Writing as Thinking

Pretty much the first thing I ever wrote on this blog was that we should use writing to clarify our thinking. Since this precept is central to how I think about—and thus teach—writing, I try to remain open to opposing viewpoints. To best serve the graduate student audience that I’m aiming at, I believe that I have to create a space that is both opinionated (since nobody needs more anodyne advice about writing) and relativist (since nobody needs more advice that assumes everyone to be the same sort of writer). Creating that space requires taking stands while resisting dogmatism. So while I’m deeply committed to the benefits of exploratory writing, I’m also deeply interested in the claim that this approach is wrong and thus hazardous to good writing.

In a recent post, Thomas Basbøll articulated his view that thinking ought to precede writing; in fact, he argues that we are doing writing a disservice when we collapse it into thinking rather than viewing it as the act of “writing down what we know in coherent prose paragraphs.” He is committed to a strong version of this thesis and clearly sees it as essential to the development of effective writing skills: “My view is that the idea that writing is inextricable from thinking is an affectation that undermines the efforts of writing instructors like me to identify the specific problem of writing, the literary problem of representing thought in prose.” This focus on writing as representation of thought suggests three stages of composition: thinking; writing down those thoughts; and lastly evaluating the writing on the basis of its fidelity to the earlier thinking. (Here is a follow-up post from Thomas on this topic, allowing that neither position in this debate can be absolute but reiterating his belief that much of writing ought to be kept distinct from thinking.) 

My disagreement with this position is practical, philosophical, and pragmatic. At a practical level, I worry that novice academic writers will be hamstrung by the need to engage in sophisticated conceptual thought without the aid of concrete expression. It is certainly my experience that postponing writing until the underlying ideas become clear is a disastrous strategy for a lot of novice writers. At a philosophical level, I just don’t accept thought as capable of acting as the sort of referent for writing that Thomas suggests. Finally, at a pragmatic level, I’m not sure that anything is lost if we don’t evaluate our writing for its sound representation of earlier thought. For the reader, the beauty of a piece of academic writing comes from its internal coherence, not its ability to instantiate the writer’s intentions.

My stark disagreement with this approach to academic writing raises the obvious possibility that I’m doing it all wrong. Writing this, I was reminded of the very first line of Winnie-the-Pooh, where we’re introduced to him as he’s being dragged down the stairs on his head: “It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it.” Maybe that’s me. Certainly my commitment to the coextensive nature of writing and thinking doesn’t mean that I sail through the writing process feeling as if I’m doing it all right. Instead, as I sort through the mess that I make with my exploratory writing, I often wish that writing was more like recording and less like thinking.

Given my own writing struggles, it seems wise to consider a view that is so contrary to my own that it would otherwise get little airtime in this space. Ultimately, I am convinced that I can’t engage in the sort of linear sophisticated thinking that I need to do except on paper. Indeed, I began writing this post precisely because I wanted to figure out what I thought about Thomas’s post. In this particular case, I delayed writing longer than usual as an experiment in trying to think without putting pen to paper. But I couldn’t manage it, so I resorted to writing a quick draft of this post. I generally find that initial writing exhilarating; my doubts come because there is so much revising to be done to corral these insights and make them reader friendly. But the frustrating nature of the revision process isn’t enough to convince me that I would be able to do things any other way. And I’m anecdotally convinced that many of the students I work with wouldn’t either. 

Our goal as academic writers must be to write as easily as possible; there is no inherent virtue in suffering more than is necessary to create the best possible text. I focus so much on the difficulties because I genuinely believe them to be inevitable and because I believe that those difficulties may be eased if we acknowledge them. Acknowledgement helps, not because misery loves company but because struggles are easier when we know that they have an objective basis. There’s nothing worse than struggling and believing that we are doing so only because of our own deficiencies. But that doesn’t mean we should fetishize those struggles or turn our back on effective ways out. I’d love to hear what others think. Am I doing a disservice to thought by focusing so much on writing? Does writing actually suffer for not having a coherent referent? Or can we actually only find coherence within the text itself through our revision process?

