Mental Models For Writers: How To Think Better

“Writing is thinking.

To write well is to think clearly.

That's why it's so hard.”

Let’s assume the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough is right, thus my question would be: how can we improve our thinking skills in order to become better writers?

Well…Obsession, a couple of rabbit holes, and stupid caffeine-driven ambition all led me to find a pretty decent answer.


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Mental Models Basics

One of the most efficient ways to train your brain to think better is by expanding the set of mental models you use to think. It's kind of like not being satisfied with just one pair of shoes for running and, instead, creating a selection of shoes suitable for every situation. [Shoes = Mental Models; Running = Thinking]

Mental models are how we understand the world. Not only do they shape what we think and how we understand but they shape the connections and opportunities that we see. Mental models are how we simplify complexity, why we consider some things more relevant than others, and how we reason.

A mental model is simply a representation of how something works. We cannot keep all of the details of the world in our brains, so we use models to simplify the complex into understandable and organizable chunks.

— Farnam Street

Mental models are “thinking tools” that you use to understand life, make decisions, and solve problems — they basically guide your perception and behaviour.

Therefore, it follows that learning new mental models gives you more ways to interpret the world. Your thinking quality is proportional to the number of models in your head and their usefulness in the situation at hand.

I other words, it turns out that variety matters: the more models you have, the bigger your toolbox when it comes to comprehending and dealing with reality.

Most of us, however, are specialists. Instead of a latticework of mental models, we have a few from our discipline. Each specialist sees something different. By default, a typical Engineer will think in systems. A psychologist will think in terms of incentives. A biologist will think in terms of evolution. By putting these disciplines together in our head, we can walk around a problem in a three dimensional way. If we’re only looking at the problem one way, we’ve got a blind spot. And blind spots can kill you.

You experience this “dimensional difference” every day when interacting with people — everyone approaches the same topics from slightly different perspectives. Our backgrounds — together with other factors — bring us to think “in a certain way”: we have specific and finite mental models at hand when approaching any problem.

You can train your brain to think better. One of the best ways to do this is to expand the set of mental models you use to think.

— James Clear, author of the #1 NYT bestseller Atomic Habits

In order to think better — we could rephrase this as “in order to use the most efficient model according to the problem we face” — it’s necessary to extend the number of models we possess. The good news is that you can boost your skill just considering the few models I’m going to present here.

Two last pieces of information before jumping into the wild:

  1. Expanding the number of mental models available in our minds, and mastering them with different problems, is a lifelong project. There’s no end — and no limits, either!

  2. Mental models are imperfect. They are (by definition) approximations that allow us to deal more effectively with what would otherwise be too complex to handle on an element-by-element basis: we approximate complexity to deal with it. This is perfectly fine and valid as long as they remain useful. When they’re not, when they essentially limit our capacity to see and understand, we enter the world of cognitive biases (Read more about it in our previous Cognitive Biases For Writers And How To Outsmart Them).

“Scientists generally agree that no theory is 100 percent correct. Thus, the real test of knowledge is not truth, but utility.” The best mental models are the ideas with the most utility. They are broadly useful in daily life. Understanding these concepts will help you make wiser choices and take better actions. This is why developing a broad base of mental models is critical for anyone interested in thinking clearly, rationally, and effectively.

— Yuval Noah Harari, historian and bestselling author of Sapiens, Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Find below three game-changing mental models.

1) Reasoning From First Principles

First-principles thinking is one of the best ways to reverse-engineer complicated problems and unleash creative possibilities — ideal for learning to think for yourself and move from linear to non-linear results.

The core idea is to break down intricate problems into basic elements and then reassemble them from the ground up.

Those basic elements — the principles — are no more than foundational assumptions that stand alone. Aristotle (great guy!) would say that first principles are “the first basis from which a thing is known.”

Here is a real-writing-life example:

I want to write for The New Yorker, but everyone says it’s impossible and doesn't even make sense to try. This second-hand information may put me off. It’s not ideal to conceive my career in other people terms.

But what happens if I boil down my goal to its first principles?

I start by asking myself questions: What if they’re wrong? How the magazine defines success? What does it mean to become a valuable resource for them? What The New Yorker writers have in common? What are the real bottlenecks?

These basic questions have reasonably easy answers and lead me to understand that, in order to succeed, I’d need:

  • to have track record of quality and reliable work;

  • to bring interesting and targeted stories;

  • to have a first-class voice and character;

  • to know the industry’s actors and grab their attention;

  • to solve editors problems (not being one).

