Every Great Writer Has This One Skill
Have you ever noticed how the smartest people are always a little odd? This is because there's a fine line between genius and insanity.... Crazy people are handy to have around, because they see connections between seemingly unrelated ideas that has led to all of humankind's most important discoveries." - Roy H. Williams, The Wizard of Ads
When your mom tells you you're the best writer she's ever seen, don't believe her. "The tension was so thick, you could cut it with a knife" is not good writing. It's not even tabloid magazine good. Yet, as a college freshman, I believed I had a gift for the written word until that fateful day my English professor handed me a big fat D- on my first paper!
I was stunned. The only plausible explanation for this oversight was that he didn't recognize good writing. Or, maybe he lacked an understanding of the subject matter. Whatever it was, I had to find out, so I confronted him.
His response made me want to throw up.
"Your essay has too many abstracts and generalizations. I don't know what you are trying to say. Do you? A mark of a good writer is being able to communicate clearly and intentionally to your audience. This requires some critical thinking. You will improve as a writer, when you improve your thinking."
So, not only was I a crappy writer, I also didn't know how to think? Where was my mother when I needed her?!
Fortunately, my professor didn't leave me high and dry. He told me I had raw talent but just needed to sharpen my critical thinking skills. He agreed to work with me a long as I was willing to put in the time and effort to improve. I did, and during the process, I learned that using a bunch of metaphors and fancy jargon didn't make me sound intelligent and impressive. It only served to confuse my readers and illuminate my lack of skill and competence.
I ended up getting an "A" in that class after spending every available office hour with my professor. He was not easy on me, and most of the time I wanted to scream in his face and punch the wall—but I didn't give up. I knew learning to think critically would improve many aspects of my life, not just with writing.
What Is Critical Thinking?
The definition of critical thinking is "self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored, and self-corrective thinking. It entails effective communication and problem solving abilities... and governs a person's facility to process information in a logical manner. A person with critical thinking skills is capable of upgrading his own knowledge and can easily engage in independent self-learning. He can find connections between diverse streams and pieces of knowledge and can assess the value of the information he acquires."
How Critical Thinking Improves Your Writing
1. It helps you analyze information quickly.
We live in a knowledge economy, where the speed of retaining, learning, and applying new information has dramatically increased. Things are moving extremely fast, which requires a sharp and flexible mind to sift through diverse pieces of information in order to make meaningful connections and solve problems quickly.
2. It enhances your language skills.
A critical thinker is able to communicate clearly and effectively to her intended audience using language that relates to their background, experience, age, stage of life, and many more variables.
3. It promotes creativity.
Critical thinkers are also creative thinkers. They have the ability to think outside the box to come up with creative solutions to problems. "Creative thinking is today's most prized profit-producing possession for any individual, corporation, or country. It has the capacity to change you, your business, and the world" (Robert P. Crawford).
4. It helps you better understand your audience.
Critical thinking helps you understand different perspectives and pieces of information, so you are able to write messages and stories that resonate with your readers. "Great writing requires observation, reflection, analysis, and an artful presentation of information" (Grammarly).
6 Ways to Improve Your Critical Thinking
1. Stay curious.
Become like an investigative journalist. Ask a lot of questions. Make the WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY, and HOW part of your thought process. You aren't looking for evidence to prove a point. You're looking to find truth—even if it conflicts with your assumptions and beliefs. (The infographic at the bottom, "The Ultimate Cheatsheet for Critical Thinking" has some great questions to get you started.)
2. Read a lot.
Read every day from a variety of publications that cover different beliefs, time periods, politics, cultural backgrounds, and topics. Challenge yourself further by researching a topic or subject matter you've little to no experience with. Then, write about it.
3. Write every day.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough has said, “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly.” In writing, we exercise our thinking skills, which expands our ability to comprehend complex and foreign ideas. Writing daily about a subject "brings you closer to it. When you are dealing with a large, complex problem, writing about it every day keeps the subject fresh in your mind. You are moving closer to the resolution" (Grammarly).
4. Don't overanalyze.
You can go too far by overthinking and fixating on an idea. You don't always have to go deep in order to extract meaning from something. Many times, the answer is right in front of you.
5. Be flexible.
You can change your mind. In fact, it can be difficult to sharpen your critical thinking skills if you aren't mentally flexible. For example, what's true today may not be true tomorrow, and what's true for you may not be true for someone else.
6. Challenge the status quo.
There's always another side to the story. Nothing is 100 percent right, wrong, bad, or good. It's ok to challenge common beliefs and assumptions to see another point of view, solve a unique problem, provide new insights, or tell a compelling story.
Wrapping It Up
Don't worry about doing all of these at once. Just get started by reading and writing every day. The rest will come. Be consistent and diligent, and just like with any skill, practice makes perfect!