30 responses to “Writing as Thinking

  1. If I think about what I want to write too much, I find I cannot even get to putting pen to paper. However, if I just start writing I seem to come up with my best work, and then I go back and edit as I keep writing!

  2. Well, thank you so much for this. I responded to Thomas’ thread in a tweet by saying that, for me, writing ‘scaffolds’ thinking. Writing and thinking are ontologically separate. Writing affords many things, including thinking, but not exclusively. Roy Harris argues that there are certain things you can’t think without writing them down, including the steps in an argument (there may be far too many ‘to speak’ or remember at any given time) and the actual recording of thought which might otherwise be forgotten (much to Socrates’ disdain), but for me, writing (and the various forms thereof) remains a function, an affordance that facilitates certain types of thinking, but not all …

  3. Hi Rachael, interesting post. Always good to see the other view, clearly articulated. I’m posting another follow-up on Friday, so I’ll leave most of my comments for then. But I do want to point out something about your experiment in following my advice.

    Notice, please, that I don’t recommend delaying your writing, putting it off until you know what to say. On the contrary, I’m suggesting that at the end of every day you choose between one and six things that you know well enough to write about tomorrow. I don’t usually let people say “But I don’t know anything right now!” because that is simply disingenuous … if, in any case, they deserve their academic position (whatever it is: even a freshman presumably knows SOMETHING or s/he wouldn’t be in college, right?) Beyond that, like you say, I’m not an absolutist. Do whatever you like. Explore away. But, anticipating Friday’s post, suppose your surgeon says, “Well, actually, ALL surgery is explorative. I just sort of start poking around and see what happens.” Not a very pleasant thought. We like to think surgeons sometimes, indeed, mostly, go in knowing what they’re trying to accomplish.

    In short, I think academic writers ought to be the sorts of writers who can distinguish one kind of writing from another, and who are able to work, at least sometimes, in a non-exploratory, representational, way. When you think about it … which I’m not against 😉 …. it’s not really a very radical proposal.

    • Thanks, Thomas. I look forward to your next post. But, to be clear, you are talking about thinking as something more than planning, right? I’m all for writers planning their next day’s writing; I think we should push ourselves to be able to say what we are going to tackle when we next sit down to write. But I don’t, to repeat myself, feel like I can go much beyond specifying a topic or general area that I plan to work on. I can’t–and I do mean literally can’t–conceptualize what I’m going to say before I say it. The writing process, for me, is alchemical enough that I often genuinely feel like ‘I won’t know what I think until I see what I write’. (And one of my standard lines in a writing class: Academic writing is NOT like surgery–you don’t have to get it right the first time!)

      • Yes, that’s the crux of our disagreement. I truly believe that you (even you!) will become a better writer by deciding in advance (the day before) what the key sentence of the paragraph(s) you will write tomorrow is. That means knowing that a particular sentence is true, and being pretty sure that you know enough to write a paragraph that explains why it is true. My evidence is as anecdotal as yours, but I’ve gotten plenty of people out of insufferable impasses in their writing by getting them to understand the simple point that their paper consists of forty things they know to be true, and the important thing is to decide what those forty things are, one to six of ’em a day. That is, people start, like you, feeling like they can only specify a general topic, but also feeling terribly dissatisfied with the amount of control they have over their writing from day to day, week to week. Then they realize that they can, in fact, be much more specific. And suddenly the task of writing a paper or a chapter becomes altogether more manageable, and more satisfying. One barrier to making this realization, however, is the often not very closely examined belief, which you and others are expressing in this (very valuable) discussion, that you don’t (ever) know what you think till you see what you’ve written.

  4. This is a fascinating discussion that is reverberating for me on several levels, which I hope you won’t mind me indulging here.

    After reading Basboll’s post, I have so many strands of thought, perhaps I should wait 12 hours to try to commit them 🙂 On the other hand, I was writing (for myself) on this topic just yesterday, so perhaps I am well prepared already.

