← articles

Achieving balance between reading and writing

February 10, 2020
writing reading

Reading feeds the mind and replenishes it when it is worn from studying — even though it is not without work itself. We should not restrict ourselves to writing or to reading: endless writing saps our strength and then exhausts it. Too much reading can puff up or dilute our ability. Most commendable is to take them in their turn, to mix one with the other, so that the seeds of one’s reading may be grown anew with the pen.

Seneca

Foucault claims that excessive reading leads to forgetting oneself [1] since we get blasted by other experiences and opinions. We tend not to remember anything if we constantly hop from book to book. This leads to stultitia; a constant change of opinions and wishes and mental agitation.

Writing is a great way to fight this effect.

Too much writing also isn't good, though. It's still necessary to read in order to learn from others - it's impossible to deduct entire knowledge of humanity single-handedly, by writing alone.

The problem with the school

The school has wrongly trained us to think that writing comes after learning and reading. We write essays and tests after we have "learned" the material. This is fueled by transmissionism fallacy [2] - believing that simply understanding the words of the material leads to knowledge. This is not true learning, but cramming, and it's most common symptom is highlighting and re-reading in order to remember.

This leads to false confidence in having learned the material because of the exposure effect; mere familiarity is confused with knowledge. Not to mention that this "knowledge" usually gets forgotten in a very short period of time, since no lasting connections to prior knowledge are formed.

Writing as a tool for learning

Writing after learning assumes you assemble complex arguments in your head and then put it on paper. This is difficult. Writing is a tool for thinking outside your head and it can help with forming complex arguments.

The brain is no place for serious thinking. If you're thinking about something important and complicated, write it down.

Jack Altman

Writing things down in your own words and making connections to the things you already know is a great approach for increasing real knowledge. This is known as the generation effect[3]. Read with pen in your hands and write down everything that resonated with you using your own words.

If you can't say it clearly, you don't understand it yourself.

John Searle

One approach for doing this is explained in a brilliant book titled How to take smart notes. It explains the Zettelkasten system for taking notes, which consists of the following steps:

  1. Making temporary notes to collect everything that pops into your head.
  2. Making short literature notes by using your own words to describe what resonated with you.[4]
  3. Going through notes from step 1. and 2. and thinking about how they relate to what's relevant to your own interests. What questions are triggered? Write exactly one note for each idea and write it as you're writing to someone else.
  4. Put note from step 3. into your note-taking system and link relevant notes.
  5. Go through the system and develop questions and topics bottom up. See what's there and what is missing. Read more to challenge your arguments.
  6. After a while, you will develop ideas far enough to decide on a topic to write about.
  7. Turn your ideas into a rough draft. Detect holes in your arguments.
  8. Proofread or edit.

Achieving balance between reading and writing with Zettelkasten

Writing is a great tool for realizing holes in your thinking and understanding, and Zettelkasten encourages this. Writing simultaneously as you read, divides the bigger task of writing into smaller chunks that you do regularly. As you do so, you no longer have a problem with writing after a long session of reading, which usually causes problems with writing essays since it leads to confrontations with a blank page and a lack of ideas on what to write about. Smaller chunks give us the ability to approach a problem bottom-up. We don't write the essay in one go, but in many small chunks that happen simultaneously to reading. One big task is broken down into many smaller ones.

We learn when we connect the new information to prior knowledge and try to understand its implication (elaboration), but also when we try to retrieve it at different times (spacing) in different contexts (variation), ideally with the help of chance (contextual interference) and with deliberate effort (retrieval).

How to take smart notes, Sönke Ahrens

Writing is a great facilitator for learning and coming up with ideas. It reveals holes in your thinking because you can't write in your own words if you don't understand the material. Feynman's technique of explaining concepts in the simplest terms in your own words makes us not only appear smarter but become smarter.


  1. I've written about this in a previous blog post. Stultita is explained in a great article by Foucault titled "Self Writing".

  2. This concept is explained in detail in a must-read article titled "Why books don't work" that argues that transmissionism is the biggest problem with books.

  3. The generation effect explains that we learn more when we create and engage with the content, than when we passively read. Information is better remembered if it's actively created.

  4. This is known as Feynman technique: writing down explanations in your own words and in simple terms. If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it.


Did you like this article? You can follow me on Twitter, subscribe to my newsletter or subscribe to the RSS feed if you'd like to follow along.