Using Writing to Clarify Your Own Thinking

Over the next three weeks, I am going to discuss the three principles that I see as crucial for strong academic writing. Today’s post will stress the connection between writing and thinking. Next week, we will discuss the essentially iterative nature of academic writing. And, in the following week, we will consider the role that audience awareness plays in the choices we make in our academic writing.

The first principle is using writing to clarify your own thinking. This principle holds that it is often difficult to establish what we think before we have put it down in words. In many cases, we simply do not know what we want to say until we have tried to say it. But if we cannot decide what we want to say without writing and if we cannot write without a solid idea about what we want to say, we are in an obvious bind. For most of us, the best way out of this dilemma is to write. To take a generic example, we may have spent a good deal of time thinking about two connected issues without ever having specified the exact nature of their relationship. When we write about this relationship, however, the demands of syntax will naturally encourage us to characterize the relationship more precisely. The text we create may be provisional, but it will still help to refine our thinking. Even if we are puzzled or surprised or disappointed by what we have written, we are still ahead of where we were before writing.

As a practical matter, this principle translates into a simple call to write more. Rather than postponing writing until you know what you want to say, use writing to figure out what you want to say. While this is generally sound advice, this call for more exploratory writing must come with a warning. Writing more freely means that we will need strategies for working with those provisional texts we create. Writing earlier and in a more exploratory mode often leaves us with texts that are less coherent than we might like. More freedom in the writing process demands more responsiveness in the revision process. The importance of extensive revision will be our topic in next week’s post.

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13 responses to “Using Writing to Clarify Your Own Thinking

  1. Shawna McComber

    I am looking forward to following this blog. My job is to teach writing to ten and eleven year olds so I am intrigued to see what might translate to that. So far I have been working hard just to teach how to develop a paragraph and to really focus on a topic. I have learned from my colleagues that this is still an issue in the early high school years. I think that if I can get students comfortable creating a paragraph and then creating a short essay with three paragraphs for the main body, they will be well prepared for higher levels of writing.

  2. Kimberley Hindy

    Thank you for your work on this blog. My class and I look forward to your advice on high-level academic writing, including annotated bibliographies and literature reviews.

  3. I’m looking forward to following this blog. I teach undergraduates how to write essays (mainly philosophy essays). In my experience, clear thinking goes hand-in-hand with clear writing.
    Here’s a nice article about the importance of written assignments in fields beyond the humanities: http://chronicle.com/article/Writing-Assignments-Are-Scarce/125984/

  4. I will be following your blog intently. I am a Professional Doctorate student and I also have dyslexia. I have tried hard to ignore it and was ‘found out’ at my interim assessmnet in November last year. My problem is that my cognative ability is very high (according to my ed psych) but my working short term memeory is average which means I think ‘well’ but struggle to articulate these thoughts in the written text. I like your idea of just getting the thoughts out there on paper then trying to revise them – I have always tried to write properly but this delays me getting the ideas down on paper. I have developed a total fear of writing recently as, since my recent declaration, I have lost confidence in my ability to write. Anyway what I am trying to say is, I am going to just write, then follow your advice on revision.

    Thanks

    • Thanks for commenting, Judi. I hope you’ll let me know how your writing progresses! You may also be interested in the recent post on revising our plans vs. revising our realization of those plans (Best Laid Plans).

  5. Pingback: Using Writing to Clarify Your Own Thinking | Scholarly Research and Technology: A worthy toolbox or Pandora's box? | Scoop.it

  6. Great tips on writing paragraphs,with clarity

  7. Pingback: Writing to clarify my own thinking | Doctor Journo's Blog

  8. Pingback: On reflection » Christina Guillaumier

  9. Pingback: Impact of Social Sciences – Thinking, Writing, Doing in the Humanities and Social Sciences: An Edited Collection.

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