Writing Tips from Dr. Jordan B. Peterson

Writing is often a dreaded task for students–especially writing essays–luckily, Dr. Jordan Peterson recently shared his writing guide to which he gave his students when he was a professor.

Peterson’s 25-page writing guide is filled with valuable insights, such as why writing is an important life skill, tips on motivating yourself to write, how to edit an essay and much more. Here are a few key takeaways from Peterson’s guide.

The primary reason to write an essay is so that the writer can formulate and organize an informed, coherent and sophisticated set of ideas about something important.
Dr. Jordan Peterson ( source ).

Dr. Jordan Peterson (source).

The Importance of Writing:

Writing extends your memory, facilities editing and clarifies your thinking.

Peterson claims that there is no difference between thinking and writing. Thinking is important because it allows you to plan your actions instead of taking unnecessary risk and acting recklessly. Like thinking, writing an essay gives you the opportunity to plan and organize your thoughts to create a strong and coherent argument instead of simply saying the first thing that comes into your mind.

Additionally, Peterson says that you can write down more ideas than you can remember, thus giving you the capacity to review your thoughts, reject substandard ideas and strengthen good ones.

Writing isn’t simply a skill used in school, it can be applied to a wide range of scenarios throughout your life:

“Here is something to think about: the person who can formulate and communicate the best argument almost always wins. If you want a job, you have to make a case for yourself. If you want a raise, you have to convince someone that you deserve it. If you are trying to convince someone of the validity of your idea, you have to debate its merits successfully, particularly if there are others with other competing ideas.”

As the saying goes, the pen is mightier than the sword and by sharpening your ability to think and communicate your ideas through writing, you will become lethal. This skill will become especially valuable as you climb the competence hierarchy because you will need to articulate complex ideas and defend your opinions.

Practical Writing Advice:

Before you even start writing, Peterson recommends getting a good night’s sleep the day before, then waking up in the morning and eating a healthy breakfast with some protein and fat (ex. Eggs and bacon, avoid coffee–Peterson says it is counter-productive).

If possible, have two monitors–one to present your reference material and your essay on the other. He also suggests getting a good keyboard (ex. Microsoft Ergonomic keyboard).

When you first sit down to write, your brain will likely rebel and look for distractions. Aim to write for 15 minutes without being distracted, soon you’ll find that your mind will settle down and concentrate on the task at hand.

Go for quality over quantity when it comes to writing. Three hours of focused writing is better than 10 hours of scattered self-deceptive work.

Lastly, don’t wait for a large chunk of free time to start writing. “You will never get big chunks of free time ever in your life, so don’t make your success dependent on their non-existent. The most effective writers write every day, at least a bit.”

Learn The Basic Writing Rules:

Rules are there for a reason. You are only allowed to break them if you are a master. If you’re not a master, don’t confuse your ignorance with creativity or style.

Here are some basic rules to follow:

  • Select your words carefully

  • Craft your sentence so that the right words are in the right location

  • Properly arrange your sentences inside the paragraph

  • Organize the paragraphs in a logical progression from the beginning of the essay to the end

As a general rule, a paragraph should be made up of at least 10 sentences or 100 words. Each paragraph should present an idea–if you can’t think up 100 words to say about your idea, you may need to rethink it. On the other hand, if your paragraph is 300+ words, you may need to trim it or break it up into multiple ideas.

Peterson adds that writers should “strive for brevity, which is concise and efficient expression, as well as beauty.”

If the reader finds your essay boring, or more importantly, you are bored while writing your essay, something is wrong. Perhaps you’ve chosen the wrong topic (one you don’t find interesting) or you are approaching a good topic in a substandard manner.

Try to find a topic that is important to you and piques your curiosity. By doing so, you will put yourself in “alignment with the deeper levels of your psyche and spirit.”

Advice on Reading:

When reading, make a note of the things that catch your attention–the things you seriously agree or disagree with are worth remembering because it can be used to support or weaken your argument.

Peterson says that the best way to take notes is by writing down what you’ve learned and jotting any questions that come to mind. However, don’t copy the text word for word, it is better to recreate the message in your own language. The goal of taking notes is to eliminate extra details and concentrate on the key lessons learned.