Are these goals easy? No. But building a solid ground-up strategy from these First Principles is actually quite simple! I now have a clear understendment of how difficult it is and what I should do.

As you can see in this example, without applying this mental model, I would end up trapped in what other people tell — in the way things have always been done. Now I’m free to choose and make my decision, conscious of what it takes.

First-principles reasoning basically removes the blinders!

Reasoning by first principles removes the impurity of assumptions and conventions. What remains is the essentials. It’s one of the best mental models you can use to improve your thinking because the essentials allow you to see where reasoning by analogy might lead you astray.

— Farnam Street

Don’t outsource your thinking to someone else — using their analogies, their conventions, and their possibilities. Don’t assume others know better how to go after your dreams. Just focus, boil down to a few principles, and enjoy the experience of using new — and wiser — eyes.

“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

— Harrington Emerson

2) Circle Of Competence

(Picture from “The Great Mental Models Volume 1: General Thinking Concepts”, by Shane Parrish)

Each of us builds up useful knowledge in specific areas thanks to experience or study. Some of these areas are understood by most of us, while others require higher degrees of specialisation.

Well, the areas in which we possess a high degree of comprehension form, altogether, our circle of competence.

How do we leverage this mental model?

It turns out that an efficient way to progress towards success is investing in being extremely smart “in spots”: strategically choosing a few specific areas and digging as deep as possible around them.

“The size of that circle is not very important; knowing its boundaries, however, is vital.”

—  Warren Buffett

We often tend by instinct to widen our areas of competence, but that’s not always the most efficient choice. It’s a fact that we don’t need to master the most esoteric domains of knowledge in order to write something brilliant. Instead, it’s far more efficient to honestly defining what we do know and sticking with it.

My personal interpretation of this mental model is: if the first rule of writing states “write what you know”, then I just want to know it better — no need to know something else!

Naturally, our circle of competence can be widened, but slowly and over time. If you want to improve your chances of success, define the perimeter of your circle of competence and work within it. Then work to expand it over time - without the pressure of haste or the fear of saying “I don’t know”.

“Ignorance more often begets confidence than knowledge.”

— Charles Darwin

3) Inversion

Inversion is a mental model in which you consider the opposite of what you want.

Stay with me!

It’s extremely rare to see people leveraging this tool but consider — and I’m not trying to be persuasive — consider that some of the most brilliant minds have applied it to solve complex problems.

Inversion is a powerful thinking tool because it puts a spotlight on errors and roadblocks that are not obvious at first glance. What if the opposite was true? What if I focused on a different side of this situation? Instead of asking how to do something, ask how to not do it.

— James Clear (in this piece)

A prove of its power? Thanks to it, I realised that success is overvalued and that avoiding failure matters way more. We are all so focused on success that we often do not consider how such a vague goal can deceive us - how dangerous it can be. What do you have to do to succeed? Waking up at 4 am? Reading unmissable bestsellers? Working 12 hours per day?

On the other side — if inverting our reasoning perspective and considering the opposite of success instead — it would become clear what it’s actually useful to do.

What do you want to avoid?

  • being unreliable;

  • thinking about writing without writing;

  • losing control of my publication deadlines.

As you can see, these three elements are way more approachable than just “wake up and be successful”: they lead to perform practical and clear actions; they help to avoid stupid mistakes; eventually, they bring closer to success.

Blindly chasing success can have severe consequences, but preventing failure usually carries minimal risk. This inversion can save your life (too dramatic? Sorry. I just wanted to point out that avoiding mistakes is an underrated way of improving. Sometimes it’s more important to consider why people fail than why they succeed: what did they do that you want to avoid?).

Try it. Look at your problems upside-down. Understand what you do not want.

“ Learn from the mistakes of others.

You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”

— Anonymous 

One last thing.

Expanding your set of mental models is key for beginners as well as for pros in any area.

When a certain worldview dominates your thinking, your mind automatically tries to explain every problem through it. Smart and talented people run a big risk here as their mental models are somehow “validated”: used in many situations and often/always proved to be the right ones. Well, this is exactly how you involuntarily build blindspots and biases. Solving problems is a game of flexibility, not of track record.

“The chief enemy of good decisions is a lack of sufficient perspectives on a problem.”

— Alain de Botton

See you next Wednesday,

Lorenzo Di Brino