Write Thick to Think Sharp


We’ve previously discussed how writing a piece of content can be similar, in some ways, to creating a garment or piece of clothing. Now we’d like to discuss how writing thick can lead to a sharper argument. 

Let’s say you’ve just been given a writing assignment. Maybe you need to write an essay for class, or your boss has just asked you to write a blog post for the company’s content marketing efforts. Suppose the maximum word count allowed is 1200 words. Your first instinct might be, “oh that’s nothing…I can knock 1200 words out in no time!” So you open up a word doc and set out to write 1200 words - exactly. But with an eye on the prize, and the inevitable desire to do as little work as possible, those 1200 words may not be supporting the strongest of arguments. 

Brevity is the soul of wit.
— Shakespeare, from Hamlet

For instance, during a lecture, Jordan B. Peterson recently argued that “the best way to teach people critical thinking is to teach them to write…it’s the most powerful weapon you could possibly provide someone with…being articulate is the most dangerous thing you could possibly be.” Of course, in the quest for meeting the bare minimum requirements, we’re often not as dangerous as we can be. And, if we’re completely honest, it’s because we know - in our bones - that 1200 words is far more difficult a task to complete than say, 2,000 words. Anyone can rant and rave for a few thousand words about a subject. It’s far more difficult to be concise. 

So, let’s say you would like to take the road less traveled and really squeeze all of the value out of those 1200 words. In a sense, this would be the writing equivalent of making rose oil, which for every 5mL of the essential oil, roughly 22 pounds of rose petals must be shredded and crushed. Naturally, to begin this process, you need to first gather your rose petals - a lot of them. And this is where writing thick comes into play. 

I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.
— Blaise Pascal, from The Provincial Letters

To begin your writing process, start by exploring everything you could possibly say about the topic at hand. Do an ugly, messy brain dump right there on the page. Throw everything you’ve got at it, even if it seems random, strange, or disjointed. Gather as much information as you can from original source material, interviews, outside sources, other essays, books, websites, etc. Organize it in a doc, then translate it into your own words. Search wide and far, then write deep and long. It doesn’t have to be smooth, perfect, or even logical. Just get it all down on paper. 

Maybe you end up with 5,000 words, or even 20 pages of material. It doesn’t matter. Just get everything relevant, interesting, or curious in front of you. Then start shredding it to pieces. What is helping your argument? What isn’t? Start playing with your material by rearranging it, formatting it into a cohesive outline, and letting the information inspire new and exciting thoughts, examples, or analogies. 

Next, condense and crush it. Really get in there and pound as much value into as few pieces as possible. Squeeze all of the juicy facts and ideas into solid sections. You’ve only got 1200 words at your disposal, so be merciless. Where can one or two words suffice rather than 10 or more? How can you distill all of the information into a smaller space? Play with your outline and make the tough cuts - what has to be included, and what, unfortunately, won’t make the final draft? 

It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.
— Friedrich Nietzsche

Alright, now that all of your ideas are in order, it’s time to write the draft. Don’t worry about the word count just yet; simply say what you came here to say. What are you arguing for? How can you cut to the chase? (Read: NO FLUFF.) Be bold in your thinking and direct with your words. Don’t skirt around an issue or try to “set it up.” Get right to the point because, honestly, you don’t have the space. 

Finally, once you have a draft, you can begin your editing process. Here’s where you want to keep that word count in mind. If you’ve only got 1200 words, use them to the best of your ability. Tighten up your sentences like you would a screw with a drill. Take out words that don’t need to be there. Rewrite sentences that seem to dance about rather than march. Tighten, tighten, tighten. Leave no phrase or consideration untouched. 

Writing is 1 percent inspiration, and 99 percent elimination.
— Louise Brooks

Then, and only then, will you have 1200 words in perfect order ready to do your bidding. Don’t let them be slouch, lazy little soldiers. Have them be the goddamn Marines, ready for duty. And since you’re the general, make them stay in formation and attack the opposing idea with cold and brutal dedication. 

That’s how you write thick to think sharp.