A screen of potent prose

In Tools of Titan, Sebastian Junger, author of War and Tribe, makes a great observation about the writing craft: “… you never want to solve a research problem with language. You never want to … thread the needle and get through a thin patch in your research because you’re such a prose artist.”

What Sebastian has learnt is that if you’re good enough with the pen, you can disguise the weaknesses in your work. Not that you should. A work that suffers from a lack of rigour and deep thought is vulnerable. It won’t last, and when it crumbles any gains accrued from it will be swept away.

Writing typically falls into two classes. The first is writing-as-selling. This is the domain of copywriting, of content marketing and strategy, of calls-to-actions, of direct response techniques. This kind of prose is transactional. It’s aim is to get you to give something up—more time, more attention, more energy, more money. The second class is writing-as-thinking. This is the area Sebastian Junger falls into, and the one I put myself in. This kind of prose is based on a relationship between the writer and the reader. With it, the writer’s aim is to provide the most value for the smallest cost to the reader’s time and attention. 

It is this second class from which observations like the following arise: “Clear writing equals clear thinking.” The implications of such ideas are quite massive. 

Most writing advice, naturally, focuses on the craft. It talks about the importance of daily practice. The power that comes with an understanding of the basic and advanced elements of grammar. It focuses on over-arching principles like clarity, simplicity, and the interweaving of substance and style, story and message. 

Exploring and understanding these ideas will make you a better writer. Undoubtedly. But there’s a more unconventional way to become a better writer: become a better thinker. 

Sebastian said above that you shouldn’t solve problems of research with language. He’s saying you shouldn’t, which means that you can. And if you can solve problems of research with some artful word play, you can most definitely paste over vulnerabilities in thought with the same.

Aiming to become a better writer is an admirable ambition. Writing, and communication in general, is a meta-skill after all. It enhances any other skill you combine it with. There are two ways to achieve this objective of “better”. You can either learn to write better. Or you can learn to think better. 

And there’s something to keep in mind as you choose between the two alternatives: weak thought can be temporarily propped up by strong writing skills. But eventually, you and your work will be found wanting when someone smarter and more rigorous than you comes across it. But if the thought the work is based upon is thorough and deep? It will remains strong, no matter the level of writing competency.

If you have to choose—and I’m not saying you do—between writing better and thinking better, opt for the latter. Why? Because you can hide weak and shallow thought behind a screen of potent prose. But not for long. Sooner or later, the truth will out.