writing and thinking

There’s been a bit of debate recently about writing and thinking, and whether it’s desirable or actually even possible to write without thinking; see the consolidated posts by Thomas Basbøll and Rachel Cayley here. This debate made me think about the different kinds of thinking that go on while doing different kinds of writing, rather than worrying about whether thinking happens with writing or not (1).

Thinking/writing might be understood as combinations of:
(1) thinking about the stuff that you’re writing about (the content)
(2) thinking about the writing itself (the form)
(3) thinking that is explicitly and consciously focused on whether the way in which you’re writing is actually the best way to present the stuff – how form and content are related.
And there are of course random things that pop into our mind when we’re writing too!!

When we are ‘doing’ academic writing, thinking about content/form/content and form might be combined, and/or take lesser or greater prominence, and/or be emphasised in different ways, depending on what we are writing. It’s not always the same. We have different thinking foci depending on the purpose of the writing.

And we can also – and do – foreground or background any of these three at different times – so we can think hard, somewhat or not much about content, form or content/form. The intensity of our thinking also varies with the writing we are doing.

It’s also likely to be the case that that any of content, form and content/form can be in the forefront of our minds at different times during the same piece of writing, depending on what we are doing and what stage the writing is at.

Perhaps it’s more helpful if I give some examples of the ways in which thinking hard/somewhat/not much about the content and thinking hard/somewhat/not much about the form can work differently together. I find it helpful to think about different writing tasks having different foci and different intensities, this helps me get clear about what I’m meant to be doing. I’ve focused here on varieties of writing and knowing, and writing to know.

You might want to:
• write about what you think you might know, but try not to think too much about either the form or the content. This can be achieved by speedwriting (sometimes called the pomodoro technique). The speedwriting technique was developed to try to block thinking about the process of writing – the argument made is that some writers worry so much about form that it gets in the way of writing the content. The theory is that writing as fast as you can about a topic that you have unformed ideas about helps you to think less about the form – and it encourages brainstorming about the actual content. After you’ve got the stuff down in any form at all, you can then start thinking about shaping it more explicitly, before moving onto thinking about the form.

Or you might want to:
• write down some stuff that you think you know in order to simply record it , to make sure it doesn’t get lost . Researcher notebooks and journals are often used for these kinds of consolidation purposes. The content is likely to be in focus during these activities, not the form. There’s no worry about how well you write, because the reader is likely to be you.

Sometimes you could:
• write things down in order to capture ideas – ideas files and/or journals are used for this. It may be important to you that ideas they don’t get confused with the things that you feel that you know so these records may be separate from records of what you think you know.
The point with ideas records is simply to get the kernel of something down so that it can be worked on afterwards. So the form of the idea is not an issue, other than getting some clarity.
Some people use their blogs in this way and if that is this case, because the text is public, there is probably a further revision stage in which both form and content are in focus.

Another option:
• write something you think you know in order to think about better or different ways to write the stuff. The focus in this case is on the thinking about writing/composition once the first stuff is down. Academic writers are often accused of not doing enough of this ‘form’ work.
This is sometimes what I do when I’m blogging. If I write about stuff that I think I already know, my hard thinking is about how to say it, I’m not as focused on the content.
Ethnographers often experiment a lot with descriptive writing so that they can best represent what they’ve seen to a reader. Multiple iterations of writing, where the writer is really focused on form, are the stuff of the ethnography back-lot.
And some researchers write things in order to deliberately experiment with form. Creative writers perhaps do this more than academic writers. But experimentation is a major task for arts-informed writers who must not only grapple with content, but also with content/form.
And this, I think, is what Thomas Basbøll was suggesting, focusing on how to craft a paragraph, rather than on the content per se.