If you find note-taking to be difficult, try reading a few paragraphs and then saying to yourself what the paragraph meant–listen to what you said and then write it down. Peterson recommends taking two to three times as many notes as you will need. It may sound inefficient, but it’s not. “In order to write intelligibly about something, or to speak intelligently about it, you need to know far more than you actually communicate.”

The Need for an Outline:

Now you have to write an outline. This is the most difficult part of writing an essay, and it’s not optional.

Peterson calls the outline the most difficult part of the essay because it requires the writer to provide the for their argument. He suggests a thousand-word essay to have a ten-sentence outline.

Here is an example of a good outline:

  • Topic: What is capitalism?

  • How has capitalism been defined?

    • Author 1

    • Author 2

    • Author 3

  • Where and when did capitalism develop?

    • Country 1

    • Country 2

  • How did capitalism develop in the first 50 years after its origin?

    • How did capitalism develop in the second 50 years after its origin?

  • Historical precursors?

    • Choose as many centuries as necessary

  • Advantages of capitalism?

    • Wealth generation

    • Technological advancement

    • Personal freedom

  • Disadvantages of capitalism?

    • Unequal distribution

    • Pollution and other externalized costs

  • Alternatives to capitalism?

    • Fascism

    • Communism

  • Consequences of these alternatives?

  • Potential future developments?

  • Conclusion

Once the outline is finished, you simply have answer each question and provide examples that support your argument. For your first draft, it should be about 25% longer than the required length. This will allow you to trim the extra writing and strengthen your essay.   

How to Edit Your Draft:

When it comes to editing your work, Peterson recommends separating each sentence from the first paragraph and writing another version of each sentence under it. Then repeat this for the next paragraph and so on. It is also helpful to read the sentence aloud and listen to how it sounds. If it’s awkward, see if you can say it in a different, better way.

Aim to eliminate all unnecessary words, this should cut the length of your sentences by 15-25%. Additionally, be precise with your words and use words you understand well. Don’t use fancy vocabulary that is beyond your level of comprehension.

Once you’ve finished editing your draft, try to write a new outline of 10-15 sentences. Make sure you don’t look back at your essay while doing this. By forcing yourself to reconstruct your argument from memory, you will likely improve it since you’ll remember most of what is important and forget the less important details. In a sense, your memory will act as a filter and preserve the useful information.

After finishing the new outline, cut and paste material from your previous essay. “Don’t be afraid to throw unnecessary material away. You are trying to get rid of what is substandard, and leave only what is necessary” (this is why Peterson recommended your draft be longer than the required length earlier on).

At this point, you can continue repeating the process of rewriting and re-ordering your work, or if you feel you’re ready to move on, wait a few days so that can you look at your work with fresh eyes for one final editing session.

“You are not genuinely finished until you cannot edit so that your essay improves. Generally, you can tell if this has happened when you try to rewrite a sentence (or a paragraph) and you are not sure that the new version is an improvement over the original.”

Lastly, make sure you cite your sources–no one wants to be accused of plagiarism and it provides readers the chance to double check your facts or dive deeper into a subject that they find interesting. With that done, your essay is complete.

If you write a number of essays using this process, you will find that your thinking will become richer and clearer, and so will your conversation. There is nothing more vital to becoming educated, and there is nothing more vital than education to your future, and the future of those around you.

To summarize:

  • Writing is important because it allows you to think about more ideas and organize your thoughts better than keeping everything in your head.

  • Writing is a life skill that will increase your chances of becoming successful and will grow in value as you climb the competence hierarchy.

  • Learn the basic rules of writing, the fundamentals must be learned before you attempt to break them.

  • When reading, take notes by writing down what you’ve learned in your own words.

  • Create an outline so you have a fundamental form and structure.

  • Edit your work sentence by sentence, cut out unnecessary words and read it aloud to make sure your writing is clear and easy to understand.

  • Repeat the editing process multiple times, take a few days off before the final edit to look at the work with fresh eyes.

  • Congratulations, your work is now complete!

Thank you for reading. Please share this post so JBP sees it!

If you want to read Peterson’s full writing guide, you can find it here.

If you haven’t yet read Peterson’s book, I highly recommend it. Click the image below to get it.

If you want to check out my list of recommended books, you can find it here.

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