Writing is a Tool for Making New Ideas

Not just communicating ideas that already exist

Florian Klauer / Unsplash

Hey all—Dan here. Today we have a post from guest writer Eliot Peper. Eliot's the author of 10 sci-fi novels and he also does strategy consulting for startups and venture firms. At Every we care a lot about writing—and this short piece will help you think differently about the role writing can play in your thinking and your creative process. I hope you enjoy it :)

Some writers love planning. The legendary creative nonfiction writer and teacher John McPhee, who helped shape the voice of the New Yorker, draws detailed structural diagrams and outlines every story with extraordinary precision before he embarks on a draft.

Readers can be forgiven for assuming that extensive outlining is the norm. In school, English teachers assign five paragraph essays that proceed in lockstep from thesis to conclusion. The way many of us are taught to write makes writing appear to be the act of typing out a preexisting idea.

This is the assumption most people start with:

  1. Figure out what you want to say.
  2. Write it down.
  3. Congrats, you’re a writer!

Makes sense, right? And indeed, that’s how many writers do what they do. It’s a valid, effective, and popular approach to craft. But for me, reading and writing feel surprisingly similar: I discover the story as I go.

There’s a major plot twist two thirds of the way through Neon Fever Dream that reframes everything leading up to it. I didn’t see the twist coming as I was writing the rough draft of the novel. I just reached that point in the story and realized what had to happen next. It blew my mind, and from what I’ve heard, many readers shared my experience.

Likewise, I didn’t start this essay with a plan. Matt Webb, author of the consistently insightful and delightful blog, Interconnected, planted the seed that grew into this essay with a tweet:

Reading Matt’s words, my first thought was, “Yes, this!” Then I reflected on the current manuscript I’m working on, a novel that began with a single line inspired by the emotionally charged remnant of a forgotten dream. I’ve been writing it sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, chapter by chapter for the past year. I don’t decide what’s going to happen next and then sit down and draft the scene. I discover what’s going to happen next by drafting the scene.

You can certainly capture an idea by writing it down. But you can also explore an idea by writing it down, and the results may surprise you. The fact that the results can surprise you is surprising in itself. Why would typing out a thought change what you think? 

When I’m not writing, I’m often surfing. Something most non-surfers don’t realize is that surfing is mostly waiting. You paddle out and then wait for the right wave to roll in. When a promising set rears up out of the deep, you try to catch it. If you hesitate, even for a moment, you’ll either miss the wave or, worse, get sucked over the falls as it breaks. To catch a wave, you have to fully commit.

I suspect the same principle is at work when writing about something changes your mind. The brain is an intricate, sparkling, densely interconnected maze—an easy place for ideas to hide in vague generalities. But writing forces you to commit to specifics as surely as surfers must commit to waves. Seeing an idea reveal itself on the page, you may find yourself entranced or repulsed or inspired by its specificity, its naked meaning.

By externalizing your thoughts, writing puts you into conversation with yourself. It’s always easier to diagnose other people’s problems, and to identify opportunities they might be missing. Just so, writing from the heart gives you a new vantage on you. This is certainly useful if you’re writing for an audience, but it’s at least as useful if you’re writing for yourself.

Next time you’re struggling with a big decision, write down a complete explanation of the situation just as you would describe it to a close friend or mentor. It can’t hurt, and it will clarify your thinking. You never know, it might even, in Matt’s memorable words, open up a new angle for you—a real life plot twist.

I didn’t start this essay with a plan. I started this essay with a sentence: “Reading and writing feel surprisingly similar: I discover the story as I go.” Then I followed where that sentence led, like Theseus blindly following Ariadne’s twine out of the labyrinth.

So, what happens next? You’ll know when I do.


Eliot Peper is the author of ten novels, including Veil, Bandwidth, Cumulus, and, most recently, Reap3r. He also publishes a blog, sends a newsletter, consults on special projects, and tweets more than he probably should.

Like this?
Become a subscriber.

Subscribe →

Or, learn more.

Comments

You need to login before you can comment.
Don't have an account? Sign up!
Georgia Patrick 4 months ago

Most of all, Dan, I adore the way you find the writers and points of view that speak to the 2% of adults I serve, the gifted adults who chose to become a professional, plus have exceptional talent in communication. Our exposure to startups and venture investors is rare and that's why Every Bundle brings insights not found in other areas on my reading and thinking lists.

Dan Shipper 4 months ago

@Georgia thanks Georgia, I'm so glad you're enjoying it!

Thanks for reading Every!

Sign up for our daily email featuring the most interesting thinking (and thinkers) in tech.

Subscribe

Already a subscriber? Login