    Anyway, as I was reading your post, I was wondering if potentially different definitions of “writing” might contribute to a greater sense of difference between these two positions. From his post, I’m was entirely clear on whether different definitions of “writing” are in play, but I’m fairly certain that different definitions of “thought” are. (After reading his second post, it seems like he’s saying something much more limited, not that you “can’t” clarify your thoughts by writing them, but that you should focus on writing things you already have clear thoughts about. Which does suggest that different definitions of “writing” are being used; those who use writing to think–at least me and others I’ve read who’ve talked about this idea in spaces that allow for more complex conversations than Twitter–tend to include more activities in “writing” than just the writing of a draft, but he seems to be deliberately leaving note-taking and exploratory writing and that kind of thing out of his definition of “writing.”)

    I think that Twitter is probably not the best medium in which to develop a sense of an opposing point of view, and in this case it shows in the sort of ridiculous reduction from “writing is an important component of thinking about the things you want to write about” to “people who believe that writing is thinking believe that one can only think by writing.”

    Take the window example. I can think a thought about opening a window without writing about it, yes. But when I thought that thought along with him, I didn’t think it in words. I thought it in a combination of words that were not oriented to communication (“Spring” “sort of cold” “over there?” “I open it”), images, and sensory memories of conditions under which I make the decision to open windows. What occurred in my mind is somewhat hard to describe. If I were to write about thinking about opening a window, I would have to translate those combinations of words and images into something coherent. But, because my inner language tends to be truncated and frequently mixed with images, I am not able to think out grammatical sentences and memorize them in order to commit them later to writing. At some point, the thought and the medium are so tightly connected that they have to be completed together.

    None of this is to say that a) I don’t make plans about what I want to say or what I’m going to write or that b) I hold the belief that I can’t think in any context but writing. Basboll brings up the issue of conversation (“What are they doing when they are teaching? Or just conversing with peers? Or reading for that matter?”); to me the idea that writing is a part of thinking is directly related to conversation as thinking. That is, writing allows one to have a conversation with oneself, it can create some of the back-and-forth that conversation also allows. It is, in fact, precisely because I do so much of my thinking in conversation that I experience writing as thinking. The inner voice that instructs my verbal and written speech is very similar, while the more inner thoughts of reflection and reactions to reading are the more highly truncated/image laden ones.

    In short (no, it’s too late for that, isn’t it!), I do not see how “the specific problem of writing, the literary problem of representing thought in prose” is anything other than a kind of thought.

    • Carmen,
      I could not agree more – you’re example of opening the window is basically how I am as a pseudo-writer. As a grad student here, coming from science to humanities, I think much, much, more than I write – my brain is always on.

      Taking even a simple or complex topic, remunerating for days is quite beneficial for me. That is, I try to gain as much clarity of my own thoughts before I attempt to write anything down – especially in the opinionated world of the humanities.

      However, I must say that once I do write something down, all those millions of thoughts (and permutations of my thoughts), only come to settle once I have written it down. I think this goes to previous posts on this blog about writing for yourself versus writing for the reader. I believe that I first write for myself because of the highway-401 style thinking I have. Second, I take all those thoughts and put them in some coherent order for the reader (and discarding many irrelevant ideas the reader would just get confused by).

      So, thank, Carmen. You’ve explained the balance a little more carefully!

    • Thanks, Carmen, for this thoughtful comment. I also gave some thought to Thomas’s argument that those of us who teach and read are necessarily seeing the existence of thought as distinct from writing. I’m not denying, of course, that we think all the time, but as we approach abstract topics, writing can be a powerful way of harnessing those inchoate thoughts. I personally have a limited capacity for reading without processing my thoughts in writing; in the classroom, I have extemporaneous moments but overall I like to have my thoughts organized in writing. That something is true for me, doesn’t make it automatically true for others, but it has been my experience that many novice writers benefit from the liberty to write in manner more exploratory than representational. The example of the window seems unhelpful here–there we may be able to overcome the visual and incomplete nature of our thoughts about window opening and plan quite comprehensively how to write that paragraph. But in academic writing, the sequences and relationships are often so complex as to require writing to sort them out.

