Writing about something, even something you know well, usually shows you that you didn’t know it as well as you thought.
Putting ideas into words is a severe test. The first words you choose are usually wrong; you have to rewrite sentences over and over to get them exactly right. And your ideas won’t just be imprecise, but incomplete too.
Half the ideas that end up in an essay will be ones you thought of while you were writing it. Indeed, that’s why I write them.
Once you publish something, the convention is that whatever you wrote was what you thought before you wrote it. These were your ideas, and now you’ve expressed them. But you know this isn’t true.
You know that putting your ideas into words changed them. And not just the ideas you published. Presumably there were others that turned out to be too broken to fix, and those you discarded instead.
It’s not just having to commit your ideas to specific words that makes writing so exacting. The real test is reading what you’ve written.
You have to pretend to be a neutral reader who knows nothing of what’s in your head, only what you wrote. When he reads what you wrote, does it seem correct? Does it seem complete?
If you make an effort, you can read your writing as if you were a complete stranger, and when you do the news is usually bad.
It takes me many cycles before I can get an essay past the stranger. But the stranger is rational, so you always can, if you ask him what he needs.
If he’s not satisfied because you failed to mention x or didn’t qualify some sentence sufficiently, then you mention x or add more qualifications.
It may cost you some nice sentences, but you have to resign yourself to that. You just have to make them as good as you can and still satisfy the stranger.This much, I assume, won’t be that controversial. I think it will accord with the experience of anyone who has tried to write about anything nontrivial.
There may exist people whose thoughts are so perfectly formed that they just flow straight into words. But I’ve never known anyone who could do this, and if I met someone who said they could, it would seem evidence of their limitations rather than their ability.
Putting ideas into words is certainly no guarantee that they’ll be right.
Far from it.
But though it’s not a sufficient condition, it is a necessary one.