One final possibility:
• write what you think you know, focused on getting down the stuff so that the text can be used to interrogate what you think you know – writing as an aid to researcher reflexivity. The emphasis here is not on thinking too hard about the content, and not thinking too hard about the form. Researcher journals can be used for this, but specific writing exercises can be useful here too, as in the critical incident method.
I often ask doctoral researchers to do writing like this when they have finished field-work so they can get rid of the stuff going around in their heads. Their focus is on sorting the content into a logical order, this is where the conscious thinking is directed, but it’s not too arduous. It’s not like writing something that they actually don’t know anything about. Often they’ve got so much swimming around in their minds, the writing is pretty helpful to try to sort it out. By and large the initial focus is on getting the stuff down in some kind of sensible order. However, there might be some worry about the writing because I’m going to read it. So the researcher might spend a bit of time after writing about the stuff in thinking and sorting how the text is actually written, because it is going to another (critical) reader. I always look at post field-work writing together with the doctoral researcher to see how they might both use it and work against it in their analysis. We look to see what taken-for-granted assumptions there are, and what questions might be raised by the writing. I also want the researcher to hold onto this writing and come back to it after they’ve done a good deal of analysis to see how this analysis might challenge or support their initial impressions.

I’m sure that there are lots of other combinations of writing what you think you know that you find helpful in the process of research. Please share…

(1) If I must say, my own view is that the process of writing, as outlined in all of these options, scaffolds all of these kinds of thinking and knowing.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in Rachel Cayley, Thomas Basbøll, writing and thinking and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to writing and thinking

  1. Roy Harris (in a history of writing) has argued that certain kinds of thinking cannot happen at all unless they are written down, suggesting that the process of writing aids the thinking, or, indeed, allows it to happen tout court in the sense that the thought was NOT in the head before it was written down. For example, he refers to the moves in a complex argument eg. philosophy, which are too subtle to be held in the mind alone. The Harris view would support the idea that writing therefore scaffolds the thinking because it suggests that the writer’s next thought cannot occur unless the previous one has been firmly fixed on a page.

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    • pat thomson says:

      Yes absolutely. So much to say and the blog post format is sooooo limiting. Helpful to have it here.

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    • Thomas says:

      It occurs to me that we should distinguish between writing and literacy. I think what Harris is saying is that certain thoughts are only possible in a literate society, i.e., that certain thoughts need literary (or at least textual) scaffolding. I’d certainly agree that writing affords greater precision in our thinking (and feeling, actually, which is what poetry is for).

      If I reject the idea that—given a literate environment, which is to say, given my ability to write—I can’t have a thought “in the head” prior to writing it down, it may be because I presume that the point of (academic) writing is to communicate the thought to the reader. That means that after reading, and before the reader does any writing himmerherself, the thought was “allowed” to happen (in the mind of the reader). Yes, the text is there “before” (prior to and in front of) the reader, but the thought does not depend on an act of writing to form (again, in the mind of the “mere” reader.) The words on the already written page are sufficient.

      So, yes, modern thinking depends on the existence of writing (literacy), but once the thought has been formed the “scaffolding” can be taken down and our our minds are capable of thinking precisely without (the act of) writing. After all, the goal is to know things, not just while writing, but as a kind of precision of experience, an accuracy that is available to us in our perceptions and our actions.

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      • pat thomson says:

        I like the embodiedness of writing as opposed to literacy. There is something about the wholistic focus of embodying the thinking in the form of writing that is actually important.

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      • Thomas says:

        I think that’s the crux of the debate we’ve been having. It’s probably why the discussion started with my post on authority and authorship. I don’t like the externalization of the thought that you seem to be implying: letting it be embodied in the text, rather than the body of a scholar; letting the thought exist on the page of the text rather than using the text to form the thought in the mind. It’s a substantive disagreement, I guess. I’m looking forward to the ongoing conversation.

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      • pat thomson says:

        I’m certainly thinking of writing as a verb not as a noun and both writing and thinking as embodied. Scaffolding is the provision of a support to get somewhere.. pedagogically this is generally something to do even if an artefact is involved. It’s the activity which counts. Don’t think I’ve suggested anything otherwise. Julia might have something to say about text.

