The Problem with “Writing is Thinking”

Writing is an incredible tool for furthering your own understanding. It challenges you to articulate ideas in a coherent way. It highlights gaps in your logic. It functions like an analytical partner, helping you to explore topics with greater clarity and structure than thinking alone allows.

But there is a crucial distinction to be drawn between writing as a tool for thinking and writing as a tool for communication. One is writer-centric, exploratory, and optimized for understanding; the other is reader-centric, cohesive, and optimized for persuasion. The type of writing that best helps you, the author, is different from the type of writing that best helps the reader.

Many newer writers—including myself, once upon a time—don’t recognize this distinction. They write solely to understand and become so awed with their newfound knowledge that they hit publish and expect their writing to trigger the same epiphany for everyone else. But often, their writing is persuasive only to them.

Why “Understanding” Is the Bare Minimum

You might argue that any article that helps you, the writer, understand a topic will also help the reader understand. But there are flaws in that idea.

For one, it assumes the reader is just like you—that they have the same context, interest, and information as you, that they think in the same way, and that they will have the same realization you did when presented with the same inputs. This is rarely the case. We are all different. We engage with information in different ways. What is persuasive to you may not be persuasive to me.

It also assumes "understanding" is the primary goal of every article and helping the reader wrap their head around a topic will be enough. This might be true for an academic textbook, but it’s certainly not true for an essay, a story, or for content marketing. In these realms, developing the reader’s understanding of the topic at hand is necessary but not sufficient: we also have to persuade, inspire, or enthrall.

In the case of content marketing, we must always serve the goals of our business: content marketing is created, first and foremost, to nudge a reader closer to a desirable action. Clearly elucidating a complicated topic is a valuable part of that process, but it isn’t everything.

How to Write for the Reader, and Not Yourself

It’s vital writers understand their subject matter, and often the best way to develop understanding is to write. That process should be encouraged, but publishing the output of that scrappy, writer-centric thinking process should not. Great writers know how to remove themselves from their writing—not in terms of voice or opinion, but in terms of mental scaffolding left behind on the page.

So here are a few ways to shift a writer-centric draft to a reader-centric one:

1. Ditch Your Training Wheels

I ate gravel the first time I rode a bicycle, so my parents bought a set of training wheels for my second attempt. Those training wheels helped me to make my first wobbly ride from point A to point B, but I took them off before riding around in front of friends.

All writers have their own metaphorical set of training wheels, and most of the time, we forget to take them off. Long-meandering introductions. Lead-burying paragraphs. Transitory information that helps you wrap your head around the topic but doesn’t serve the narrative of the finished article.

If I had to write an article about stablecoins, I would need to first develop an understanding of cryptocurrency, fiat currency, blockchain, even basic economic principles like exchange rates or hot money flows. While some of these insights might be worth including in my finished draft, much of it would only distract from the article’s core topic, diluting my point and fragmenting the narrative.

But the sunk cost of conducting that research can prove too great: many writers cram the bulk of their article with these related-but-not-entirely-useful tidbits and relegate the meat of the topic to a couple of concluding paragraphs.

Good writers recognize the need to work through these temporary stopping points, and crucially, delete them from the finished draft. They use training wheels to write their first, writer-centric draft—and they make sure these all-too-visible crutches disappear before the grand unveiling, the reader-centric draft.

2. Turn Your Writing on its Head

Most content builds gradually to the point it wants to make. Big, meaty takeaways are often found at the ends of paragraphs; articles start slow and get more interesting toward their end when contextualizing finally gives way to useful information. View these articles through a critical lens, and you quickly realize they’re structured in a way that mirrors the writer's thought process.

My first editor at Animalz, Jimmy Daly, calls this sequential writing. In this case, writing really is thinking: blog posts function like a geological record of the thought process of the person writing them:

  • Here is a problem I'm trying to solve.
  • Here is some background on that problem.
  • Here is where I found some research on the topic.
  • Here is the solution I propose.

This is often the first way writers structure their writing, but it isn’t the best. It’s slow and clumsy. It’s incredibly linear, requiring the reader to engage with all of your writing, in the right order, to reach the pay-off. But this is one of those problems that can be solved by putting a name to it. Once you’ve recognized the problem and seen it first-hand in your drafts, it’s almost impossible to ignore.

The solution is surprisingly straightforward: reverse the flow of information, and open with the insight. BLUF your paragraphs. Add strong, declarative opinions to your introduction. Pick your draft up by the heels, shake it until the good stuff falls out, and stand it on its head.

3. Say the Same Thing, Different Ways

The end goal of “writing as thinking” is to develop an understanding of the topic through whatever means makes sense to you. But these means are far from universal: the route you took to reach understanding won’t work for everyone. It may even hinder people who think differently than you. To persuade effectively, you need to articulate your ideas in multiple ways.

There was a meditation teacher who famously taught mindfulness through the metaphor of “headlessness.” He would recount his experience of standing at a stunning vista in the Himalayas and realizing the thing he thought of as “himself” was completely absent: he saw only a stunning view and a pair of pink, fleshy hands wafting into frame as he moved them. For some people, this anecdote triggers a profound feeling of selflessness. For others, a sense of “well duh— so what?”

To avoid triggering your own “well duh” moment, try articulating your key point through one or more of these lenses:

  • Best objection: anticipate the reader’s strongest objection to your argument and deliver a satisfying and sound rebuttal.
  • Repetition: reiterate your core idea through a handful of different metaphors and analogies.
  • Narrative storytelling: tell a story (or two) that transforms the logic of your argument into something vivid and real.
  • Data analysis: woo analytical readers by using worked examples and research to make your point.
  • Social proof: show other people or businesses applying your idea and coming to the same conclusion you did.

This is difficult. When writing, it’s easy to over-index on the ideas and articulations we find persuasive and easier still to blind ourselves to alternative points of view. It requires a herculean effort to step outside of our own thought processes and empathize with people who think in a vastly different way. But it’s our job: as content marketers, we are only ever writing for other people.

The Quiet Narcissism of Content Marketing

In order to write good stuff, you have to first write bad stuff. But “bad stuff” is more than typos, ugly sentences, and broken grammar: it’s anything that serves you more than it serves the reader.

It’s the mental scaffolding you leave behind on the page. It’s bottom-heavy paragraphs that bury the lead under a mound of throat-clearing. It’s the prescriptive, take-it-or-leave-it thought process that permeates the entire article. It’s the quiet narcissism that emerges when we publish our drafts without taking the time to edit with other people in mind.

“Writing is thinking” is a useful idea for helping you, the author, understand a topic. But as a content marketer, you are not writing for yourself. You are writing to help other people develop understanding, to persuade and inspire them—and that requires a completely different type of writing.