"That language is an instrument of human reason, and not merely a medium for the expression of thought, is a truth generally admitted."
- George Boole, quoted in Iverson's Turing Award Lecture
The relation between language, writing, and reasoning holds a tapestry of implications for those who want to become better at any of the three. In this essay, we'll explore how to tap into writing to improve reasoning and beat a path toward optimal language discovery.
In a certain sense, using writing to improve reasoning defies gravity. It should be true that the ceiling for a writer's work is how well they know their topic. Intuitively, one can't explain a subject to others better than they understand it themselves. Writing quality is limited by the precision with which a writer can articulate interesting ideas in their mindspace.
That "mindspace" turns out to be the escape hatch. The precision of one's mindspace is traditionally limited by arbitrary factors like, you know, limited human cognition. If we were hotshot robots with 64gb of RAM plus the ability to think like humans, we could just write essays in our head. Every word would be chosen just so. Unfortunately, we're not hotshot robots, we're creations of evolution that run two billion year old software on a 20 watt, 1 kilogram blob of gelatin. These factors hold ominous implications for what we can get done purely in the mind.
When the idea is sufficiently complex or multi-faceted, trying to stuff it in one's meat brain imposes an upper limit on how many of the idea's tentacles can be considered. Most of us aren't smart enough to rattle off the top 10 considerations of any topic. But we can write. Writing is the best path by which to harness/organize/cull the pieces of a complex idea. It can open the door for anyone with discipline to consider topics of incredible complexity.
Writing as a "means to tame complexity" illustrates how writing can directly improve thinking. Writing as a "means to enhance precision" is another way it sharpens thinking. Even the greatest thinkers don't want to bet on their meat brain to deliver the perfect quip. Which leads us to our first conclusion:
If you hope to change the world through ideas, the writing tools you use must foment your creative energy. The tool you use must support and enhance your idea-sharpening process:
rough idea ▶️ (
writing tool ↔️
writing ) ▶️
better idea ▶️
All the action, from a creative standpoint, is in the parentheses. Every time you leap across the
writing tool link in the above diagram, a translation has occurred. It's like encoding digital signal from analog. In a perfect writing tool, the translation quality is 100%, and your written idea sounds exactly as good -- ideally better -- than it did in your head.
Real experts don't need no stinkin Rich Footnotes. But for the rest of us...
Compare this perfect writing tool to something like Microsoft Word. For technical writing, Word is going to inhibit your ability to articulate ideas. In Word's defense, it's not because the functionality you'd need for a good translation doesn't exist. It usually does -- it's just hidden behind some submenu of some icon in a ribbon.
Since Word circa 2019 is too complex to write an equation, or format code, or do anything on mobile, the quality of the transcription from mind to document will be poor. This might contribute to why I've never heard of anyone who using Word to scratch out their formative ideas. Idea quality is limited by tool quality, so idea creators tend to be discerning when it comes to their tools.
The rest of the article focuses on a single Amplenote feature called Rich Footnotes, that presents a new dimension of expressive potential for writers. In just the few months since the feature was born, it has transformed our users' ability to relate complex ideas with clarity.
Rich Footnotes are the heart of how Amplenote intensifies the force of your ideas. They compress information into its most concise representation, helping you to capture the essence of the idea. Here are specific examples where Rich Footnotes let you pack more 💥💥💥 into your writing 💥💥💥
Instructions for peers: If you'd like to try nestling a picture for yourself: open a note, type some text, highlight it, click the link icon, and upload your picture. Voila! What would've otherwise been a page of instructions & pictures is instead one sentence.
Vacation planning: Amazing Lakefront Villa in San Antonio Palopo ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ $80/room. 5 br. The pics say it all . Getting here requires "20 minutes from Pana" according to listing, looks more like 25 min tuk tuk, or 3 hour walk. Built into rock wall.
Bugs to work on later: This one is mostly for programmers, but really handy to be able to say external issue link missing from bubble graph
Email -> todo list: It's a Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Idea to treat an email inbox more like what it really is: a glorified todo list. The pieces to make a better inbox are already in Amplenote. This email becomes this list item, which lets you attack the email with the weapons afforded by Task Detail. Unstar and make a quick break for the inbox exit.
Rich Footnotes allow either a quick overview, or the opportunity to dig into finer details as the reader expresses interest. I strive never to put any essential details in them. But if the reader is interested, nestling information lets writers leave behind breadcrumbs for readers who want to dig deeper into the tangents.
Let's circle back to the hypothesis that better writing tools beget better thinking. What's the impact of imbuing text with an extra dimension of images+text via Rich Footnotes? You can pack 1,000 words into a link of two words. You can lay out a complex idea in one sentence. You can describe a plan that gets others excited to join in with you.