Our bodies were never built to to contain all our thoughts and feelings. These thoughts and feelings overflow out of us, into our friends and family, into our creative outlets, into any container larger than ourselves. (sometimes into our therapists, if you’re able to afford one!)
There is an imbalance of what is inside and outside of you. Writing corrects this by allowing you to externalize your inner self, and through the process of writing, you gain further clarity as to what it was you wanted to externalize.
I used to think of writing as primarily a form of communication. Why would I write an essay if I did not have a unique, valuable idea or vantage-point to share with others? This question discouraged me from starting or sharing my writing — plenty of better writers have already articulated what I wanted to say. It turns out I was focusing too much on the end-goal and not enough on the enjoyable process itself. After getting into the habit of writing private essays (or diary entries, or journal entries, or whatever), I now appreciate how writing is so much more than a form of communication. Writing is no longer primarily for others, it’s primarily for myself.
Writing helps organize what you already know
I have so many ideas and values that I understand much better after writing them out. The act of writing forces you to confront how unorganized your knowledge is when it’s just inside your brain. Refining a piece of writing declutters your thoughts. It’s like housekeeping for your brain. Much like how it’s easier to find things in a clean house, you become better at recalling and communicating your thoughts to others afterward. The most important benefit of writing, by far, is how it provides you more clarity over your own thoughts. Every other benefit is a corollary of this.
(Also, all good writing stems from clarity of thought. Good writing can come in all sorts of formats and use all sorts of techniques and styles. But the first step is always the clarity.)
Writing helps you learn new things
Once your thoughts are more organized, you can easily see how little you actually know about a topic. Sometimes, you immediately gain new insights just from seeing a more organized version of your thoughts. More commonly, there will be various gaps of knowledge that are now obvious, and you can then research to fill those gaps. In this way, the process of writing makes you smarter.
If you want to learn something new or understand something better, write an essay, story, or poem about it. I highly recommend writing a reflection after (or even during) every book you read or movie you watch. Reflect on everything to make sure you fully synthesize it.
Writing is therapeutic
Often, I write because of some anxiety. What recurring thoughts are eating at my mind? Why are they overwhelming? And then, once I’ve written out the answers to these questions, it’s all laid out in front of me. It suddenly becomes much less overwhelming than I thought. Writing will help you understand yourself and others better. You never need to share your writing, or even ever read it again after you’re done, to benefit from the process.
Writing is efficient
I don’t think any of the above benefits are specific to writing. In fact, any creative process (by which I mean any transfer of ideas, thoughts, and feelings into an external medium) can help you accomplish these benefits, but writing is the most economical. Economical in the sense that outputting and organizing words is cheaper and easier than other forms of creative expression, as well as the fact that writing only involves yourself, so you are not expending the time and labour of others.
…And yes, after writing a lot you do end up becoming a better communicator. But the real benefit is becoming a better thinker, and better communication is just a natural result afterward.
Ted Chiang describes writing as the first ever augmentation of the human brain. He even goes as far to say that we have been cyborgs ever since we learned to write. Before writing, we could never refine our thoughts, organize our ideas, remember things at scale, or communicate asynchronously. It’s the most valuable technology ever invented. Let’s leverage it to the fullest.