      • This identifies something very interesting and important. My point with the example of opening the window was that here is clearly an idea that can be represented without writing, though also with. You can mime it. But you can of course also write a description of opening a window. It’s the same idea, represented differently.

        Now, what you are saying here, Rachael, is that “academic” ideas are different from other kinds of ideas in that they can be represented only in writing. I’ll have to think about that. But my hunch is that this is the root of the pejorative sense of “academic”. Think of Rawls’ idea of justice or Hume’s idea of causation. Certainly, these ideas can be represented in writing. But if that were really the only way to experience them they would be meaningless. The first step is to realize that you, Hume, and Gilles Deleuze are all trying to represent the same idea in writing, and you can’t all be exactly equally good at it. The next step is to realize that, if Hume is right, the actually behavior of physical objects demonstrate that idea too. In the case of justice, the actual workings of social institutions provide the relevant correlate in experience. Without that, we are truly “merely” academics.

      • I think your restatement of my view here is perhaps too strong. I’m remaining neutral about the ontological status of referents for our thoughts; I’m simply saying that we need more help constructing clear sentences about, say, causation than about windows. Not because one is more ‘real’ than the other but because one is harder to understand than the other. Which is all that I’m really saying in all this: I need the help of writing to figure out what I think about things that are not readily accessible to me. The beauty of the sentence and the paragraph is the way they force us to be more declarative than I’m ever going to be in my head. The discipline of verbs and logical transitions means clarifying things that might otherwise remain ambiguous. If a writer has that clarity in the pre-writing stage, I’m sure the writing process becomes more straightforward; I would never advocate making that process more complex than it has to be. I just think that for many the freedom to write in a more exploratory vein allows them to make progress in a way that they may not have otherwise.

      • (the blog software only embeds replies so far, so just as a note, this response is meant both to Thomas’s which I think will appear below, as well as to those above)

        I agree that the window example is somewhat unhelpful, but I am going to refer to it again because it’s already been used and because Thomas has brought up the question of whether representing the idea of opening a window is fundamentally different than representing an academic idea.

        Thomas, I think it’s somewhat facile to take the simplicity of something like window opening and compare it to the complexity of making an academic argument, which is (I think here we all agree) the point of academic writing, per se. Not merely the representation of ideas that we have, but the best representation of what we know (or believe) to be true such that it persuades others to move towards our position.

        There are conceivable arguments that could involve describing the idea of window opening, but in and of itself, it is a pretty basic element. So, I study inheritance practices among the Asante people of Ghana. Window opening, as an idea, is about as complicated as describing the kinds of houses that people live in. But saying “people often cook in the shared outdoor space of the compound” is not an argument. My argument occurs in the multitude of ideas I bring to bear on, for example, a statement that “he didn’t even leave her the kitchen.”

        Rendering the statement “he didn’t even leave her the kitchen” meaningful, and meaningful in the terms that it was stated, requires actually a pretty complicated combination of stage-setting (describing the context), interpretation, and social theory. It also requires incorporating other people’s ideas–both the speaker’s ideas and academics who have shared their knowledge of things like houses and kitchens and inheritance and speech and thought and communication. The window idea does not exactly require the same sorts of interaction with other people’s ideas (except maybe in the interpretation of the audience, or insofar as you want to describe a range of windows and their functioning, which are of course the products of human invention and thus of human ideas).

