Lynn Hunt’s recent article in Perspectives, “How Writing Leads to Thinking (And not the other way around)” argues that the process of writing, of trying to express arguments in formal prose, leads to their development. This is something that I have discovered in my own writing and why as a high school and even undergraduate student I found it so difficult to write the outlines that my teachers often required. I do always jot down a few points that have occurred to me during research but the formal outline always seemed so forced since I usually don’t know what I am going to say until I begin writing. This is also why I tell my students to leave a half page blank when writing an essay for an examination so that they can read over what they have written and adapt their introduction to match the rest of the essay if needed.
I usually generate an incredibly unwieldy first draft with quotes that are far too long, no smooth transitions since I am likely to move all the paragraphs anyway and littered with run-on sentences that need dividing into two (and sometimes three) separate phrases. Unlike some of my fellow graduate students, who seem to craft each paragraph to perfection and take days to write a page, for me writing has always been a matter of blurting out everything that is in my head, trying out arguments and then going back again and again to prune and cut and rework and rework some more. I had always been ever so slightly embarrassed that I couldn’t produce a fully-formed argument straight out of my head so it gives me great comfort to hear that such a distinguished scholar as Lynn Hunt goes through and recommends the same process, is “a terrible notetaker” and struggled with writing her own dissertation to the point where French cities on note cards began to invade her dreams.
What I hadn’t really considered was why this approach to writing worked. And so for me, the most interesting part of Hunt’s article was her explanation of this mysterious process:
Everyone who has written at any substantial length, whether prose or poetry, knows that the process of writing itself leads to previously unthought thoughts. Or to be more precise, writing crystallizes previously half-formulated or unformulated thoughts, gives them form, and extends chains of thoughts in new directions. Neuroscience has shown that 95 percent of brain activity is unconscious. My guess about what happens is that by physically writing—whether by hand, by computer, or by voice activation (though I have no experience of the latter)—you set a process literally into motion, a kind of shifting series of triangulations between fingers, blank pages or screens, letters and words, eyes, synapses or other “neural instantiations,” not to mention guts and bladders. By writing, in other words, you are literally firing up your brain and therefore stirring up your conscious thoughts and something new emerges. You are not, or at least not always, transcribing something already present in your conscious thoughts. Is it any wonder that your neck gets stiff?
As well as advocating writing as a way to promote thinking, Hunt also suggests that a good way to improve one’s writing is to examine closely how good writers construct both their sentences and their arguments. This makes sense and so does looking at writing you consider to be unclear or unconvincing and then seeking to avoid the same pitfalls. I have found that teaching writing to undergraduate students has helped my own writing immensely. Having to put into words why and how something should be improved clarifies your own ideas about what good prose is and how to write well in a way that simply reading about it does not. What do you think? Does writing lead to thinking and how do you write?