When I was younger, I remember proudly positing to my penpal that “the thoughts in your head are in their purest form, written thoughts are only ever an approximation.” Although this seemed to make some level of sense to me at the time, I pretty strongly disagree with it today. Instead, I see head-thoughts and written-thoughts as entirely different beasts: not only does writing put your thoughts in a different form, the act of writing makes you think in an entirely different way.
This is what Marshall McLuhan means when he says “the medium is the message.” It’s not just about the “container” of your ideas (your head vs written words), but that the medium itself changes the way we think so much, that for all intents and purposes the medium we use is the message we’re trying to convey.
As an example, I often have ideas in my head on how to solve a problem. I think I know a lot about the problem, like who’s involved, what’s causing it, what the effects of the problem are, maybe a possible solution. But once I start writing about the problem (in an essay or maybe a developer text file, depending), suddenly the problem changes. Suddenly, I can see new parts to the problem in ways my head-thoughts couldn’t.
If you’re a software developer, you may have heard of “rubber duck debugging,” where just by explaining (in writing or out loud) your problem to someone or something (maybe even a rubber duck sitting on your desk), you’ll often figure out the problem on your own.
There’s no magic in this, but rather I think it’s a consequence of putting your thoughts in the world and walking around in them (this phrase is lifted from the fantastic Double Fine Adventure documentary episode of a similar name).
And of course, walking around in your thoughts is not restricted to just writing or saying them out loud. The useful thing is putting your thoughts into some kind of reality so you can make use of them. You might do this with written or spoken language, or you might do this by drawing or painting a picture, or by playing a song on the piano or guitar, or by programming a prototype or spreadsheet. Each of these media are going to let you think differently, but they’re all objects to think with.
This is why writing or sketching or prototyping or whatever is so important: yes it’s about communicating ideas to other people, but I think just as importantly (and often overlooked), it’s also about communicating these ideas back to yourself. You have all these channels of reality, like your sense of vision or space, and you don’t get to use those as well when you’re only thinking in your head. But if you draw a picture of your idea, suddenly you are literally seeing the idea in a different way.