With the rise of AI tools like ChatGPT, which can generate essay after essay near-instantaneously from even the simplest prompt, surely the skill of writing will soon go the way of arrowhead-sharpening. That would be easy to believe, anyway, amid the current technological buzz. But venture capitalist Paul Graham, a man as well-placed as any to grasp these developments and their prospects, sees things differently. “People are switching to using ChatGPT to write things for them with almost indecent haste,” he wrote in a Twitter thread last year. “This is going to have unfortunate consequences, just as switching to living in suburbia and driving everywhere did. When you lose the ability to write, you also lose some of your ability to think.”
Graham is also well-known as an essayist, and in recent years the identity of writing and thinking has become one of his major themes. He opens “Putting Ideas into Words” with the observation that “writing about something, even something you know well, usually shows you that you didn’t know it as well as you thought.” And “if writing down your ideas always makes them more precise and more complete, then no one who hasn’t written about a topic has fully formed ideas about it.” In the video above, Tim Ferriss (another figure, like Graham, well known in the greater Silicon Valley universe) offers a few tips on just how to form and improve your own ideas through the process of writing.
“Without writing, it’s very hard to freeze your thinking on paper so that you can sharpen it,” eliminating “words that aren’t well-defined” or “things that don’t need to be said.” The first step to mastering the craft is to “write anything” regularly, without regard to structure or quality, which exposes “where you are sharp and where you are dull in your thinking.” From there, you must bear in mind the old saw that “writing is rewriting,” going on to perform round after round of edits from your own perspective or different imagined ones. Graham suggests making the effort to read your writing as if you were a complete stranger, someone “who knows nothing of what’s in your head, only what you wrote.”
Ferris then recommends asking people you know to read over your writing. If you don’t have any connections to professional writers, anyone with legal training should be able to bring a keen critical eye to the task. Even a non-specialist can help by pointing out the parts they find confusing. Whoever Ferris enlists as a proofreader, he employs what he calls the “ten percent rule,” requesting that the reader of the text indicate “the ten percent I should keep no matter what.” Even if you have no desire to write professionally, this practice will keep you in mental shape for your chosen pursuit in life, or indeed, for the task of life itself. As Graham tweeted last year, “Reading won’t be obsolete till writing is, and writing won’t be obsolete till thinking is” — though the average day on social media may convince you that the latter has already come to pass.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.