        And, you can layer on top of that the fact that in the interview with the speaker who said “he didn’t even leave her the kitchen,” she expressed multiple, contradictory ideas. Windows, in my experience, never contradict themselves in one setting 🙂

        I regularly write paragraphs of “what I know” at a given point. I do it quickly and usually as part of a plan. But I often do it in order to take the disparate ideas and thoughts that come to bear on my subject matter and begin a process of seeing how they come together. I write out an interpretation of the interview, I link that to context and to my argument and to others’ arguments. While I certainly know something about each of these elements before I begin, that process of figuring out “A and B and C all imply D, but E and D are connected and their connection excludes A” happens because of the efforts to bring these ideas together in an argument. While I find it a little reifying, if I were to try to play out the letter-thinking example and its relationship to my writing, it would go something like this:
        1. writing out the idea that A, B, and C imply D
        2. realizing that D and E are connected and writing out the connection
        3. realizing that the connection between D and E precludes A and writing out that conclusion
        4. re-evaluating A and redefining it such that the A B C D E continuum now works
        5. re-writing the whole A B C D E connection in a coherent argument

        For me, it’s not particularly meaningful or helpful to suggest that the writing and the thinking in this process are distinct. Sometimes I finish writing out a paragraph before evaluating it, but sometimes I don’t. In a recent Atlantic article, the fiction author Linn Ullman referred to a process of “artistic listening” whereby one pays attention as one writes to the consequences of one’s choices.* She’s talking about fiction and the consequences of “voice,” but I think that it really is true in any very complex writing. The choices that we make as we write have consequences, and the act of writing is the only way to reveal those consequences. This is not necessarily continuous, nor does it imply that the thinking that led up to those choices was “wrong” or “incomplete.” It is more an acknowledgement that a) thinking does not stop when writing starts and b) that some of what writing produces can only be produced by writing.

        And since I’ve gone this long, I’ll just add a final two thoughts. First, I’ve been challenging myself to “write what I know” in two paragraphs over 27 minutes (one is too slow) today, and it’s helpful, so thanks! 🙂 Two, I wonder to what extend either side sees the other’s as problematic for writers because they deal with people who are having difficulty writing. Writers for whom one approach or the other is *working* are probably much less vocal about it. Except me. And that’s mostly because I’m supposed to be working out the “extended mind hypothesis” and I had settled on writing as an example of what is meant, and this is challenging me to think through some of my ideas in a very productive way. 🙂

        *The Linn Ullman article: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/04/why-every-good-story-needs-a-good-setting/361110/

  5. I think that you are all missing the point. Good writing is writing that influences the reader.

  6. I ended up jumping right into it today. Enjoy.

  7. I don’t want to look like I’m shying away from a philosophical disagreement, so I’d like to challenge you to unpack this statement from your post:
    “At a philosophical level, I just don’t accept thought as capable of acting as the sort of referent for writing that Thomas suggests.”
    If I my scholarly writing does not represent my “thinking” on a subject, then what does it represent? Isn’t the whole point of scholarly writing to engage my peers in conversation about my ideas? In one sense, of course, the real “referent” is the thing about which I hold my beliefs (i.e., the object of my research), but all my text has to represent is what I think about it.

    • I think it hinges on what we mean by representation. Of course our writing is a representation in the sense of a manifestation, but I don’t see it as a representation in the sense of a reflection. I don’t see our thoughts as existing in a form that can then be neatly represented in language. My dissertation on Hume, obviously, represents my thinking about Hume, but definitely doesn’t represent what I was thinking before I wrote it. I think Pat’s comments on Twitter yesterday were helpful: there’s a back and forth between thought and language that prevents them from being sequential but in no way denigrates the importance of thought. I’m not disputing that we can write more easily when we know what we want to say; I’m only questioning whether we can discover what we want to say absent the writing process.

      • Think of it this way: now that you have written your book on Hume, it represents your thinking on Hume immediately after having written a book about it. Presumably you think that this thinking is valuable to others, because you’ve chosen to publish it. Now, you can’t tell me that your prose is a perfect “windowpane” on your ideas. That is, I’m sure you could imagine a better book, in the sense that Woody Allen can imagine a better movie, i.e., not a book about better ideas about Hume, but a better representation of those very same ideas about Hume. It’s that act of imagination that makes us better writers, and we avoid it by assuming that any attempt to rewrite the book will necessarily be a re-thinking of your ideas about Hume. What I’m saying is that it is not absurd to imagine a better and worse representation of the same idea. On your argument (as I understand it, in its “extreme” form), it’s nonsense to consider even the possibility of a better representation of a thought, because every time your try to represent it, you re-think it, changing it.

