Writing to Learn
Writing is something that I hated growing up, the structure of what an essay should look like was drilled into my head by my teachers: introduction, body, conclusion. I spent years following that pattern and lamenting every time I had to write a paper. However, as I came to love learning again later in my life the same became true for writing.
The Importance of Writing to Learn
"If you can't explain it in simple terms, you don’t understand it well enough.” - Albert Einstein
When we read a piece of material over and over again we believe we understand what is being said. This is known as the mere-exposure effect which states the moment we become familar with something, we start believing we also understand it.
The Feynman Technique developed by Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman is a powerful way to master any subject or idea using four simple steps:
1) Choose a concept you want to learn about.
2) Pretend you are teaching it to a 5th grader.
3) Identify parts of your lesson that aren't strong or you yourself are confused about. Go back to your source material, to understand it better.
4) Review and simplify your lesson
One of the greatest benefits of writing is that you don't need another person or a group of people to lecture to. You can draft up your whole lesson on a piece of paper. The key thing to remember while your doing this, is to make sure your writing as if someone is going to read it. If you want to take it one step farther you can even publish it online like how I'm doing it here.
Almost all scientists agree nowadays that real thinking requires some kind of externalization, especially in the form of writing. (source: Levy , Neil. 2001 "neuroethics and the Extended Mind")
Richard Feynman once had a visitor in his office, a historian who wanted to interview him. When he spotted Feynman's notebooks, he said how delighted he was to see such "wonderful records of Feynman's thinking." "No, no!" Feynman protested. They aren't a record of my thinking process. They are my thinking process. I actually did the work on the paper."
Make the habit of constantly taking notes from videos you watch and books and articles you read. Write them in own words, don't just copy and paste. Try to make your notes concise as possible, this forces you to really understand what you're reading or watching.
You can simply take these into a notebook but I recommend using software such as Notion, Evernote or Roam Research, this way your notes will be searchable, portable and faster to type. I personally use Roam Research because I am able to create backlinks within my notes which mimics the structure of our brain and how it makes connections.
Recommended Reading: How to Take Smart Notes
Practice, Practice and Practice
Writing to learn is a process that will take time to get used to. In the beginning writing is gonna seem like a hassle. But like anything else that is worth doing in life, the benefits will soon start to compound and the way you see learning will begin to change for the better.
If you start using a note taking software for the first time, there will be a bit of a learning curve but being comfortable with a personal knowledge management software will pay dividends in the future.
Good, productive writing is based on good note taking. By having a plethora of well written notes, writing will never be hard because you won't ever have to start with a blank page. Think of your notes as lego blocks, atomic parts that you can build with. Once I had this epiphany, taking notes seemed to be a lot more fun and crafting articles like this one became a lot easier.
Even if you aren't a blogger, student or researcher I believe everyone should write because we should always be learning. If you aren't writing, you aren't learning. It's as simple as that. As you begin to implement the process of writing to learn and begin to see the way you think and understand subjects begin to change, give yourself a pat on the back because your officially a writer now.