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.
• 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.