      • I wonder if the discussion of the perfectibility of a text doesn’t take us outside our original conversation. My dissertation could definitely be improved, in many ways! I can always imagine having written a better text because I’ve never done a perfect job explaining myself to the reader. My limitations as a writer and my own familiarity with what I’m trying to say are always going to get in the way. That doesn’t seem to speak to the question of whether it is better to write what we already know or to write what we hope to figure out. Once I’ve figured out what I want to say, I’m going to revise as often as possible to be sure that I’m giving the best possible expression to those ideas; all I’m arguing is that writing is a key tool in that initial figuring out process.

      • Rachael, my entire argument is about what will make us better writers, and how we can improve our texts. It’s not outside the conversation at all. What I’m saying is that “thought writing” + revision is not enough to build a strong authorial persona. I’m saying we have to train the ability to represent “finished thoughts”. This does, in fact, require overcoming our “limitations as writers”, which are not nearly as natural people sometimes suppose. It’s one of the bases of that supposition we’re talking about.

  8. (This comment is in response to Rachael and Carmen up above.)

    I’m going to defend the literary problem of writing about opening a window. Sure, at one level, it’s a simple, even “facile”, idea. But there are so many processes involved in opening a window that there needn’t be anything less cognitively complex about a paragraph of say, 8 sentences and, say, 160 words, about that operation than a paragraph about some aspect of Hume’s notion of causation, or a feature of inheritance practices among the Asante. To think otherwise is not just intellectual (and “academic”) snobbery, it’s also a misunderstanding of the real difficulty, and actual pleasures, of writing. Proust wasn’t just spinning his wheels!

    This isn’t an ontological problem, but a literary one. Writing can be just as useful in clarifying the actual processes involved in opening a window as it can be in understanding causation or inheritance. But in all three cases there is value — if you are interested in becoming a better writer — in writing the idea down without also using that as an opportunity to think about it.

    @Carmen: I think you missed the point of my ABCDE example. My suggestion was to write only the ABCD paragraph. The relevance of E was precisely something that my example took to require “thinking”. But I’m glad you’re finding some of my suggestions that useful. That’s all I’m after. Interestingly, you seem to be an anthropologist, and for some reason it is precisely anthropologists who find my approach most foreign. I think it’s because anthropology is one of the more self-consciously “literary” fields of scholarship. As I’ll be explaining tomorrow, my approach begins with a quite hard line between literary and academic writing. (Which doesn’t contradict what I just said above in re Proust.)

    I really think that there has to be a mode of writing where thinking is toned down, where we don’t struggle with the thoughts, but with the words, and where we really do understand the difference. After all, we want our writing to evoke a series of relatively clear thoughts in our readers, right? We don’t just want to give our readers something think about, something to struggle with as much as we did while trying to understand our subject. Or what?

