Writing Is Thinking

Writing is not simply a matter of expressing pre-existing thoughts clearly. It’s the process through which ideas are produced and refined.

November 3, 2021

Of all the pearls of wisdom I’ve picked up over the years, among the most valuable consists of just three words: intuition is bias.

The Romantic poets may have believed that intuition offers special insights into higher truths. But within the academy, intuition is little more than a hunch, a suspicion, an instinct, a feeling or a surmise that is more often wrong than right.

That’s not surprising. Gut impressions are preconceived notions that are generally the product of emotion or prejudice or a reflection of someone else’s opinions.

So, how do we get beyond intuitions? Obviously through research and critical reflection. But primarily through the writing process itself.

Writing is not merely a mode of communication. It’s a process that, if we move beyond simple formulas, forces us to reflect, think, analyze and reason. The goal of a writing assignment worth its salt is not simply to describe or persuade or summarize: it’s to drive students to make sense of difficult material and develop their own distinctive take.

Academic writing is not simply a method of imparting information or demonstrating understanding, but the most nuanced and sophisticated way to order, analyze, apply and synthesize information.

That’s why assigning writing, irrespective of your discipline, is essential. Writing can enhance your students’ ability to think and to analyze: to evaluate data and evidence, formulate a hypothesis, predict and generalize.

I write a lot. Indeed, I perhaps write too much. But I’m not alone.

Journalism as a profession may be in steep decline, but writing for a public audience has never been more popular. Blogging is widespread. More academics than ever write op-eds. A host of platforms have emerged to permit us to share our thoughts. WordPress. Substack. LinkedIn.

We write for many reasons: to pontificate. To persuade. To express ourselves. To raise our profile. To establish a brand.

I write to think.

I almost never know what I’m going to say until I write and rewrite.

It’s during the writing process itself that my ideas and my argument emerge. Writing’s difficult and demanding not just because crafting artful sentences and paragraphs is challenging, and organizing a piece of writing effectively is a constant struggle, but because formulating an argument is tough.

Writing is both a process and a platform: it’s where you and I wrestle with other people’s ideas, ideate, iterate and develop a distinctive point of view.

Which is why I say, only partly facetiously, that my essays write themselves.

The key to writing, I have found, lies in the process: a process that requires us to think systematically:

  • To enter into a conversation, a controversy or a debate
  • To assess and analyze existing points of view
  • To reconsider the controversy and in the process gradually construct a fresh interpretation or thesis
  • To refine and revise that argument, and
  • To figure out how to convey the argument in an interesting, engaging and provocative manner, with a catchy lead and a bang-up conclusion.

What I need to do whenever I write is to take the time to follow the process.

First, I find a topic -- a research finding, a news article, a book -- that piques my curiosity.

Then I read widely about the topic. My objective is to uncover the broader conversation or controversy that surrounds that topic.

Then I gradually come up with my own take.

Academic writing is first and foremost about ideas. As John Warner has argued, “The sentence is not the basic skill or fundamental unit of writing. The idea is.” Many weaknesses in students’ written expression actually reflect a lack of clarity of thought.

Ideas must come first.

But ideas do not emerge spontaneously, like Athena popping out of Zeus’s head full grown and wearing a suit of armor.

A take or a thesis grows out of engagement with an existing set of arguments. It requires careful reflection and reconsideration and persistence.

Ditto for the writing process itself. Writing is a matter of craftsmanship. It entails attention to detail and refinement.

This makes the writing process sound mechanical and formulaic. But, of course, the writing process is anything but effortless or undemanding. It’s iterative. At each stage of the process -- from research to writing to revision -- I must question my argument: I must modify, amend, complicate and refine my thesis; I must take into account counterarguments; and I must continuously reorganize and reword whatever I am writing.

Done right, I can’t imagine a better illustration of ‎Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow. Writing requires you to totally immerse yourself in the thinking and rethinking process.

There are no shortcuts.

So let’s replace the five-paragraph essay with a very different process that consists of the following steps.

Step 1: The discovery stage.

Discover a topic that excites you, incites you, arouses your curiosity or simply prompts questions.

Read widely and listen closely and you’ll inevitably come across an article, an essay or a book that you need to come to terms with. At this stage, you may have a visceral reaction or an off-the-cuff opinion -- but not a considered or thoughtful response.

Step 2: The preparation stage.

Next, you need to research the topic as broadly as you can. Do your best to understand the conflicting perspectives on the topic, weighing their strengths, weaknesses and, above all, their insights.

Step 3: The initial stage of formulating an argument or thesis.

Now that you have a general understanding of contrasting points of view, you can begin to formulate your own distinctive stance on the subject. An argument isn’t mere description or opinion; it’s a carefully considered take, a position grounded in evidence.

How to do you formulate a thesis? By asking a series of questions:

  • Do you agree with an existing perspective on the topic? If so, why? If not, why not?
  • Are the existing perspectives too simplistic and need to be complicated?
  • Is the conventional wisdom on the topic deficient in some respect, and does it need to be modified or revised?
  • Do the existing perspectives omit a key consideration (for example, gender or race or class)?

Only then can you advance a tentative or provisional argument.

Step 4: Refine your argument or thesis.

Crafting a compelling point of view is perhaps the most difficult and demanding part of the writing process. Making your argument more complex, nuanced and sophisticated isn’t easy. It requires you to continuously re-evaluate your thesis and qualify, modify, refine it and, in many cases, reject it and start afresh.

Step 5: The craftsmanship stage.

Only now are you truly ready to write anything that resembles a polished draft.

I live my life according to certain mantras, and one of them is “There’s no writing, only rewriting.” Writing is a process of revision.

Successful writing requires patience and craftsmanship. It’s a matter of:

  • Organization: Just as the “difference between a mob and a trained army is organization,” so, too, the difference between an effective and an ineffective argument often lies in a piece of writing’s structure and sequencing. It not only requires you to advance your argument, but to take account of counterarguments and alternative interpretations.
  • Reader engagement: If you want to convince readers that your argument is correct, you must first grab their attention. There are many ways to do this: with an intriguing anecdote, a controversial quote, a mystery, an anniversary or something unusual or unfamiliar. A strong conclusion, too, is essential if you want your readers to come away from your piece of writing with a fresh perspective. A summary or a recapitulation or restatement of your thesis is not enough. Give the reader a takeaway, an object lesson, a warning, an admonition or an inspiring vision.
  • Clarity: Find ways to be clear even in the face of a knotty, dense, convoluted argument.
  • Word choice: As Mark Twain put it, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter -- it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
  • Style: Be stylish. Play with sentence structure. Inject wit. Pare away nominalizations. Use verbs that are dynamic and nouns that are concrete. Consider using adjectives as verbs. Add a distinctive voice to your writing through your use of tone, syntax, flow and, most important of all, follow Joe Moran’s advice in his First You Write a Sentence: make writing conversational.

As the great educational sociologist David Labaree has observed, “Writing is not just how we express our ideas; it’s how we develop our ideas.” Don’t start with a thesis. Only develop your argument as you research the topic and as you engage in the writing process itself.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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