Write First, Think Later

in Articles from our Newsletter

ImageWhy is it so Hard to Get From Thought to Writing?

Thought is not a linear, nice, neat process. Thought is layered, circular, spiraled, interrupted. Thought is words, pictures, and various senses. Thought is a mess.

Eventually, thought can become something every scholar values: a nice clear sentence. A grammatical, flowing sentence that makes its point concisely. Unlike the sentence I just wrote.

But if you sit around, waiting for the jumbled mess of thoughts to become that lovely sentence, you will write one sentence a week, if you’re lucky. It will be a perfectly nice sentence. But it won’t finish your dissertation or get you tenure.

How can we speed up this process of going from incoherent thoughts to clear sentences, paragraphs and scholarly arguments?

One way is to write before the thoughts have fully formed. In other words, write to find out what you think.


ImageThe Critic vs. Creator

Peter Elbow, in his classic book “Writing with Power,” suggests that successful writing has two stages; creating and criticizing. The problem is that these two stages tend to “operate at cross purposes: creativity is strong only if critical thinking is weak, or vice versa.” (p. 9) If we try to do both stages at once, we grind to a halt: “…many people are tied in knots by trying to be creative and critical at the same time and so they write wretchedly or not at all.” (Elbow, p. 9)

If you’ve read my newsletter before, you might guess that I think the “Critic” resides in the left hemisphere and the “Creator” in the right. Although they live in the same brain, they don’t see eye to eye.

So in order to expedite the writing process, it’s best to let the Creator go first. This means that your right hemisphere, which is not specialized for verbal activities, will be mediating your writing. The ideas will flow, but the language and logic may not show up the way you like at this point. That’s ok.

As you write, you will hear a little voice saying, “this is the the biggest bunch of baloney; you’re repeating yourself; this is trite, useless, poorly formed, not grammatical, what will they say when they read it, etc. etc.” Ignore that voice – it’s your left hemisphere trying desperately to regain control. It’s a very controlling hemisphere, especially in academics.

Later, in a different writing session, allow the left hemisphere/Critic to have its say. You will rewrite, delete, move sentences around, delete some more, find better words and phrases, and generally improve your work.

When you honor the fact that different parts of your brain work differently, you make the best use of all that brain power you’ve got.

By the way, I would never ask you to do something I wouldn’t do myself. This article has 461 words, before writing this sentence. But I threw away 322 other words to get to this point. Both my hemispheres are satisfied.


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