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      • Thomas says:

        But you can’t “embody” a thought in an activity. Unless it’s a very fleeting one. Writing-as-verb can form a thought, but it’s got to end up somewhere (mind or text, are the options we’ve been considering). The proof of the baking is, as ever, in the pudding.

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      • pat thomson says:

        I think I’m already on record as agreeing that thinking doesn’t need writing. I can’t imagine anyone arguing otherwise. The debate is about what happens when both go together. My purpose in this post was simply to say that is that different things happen depending on the writing task. However I’d certainly not carve a sharp distinction between art and scholarship. My real work today is with artists, using contemporary arts practices as research method …

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      • Thomas says:

        To me it sounds like Harris/Julia are arguing otherwise. E.g., when they talk about arguments that are “too subtle to be held in the mind alone.” I would say it’s exactly the opposite: some ideas are too subtle to be put into (academic) writing (and require art instead). The mind may reach a limit of complexity, with a long series of interrelated claims, and here writing supports thought much like doing a calculation on paper would. This is basically a memory and/or concentration issue

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      • juliamolinari says:

        To do full justice to such a fertile network of, at times, labyrinthine comments and responses would need the full gamut of media, modes and genres! This is where interactive ‘blog writing’ fails to afford the lock-step linearity and coherence that we demand of ‘academic writing’. Nobody here, as far as I can tell, is saying that you can’t think unless you write (that would be plainly false!). My current view is this: given that we all think – regardless of whether we speak, write, draw, mime or dance this thought – the thought remains private (in the Wittgensteinian sense) until it is made visible to others via some form of embodiment (writing, painting, etc.). Whichever mode of embodiment we choose – in our case ‘academic writing’ – is going to ‘shape’ the thought (to use Bazerman’s terminology) in ways that other modes can’t. If I write the following sentence: “The data were analysed in record time”, I am giving a shape to the thought in my head that is different to the shape I might give the same thought if I were drawing it. This is because when I draw this thought, I am likely to be obliged to show things that I would not need to show in writing such as: who analysed the data, what the data looked like, how big it was, etc. I can’t see right now how I could draw a passive action, how I could draw data without giving it a colour, a dimension, etc. Writing, in this case, affords a thought that is agentless, colourless, weightless; drawing this thought would force me to think of other things simply because each mode/genre has technical and visual requirements that in turn shape whatever it is I have in my head. In this sense, it is the mode (the writing/drawing) that dictates how that thought becomes embodied, in other words, that thought does not exist in any meaningful social and dialogic sense until I start writing it: basically, what I write on the page is ontologically different to what I have in my head, it doesn’t become a thought that is of any use to anyone until it is on the page/canvas (also, there is no form of embodiment that could ever capture exactly the thought I have in my head because my brain is also a mode and it too shapes my thought according to its physical nature). Tbc ….?

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      • Thomas says:

        Am I right to detect a somewhat deterministic tone in your remarks, Julia? You are saying that writing will unavoidably “shape” thought, that writing is likely to be an intellectually transformative experience. And my counter to this is: only when we let it do so. We can use writing to support and even push against our thoughts; but we can also set ourselves the task of simply writing our thoughts down as accurately as possible, leaving them in whatever shape they were in yesterday afternoon. When we decide to represent a thought non-transformatively, then, we posit the existence of a thought, and we can then consider our choice of medium. Maybe drawing a picture or a graph or a map is the best strategy. Maybe a song or dance? But if we are trying to be “academic” about it, a nice, coherent paragraph is probably in order. It doesn’t really matter whether we think that, say, the study is based on 27 semi-structured interviews, or, skepticism has universally substituted appearance for Being. In both cases, if we know what we’re talking about, we can leave the the thought as-is while trying to represent it clearly in prose.

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    • pat thomson says:

      I think my live artist colleagues would dispute that thought can’t be embodied. And then reanimated. Off to real work now.

