true breakthrough happened when I gave up on the idea of writing only when I was ready.  

I’ve long associated writing with accomplishment: I marveled at books with handsome covers and clear prose, blogs with great UI and engaging takes. I thought writing was a product, not a process. If you still think of writing this way, I don’t blame you, for writing is elusive: the result obstructs us from seeing the activity.

I can’t tell you how many promising ideas I had—not necessarily for an essay or a book; it could’ve been for a product, a course, a better way to work, or a new approach to a stubborn problem—that didn’t make it to the world simply because I didn’t sit down to write as I thought about them.

But I later realized writing is many things, one of which is the finished article you’re reading now. Mainly though, it’s a tool for thinking things through.

When you think by writing, you’re forced, in a good way, to convert the fragmented speech you internally mumble to yourself into a coherent body of work. And when you’re done, you naturally look at what you wrote. Does it feel right to you? Something’s missing here, I hear you say. So you add another sentence (i.e., thought) to get closer. Now it’s clearer, but not by a lot. So you rearrange sentences. A new idea emerges; what a surprise! But is it really? You’re doing the work. So you write it down. One more. You see where this is going? OK, I’ll leave you to it.