Understanding Through Writing
Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking.
— John Gruber
I’ve always struggled with writing. Growing up, I rationalized with myself saying I was more of a “math person” — whatever that means. If I had a paper to write, I approached it like math, applying the same formula: tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, tell them what you told them. This worked well enough, even getting me through my graduate thesis, though I must admit it had a pretty defined structure.
With my job, I’ve found myself writing more things outside the field of technical writing such as letters of recommendation or performance evaluations. As I struggled to start each project, I recognized that my writing skills were lacking. This was driven further home when my parents asked me for some advice and guidance regarding their diet. I’ve read several books and academic papers on low carbohydrate diets and intermittent fasting. I can understand rather “into the weeds” concepts; yet, I struggled to explain the simple concepts of macronutrients and how carbohydrates affected insulin production in our bodies.
I used to view writing as something for the “creative types”; you didn’t need it if you were in a technical field. I think this is because when I thought of writers I thought of poets and authors of fiction. While there is that aspect, writing is, at its essence, simply a way to communicate. I’m reminded of Roger Angell’s foreward in Elements of Style:
But we are all writers and readers as well as communicators, with the need at times to please and satisfy ourselves with clear and almost perfect thought.
I’ve been a long time reader of Daring Fireball. A theme that consistently comes up with John Gruber, especially when he’s discussing a company’s ability to communicate, is that clear writing is a sign of clear thinking. I would also add that clear writing demonstrates a clear understanding of a concept or idea.
The Feynman Technique
Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist. In Feynman’s Lost Lecture, David Goodstein, a fellow Caltech professor, recounts a story about Feynman:
Feynman was a truly great teacher. He prided himself on being able to devise ways to explain even the most profound ideas to beginning students. Once, I said to him, “Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics.” Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But he came back a few days later to say, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it.”
I came across this video from Scott Young one day as I was going down the Google/YouTube rabbit hole. It is a method for learning that pays homage to Richard Feynman. The technique promotes learning by trying to teach an idea yourself and has four steps:
Choose the concept you want to learn or understand.
While it’s introduced using technical examples, the technique can be used for any concept or idea you would like to understand better.
Explain the concept you want to learn like you were teaching it to somebody else.
By doing this and trying to explain the whole concept, even the portions you don’t fully understand, you’ll be able to pinpoint the exact parts that you need to try to understand better yourself.
If you get stuck, go back to the reference material.
Continue to do this and re-read the reference material until you can explain it in your own words.
Simplify your explanation.
If you find yourself using complicated words, try to simplify your language. If you can, try to use analogies to drive points home.
Going forward this blog will serve a few purposes. First, I hope by writing more I will improve my writing. Second, it will be a place for me to think out loud and keep notes on different subjects I’m interested in. Finally, through writing, I hope to gain a better understanding of things I’m trying to learn.