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      • Thomas says:

        Two quick points. First, I make a pretty sharp distinction between art and scholarship (without valorizing one over the other). The experience of artists is not necessarily normative for the experience of scholars. Second, we agree that the thought can be embodied. The question is whether the performance of writing (writing-as-verb) is necessary for the thought to exist, and whether the act of writing performs the thought uniquely, or simply represents the (independently existing) thought. I’m fine with saying that any particular textual performance “reanimates” the thought, which may have “dormant” until then.

        P.S. This ain’t “real” work? 😉

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  2. Harris also says that there is thinking you do before the writing, but that that sort of writing is just an act of ‘recording’ and works for short pieces of text, like lists, notes, drafts.

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    • Thomas says:

      Or paragraphs, perhaps? I.e., thoughts that can be expressed as claims supported by at least six sentences and at most 200 words.

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      • Possibly, but that simply draws attention to a mnemonic aspect, similar to rehearshing and then performing, as in: “if I say it enough times in my head, I can remember it and transcribe it as I have said it in my head”. That, for me, is not what makes academic writing distinctive (or any kind of socially significant writing, for that matter): it just says ‘repeat, repeat lest I forget, and then write it down so I don’t forget’. And why ‘6 sentences and 200 words’? When I write, sentence length and word count become finalised when i feel my thought has been expressed as I need it to be, and the ‘as I need it to be’ happens within the context of the writing act, not the day before. Of course I can think it and rehearse it the night before, but I can’t feeling ‘so what?’ ….. And: ‘what if a significant eureka moment happens as I write what I rehearsed the night before’? I’d hate to be ‘determined’ my my very own, night-before’ thought-resolutions!!

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      • Thomas says:

        Your position is definitely the one I’m trying to push back against, Julia. So thanks for being there! To say that my writing approach would have a merely mnemonic effect is like saying practicing the piano has merely mnemonic effects. It has that too, sure. For example, I’m learning Bach’s 13th invention these days; learning and memorizing, for me at least, go hand in hand. But every time I play it (knowing exactly what I’m going to try to play in advance) I get better at it. I come to “know” it better.

        Less analogically, I believe we should, sometimes, let what we already know “determine” what we write, and eschew for the moment the “eureka moment”, which is often, I should point out, either a mirage or a false dawn. As for the word count, I imagine (and hope) that you’ll find almost all your paragraphs end up somewhere between 6 sentences (minimum) and 200 words (maximum). It’s not really much of a constraint for scholarly ideas. Most fit easily in that range.

        Refusing to conform (more or less) to it is really just refusing to think, speak and write as an “academic”. Which is perfectly fine. There are other things worth doing. Being a great artist (and even a great human being) doesn’t make you a great scholar.

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      • Again, lots to unpick … Fortunately, the history of academic writing shows that it evolves to reflect different ways of thinking. Had we always been as prescriptive as paragraphs of ‘6 sentences and 200 words’ we would never have had the likes of the early Wittgenstein (who would have loved Twitter!) or Derrida (who would not!). Not saying that that’s either a good thing or bad thing (sic!) just that they would have failed your academic writing tests 😉 – in a globalised, digitalised and international knowledge community, I’m just not comfortable with one-size-fits all prescriptions because academic ways of thinking are varied and can therefore manifest themselves in more ways than one …

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      • Thomas says:

        Well, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to count Wittgenstein as part of the “history of academic writing”. People like Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein are more like Flaubert and James Joyce than, say, Hegel and Heidegger. All are much loved by today’s scholars, but not all (i.e., K and W) were actually conforming to the academic standards of their time, nor did they hold typical academic posts, nor are today’s academic well-served imitating them. Much of the writing that academics are interested in isn’t itself “academic”. This is why I don’t like using “art”, “science”, or “scholarship” as honorifics. They do identify particular virtues, but it is possible to be virtuous (and just plain interesting) without being academic. The category “academic” doesn’t have to include every form of knowledge, every form of useful intellectual activity. And Wittgenstein, though an excellent philosopher, was not a very good academic (just as he was a terrible school teacher, by all accounts.)