  9. Thomas, I am an anthropologist. I’m going to wait for your clarification about what it means to suggest that anthropologists are the ‘most literary’ followed by a need to distinguish the literary from the ‘academic’ before worrying whether my academic credentials have been challenged 😉
    I’ll offer you a different theory of why anthropologists might have trouble with your position: we have a range of theories about what one might call “embodied knowledge,” as well as a notion that knowledge and thought (both) are multifarious. That is, based on trying to understand what people “know” and how they know it in places where these things are quite different means that even anthropologists who might not be willing to concede “embodied knowledge” are still going to be widely familiar with a whole variety of knowledge claims, ontological and epistemological, that don’t fit into the narrow definitions that you are giving to thinking and writing and how they relate. (I, on the other hand, am quite convinced of “embodied knowledge,” which I would sum up, blog-comment-level, as “doing can be a kind of thinking.” For touch points in our–I assume–shared popular culture, think “sleeping on it” and perhaps comments about the relationship between exercise and clear thinking, “clearing one’s mind” through some kind of activity, that kind of thing.)
    I feel like you are being quite slippery with “writing.” In my ABCDE example, I was indeed positing that I wrote a whole, discrete, finished paragraph about how ABC imply D before moving on. That is functionally equivalent to writing a paragraph about window opening, or Hume, or inheritance practices (well, practice. Let’s be realistic with 160 words, shall we). But my thesis is currently 310 pages. The relationship between the–what is that, like a thousand?–paragraphs that have to be managed is more complex than the thought that goes into a single paragraph. So, I was saying that it’s facile to equate writing the thoughts that go into one paragraph to managing an argument that unfolds over many. I’m not trying to say that writing an academic paragraph is automatically more cognitively complex than describing a basic activity, but I am saying that writing a coherent academic argument is.
    This complexity of argument and multiple ideas is what I wanted to illustrate with the ABCD example. That I can write four discrete paragraphs of ideas I already have or things that I already know, but as I bring them into a single argument, I experience the process of writing, evaluating, and rewriting them as part of my ongoing process of thinking. To put it another way, in the ABDCE example, I wrote out a process by which I make what are outwardly discrete written paragraphs interconnected by periods of thinking but suggested that the inward process is not discrete for me. I can sit and write a paragraph and evaluate its relationship to other paragraphs (or thoughts) and change my mind or alter what I want to say or where I’m going next. From your perspective, watching me, I’m writing complete thoughts then revising them. From my perspective, I’m thinking through my ideas by writing them out.
    I don’t think there’s anything about my position that suggests there isn’t a point at which I come to focus more strongly on words than thoughts, or that I don’t value clarity for my reader. But in general, for me personally, I don’t struggle that much with words. That is the easy part for me. So, it’s easy for me to use writing and thinking together because the worlds come quickly and mostly smoothly when my thoughts are clear, and the writing only gets hard when they aren’t. Forcing the less clear thoughts into linear, grammatical sentences often functions to clarify, forces me to evaluate and make choices, and in general, is what I would term thinking.

  10. Carmen, I meant ABCD to constitute one paragraph, not four. I think our misunderstanding stems simply from a difference of focus. You are talking about a process that stretches over 1000 paragraphs and more than 100 days. I’m talking about 1 paragraph and 27 minutes. Obviously, selecting and arranging all those paragraphs will require a great deal of thought, for which there is plenty of time and space in my scheme. (I don’t imagine that just writing the individual paragraphs will produce a coherent dissertation, of course.) You say the composition of a paragraph, finding the words, is “easy” for you, and that 27 minutes its way too much time. I’m proposing to approach the task in a somewhat different spirit, as a very particular kind of difficulty, even when your thoughts are clear, one that 27 minutes gives just about the right amount of time to learn something about writing from.

  11. My follow-up post is now up. Thanks for the opportunity to think this through, and my apologies for whatever misrepresentations of your thoughts I may have indulged in. It’s for a good cause: the ideas I may be falsely attributing to you are in fact held a great many writers who would be happier if they were disabused of them.

    Quick point, @Carmen, about the epistemological and literary sensibilities of anthropologists that I didn’t get around to in my post. I think Carmen correctly identifies another reason that I have particular difficulties getting through to members of that especially strange trade. (I grant that philosophers like me must seem as strange to them.) I think anthropologists are much more “literary” about (academic) writing than I am, and much less “scientific” about (academic) knowledge. I don’t think either term should be taken as an honorific (just as “academic” should not be pejorative). Fortunately, I am making some progress towards presenting my tools for managing the writing process even to anthropologists. Sometimes the results are quite satisfying. “Some of my best friends are anthropologists,” etc.

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  13. I just discovered your blog and this fascinating discussion. Shall I simply jump in, begin writing, in hopes of discovering what I have to say in response? Or, should I read, reread, sit with it all, and wait until I formulate a coherent response before submitting anything? Hmmmm….

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