I consider myself a writer. This is not because I think writers are great or that I'm a good writer or have anything useful to say. I'm a writer because I write. That's it. Somehow or another it got baked into my genes before I was born. Now, whatever happens, I write. (I find this situation quite odd since as a young person I had no desire at all to write. In fact, I found English to be rote, mundane, aloof, and not relevant to the fun activities of childhood and teenage life. God has a sense of humor.)
Last night I was talking to my spouse about writing. As I was saying the words, it occurred to me that I have four different kinds of ways I write. I knew this innately, but it was odd saying it aloud.
- Writing to react: I write these essays when I see or hear something that stirs an emotional response, such as my conversation last night with my spouse. The important thing here for me is to take my previous life experiences, bring them into conflict with what I've experienced, then synthesize a thesis and supporting arguments that, while emotional, contains all of these things together into something that makes sense to me. This is driven by emotion and the need to react. While I try to bring in other life experiences, I do so only without looking at notes (otherwise it wouldn't be emotional, but logical.) I'm not critically editing at all here aside from reading the work to myself, but I copy edit. The goal is personally-coherent spur-of-the-moment creativity.
- Writing to discover: I write these essays when I am perplexed about something. It can be a matter of fact, but usually it's a matter of why. These are the best discoveries. We know that there's gravity. We know what it is and can describe how it works. But why it works is a much more interesting question and one we're still working on. Likewise, in my life I've been faced with things I know to be true, like "creating good technology happens as a result of good conversations", yet I have no idea why such a thing works. These kinds of questions fascinate me, so I do a "brain dump" and struggle the best I can with the feeble light I have. I usually get the answers quite wrong! The goal here, however, is to make the attempt. I find that making the attempt while trying to be coherent in my mind creates new subconscious concepts. These concepts come in handy later. I'm editing for provability here. No matter what I'm saying, it should be logical, hold together, and have some hooks into the outside intellectual world. I don't care if the reader agrees with me. Hell, I don't care if I agree with myself! In fact, the most fun happens when I don't agree with myself and then move on to the next essay type.
- Writing to narrate: At some point, these discovery essays string together into some longer story, such as "How do we determine what to make for a customer"? or "How do you write programs that are simple and easy to maintain?". This isn't about discovering anything. This writing is about stringing together various discoveries, reworking them into a narrative, and sourcing them out to the various writers and experts who inspired the work. While the react and discover essays are just stand-alone rants apropos of nothing, these tell the story of doing something. There's this thing in life people do. Sometimes they do it well, sometimes poorly. Nobody seems to agree on how to spot whether it's being done well or poorly while it's happening. Tell me a story about how it's done well while describing the motivations and struggles of the participants. I'm editing for enjoyment here. Do anything but bore me (and/or the reader) Most of the time I discover new things while doing this! It's magical. These things become fodder for later essays. The snake eats itself.
As an aside, all works of fiction are narrations, just without the previous two steps (or at least we're not shown them). One way of looking at fiction is the "Story Mind". That is, fiction is a brain that you coinhabit with the author where a problem is presented and you both work together to solve it. Science and technology is the non-fiction version of this. Creating content as narrative describes 99%+ of all content people consume.
- Writing to condense: I find this kind of writing the most enjoyable, as it means I am finally mostly done with the subject. I've reached the point where I can bulletize and condense the points, link out to references, and use this condensed list for future reference. I don't come across these topics again and get confused or worried about things not adding up. I use the wikimedia tool for this. Others may use a public wiki like wikipedia. Most interesting here is that people seem to think that looking things up in a encyclopedic or condensed format as the end-point. For instance, I need to build a fence so I find a 10-minute YouTube video about how to build fences. This is the end-point only for things where there is no discussion, argument, or ambiguity. The fence either exists or it doesn't. If it can be done by robots it will be done by robots, so the most important parts of life are not like this. You don't start with consuming a wiki when figuring out how to lead a moral life. Hopefully you end up creating your own wiki answer to that, but it doesn't work in reverse. I am only critically editing here. There's nothing new happening. The goal is condensation and density of useful related concepts that are supported by external experts.
I find these different kinds of content widely confused and conflated with one another. That's fine, it's how we address really complex problems in society, by mixing stuff all together and trying to pull something useful out of it. But as an individual human, I have to start pulling things from the random mix of life and get working on finding useful things! So the differences in essay types, while not mattering to the rest of the universe, matters to me. I need to sort them out and use them effectively to manage the useful and interesting things I want to do. Others cannot do this for me.
One of the most important life-changing lessons I learned in life as far as learning was something I ran across 20+ years ago. I was struggling to learn how to write long-form fiction. (I wanted to be a sci-fi novelist and couldn't figure out how long-form writing worked.) It was something like this: for all of the really cool and interesting things you do in life, you have to figure out your own system. A recent book has labeled this the "Zero-to-One" principle. For the most interesting things in life, it either works or it doesn't. There is no middle ground, there's no 0.5, just zero and one. Each human in his own way is left navigating the space between zero and one, and what works for one person will not work for another.
I think there are patterns that work better or worse. I also think that personally understanding and using these four writing patterns can help. At least they've helped me.
P.S. Warning: social groups can distort, corrupt, or completely destroy this personal process. That's because all social groups are always norming on terms and concepts. I'm not saying to avoid social groups, only that to the degree you integrate into various social groups (and you will not be consciously aware of this), your journey will be skewed. Paying attention to this fact and using these tools can help, but not fix this problem. This and the limitations of the human brain are the main obstacles you must overcome.
I also find that most non-fiction writers try to start out with the last two steps. I think this is a mistake. It assumes that the first two things have happened somehow inside the mind of the author, it misses out on any "discovered" combinations of ideas, it's subconsciously "pitched" to a reader to make it interesting, and, worst of all, it locks the author into a position that may not be something they would be happy with a few years later. Much rationalization happens. However you create ideas, you should have some mechanism for playing, exploring, and being wrong. Otherwise you're just some oddball version of a social/cultural parrot.