Writing as Thinking

by Site Author

People used to teach writing as a linear, three-step process: pre-writing, writing, and revising. You first figure out what you have to say. Then you write your first draft. And, finally, you revise.

It wasn’t until the early 1980s that researchers realized that good writers don’t actually write that way. Good writers, in contrast, rely on a non-linear process. As Flower and Hayes put it in their seminal work on the topic: “one learns through the act of writing itself.”

Countless writers have independently discovered this. Don DeLillo, for instance, argues:

Writing is a concentrated form of thinking . I don’t know what I think about certain subjects… until I sit down and try to write about them… A young writer sees that with words and sentences… He can place himself more clearly in the world. Words on a page, that’s all it takes to help him separate himself from the forces around him… He learns to think about… things, to ride his own sentences into new perceptions.

Edmund Husserl made the point more directly: “one cannot think without writing.”

And so there’s the advice I was given in graduate school: “write early and often.” It never hurts to begin the paper even before the results are finalized. Writing the paper helps you come to terms with what you have done. It is a part of the entire process, and not just a task to be done after the statistics are tabulated.

It is thus unsurprising that people turn to writing in order to think things through. Peter Drucker, the scholar of management, suggested that managers, when facing a big decision, write a “decision memo” for themselves.

I have written about this before. I linked to a wonderful documentary on the comedian Mitch Hedberg. How did Hedberg come up with such amazing jokes? He wrote.