Jordan Peterson's 10-step process for stronger writing

Though written for his students, the lessons can be applied by any essay writer.

  • The best way to improve your thinking is to learn how to write, says Jordan Peterson.
  • His 10-step process for writing an essay is time consuming, but the benefits are worth it.
  • From the granular to the macro, every facet of writing a solid essay is covered in his template.

Becoming a better writer is a means for becoming a better thinker, says Canadian professor Jordan Peterson. Arranging your thoughts on a page in a coherent fashion organizes your thinking process so you can better understand it, which translates into efficiently communicating your ideas to others. Just as Marie Kondo inspires fans to declutter their homes in order to transform their emotional and mental life, Jordan Peterson's 10-step essay writing template is a way of empowering you to achieve mental clarity.

1. Introduction

The introductory step qualifies the importance of essay writing. Peterson summarizes:

"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."

Actions based on thinking through consequences are more productive and less painful than those based on ignorance. Peterson believes in no better means for living an effective life than writing, which forces you to confront inconsistencies, paradoxes, and novel ideas. By rejecting substandard notions uncovered by your essays, you can choose to take action on those that matter most. Organizing your thoughts verbally, he concludes, allows you to think abstractly, granting access to higher-order cognitive processes.

2. Levels of Resolution

First, select a word; then craft a sentence; finally, sequence sentences inside of a paragraph. Peterson suggests that each paragraph consist of at least 10 sentences or 100 words. Over time such numbers are arbitrary. In literature, José Saramago's sentences run thousands of words while Philip Roth's later novels include numerous single-sentence paragraphs. Learn form before mastering it, Peterson writes. Strict adherence to structure is helpful.

"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. Writing that follows the rules is easier for readers, because they know roughly what to expect. So rules are conventions."

The final two levels of resolution are arranging the paragraphs in a logical progression (with each paragraph presenting a single idea) and understanding the essay as a whole. Creative people sometimes miss the mark by failing to organize their thoughts in a clear manner. Successful essays generally achieve these five levels, from the granular to the macro. Brevity and beauty can be achieved using this guideline, reminiscent of V.S. Naipaul's rules for writing.

Jordan Peterson on how to improve your writing

3. The Topic and the Reading List

Choosing a topic occurs in one of two ways: you're assigned it (remember, this guide is for Peterson's students) or you can list 10 topics that you're interested in exploring and choose one. The next step is to pick your reading list for researching the topic. Peterson suggests five to 10 books per thousand words of essay. He eschews highlighting books; instead, take notes. There is evidence that writing down (and not typing) information is the best way to remember information.

4. The Outline

Peterson calls this step "the most difficult part of writing an essay." Also, "it's not optional." This step is why I love the word-processing program Scrivener — my outline lives on the left side as I work on longer articles and books. Any outline could shift and transform as you research and write the essay, so being able to constantly reference the skeleton you create is the surest path to success.

5. Paragraphs

One of the hardest pieces of advice to convey to new writers is to just write. Writer's block doesn't exist when you're disciplined. Malcolm Gladwell discusses this point on Tim Ferriss's podcast. Gladwell spent a decade in the Washington Post newsroom; reporters don't have the luxury of writer's block. The first draft is effectively thinking on the page. Success occurs during the editing process, which is why Peterson recommends not worrying about the quality of your work during the paragraph process. Just get the words onto the page. Peterson continues,

"Production (the first major step) and editing (the second) are different functions, and should be treated that way. This is because each interferes with the other. The purpose of production is to produce. The function of editing is to reduce and arrange."

6. Editing and Arranging of Sentences Within Paragraphs

Once the first draft is complete, Peterson forces you to confront yourself by asking that you rewrite every sentence in a different manner. Then compare the two drafts by reading them aloud. Hearing yourself speak your own words not only causes you to listen to the music of your words, it also helps you understand what is being communicated to the reader. This step also helps you eliminate redundancies and master conciseness.

Jordan Peterson on the Power of Writing

7. Re-ordering the Paragraphs

By this stage you're examining the fluidity of the content in service of the essay as a whole. Just as you examined each individual sentence, now you look at their service to the meaning of each paragraph. From there, you investigate how the jigsaw pieces fit together to construct the puzzle.

8. Generating a New Outline

Many writers believe they're done once the second draft is tight. Peterson disagrees. After you've read through the latter draft, he recommends writing yet another outline. Importantly, do not look back at the essay while doing so. This Jedi mind trick on yourself has utility; you're making yourself remember what's most important about the argument you've constructed. This will help you eliminate repetitive or unnecessary arguments as well as strengthen the most pertinent points.

"If you force yourself to reconstruct your argument from memory, you will likely improve it. Generally, when you remember something, you simplify it, while retaining most of what is important. Thus, your memory can serve as a filter, removing what is useless and preserving and organizing what is vital. What you are doing now is distilling what you have written to its essence."

9. Repeat

After a few days, if you "really want to take it to the next level," return to your latest draft to investigate every sentence, every paragraph, and the outline. The space of days will separate what you think you wrote from what you actually wrote. In a more toned-down version of this, I write a draft of every article, edit it at least twice, yet never publish until the next morning. That way I have allowed a night of sleep to pass before blasting it into cyberspace. My favorite time to do this is between 5–7 a.m., after the cats are fed and the caffeine is circulating.

10. References and Bibliography

Peterson saves citations for last. Of course, you've been saving your sources as you collect information — another great feature in Scrivener. Citing sources also offers one last opportunity to read the quality of the work and ensure that you've properly captured the information you've collected. With that, your essay is complete.

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

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Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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