I used to work in a university writing centre until quite recently, and the tutors I worked with and I read a great deal and talked a great deal about writing to learn, rather than only about learning to write. More specifically, we talked about writing to think, or writing to discover what it is that you think about a specific topic or subject. All of us were, at the time, working on articles for publication and/or postgraduate degrees, so there was a great deal of both the writing and the thinking that needed doing, all the time it seemed.
But writing and thinking have always been, for me, a sort of ‘chicken and egg’ issue: which comes first – do I read and think and then start writing, or will the thinking only really come when the writing happens? Or do I just write it all down, and then read, think and edit?
Of course, there is no right (or wrong) answer, and we all have different writing tics, tricks and processes to help us get into and stay in our own writing ‘zone’. In this post I’d like to reflect on my own writing and thinking process, which comes first, and why I think that thinking is perhaps more valuable than writing (although hopefully some of it will lead to writing, because sharing our thinking is necessary for others to learn from and engage with it).
Doing a PhD showed me, more than anything else, how much thinking actually goes into producing a lengthy, detailed piece of work that can make a genuine contribution to a field of study. Prior to writing my PhD thesis, I had completed other degrees, but quite honestly I had never thought that hard, and for that long, and in that kind of roundabout, convoluted, complex and also kind of thrilling way before. Even the papers I had published, which were few, had not demanded that level of thought, based on reading, challenging conversations with supervisor and peers, and more reading and scribbling on my own. It is much clearer to me now how important it is to make time, and space in my head, to really think about what I want to say, and why it matters, and to whom it might matter so that I can write articles that my peers will really want to read, and that will make a contribution to practice in my field.
This means that I do a great deal of informal writing before I open that Word file, give the paper a title and start plotting it out in firmer detail, committing myself to one argument. I scribble a great deal in my research and reading journals, and I play around with ideas, letting them kind of just flow until I find one that I think can support one clear and coherent argument. This, in my process, is thinking level 1: messy, informal, scribbly, and ultimately quite enjoyable because there are very few rules. Of course, as an editor as well as a writer in my professional life, I often want to jump ahead 5 steps and edit my thoughts before they have even made it onto the page, so this is a tendency I need to tamp down. Scribbling as freely as possible, at this initial level of thinking, means that many more ideas than can be contained in one paper often make it into my research journal, and although many of the scribbles remain just scribbles, all of this builds my confidence in my ideas as being valuable, and all of it serves as writing and thinking practice, strengthening my researcher muscles over time.
Moving on, once I have found my way to an idea that I like, and that feels like an argument I can actually make and support in an extended piece of writing, like a chapter or an article, I start the plotting process more formally. I think up a holding title, and I craft an abstract that contains an initial form of my ‘tiny text’ (Kamler and Thompson’s illustrative term). I then work on possible subheadings within the paper, and capture initial thoughts about what might go into these sections. I also make a note of readings I have done that would be referenced within the paper. At the end of thinking level 2, creating a skeleton for the paper, I now have a concrete base to build my paper on.
At this stage, though, the thinking behind the paper is still fairly nebulous, and needs to be pinned down, in particular the argument, which is the core of the paper. I use a thinking tool learnt about on a writing retreat earlier this year, and that has been incredibly helpful in making clearer this nebulous thinking and subsequent writing. In essence, I use sticky notes to plot out the key parts of my argument in my research journal. I write down, on no more than 3 stickies what my main claim is. Then I write down, again on no more than 3 stickies, what my reasons are for making this claim. The next step is to write down what forms of evidence I need to use to substantiate these claims. I added a step to this process for my own writing to note what I want the ‘take-home’ message for my writing to be. This process, which is thinking level 3 for me, ends up looking a little like this:
Finally, once I have reached this stage, I feel ready to really write, and I set myself words per day or week targets and start typing the paper. What I love about this 4th stage in my own writing and thinking process is that the writing flows a little more easily in general because of all the pre-writing and thinking I have done to get to this point, but that I am still surprised by the kinds of thoughts and turns of phrase that emerge as I let the writing flow, and as my thinking continues to stretch, change and develop. It’s a strange and wonderful feeling to find yourself reading over a paragraph you have written, and thinking ‘Wow! I didn’t know I thought that – it sounds so smart!’ 🙂
I suppose, at the end of this reflection, I am concluding that what I tend to think of as ‘Writing’ is the formal processes that turn nebulous ideas into a formal paper that I can submit to a journal. I don’t often count the scribbles, and plottings and ongoing thinking that brings all of that to life as Writing. But, it is all writing, and even if parts of the scribbles and thinking never see the light of day in a formal piece of writing, it all counts in terms of building my confidence, and my capacity to keep thinking and keep writing in tighter, more refined and more integral ways as I grow into my scholarly self.