What Would Make Writing Impossible?

Dear Everybody, 

The easiest way to make a problem harder is to try to make it easier. Instead, invert the problem and ask, “What would make it impossible?” 

Take writing, for example.

Writing’s hard because every time you write, you’re working on two problems at once. The first is a language and syntax problem made up of words and sentences, and the second is a meaning and structure problem made up of concepts and themes. 

These two problems are interconnected, and they can’t be solved independent of each other. They have to be solved together.

Which means writing isn’t a just language and syntax problem, and it’s not just a meaning and structure problem. Writing is a design problem, and like many hard problems, it can’t be solved forward — it has to be addressed backward.

A short list of things that would make writing impossible:

  • Fixating on writing itself;

  • Leaving complex ideas intact;

  • Letting words choose meaning; 

  • Presenting ideas in no particular order; and

  • Structuring ideas but not connecting them together.

Because writing is a subset of design, the best way to think about writing is not to think about writing at all. It’s to think instead about solving a design problem (the problem language and meaning have in common). 

Expressing ideas is the art of abstracting away the writing problem and working on the design problem. The alternative is to let words rush in, as Orwell would say, and to let the words do the thinking for you.

Taking Ideas Apart

This week, while reading Packy McCormick’s Not Boring newsletter, I discovered a presentation titled, “Design, Composition, and Performance,” by the computer scientist Rich Hickey. Rich talks about the role of design in software development, and in particular the relationship between software design and music composition.

The talk has both nothing to do with writing and everything to do with writing at the same time. It applies equally to writers, coders, artists, and creators. To quote Rich, “Design is taking things apart in order to be able to put them back together. That’s all it is. Every time I wish my design were better, I didn’t take it apart enough.”

Writing is less about trying to define what you’re saying, and more about divining what you’re trying to say:

  • Concentrating on themes;

  • Conveying intended ideas;

  • Considering how they’re organized; and

  • Conceiving images to express them.

As Rich puts it, “Design is about decisions. The value you convey is the decisions you’ve made.” Effective writing isn’t about having ideas and writing about them; it’s about having many ideas, picking a few, and resolving them together into something new.

Thinking is a momentary dismissal of irrelevancies.

-R. Buckminster Fuller

For writers, coders, artists, and creators:

Good design is understandable. It’s easy to wrap your head around. It takes ten words to describe the structure of 1,000. In software terms, “the design is smaller than the code that implements it.” 

Good design is detachable. Each sentence reflects the whole. The writing flows from theme to theme. James Clear could tweet any few sentences from Atomic Habits and they would be valuable.    

Good design is reusable. “When you’ve broken stuff up into separate pieces that have nice interconnecting points, you can pull them out of one context and put them in another context. These are not magical things. They fall out of decomposition.” 

Good design is extensible. When you break apart ideas, “You end up with pieces that are meant to connect to other pieces, which means there will be connecting points on those pieces, and therefore when you want to do something new, you can make a new extension.” 

Good design is efficient. Channeling what you’re trying to say is the least wasteful way to write. 

Good design is simple. Simplicity, as Brancusi said, is “Complexity resolved.” And “True simplicity,” in the words of Jony Ive, is “So much more than just the absence of clutter and ornamentation. It’s about bringing order to complexity.”

Design, Writing, and Creative Constraint

Design is what sets creators apart.

Not all designers are writers, but all great designers are capable of writing well. The designer Jack Butcher doesn’t get enough credit for his writing, and the writer David Perell doesn’t get enough credit for his design sensibility. They each work on the design problem by default, never putting ideas together without first taking them apart.

What’s impressive about Jack isn’t his ability to communicate ideas visually, it’s his ability to communicate ideas in general. Likewise, what’s impressive about David isn’t his ability to capture ideas in words, it’s his ability to let his meaning choose his words for him.

The more constraints creators put on themselves, the better and more creative decisions they make. To again quote Rich Hickey, “Design is imagining, if it’s not regurgitating something that’s happened before. You’re facing some sort of problem and you have to imagine a potential solution.”

In Rich’s words:

The first thing you need to do is rush at the constraints. You don’t want to say, “Don’t constrain me, I’m trying to design.” It’s the opposite of that.

Design is about addressing constraints. The first thing composers tend to do when they have a blank page and they can do whatever they want, is make up a bunch of problems for themselves. We have to do this for ourselves the same way composers do it for themselves, or choreographers, or directors. They bring in constraints to help them move forward. This is not a new idea. It's a very old idea. But it’s one we have to keep remembering:  constraint drives creativity.

Thank you for reading!

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