Previously: Help Us Find Your Blog (and others)
Mark Rosewater is the lead designer of the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering. This means he is part of Magic’s R&D department, one of the world’s few pockets of cooperation, sanity and competence. They are not explicit rationalists as such, but they embody many of the most important virtues we aspire to, and by doing so they manage to create an amazing game and community with a far-too-small team on a shoestring budget.
One of the game’s and department’s best features is its openness. While work on future card sets and future decisions need to be kept secret, a tradition has developed that the thinking process used by R&D is shared freely with the world, as are the stories surrounding past card sets and decisions. Competitive Magic players have also developed the tradition of sharing their methods and ideas with the world whenever possible via articles and free discussion, only working in secret for brief periods before major competitions.
This is insanely great. Writing down your history, mental models and thought process makes you understand them better, helps others understand and learn from them, and those others respond to help you improve.
The secret is that this process is worth doing even if no one reads what you have written; this is the same principle that says that you do not fully understand a concept until you can teach it to someone else. Writing down your conclusions often makes you realize where your conclusions are wrong, or your techniques can be improved. Having to put all of your justifications into precise words, in a place others could read them, makes most bad reasoning obvious if you are paying attention. Often by the time I am finished writing about something, I understand the thing or my thinking about the thing in a whole new and much better way.
One of the big secrets of my Magic success was that I was constantly writing up what I had done and what I was thinking, in a style that chronicled my working and thinking process rather than sharing only the conclusions. I learned and improved by writing. Others told me they learned from my writing, which is always great to hear, but no one learned more than I did. Often I would start without knowing what I would conclude, and the result was better decks, thoughts and strategies than I would have had if I hadn’t been writing.
The more you explain your thought process along the way, the more useful such writing is to your own understanding. I also believe that this is the best for the reader, but I understand that I may be biased there; I know it is best for me as the writer.
This all applies to Magic, but it applies equally well outside of Magic. When I started writing about non-Magic topics here, the same things happened. I noticed I was teaching myself to ‘play better’ and get a better understanding, both of the topic and my own reasoning on it. Even the third or so of posts that never get published, and sometimes even posts that I never start writing at all or die after a paragraph and get erased, have been helpful.
As a bonus, writing also makes you a better writer, and arguably nothing else does.
As another bonus, writing in this way is much faster than other methods, because you can write as you think, and because your mistakes are often insightful rather than wasted. That doesn’t get you out of editing later, but it is a huge help.
Note that short form sharing of ideas on social media does get you a non-zero amount of this benefit, but is a much weaker, second-best variation. As a reminder, we are very much Against Facebook.
Most writing, and also most great writing, does not work this way. By all means do not let me stop you from writing in other ways, but let me especially encourage sharing your thought process. As a reminder, my offer on Help Us Find Your Blog (and others) still stands; as of today I have checked out all the blogs posted there (although I am still behind on people’s secondary recommendations) and updated my blogroll with several great finds.