The Church of 'In Your Own Words'
“I’ve also become a convert to the church of Taking Notes in Your Own Words…Doing this just makes synthesising much easier and faster. It also helps me think. Which is the point of this entire note-taking carnival.” ~ Maggie Appleton, Roam Garden
Besides the comical imagery of note-taking carnival clowns, I was struck by the observation that “taking notes in your own words” seems to be a veritable school of thought these days. In different chambers on the internet the philosophy comes in different varieties: ELI5 or The Feynman technique – where you “describe something like you’re teaching a 5-year-old” – is well known on reddit and in how-to-learn-better parts of the internet, respectively. Rubber ducking– where you recite your coding problem to Ernie’s yellow rubber duck – is plastered all over the software development internet. And with a touch of googling, the phrase “writing is thinking” doesn’t take long to surface1.
Writing preserves thought in ink or bits, like amber-enveloped arthropods: What once suffered from a short life-span can continue on past its prior expiration date. The thoughts ensnared in fiber and ink or pixels and LEDs afford us the ability to turn over and over the mental threads we wove. We can critically assess them with the aid of new vantagepoints that come to us later on or opt to throw away any bugs entirely. But unlike poor pests who paid the final price for our pondering pleasure, the freezing of our words allows us to remake and reshape them, to iteratively craft better and better versions. This process not only allows us to produce finer gems, but improves our thinking in and of itself.
I deeply respect this process. However, I do start to feel some dissonance with some of the claims that have begun multiplying under the over-arching concept of “writing is thinking”2: When the act of writing is framed as a permanent aid or partial replacement for thinking itself. I would consider myself a convert to this in-your-own-words church, but I don’t think physical writing or tap-tap-keyboard-tapping is strictly necessary when it comes to the “in your own words” portion of writing to think. If it were, why would rubber ducking be so effective? It usually doesn’t include pen, paper, or a mechanical keyboard. It is typically a verbal process.
It seems to me the key is explication. Verbalisation.3 In this scenario, writing is more of an exercise than a tool. The more reps, the stronger the muscle. The more you have written, the more clearly your thought processes become. It’s a process of pushing bits of information through your mind like a spaghetti press: In goes squishy source material, out comes something moderately digestible.
Of course, finding the right words is more complicated than merely pushing whatever comes to mind out. It is a process that involves scouting the material or concepts at hand and hunting down their main points. The pursuit of the perfect prize phrasing can be a mighty struggle: Its close only comes when you are able to pin down some core essence with the right verbiage, build something useful from what remains of your straining, and lash it to something familiar so it does not get lost in, perhaps, abstraction.
So now that we’ve wound through carnival clowns, rubber ducks, ambered words, spaghetti thoughts, and verbiage hunting, where have we landed?4 Sometimes, the point is the journey. And if you’re going to raise a banner for some popular school of thought, you’d better dig through the details a bit before venturing off into the jungle with them.