Why Good Writers Rule the World


The first title that I wrote for this lecture was “Four Benefits of Improving Your Essay Writing”, but as I was working through it I realized that this undersold the importance of what I was talking about. So I’m going with this more grandiose title.

In this lecture I’m going to talk about the benefits of improving your essay writing skills, and I’m going to start with the most obvious benefits, the ones that are most pressing in people’s minds when they come looking for help with their writing, and then expand outward to benefits that are bit more abstract, but arguably much more important, because they have to do with the role that deep reading and deep writing have played in building the modern world as we know it.

That’s where I’ll connect the skills involved in essay writing to my grandiose title and why it is that good writers do, indeed, rule the world.

Success in School

The first benefit of improving your essay writing skills, and the most obvious, is that essay writing is required in high school and college, and good essay writing skills translate into better grades, greater success in school overall, and everything that follows from that.

The sad fact is that most students don’t have strong essay writing skills, and they get penalized for this over and over again, as they move through the school system.

Students only have a few classes where they’re given focused instruction in essay writing (if they ever get any at all), but they’re often required to write essays in many classes, and the essay requirements become more demanding as they move though high school and into college.

We seriously underestimate the the long-run, downstream cost of not being able to write essays.

With good essay writing skills, academic opportunities open up. Smart kids who can’t write often avoid the advanced placement classes in high school, which can derail their academic aspirations right from the outset.

With good writing skills, students will feel more confident taking these advanced placement courses, are consequently more likely to attend college or university, more likely to graduate with a degree, go on to a post-graduate academic or professional program, and eventually enter the work force and land a job that is professionally rewarding and pays a living wage.

None of this is news, of course — it’s what every student is told over and over.

Success in the Work Force

What’s less often discussed is how writing skills can benefit people who are already in the work force.

It’s true, once you’re out of school you probably won’t be asked to write formal academic essays. But the skills required to write a good academic essay translate into other skills that are important for professional advancement in many work environments.

Essay writing skills translate into general writing and communication skills that can improve how you write anything: from emails to memos to reports; to working company documents to press releases and company blog posts; to mission statements and policy recommendations and training manuals and advertising copy and performance reviews — the list of situations where a job might require writing skills is practically endless.

Beyond merely being able to write, GOOD, EFFECTIVE writing skills that can communicate complex ideas and arguments in a clear and compelling way, is incredibly valuable for professional advancement.

Why? Because that kind of big-picture thinking and communication and decision-making is what people in higher positions are paid to do.

In many fields and professions, at some point, good writing and communication skills become a requirement for advancing any further in the field. At the very least, they open up opportunities that won’t be available to workers who don’t have these skills.

So, it’s a serious mistake to think that you’ll stop being punished for your poor writing skills once you’ve left school, because in most cases you won’t. Your prospects will continue to be limited in ways that others with better writing skills will not.

Personal Empowerment

But the benefits don’t stop there. From a personal - slash - “life success” perspective, good writing skills can help you to be a better advocate for the causes and goals that matter to you, because good writing skills — especially argumentative writing skills, will translate into good persuasion and communication skills, generally.

Think about the woman who writes a letter to the editor of the local newspaper about a safety concern in the park; or the man who stands up in a town hall meeting and gives a forceful argument about how the city needs to support local schools; or the teen who lobbies for better relations between the policy and the community — or the parents who want their children to really understand why they hold the values they do.

This is about being an effective advocate for the beliefs and values that are most important to you. Good writing skills translate into good communication skills, and good communication skills translate into personal empowerment and a greater ability to advocate effectively for what you believe in.

Deep Reading, Deep Writing, and Deep Thinking

Now, I’m going to jump up another level and talk about a more abstract but also more profound benefit of learning how to write well. The expression I use for this is “swimming in the deep end”.

What do I mean by “the deep end”? Well, it’s a metaphor, obviously, but I’m using it in the same say we often talk about “deep thinking” versus “shallow thinking”, or being a “deep reader” versus a “shallow reader”.

A deep thinker is someone who can get their mind around complex and potentially abstract concepts, who can follow a chain of reasoning that employs those concepts, and who can construct chains of reasoning that employ those concepts.

Shallower thinkers are less able to think using abstractions, less able to follow longer chains of reasoning, and less able to construct such chains for themselves.

A deep reader is someone who can read and understand a text that contains this kind of depth — a text that is intended to lead the reader through a series of potentially complex or abstract ideas that have a logical structure and that are organized to communicate a larger point.

This kind of reading is much more demanding than just understanding the words and sentences being used.

This kind of reading requires an ability to focus and attend to the flow of ideas that the text is conveying, without distraction, for an extended period of time.

Deep reading requires both a focused immersion in the conceptual world created by the text, and an ability to understand and engage with the logical flow of ideas that is present in the structure of the text.

