The Power of Writing – Draft Essay

The Power of Writing – Draft 1, by Paul Greenberg 8/16/2018


Many mornings, I wake up somewhat groggy and slow and one of the best feeling ways to get going is to start thinking about topics that interest me or which seem important. Sometimes I like to do this while walking, but more often, I like to delay getting moving for a while and instead want a cup of coffee and to begin writing down my thoughts. I would like to do my thinking while walking or otherwise moving, but as soon as I start thinking, I realize most of the ideas will be gone soon after they are created, so this feels like wasted effort. To not waste my time, I begin writing on my laptop, now placing the ideas into Excel files as these are easier for me to work with in the future and I like the dense organization of cells more than a long scrolling list of words spanning many pages.
Because a lot of what I think about is how to bring more value to my clients (students), I often think about what students most need and what they struggle with. Writing and general literacy fits both of these definitions so I often think and write about how people can improve their writing.

One of the influences which got me going today was that I need to grade a variety of papers for graduate students but I don’t like grading. It is sometimes more fun to write my own work than to evaluate other people’s writing, so I’m starting with the fun first. However, starting with fun first is partially procrastination unless I can also get value from it.

To get some value, I’m interested in how I might get/influence students to take more powerful direction of their own writing improvement. That would certainly be better for them and better for me I also enjoy writing because unless I’m practicing what I preach, I won’t be as good of a teacher, mentor, or trainer. To some degree, you’ve got to be in some part of the game if you are going to be asking others to get into the game. So, I write because thinking feels natural, good and interesting, because I don’t want to lose my ideas and therefore waste time, and because I can use this to brings value to me, my clients (students), and those we will interact with.

Because writing is such a personal event for me, sharing thoughts, feelings and opening all of these up to other people’s differing interpretation is not easy. It would be easy to just keep all of this to myself, for release perhaps at a later date. But that won’t do anyone else any good so I’ve put this morning’s ideas together as a draft essay on writing and why people may want to make themselves better writers.

I wrote this introductory section last but it is first as I’ve now had about an hour and a half to get the ideas out and start rethinking what I was doing.   Now I have some perspective on what I want to do with the ideas here.  I’m calling this an essay, but it feels more like a note or conversation because I wrote most of it in one session.  However, it is also a draft of an online resource I plan to open up for public consumption. I’ve now posted this on my website but am also releasing it as an announcement in our class.

Creative Processes and Creative Writing

All writing is creative and as I was watching a BBC interview with the cast of the comedy group, Monty Python, I noticed they started describing their creative process.
They described the process as democracy gone crazy but they also mentioned their steps. They gather to talk about their topic and plans for what to write about for about 3 days. After that, they start writing about something completely different. They meet each week and people read out their ideas. If the writing makes the group laugh, that is their first “data point” or point. Then they reconvene the next week and repeat that process, identifying a second piece/bit/or joke which makes them laugh. Now they have a second point. They repeat this process until they have 6 or 7 of these successful points and then begin working together to write narratives (a narrative?) which ties the points together. How interesting right?  These comments happen in the first part of the interview and I haven’t yet watched the rest.

Their planning stage is very different than what they write and there is no outline until they have 6 or 7 key points (jokes or funny situations). From these nuggets of successful content, they can bind the ideas together and decide on their order.

This interests me because many classes and writing assignments are explained in a more linear fashion with people being asked to choose a topic and a thesis, produce a literature review, and then create their evidence-based arguments. People do write papers following these general steps, but it might be useful for all writers to see how other masters create their works. Is Monty Python’s methods much different than writing an essay or creating some other type of document? What of their work might be applied and what happens when people try this?

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Writing Improvement Philosophy and the Power of Writing

After 10 years of teaching in graduate schools, half or more of what I end up teaching is writing, and specifically, essay writing. Without a doubt, this is the #1 skill students need and writing feedback usually takes up more than half of my time as an educator. I put this much time into it because people have so many areas of possible improvement to their writing and it is so important to do this.

Many people’s writing is so riddled with errors that the ideas and the writer won’t yet be taken seriously, even when the people themselves are good, worthy of respect, and when they have a message or idea worth writing about. Many and perhaps most people have good ideas and are good, hard working people, but I often encounter people whose literacy skills are well below what is required for effective communication.  What a clear area of need to identify.  What an amazing opportunity there is for improvement.  Whether or not people’s writing skills are below, at, or above the norm, everybody has a lot to gain from improved writing and improved general literacy.

Literacy is one of the most critical skills in modern society and illiterate people are blocked out from a long list of good things and have difficulty obtaining much of what we would call the good life. Literacy lets us engage with our own mind and make sense of the world. It lets us engage with others and link the past and future. It lets us speak to future generations and contribute to all of human society. If humans have any Godly qualities, writing is among them for many reasons.