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    • All academic standards conform to time, place, purpose and knowledge community, which is why ‘academic’ has come, and continues to come, in all shapes and sizes, and voices. Equally, academic standards are challenged by those same communities. Your claim that Wittgenstein, or anyone else for that matter, was not academic makes no sense to me: what would your definition of academic be?! And what criteria would you use to include and exclude different forms of writing? And what does his teaching ability have to do with his writing! Surely it was his thinking that matters to the present discussion: he clearly felt he had to write the Tractatus in bullet-points rather than paragraphs because that format embodied that particular way of thinking, for him (and btw – Russell, who was his interlocutor and contemporary, had a different style of writing so Wittgenstein was not conforming to any particularly established style).

      I’m not saying that all writing can be counted as ‘academic’ writing (not yet, at least), I’m saying that the boundaries are not as fixed and un-negotiable as you seem to think they are. Your “6-sentence and 200-word paragraphs” (and a previous reference somewhere to writing in 27 minutes!?) are not a shape and size that is ubiquitous in academic writing. Take any journal article, especially now that they are available online (and, more to the point, READ online), and you’ll find many 1-sentence paragraphs. The reasons for this are varied, and include rhetorical considerations relating to flow, pace and communicative effect (which are also dependent on being read on a screen). They also reflect the way the writer is thinking and guiding the reader’s attention to key climaxes and dips in an argument (i.e. foregrounding and backgrounding).

      Perhaps you are confusing the pedagogically useful prescriptions of some academic style guides and self-help textbooks with ‘academic writing’? These certainly help to get a sense of patterns, styles, possibilities and parameters, but they cannot capture the full range, richness and evolving nature of academic writing as a socially-embedded practice and as the embodiment of multiple thought trains.

      It is hard to retrace all the steps that started all of these discussions – from your and Rachel’s initial blog to Pat’s above – but in an attempt to bring back the discussion to whether thinking precedes the act of writing or whether the act of writing allows the thinking to happen, then my position is that thinking clearly happens at all stages, but that academic thinking is significantly and importantly shaped DURING the writing act: it is during the act of writing that academic thinking crystallises in meaningful ways. This is why to become good academic writers, we need to keep writing to keep our thinking sharp, rather than to simply produce good prose that ticks some arbitrary institutional or assessment requirement.

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      • Thomas says:

        Maybe this will help clear up some of the confusion: my main objective in these discussions is to be pedagogically useful. My position is easy to caricature and dismiss, but only because my advice is really easy to follow. 😉

        All I am saying is that if you want to become a good writer, and in this case a scholar who writes with authority, then you do well to sometimes “simply produce good prose” without, during the 27 minutes that you’ve given yourself for the task, further sharpening your (already pretty sharp) thinking on the matter. I don’t think conventional standards for such prose are arbitrary. I think there are all kinds of good reasons to present your thoughts largely as a series of claims that require at least six sentences of support or elaboration but no more that 200 words. Obviously, there will be exceptions where a good effect can be achieved with a 300-word paragraph or a one-sentence one (and, very occasionally, both!).

        To advise young academic write like the early (or late, for that matter) Wittgenstein—even to ask them to consider the possibility—is, in general, and if you’ll pardon it, irresponsible, though it may be an interesting exercise in particular situations. (In fact, the Tractatus reads in places like a pretty good after-the-fact outline of a more academic book he could have written. (I just remembered that I’ve written about the “non-prose” nature of the Tractatus on my blog. Check it out.)

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      • Granted: phew! I think this did indeed need a distinction between writing pedagogy and theory! Although I broadly agree with what you have just said – I’ll tentatively grant you the benefit of the doubt on a few things ;-), we (teachers, students, novice and expert writers, first or second language writers, disciplinary experts …. whoever is nerdy enough to be reading any of this :-0) still need to be mindful of why those pedagogic prescriptions came into being, what they allow us to express and to what extent we want to adopt them.