Notice how I just talked about a “focused immersion” in the conceptual world of the text, and a “logical flow of ideas”. These water metaphors are very natural, at least to me.

So what’s a shallow reader?

A shallower reader is someone who has more difficulty understanding more abstract concepts, a harder time following chains of reasoning that use such concepts, and in general, a harder time staying focused and immersed in the conceptual world of a text long enough to extract the deeper argument or narrative that you can only access by attending to the flow of ideas and letting the narrative play itself out.

For me, when I think of about deep reading, I have this image of being able to dive deep enough under water, where the most exotic and interesting ideas and concepts live, and stay underwater long enough to experience what exotic creatures the flow of the current will bring, and where it will carry us.

A shallow reader can’t dive as deep or stay underwater as long, and so they can’t access the flow of ideas in the way that the deep reader can.

Now, we’ve talked about deep thinking and deep reading. Obviously there’s a relationship — deep reading requires deep thinking; you can’t successfully access a deep text without thinking deeply yourself.

But we’re leaving something out. Who wrote that deep text to begin with?

Let’s call this skill “deep writing”. Deep writing is the ability to construct a text that expresses deep thinking, and that, by its nature, is only accessible by deep reading.

The deep writer creates the world of exotic ideas, chooses their arrangement and orchestrates their flow. It’s a profoundly creative act. But the creative work of the deep writer is only accessible to the deep reader.

I’m going to say two things that I think are very important.

The first has to do with the relationship between the three types of cognitive activity that I’ve just described.

Deep thinking, deep reading and deep writing are not independent skills — they’re different modes of the same underlying cognitive skill set, and they develop best when you devote time to exercising each of the modes.

If I want to develop my capacity for deep thinking, I can study logic and learn new vocabularies, but I can’t get very far unless I work on trying to understand deep texts.

And one of the best ways to develop your capacity for deep thinking and deep reading, is to work on your deep WRITING skills. By learning how to organize your thoughts into paragraphs and structure those paragraphs into a larger narrative or argument, you’re developing your ability to structure your own thoughts and to read deeper texts.

So that’s another, very important benefit of working on your writing skills — it will help you develop the capacity to access deeper texts, and literally, to think deeper thoughts.

But I’m not done yet, because I haven’t said very much about why being able to access these deeper texts is important. I mean, who cares, right? It seems like a lot of work, and for what? So you can impress people at cocktail parties with how literate you are, how big your vocabulary is?

Well, for me, here’s the most important reason why developing these skills is important.

Deep Reading, Deep Writing, and the Origins of the Modern World

It’s important because the modern world, as we know it, is a product of deep reading and deep writing, and the technologies that democratized these skills and made them available to everyone, rather than a small elite.

All of the major innovations in science, history, law, politics, economics and religion that form the basis of our modern, industrial, democratic, technological culture, were conceived and communicated by people who had these skills.

Written texts functioned as the warehouse of historical memory. They were the mode by which new ideas were contributed to ongoing dialogues that spanned continents and centuries.

And it is through the writing of these texts that innovators worked out their new ideas, shared them with others, and ultimately created the institutions that would makes these ideas a reality.

So, when I say that learning how to write helps us learn to “swim in the deep end”, I mean that it makes it possible for us, as individuals, and collectively as a society, to unlock, learn from and contribute to this tremendous historical legacy.

Summing Up

So, like I said at the beginning, I had titled this video “Four Benefits of Improving Your Essay Writing”, and here’s a summary of the four benefits. I’ve tried to show that, beyond the obvious benefits of getting better grades in school, there are a lot of downstream benefits that may not be as obvious. The last point, about the connection between deep reading, deep writing and our ability access and contribute to the greatest achievements of the modern world, is the most abstract but also, in my view, the most important benefit.

My goal in structuring this course is to present the key principles of essay writing in a way that will not only help you write better essays, but also help you understand and appreciate these more abstract connections between deep reading, deep writing and deep thinking.

Note: Deep Thinking Does Not Require the Ability to Read Fluently

Before we move on I want to address a possible misconception about what I’ve been saying here.

I’m not saying that people who can’t read, or don’t read much, can’t be deep thinkers, or that the only way to access or contribute to the content of a deep text is through reading.

It doesn’t follow, for example, that people with dyslexia, who have difficulties with reading, can’t "swim in the deep end", as I’ve termed it; or can’t contribute to the legacy of human wisdom and innovation that I’ve been talking about. They obviously can, and do — there are plenty of brilliant authors and scientists who are dyslexic.

We don’t want to confuse the cognitive activities associated with deep reading and deep writing, with the superficial mechanics of visual symbol processing — fluency in reading is not a requirement for any of the activities I’ve been talking about.

I just wanted to make that clear before moving on.