Chapter 3 of Fareed Zakaria’s latest book In Defense of a Liberal Education has some important remarks about writing, ones that are worth exploring here.
Very often, proponents of Liberal Education say that it teaches students how to think. This is fine, but for Zakaria, thoughts only begin to take shape once pen is put to paper. Or, put slightly differently, thoughts become more shapely and coherent once they are worked out and groomed by the writing process.
Zakaria writes about an influential English teacher from his youth. Authoritarian and liberal in his use of the red correcting pencil, he impressed upon Zakaria the importance of concise and well-articulated prose. While many today might object to the methods employed by this teacher, few will take issue with the core belief that’s at stake here, namely that ideas don’t come out of the head fully shaped and ready to go to press.
Consider Zakaria reflections on his own writing:
When I begin to write, I realize that my “thoughts” are usually a jumble of half-formed ideas strung together, with gaping holes between them. It is the act of writing that forces me to sort them out. Writing the first draft of a column or essay is an expression of self-knowledge—learning just what I think about a topic, whether there is a logical sequence to my ideas, and whether the conclusion flows from the facts at hand.
A few things should jump out at you after reading this. First, someone as established as Zakaria still produces “jumbles” of “half-formed ideas” when he first sets out to write something. And even after finishing a draft, there may be “gaping holes” in it. This should help you feel comfortable concluding that no one produces flawless sentences on the first go around. No one. So take that pressure off of yourself if this is what you’ve been trying to do with your own writing. Or if this is how you’ve gotten by in the past, it’s time to start changing your tune.
Because when Zakaria says “first draft,” what’s implicit here is that he’s working through many drafts before you read the finished product. Revision must be a central aspect of your writing, not only to comb out the kinks in your mechanics but more important to give your ideas the requisite time to develop. Zakaria really wants you to understand this as personal discovery, but not in flowery, self-help kind of way. If you want to build mature, coherent thought, you must write.
You might be tempted to say, “I know what I think” and leave it at that. But turning our abstract thoughts into concrete sentences forces us to contend with inconsistencies, weak arguments, and other aspects of our thinking that we don’t have to deal with when we leave it in our head. Then we know for sure. And this knowledge brings confidence.
Much of Zakaria’s book is set up as an apologetic for Liberal Education in terms of its exchange value in the so-called global marketplace, so he refers to writing as an invaluable skill. Of course, it is just that. But self-knowledge, through writing, can also be worth pursuing as an end unto itself. I urge you to think of it in both terms.