Writing things out to better understand them

Have you ever attempted to read through a challenging document (technical or non-technical) that presented a lot of material you struggled to understand? Examples include textbooks, technical papers, legal documents, insurance information, etc. I have found that one of the best ways to comprehend dense material like this is to write it out.

A really great example of this process is trying to understand the content of a dense, highly technical textbook. With these types of books, it can be difficult to go even one page before you start to completely lose the author. However, if you write out the equations or critical facts as they present them, it becomes much easier to grasp.

That may initially seem like it won’t accomplish anything. All you are doing is writing out the material that you don’t comprehend. How will that make you understand it better?

There are a number of reasons why I believe this works so well. One reason is that it forces you to slow down the rate at which you are consuming the information, especially if you are writing out the material by hand. It forces you to think about one particular item at a time as you write it out. You are also able to put it into a format that appeals more to you, which can lead to understanding more easily.

Another reason is that by writing out the material, you are able to “load” more of the information into your brain, allowing your mind to have a better idea of where each piece of information is. This greater awareness allows your mind to make connections it otherwise would not be able to form.

This process allows you to see much more clearly what points in the material you cannot understand due to a lack of information. For example, if a standard mathematical operation or theorem that you are not aware of is used to go from one step to the next, and that theorem is not provided and perhaps not even referenced, it becomes much clearer that you are simply lacking information instead of not comprehending due to lack of consideration.

At that point, it is easier to recognize that you need to do some research (perhaps with our good friend Mr. Google) in order to understand how the author got from point A to point B. Or you can take your question to an expert who can help you to fill in the blank, either directly or by pointing you in the right direction. Such experts are also going to be far more willing to help you if you come to them with a specific question about information you are missing, instead of just tossing the paper down on their desk and asking them to explain everything.

For example, recently I started reading through a dense paper with a lot of equations, and I found myself completely lost by the time I got to the second page. So I broke out my notebook and started writing things out. Slowly but surely I started to understand the material. It wasn’t easy of course, but this approach allowed the possibility of comprehension.

One disadvantage of this approach is that it definitely takes longer to get through the material. You can spend hours writing out equations for only a few pages out of a technical journal paper or textbook. But if your goal is to actually understand to some reasonable degree that material, then it’s going to take a while to absorb this information anyway, so don’t beat yourself up about it. If your goal is to skim the document to see if there might be any useful information in it, then reading through quickly without comprehending the majority of the material is likely an OK approach. There may be a lot of content that will go completely over your head, and thus you may not be able to assess that content for its usefulness to your purposes, but often the material is sufficiently outside the realm of your interest that the risk of missing some potentially valid information is relatively small.

Now, the more that you understand material in a particular field or area, the more likely it is that you will be able to simply read through a document and understand fully all of the concepts and information presented. People who can do this are the experts I mentioned above. However, it can take many years of study and work to become such an expert. And the approach of writing things out that I describe above can help you get to that level. Just remember to tell yourself what I am always saying to myself: Be patient. It won’t happen overnight. Until then, have fun writing!

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