Is Writing the Hardest Form of Thinking?

May 8th, 2012 by Bob Bly

In The Writer magazine (6/12, p. 15), my favorite novelist, Pat Conroy (The Prince of Tides, The Great Santini), writes that “Good writing is the hardest form of thinking.”

He continues: “It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear. If the writing is good, then the result seems effortless and inevitable.”

This sounds nice, but do you buy his claim that good writing is really the hardest form of thinking? I think for most people, the hardest form of thinking is mathematics.

My youngest son is a freshman at Carnegie-Mellon. He took a course in “calculus in three dimensions.” I would wager that calculus in three dimensions is more difficult for most students than English composition.

What do you think?

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10 responses about “Is Writing the Hardest Form of Thinking?”

  1. Ryan McGrath said:

    Have your son explain “calculus in three dimensions” to you…

    The words he uses are writing.

    The explaining to someone else seems harder to me than just “knowing” the material.

    The guy who wrote the textbook on “calculus in three dimensions” or the professor who wrote the course are performing much harder tasks than the students.

    Or so it seems as think through my point – by writing this note to you. :)

  2. Whitney said:

    I was a math major and hated “calculus in three dimensions”. Now, I’m a copywriter.

    Frankly, they’re both the same, except math is difficult because you have to build concept on top of concept. Copywriting is difficult because you have to think of a million things at once for things to turn out right. They both use similar types of creativity/difficulty.

  3. Lesley Peters said:

    Bob,

    at Conroy is my favorite novelist, also. When I read his books, I often read pages or paragraphs aloud because I think his writing is so profound.

    If you compare writing to calculus in 3 dimensions, I would agree the calculus is probably more difficult. However, when you do calculus, do you have to explain it to other people, have it make sense, and be, as Conroy says, “If the writing is good, then the result seems effortless and inevitable?”

    Perhaps it is what we do with the thinking that is of the most consequence.

    Thanks for asking the question. It’s a terrific one to ponder!

    Lesley Peters

  4. Oliver Radini said:

    What an intereesting question…

    It’s rather difficult to compare the two. Both involve handling many ideas at the same time, both involve methods of description that are not entirely idiosyncratic.

    In mathematics it seems there is normally a ‘best practice’ for solving problems, as well prescribed methods of communicating results.

    With writing, there are very few guides. Obviously there is the structure of language, but that is far less defined and universally accepted than most of what you’ll find in maths.

    I think writing is deceptively complex. Because, as Conroy says “If the writing is good, then the result seems effortless and inevitable”.

  5. Ivan Walsh said:

    Writers would like to think so :)

  6. Matt Meakins said:

    I think it all depends on how your brain is wired. I was a software engineer but gave it up to be an SEO copywriter because, for me, writing is a vastly more intuitive (and fulfilling) activity than mathematics ever was.

    There’s definitely some overlap, though. I catch myself ‘doing sums’ as I write, in terms of word choice, mixing up sentence lengths, the probability that something will be read versus skimmed, and a zillion other things. But unlike mathematics, much of that number crunching is more or less unconscious.

    I’ve heard that the best mathematicians think in a similar way about numbers – they visualize and intuit concepts much more than they think about the numbers themselves (and we have computers for that anyway, right?)

    Bottom line – both require brains!

  7. Ron Tracy said:

    Sorry everyone but you’ve missed the point – Conroy said “good writing”. Any bimbo can write but good writing is a different matter altogether.

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  9. amourdange said:

    I think it depends on the subject matter.

  10. Kevin Minshaw said:

    I agree with just about everyone’s opinion here. Very good points. I think though that maths is like software development. You can break each process down into steps and, if each component step is correct, and each compound step is correct, then the process is usually correct. So it’s a series of small wins and you can tell if you’re on the right track. Not so much with writing. You never know from each sentence or paragraph you’ve written if what you’ve done is “right”. You just “feel” it is. And that doesn’t mean that your customer or their customer will. So I think writing is a series of small “maybes” and “let’s wait and see” steps. In that sense, it’s almost directionless, except for the loose guidelines of writing. You have to mind read a little. That’s difficult.

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