Writing is Thinking

Writing is thinking: about history and other things

"Writing is how you discover what you think."

--Peter Taylor, teacher, and author of The Widows of Thornton, Happy Families Are All Alike, and In the Milo District

We write to communicate with others, but the process of writing is also the best way to clarify our own thinking on a particular topic. Writers seldom sit down and simply transfer fully formed ideas onto paper. Rather, through the process of writing they work out problems, deepen their understanding and figure out what they really think. Inexperienced students of history often mistakenly assume that writing is something to be done only at the end of a period of study: we will read about the American Revolution and discuss it in class, then you will go home and write a paper on it, turning it in the next day. This leaves out note-taking, summarizing, exploratory drafts, and rewriting and it usually results in a weak and unconvincing piece of writing. Instead, you should write as you read in preparation for a class or a research paper. Write as you discuss the topic in class. Write well in advance of a due date. Jot down ideas as they come to you in odd moments, in pencil, in a notebook or on bits of paper. Lincoln used to do this. An idea would come to him, he'd write it on a scap of paper and put it in his desk drawer. When it came time to write an important speech or letter, he wouldn't have to start from scratch--he'd have this pile of ideas to draw from. Write your ideas in emails to yourself. Write in the margins of your text book. Write on napkins at restaurants.

I encourage you to write as you do the reading for your history classes. Write during class discussions when good ideas come to you. These writings, like Lincoln's scraps of paper, will help to clarify your thinking on the topics we are studying and will get you ready to start the assigned papers. When writing a paper, think of the writing process in three phases: taking notes, exploratory writing, and drafting. The first two of these phases are the ones that students too often skip and this prevents them from developing a deep, sophisticated understanding of the topics they are studying.

Taking Notes. In the modern age of computers and photocopiers, the art of note taking is in decline. Why go through the laborious process of taking notes when you can just cut-and-paste or photocopy? When students do take notes, they often just transcribe, word-for-word onto a laptop. "A note is a first thought," say Jacques Barzun and Henry Graff in their classic work, The Modern Researcher: "Any quasi-mechanical, absent-minded transcribing keeps you from learning what you should know about the topic at hand." Instead, students should be doing much more summarizing and paraphrasing: encapsulating a long passage in a brief précis; putting facts and ideas into their own words. Summarizing is an important but vastly underrated skill. As you take notes ask yourself: "Am I doing clerk's work or am I assimilating new knowledge and putting down my own thoughts? To put down your own thoughts, you must use your own words." When you take good notes rather than simply transcribe and copy, you have taken a step toward a first draft (Barzun and Graff, 25-28). As a rule of thumb, 80 percent of your notes should be in your own words. (For a discussion of the importance of note-taking in preparation for a class discussion, see the fourth bullet point in the first section of my Harkness Guide).

Exploratory writing. Between note taking and a first draft, "preparatory writing" further advances your thinking. Do not expect much of this writing to make it into the final draft, but it will not be wasted effort because it will help you weed out weak ideas, discover logical inconsistencies in your thinking and get ready to write a first draft. Kate Turabian, in another classic text, A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, puts it this way: "Experienced researchers know that the more they write, the sooner and better they understand their project. There is good evidence that the most successful researchers set a fixed time to write every day—from fifteen minutes to more than an hour. They might only draft a paragraph that responds to a source, summarizes a line of reasoning, or speculates about a new claim. But they write something, not to start a first draft of their report, but to sort out their ideas and maybe discover new ones. . . The more you write now, no matter how sketchily, the more easily you'll draft later" (45).

Drafting. You may begin with an outline, proceed to a rough draft and then follow up with subsequent drafts, revisions and, finally, proofreading. Here, the emphasis is more on communicating your ideas to others, but your thinking should continue to evolve as you move through various drafts of an essay. As you revise your paper toward the end of this process you will often find yourself changing the thesis.

More thoughts from great teachers on the connection between thinking and writing:

"Writing is thinking on paper" (William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction).

"Writing is thinking. . . . You have to find your subject, and you have to develop your ideas and how you present them through writing. . .Writing is messy. Writing does not mean knowing what you want to say before you say it. If that were true, I would never write. I never know exactly what I am going to say or how. It's the surprise of writing that makes it exciting. As teachers we must help our students and ourselves expect the unexpected. It is through this process that we discover new ways of thinking and knowing" (Donald Murray, journalist, teacher and author of A Writer Teaches Writing, Write to Learn, Learning by Teaching, and The Essential Don Murray: Lessons from America's Greatest Writing Teacher).