Wednesday, April 23, 2014

More on Thought and Writing

On Sunday, Patrick Dunleavy started a conversation on twitter in response to my suggestion that our authority as authors develops with the writing we do "deliberately". What I meant was that we become better writers when we use writing to express the knowledge we have already acquired, ideas we already hold—in short, when we write something we decided to write about the day before. Patrick expressed a familiar objection to this approach to writing: "Writing is almost always constitutive of thinking. You don't know what you think, until you try to write it."

It's important to stress that neither of us are absolutists. Patrick says "almost always", and I certainly don't object in principle to what people call "thought writing", i.e., using writing as a tool to discover what you think, and to clarify your thinking. My suggestion is that you should also sometimes write down thoughts you don't need the writing to show you you have. You should sometimes do some writing that is not "constitutive" for thought. "Sometimes" is putting it too mildly. You should write often—at least half an hour a day—in this non-thought-constitutive mode. When you are using your writing to think, you are not becoming a better writer.

During the twitter conversation, a number of people expressed agreement with Patrick and disagreement with me. They, too, have found (as many people find) that what they were thinking becomes clear to them in the act of writing. I know the feeling, and, like I say, I don't deny that writing is an important tool in the clarification of thoughts. I am trying to draw attention to another important function of writing: to clearly communicate the results of our thinking. In this regard we can all improve, and we can work on this problem only when we set aside the problem of thinking for a few minutes and consider the problem of writing explicitly.

One thing that I think people forget is that, sometimes, when we say we are using writing to clarify our thoughts, we are really using thinking to get our writing done. We are imagining that the difficulty we are having writing that paper (in time for the upcoming deadline) is really the difficulty we are having in thinking about its subject matter. We think that an intellectual discovery in the eleventh hour (before the midnight deadline) will get the whole thing to fall into place. But what is often, indeed, almost always needed, was not the constitution of a new thought, but a decision to write down something we already know.

(To be continued on Friday. I'll respond to Rachael Cayley's post then too. Go read it.)


Presskorn said...

Isn’t the whole thing rather simple and in plain view?:

If there were ‘thinking coaches’ in the sense in which there are ‘writing coaches’, then they would surely recommend their students to write down their thoughts. And conversely, writing coaches should encourage their students to think through what they are trying to express in writing.

PS: BTW, there is indeed such a thing as ‘thinking coaches’. They are called teachers.

Thomas said...

The sticking point is whether it is possible to "know what you think" before "seeing what you say/write". I believe it is. Especially after you've said and written it a few times.

Then there must be a moment where you a writing, not to see what you think, but to communicate the thought as clearly as you can, and to become better at that kind of communication.

That said, yes, thinking coaches do well to use writing as part of the training. (As a writing coach, by contrast, I find it more pressing to get people to leave their "thinking selves" at the door for twenty-seven minutes.)

Don't make it a pre-requisite, nor a goal, of your writing to "think through what you are trying to express". Make it the goal of your writing to write down what you think, such as it is. Then use the result as the basis for further thinking.

Presskorn said...

The so-called "sticky point" is just the philosophical problem of the relationship of thought to language - which you, on Monday, correctly warned against bringing in to the discussion the *specifically* practical problem of the relationship of thinking to writing. Don't get dragged into philosophy too easily. Resist for as long as possible :-)

But you're absolutely right about "think through". That's the wrong phrase and your phrase "write down what you think, such as it is" is better.

As I wrote it, I knew that phrase to be slightly misleadning. For a moment, I paused to consider "think about" instead, but found that phrase to be even more misleading, and so I went with "think through" even if I was somewhat dissatisfied with it. That is to say, I had a thought which I considered how to express. Just as you argue. That's a perfectly ordinary practical (not philosophical) problem in writing.