You’ve definitely heard this well-known quote from Greek philosopher Socrates: “I know that I know nothing.” His willingness to find and acknowledge the limits of his knowledge is what made him one of the wisest men in Athens.
Being able to examine the limits of your knowledge requires critical thinking. And it’s something writers should get familiar with. Why? Because it leads to better writing.
Getting a clear definition of “critical thinking” is about as difficult as the act itself. Generally speaking, however, critical thinking is the ability to do what Socrates did: examine facts from multiple angles and derive a conclusion from them. This can be applied directly to writing. After all, what is writing but observing the world, drawing conclusions others might have missed, and putting it all to paper? This is even true in fiction, where authors often strive to answer important questions about the things that make us human.
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably not a philosopher. You’re a writer. But critical thinking is essential to your craft, especially when it’s broken down into these six skills.
This is the first step to any kind of critical thinking: paying attention. Too many of us passively take in what’s going on around us. Often, that inattention can mean missing a clue that can transform the way we think.
When you’re making an active effort to be more observant, you pick up on those details others miss. That’s because our attention is selective, and it tends to focus on the things we’re already supposed to be looking for. In a 1999 experiment, psychologists asked observers to count the number of passes between players on a basketball team. More than a third of observers didn’t notice a man in a gorilla suit walking across the field; they were too focused on the passes! Having a narrow view can make you miss something that’s right in your face and forget the big picture.
In philosophy, observation also means not taking things at face value. It can mean approaching everything like it’s a completely new experience, with a curiosity approximating that of a child. It can also mean looking at some things more closely. And that’s usually the first step for many of the other skills on this list.
So how can writers apply observation to their work?
Do you carry a notebook? If you don’t, you might want to. How else will you hold on to daydreams and ideas? If you do, what kind of things are you jotting down? When I started carrying a notebook, I found myself paying more attention to the things people around me were saying. I took in my surroundings, even the places I’d walked through hundreds of times. You don’t have to do this all the time, but making a bit of an effort every day can do wonders for your writing.
Being able to spot things other people miss is great, but you need to actually do something with what you’re seeing. That’s where analysis comes in. Observation lets you bring in more information, and analysis is how you start working with it.
In philosophy, that process means knowing what information you have available, knowing how it relates to the problem you’re trying to solve, and asking more focused questions.
For writers, analysis doesn’t have to be as rigorous. You’re not trying to define the arbitrary quality of the things you’re observing. But you do want to think critically as you’re bringing information in. If your work involves significant research, you need to analyze the information you’re getting, the sources it’s coming from, and work to find competing viewpoints.
Imagine if you were writing historical fiction, and you gave as much weight to a paragraph from National Geographic as you did that show you stumbled across on the History Channel at 3am. You’d probably wind up with more than a few inaccuracies.
Do you think you’re a biased person? Or are you generally pretty impartial? It’s a trick question: everyone’s got bias. This isn’t inherently a bad thing. The experiences you go through as you grow up, the conditioning you receive from your family, and the decisions you make all contribute to creating biases in the way you think.
Identifying bias is crucial for any critical thinker, as it can completely warp the way you approach a problem. You might believe something to be undeniably true, only to find there’s not much evidence to support it.
How can bias affect a writer? For one, it can lead one to make assumptions that end up harming specific communities with your writing. That can be anything from making assumptions while writing fiction based on harmful stereotypes to making an uneducated argument that flies in the face of actual evidence.
Words have power, and you should carefully consider what yours might be saying.
Here’s a word for your next game of Scrabble. Inference is just the fancy, one-word way of saying “drawing logical conclusions.” We’ve covered observation, which helps you collect more information. Analysis is how you get more out of that information. Identifying your bias is how you make sure you’re not letting what you think is information sneak into your process. Now’s when you bring everything together.
Imagine that you’re building a Lego set. So far, you’ve done a good job of collecting the blocks you need, making sure none of them are broken, and making sure a Mega Bloks didn’t sneak its way in there. When you’re putting that set together, you’re using inference.
For writers, inference usually involves some kind of writing. It encompasses the skills you need to write the best piece you can from what you’ve done so far. Reporters take the facts and craft a compelling story out of them, novelists turn ideas into a cohesive narrative, and so on. It’s the transmutation all writers are familiar with, from bits and pieces to something someone somewhere will want to read.
Inference is the transformative process your piece of writing goes through, but problem-solving is what keeps you from straying off-course. Have you ever found yourself writing a piece, only to get lost in what you thought was going to be a great metaphor? Then, upon re-reading, you mutter, “what the hell was I thinking?”
This critical thinking skill involves planning around the hurdles and pitfalls of writing but also reacting to them as they come. For instance, say you’re analyzing what you’re writing, or maybe you’re looking for places where a certain bias comes through, and you find a problem. Just finding it isn’t enough, and you can’t always just delete a problematic passage. You need to do some problem-solving.
When you’re having a good writing day, it’s all too easy to get caught up in it and assume everything you’re writing is gold. Likewise, a bad writing day can make you commit even the best piece to the wastebasket. With problem-solving, you get better at listening at that little voice in the back of your head that you know is right.
But problem-solving doesn’t stop at knowing something’s going wrong — or right. It’s also about finding the right solution. For a writer, that can mean getting more familiar with the language itself, as well as the conventions and best practices of whatever form you’re writing for. Generally, a writer learns these things from writing a lot and reading a lot more.
I don’t think it’s possible to be a good writer without curiosity. In the Adweek Copywriting Handbook, Joseph Sugarman — a legendary copywriter — said that copywriters need a thirst for knowledge if they’re to master their craft. That’s because copywriting is essentially problem-solving; someone needs to communicate something specific, and you need to figure out how it’s done. The more experiences and knowledge you have to draw from, the better solutions you’ll come up with.
Critical thinking as a whole can be a bit hollow without a ravenous sort of curiosity. That’s because every other skill in this list relies on curiosity. Can you be observant if you’re not naturally curious about the world around you? How can you identify your own biases if you’re not curious enough to explore them?
If you find yourself drawn to writing, take heart in knowing that it’s probably curiosity that’s taken you there. Unless it was money that drew you in — gods help you if that’s the case — you started writing to chase an idea, a feeling, or the truth. Feed that curiosity, and you’ll be both a comprehensive thinker and an impactful writer.
Critical thinking isn’t just for philosophers or academics. It can empower everyone to go beyond the surface level in whatever it is they’re doing. Whether you’re a philosopher or working in a creative field, it’s a powerful set of skills.
For writers, critical thinking will help you get more out of your craft and deal with some of the problems along the way. Observation gives you almost unique access to details and ideas most miss, while analysis gives you the tools to do more with these details. Being more aware of your biases can help you avoid unfortunate blunders and find questions that need to be answered with your writing. Inference and problem-solving are two skills that lead writers to better conclusions from the information all around them and empower them to put this new knowledge into action. Finally, curiosity is essential to critical thinking but is also the lifeblood of any creative endeavour.
Becoming more familiar with these critical thinking skills probably won’t turn you into Socrates, but it will do wonders for your perspective.
Nick wrote his first story at the age of nine when living in New York. It had a troll, a cave, and a magical voice, but not much else. There’s more to his stories now, but he can’t quite stay away from the monsters and dark places of the world. He does his best writing on a powder-blue typewriter—which he snagged for $25—despite the protests of those around him. Some of his best writing (and the occasional gushing post about the Marvel Cinematic Universe) can be found at whiskeyandstardust.com.