Writing is thinking | Gamma of higher education

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

Romantic poets may have believed that intuition offered special insight into higher truths. But within the academy, intuition is little more than a hunch, suspicion, instinct, feeling, or guess that is more often wrong than right.

It’s not surprising. Visceral impressions are preconceived notions that are usually the product of emotions or prejudices or a reflection of someone else’s opinions.

So, how to go beyond intuitions? Obviously through research and critical reflection. But mostly through the writing process itself.

Writing is not just a mode of communication. It is a process which, if we go beyond the simple formulas, forces us to reflect, think, analyze and reason. The purpose of a meaningful writing assignment is not simply to describe, persuade, or summarize: it is to get students to make sense of difficult material and develop their own distinctive point of view.

Academic writing is not simply a method of imparting information or demonstrating understanding, but the most nuanced and sophisticated way of ordering, analyzing, applying, and synthesizing information.

This is why writing attribution, regardless of your discipline, is essential. Writing can improve your students’ thinking and analytical skills: to evaluate data and evidence, formulate a hypothesis, predict and generalize.

I write a lot. Indeed, I may write too much. But I am not alone.

Journalism as a profession may be on the decline, but writing for a public audience has never been more popular. Blogs are very popular. More academics than ever are writing opinion pieces. A multitude of platforms have sprung up to allow us to share our thoughts. WordPress. Sub-stack. LinkedIn.

We write for several reasons: to pontificate. To convince. To express ourselves. To enhance our visibility. 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 pitch emerge. Writing is difficult and demanding, not only because crafting sentences and paragraphs is difficult, and effective organization of text is a constant struggle, but because formulating an argument is difficult.

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

That’s why I say, partly only jokingly, that my essays write themselves.

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

  • Enter into a conversation, a polemic or a debate
  • Assess and analyze existing viewpoints
  • Reconsider the controversy and, in doing so, gradually construct a new interpretation or thesis
  • Refine and revise this argument, and
  • To understand how to convey the argument in an interesting, engaging and provocative way, with a catchy lead and a punchy conclusion.

What I have to do every time I write is take the time to go through the process.

First, I find a topic – a search result, a news article, a book – that piques my curiosity.

Then I read a lot on the subject. My goal is to uncover the broader conversation or controversy surrounding this topic.

Then, little by little, I found my own version.

Academic writing is above all a matter of ideas. As John Warner argued, “The sentence is not the basic skill or the 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 the ideas don’t emerge spontaneously, like Athena emerging from the head of adult Zeus and wearing armor.

A take or thesis develops from an engagement with an existing set of arguments. It requires careful thought, reconsideration and perseverance.

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

This makes the writing process mechanical and formulaic. But, of course, the writing process is anything but effortless or undemanding. It’s iterative. At every stage of the process — from research to writing to editing — I have to question my argument: I have to modify, amend, complicate and refine my thesis; I have to consider the counter-arguments; and I have to continually reorganize and rephrase everything I write.

Well done, I can’t imagine a better illustration of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow concept. Writing forces you to fully immerse yourself in the process of thinking and rethinking.

There is no shortcut.

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

Stage 1: The discovery stage.

Discover a subject that excites you, inspires you, arouses your curiosity or simply raises questions.

Read a lot and listen carefully and you will inevitably come across an article, an essay or a book that you have to come to terms with. At this point, you may have a gut reaction or an off-the-cuff opinion, but not a thoughtful or thoughtful response.

Step 2: The preparation phase.

Then you need to research the topic as widely as possible. Do your best to understand the conflicting points of view on the subject, weighing their strengths, weaknesses and, above all, their ideas.

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

Now that you have a general understanding of the opposing points of view, you can begin to formulate your own distinctive position on the subject. An argument is not a mere description or opinion; it is a well-considered decision, a position based on evidence.

How to write a thesis? By asking a series of questions:

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

Only then can you make a tentative or provisional argument.

Step 4: Refine your argument or thesis.

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

Step 5: The artisanal step.

Only now are you really ready to write anything resembling a neat draft.

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

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

  • Organization: Just as “the difference between a mob and a trained army is organization,” the difference between an effective argument and an ineffective argument often lies in the structure and sequencing of a text. This forces you not only to advance your argument, but also to consider counter-arguments and alternative interpretations.
  • Reader Engagement: If you want to convince readers that your point is correct, you must first grab their attention. There are many ways to do it: with an intriguing anecdote, a controversial quote, a mystery, an anniversary or something unusual or unknown. A solid conclusion is also essential if you want your readers to come away from your text with a new perspective. A summary or a recapitulation or reformulation of your thesis is not enough. Give the reader a takeaway, an object lesson, a warning, a warning, or an inspiring insight.
  • Clarity: Find ways to be clear even in the face of a thorny, dense, and convoluted argument.
  • The choice of words: As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a big deal – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and lightning.”
  • Style: Be elegant. Play with sentence structure. Inject spirit. Eliminate nominalizations. Use dynamic verbs and concrete nouns. Consider using adjectives as verbs. Add a distinctive voice to your writing through your use of tone, syntax, flow, and most importantly, follow the advice of Joe Moran in his First you write a sentence: make writing conversational.

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

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

Scott R. Banks