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  3. Thanks for this–it’s so helpful! Another aspect of thinking-writing is being aware of things that work as thought but don’t work in academic language.
    Sometimes this is because the thoughts were not as logical and well thought out as we might have believed, and so the attempt to write it down helps us to actually think better.
    Other times, the thought is valid as a thought, but doesn’t fit as academic writing (though it might be expressed in other ways). Then the challenge is to decide if any of that insight can or should be included in the text or not.
    Finally, I find literary criticism a form where writing is thinking. I can’t plan it really, but I don’t know what I think until I read it back.

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  4. pat thomson says:

    Thanks Katherine. I think maybe I ought to colnsolidate yours and the above comments from Julia into a writing and not knowing post.

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  5. Jane S says:

    Katherine says, ‘ […] writing is thinking. I can’t plan it really, but I don’t know what I think until I read it back.’ Exactly what I’m experiencing, v/v thesis writing. Most of my thinking doesn’t present itself in rigorous order, ready to be filed or written. OTOH, I often don’t know what I’m thinking until it’s on the page. Then I realize C connects with A or B, pages back, and the process of welding it in occasionally comes up with something entirely new, serendipitously.

    Word processing’s wonderful. Imagine the hours of re-typing, the screeds of paper consigned to the bin in the Old Days, just to add in or take out …

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  6. It does look like writing and not knowing is a fruitful way forward! I’d be delighted to be part of a consolidated post. Julia’s comments are absolutely spot on too.

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  7. stevethomason262 says:

    Reblogged this on Deep in the Burbs and commented:
    Helpful words for a guy in the midst of writing the dissertation. (This is also my first experiment with reblogging)

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  8. My Harris reference is this: Harris, R. (1986) ‘The origin of writing’ London: Duckworth. He writes specifically on the relationship between speech and writing, which involves necessary reflections on what kind of thinking speech affords compared to writing. Harris’ stance is that speech reflects thinking that is different to the thinking that writing affords and that, therefore, we cannot conceive of writing as the representation of speech: i.e. speech and writing do different things. I have used his moves, here, to argue that different modes may also afford different ways of thinking. This is not the same as saying that different modes (written or other) determine our ways of thinking (although they may well do!) … I have a technical definition of affordance that comes from ecological psychology and ‘determinism’ is not obviously relevant to this definition, BUT, I agree that there is a discussion to be had on the extent to which the mode determines the agent’s thinking (Cf Thomas’ comment above)

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    • Thomas says:

      I agree that writing does not simply represent speech. I also agree that the invention of writing made new kinds of thinking possible (it afforded those kinds of thinking). More specifically, I believe that the fact that the paragraph is the unit of composition for scholarly prose tells us a great deal about the style of thinking we call “academic”. But this is all about the effects of (specific kinds of) literacy on thought. Prose has shaped the way we academics think about the world. But this does not mean that we can’t know what we think until we write it down, nor that some thoughts are unthinkable without the assistance of writing. It just means that our scholarly thoughts are easily communicated to other scholars, because of the mutually reinforcing affordances of our own thoughts, our writing, their reading, and their thoughts.

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  9. Tyson Seburn says:

    Good post. 🙂 When it comes to my own academic writing, whether it be the less formal blogging context or a paper I’m writing, it seems to be both an unconscious and conscious combination of thinking and writing. At first, I’m sure I’m unconsciously considering form but most consciously is the content–just getting the ideas down. It’s during the revision stages that that shifts to conscious thought on form–making sentences more concise, transitioning well, etc; while content becomes more unconscious.

    With language learners, it’d seem the combination of form and content is conscious primarily throughout the entire process. Exhausting.

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  10. It is always effective to make a plan before writing. Think before writing helps you to brainstorm the ideas for your write-ups

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  11. Pingback: Reflective musings on academic writing | Academic Emergence

  12. Pingback: Academic courtesies and acknowledgments | Academic Emergence

  13. Pingback: writer’s block | patter

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