Words make sense of the ages and control ages into the future. Just consider the Bible, the world’s most read book. Once the bible was printed, so many people wanted to read it that literacy itself suddenly spread throughout the affected populations at the time copies of the bible became more widely available. Once the people were literate, those now-literate societies changed in their very nature, often distributing more power to the common people and re-organizing governments. We can see then that writing is also power.

Why is writing power? Because the ability to read, write, and speak allows our brains and minds to more clearly, more accurately, more comprehensively, more deeply, and more interestingly see, understand, hypothesize, fantasize, analyze, synthesize, portray, convey, predict, influence, and work with everything our conscious and unconscious minds encounter in our world and life.

The human brain has the hard job of correlating, analyzing, synthesizing, making sense of, guiding action in, planning and predicting, and in general adapting to our environment so we can live and our species can grow or at least survive. The brain does this with or without writing, but writing is a massive extension of our brain and mind which exceeds our physical and temporal limitations. Writings partially immortalize people as whatever we can convey through our writings lives on as long as there are people left to read those words.

The transmission of culture and the building or changing of culture is one of the most human of technologies. Because writing allows us to communicate with ourselves, to create, organize and refine our own thinking, and to communicate this with others if we choose, writing and the necessary related skills of reading and speaking are part of this beyond-human type of power and existence. Many religions promise life after death, but creating works for other people to experience in the future is also a form of life after death. It is not biological life, but it is the life of a person’s ideas, experiences, and whatever else they are able to convey of themselves.  Videos, paintings, music, all cultural artifacts let parts of people live on after death and in the minds of those who experience those artifacts in the future.

These cultural artifacts and the minds of people who experience these ideas/artifacts also shapes the environment.  Writings affect how people see the world but it is also useful to consider how other forms of expression, such as roads and infrastructure also shape our environment and therefore our thinking. Roads have defined where people live and where they travel for thousands of years. Trains and airplanes were the next extension of our methods of physically connecting different geographic regions, and everybody can see how profoundly this affects society if you just think about it for a little while. Where do we go in life? The places closest to the main lines of transportation and those transportation hubs. Where do we go least, the places with fewest roads or other physical means of access.  Like physical roads which let people travel from place to place and lead different lifestyles in those locations, writing too lets us move but in abstract and higher dimensions.

What else does writing let us do? It lets us do science, identifying and classifying the world around us, analyzing it, looking for patterns and conveying our finding, thinking through options and keeping records of our thoughts so we don’t end up endlessly re-creating our initial steps (allows progress).  The memory function of writing is a whole second topic which is useful to understand in terms of encoding, storage, and retrieval.

Writing lets us work with information in those three stages and because writing is a cumulative record, we are able to use that to escape the limits of our daily attention and shorter-term forms of memory such as working memory. It lets us overcome distraction and pick up where we left off the day before. Just like computers with persistent memory even in an “off” configuration, writing lets us store information, store references to brain states (feelings, ideas, specific thoughts, memories, goals, plans, events, etc – the contents of consciousness and unconsciousness) in a way that quite effectively reactivates our prior mental states which may be lost unless we have this form of mental record. Writing is a mental record which extends the continuity, depth, accuracy, and retrievability of memories and other mental content. This makes it a physical extension of our brain that lives outside of our brain and in an inanimate format (stone, paper, electronics, etc.).

It seems crazy that what is taught as such a simple skill with all sorts of little rules to follow is actually a method of “life” after death, an inanimate extension of the human brain and its conscious and unconscious mind, a way to shape current and future society as well as shape people’s perceptions of the past, a way to work with and manipulate information, a way to connect with other people and let our minds relate to each other, a way to see more clearly, and more.  But my initial reasons for writing here was to let people know about the absurd possible power of writing and the absurd utility of general literacy.

If you want any power in your life, there are extreme benefits available to those who improve their abilities to read, write, and speak. From this will come so much more and without this so much less may come to a person or from a person. If you like yourself, it pays to improve your writing, reading, and speaking. I’m also very respectful of people who think, feel, and create in wordless forms and of the many non-linguistic works. The physical world of housing, transportation, art, medicine, cooking, harvesting resources and farming, commerce, and all of the other physical elements (infrastructure & technology) of human culture are part of the overall value we can create, bring, and consume so while I’m focused on extolling the virtues of literacy (reading, writing, speaking), these are not the only skills we should consider building, improving, or valuing.

To close, literacy is an absurd power, often wearing mundane clothing. If you can see the incredible potential of improving your writing, reading, and speaking skills, please go for it. Here is the list of the most common writing skills I recommend for those who want to be better writers (look at the bottom of the page ). This list focuses on the mechanics of writing, not the inspiration and topic matter of writing, but if you apply your own interests and motivations to the topic matter, you can use this list of skills as a way to greatly improve the utility and credibility of your work with the ideas which matter most to you.

Good luck and best wishes,

Dr. Paul Greenberg