"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, I'll try to prove that you can seem smarter than you are by expressing your inchoate thoughts through writing. Especially if you're using a tool that enables you to explore perpendicular topics (through footnotes), the process of writing will accumulate connections between topics that are otherwise hard to fit into the brain at once.
In a 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. You can't explain a subject better than you understand it. Writing quality is limited by the precision with which a writer can articulate interesting ideas from their mindspace.
That "mindspace" turns out to present a hackable opportunity. The precision of a mindspace is usually limited by human cognition. If we were robots with 64gb of RAM plus the ability to think like humans, we could write and revise essays in our head. Every word would come out 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. It will have to do.
When an idea is sufficiently complex or multi-faceted, trying to stuff it all into one's brain imposes a 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. Several of my high school classmates were smarter than me. Several of your classmates were probably smarter than you too. But we can write. Writing is the best path by which the disciplined can harness -> organize -> cull a complex idea. Great writing tools make ideas of incredible complexity possible to contemplate by substituting discipline for intellect.
"Writing as a means to tame complexity" is one way that writing can 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. Hopefully you find it intuitively true that, as you write, you progressively get wiser about the topic on which you're writing.
This all leads to a usable takeaway:
If you hope to change the world through ideas, your writing tools must enhance your creative energy. Armed with the right tool, your creative process should look something like:
rough idea ▶️ (
writing tool ↔️
writing ) ▶️
better idea ▶️
From a creative standpoint, all the action is in the parentheses. The perfect writing tool provides leverage to take your limited mental resources and hoist them high. Compare this perfect writing tool to something like Microsoft Word. For technical writing, Word is going to inhibit your ability to articulate ideas.
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. 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, thus your thinking:
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 recommend that you strive never to put any essential details in them. But if the reader is interested, nestling information in a Rich Footnote 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 via Rich Footnotes? You can lay out a complex idea in one sentence. If you think the audience won't keep up, provide an image or backstory to fix that. By letting both yourself and your readers stretch an essay into a new dimension, it's possible to leverage cognitive abilities and transfer important ideas, even those with high complexity.