Using Writing to Clarify Your Own Thinking

This blog is grounded in three principles that I see as crucial for strong academic writing. The first stresses the connection between writing and thinking; the second emphasizes the importance of extensive revision; and the third underscores the value of understanding the needs of your reader.

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 believe that 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. Let’s say we’ve spent a great deal of time thinking about two connected issues without ever having been able to identify the exact nature of their relationship. When we write about this relationship, 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.

For more on the complicated nature of composition, you can consult these other posts:

  • In Can You Write Too Early?, I argue that early writing is the best way to work through the difficult process of figuring out what we need to say.
  • In A Cut-and-Paste Job, I consider the pros and cons of reusing our own texts in new ways.
  • In The Discomforts of Uncertainty, I address some of the challenges of exploratory writing.
  • In Between Drafting and Editing, I outline a strategy for making sure that our early drafts don’t become unmanageable.
  • In Is It All Writing?, I wonder whether the nomenclature that we use to define the various stages of writing matters.
  • In The Faintest Ink, I discuss the importance of getting things down on paper before we forget them.
  • In Writing as Thinking, I reiterate my commitment to exploratory writing in response to an articulation of an opposing view.

24 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:

  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 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).

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  6. Great tips on writing paragraphs,with clarity

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  12. Thanks–looking forward to developing my writing abilities.

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  14. I am glad that I came across this your blog recently. Your articles will definitely help me (I am an Indonesian doctoral student) writing better in English. I am struggling in transitioning my thinking and writing to another level of English academic writing. I had low moments that I doubted my ability to thrive in English academic writing. I will definitely search deeper in your blog to find strategy that can help me in this transition. Thank you.

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  18. Peter Sarpong

    Thank you so much. The three key principles are great to read. Glad to come across this blog.

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