6 ways that clear writing clarifies muddy thinking

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There is so much blather that passes for thinking these days. If you imagine that you have a good argument, write about it. You’ll make it far stronger (or maybe figure out that you were wrong).

I don’t care if your thesis is “Rex Tillerson is the best secretary of state in decades,” “Landscape architecture is a waste of time,” or “Social media marketing is dead.” If you’re just tweeting or opining or shouting at other people on CNN, you’re not really thinking (yet). Write it down in an essay, a blog post, or a meaty email. Here’s how your thinking will be better when you do:

1. Figure out what the headline really is

Before you can write anything, you need a headline. After you’re done writing it, you often find that the headline doesn’t fit: your actual point is something a little different. When you rewrite your title and lede, you reorient your thinking towards the strongest possible argument.

2. Identify the problem you’re trying to solve

The only purpose of business writing is to create a change in the reader. That means identifying a problem and, if possible, describing a solution.

As you attempt to write what you think, you’ll find that the first step is to identify the problem clearly. Defining a problem clarifies your thinking; conversely, if you don’t know what the problem is, your thinking is inevitably muddled.

3. Find and fix redundancy

You may think you have three good reasons to believe what you believe. Write them down. Look at them. Are they really just the same thing repeated with slight variations? It’s a lot easier to identify circular reasoning and redundancy in writing. That will force you to research and come up with more diverse arguments, which will strengthen your thinking.

4. Research examples and statistics

Naked argumentation becomes pretty boring in writing. Convincing arguments demand evidence, usually in the form of examples and statistics. Researching them will make your writing better even as it clarifies the proof points in your argument.

5. Fend off counterarguments

How will your argument hold up under fire? In writing, you need to research opposing viewpoints and identify what’s wrong with them. Until you’ve done that, your thinking is weak and vulnerable. You’ll never win anybody over until you can put yourself in their shoes. And sometimes, researching counterarguments actually show you that you’re wrong.

6. Reason out the consequences

Just as writing begins with stating the problem, it ends with identifying the consequences of your argument. Until you’ve put those consequences down in writing, you haven’t finished your piece. This takes your reasoning further — which makes your argument stronger. And if the consequences land you in a strange or undesirable place, remember the mathematician’s trick of “reductio ad absurdum” — if the conclusion is absurd the original assumption must be false.

A lot of what you hear in meetings or on television would seem ludicrously silly if written down. Don’t be that person. Write what you believe, because only then will you determine what you actually believe — and why.

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  1. This is definitely true! And whenever a President gives his State of the Union address, I prefer to read the hardcopy from the newspaper than to listen to the speech because it’s easier to separate the wheat from the chaf! (That and it gets very tiresome having to listen to the audience clapping every time the President comes to the end of a sentence!)