Yeah, I know, I’m promising a lot. Is it really and for true possible to get in five minutes? Heck yes it is. In fact, you can prolly get smarter in less time than that. The trick to getting smarter about any topic from Physics to French to fructivore physiology is to your thinking on that topic. Well, duh! But hear me out; focused thinking involves searching for patterns in the information, drawing comparisons between the object of study and other things you already know, translating difficult concepts into your own everyday jargon, and–in short–processing the information at a higher level.

Good news here, people. You already have one of the most powerful mental processing tools known to man literally at your fingertips. HINT: It has nothing to do with silicon or Steve Jobs. It’s called .

Most people–not you, of course–see writing as something you are assigned by sadistic, homework-happy profs, but writing is actually a powerful thinking . Ask Pulitzer Prize winning historian, David McCullough, who said, “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” Writing helps you focus, recall, and understand! Whether you’re trying to get a bead on Charlemagne’s leadership genius, the weaknesses of multi-variate regressions, or the in’s and out’s of stoichiometry, writing can give you the mental boost you need.

How it works

Taking a doughy, unshaped thought and turning it into a well-constructed, logically-articulated sentence forces you to process at a higher level. You’ve got to take the info-mulch roiling around between your ears and verbally tie it down into neat little lines, like beaded cornrows on a Spring Breaker’s head. That translates to better recall and understanding–for you, not the Spring Breaker.

Here’s an easy way to use writing to make yourself smarter. Write an email to an imaginary eighth-grader who has asked your expert opinion on whatever it is you’re studying. (‘Course this would never happen in real life ‘cuz eighth-graders already know it all, right?) You’ll need to define your terms, explain key concepts, and provide examples, to make the topic clear to them. Go for simple sentences and vocabulary; avoid jargon or technical terms. And most people will lose interest if you’re too wordy, so prune your response down to a paragraph or two.


Dear Mufasa,

My 8th grade science teacher said you know a lot about feline distemper. Can you explain it to me?


Simba, Eighth Grade


Hi Simba,

Feline distemper (scientists call it feline panleukopenia) is like the flu for cats. It’s caused by a virus known as feline parvovirus, and cats can catch it much like you would catch a cold; by coming into contact with another infected animal or an infected animal’s body fluids or maybe by being touched by an owner or vet who’s recently petted an infected cat. It makes cats feel really terrible–fever, tiredness, diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration–and can even kill them if it isn’t treated. In fact, out of every ten cats that catch it, as many as six to nine will die from it. ETC.

You might assume that the person you’re writing to has some basic knowledge so you don’t have to explain every single term. The point is to clearly explain, evaluate, and clarify, your topic using well-chosen words, phrases, and examples. Use this technique sparingly at first. It definitely takes some effort on your part, but that effort directly correlates to a more powerful memory and understanding of the topic. That means your noggin is firing on all six cylinders, my people.

A simple way to make this technique even more effective is to illustrate key points and terms by making a quick drawing or diagram. Use several different colors and feel to label things (sparingly). Don’t sweat it if you’re no Rembrandt. Go for simple, clear, and colorful. Stick figures are fine for most things.

Just like writing, you are taking mushy concepts and turning them into something more concrete. You must understand the concept and translate it into something visual. You’re also making it more memorable; especially when you consider the fact that most of us recall images much better than words.

BONUS: Practice makes perfect. People who write a lot become better writers. That will help you out in most courses, on standardized tests such as the SAT and GRE, and in your career!

Don’t want to write it out? That’s because it’s work. Tell your lazy self to shaddup and back off; you’re busy getting smarter. You might also try two-minute quick writes. Anybody can write for just two li’l ole minnits, cain’t they? Set your and write down as much as you can on your topic in two minutes. CAUTION: Use these writing techniques too much and you’ll have to buy new hats ‘cuz o’ yo’ swellin’ melon. You’ve been warned.

Updated from August, 2009

© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.


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