- STAFF PICKS
- GIFTS + GIFT CARDS
- SELL BOOKS
- FIND A STORE
Used Trade Paper
Ships in 1 to 3 days
Thinking on Paper Thinking on Paperby V A Howard
Synopses & Reviews
Chapter One: Writing is Thinking Writer's Angst
Who among us when confronted with a difficult writing task has not said, I have all the ideas but simply cannot find the right words to express them"? Or I know my stuff, but I cannot organize my ideas clearly and convincingly"? Or I have trouble communicating my thoughts on paper"? Many people shy away from writing for such reasons. If you are one of them, take heart. Practical writing is less a matter of mystery than of mastery of skills, many of which you already possess.
Why, then, do so many people find writing difficult? For one thing, it is difficult, but so are many tasks we readily learn to do well. For another, the handbooks of grammar, composition, and style mostly tell us what to do but not how to do it. However, an even greater obstacle to writing improvement is our tendency to dwell on either the final results or the mental origins of writing to the exclusion of the activity of writing, as if an empty gap separated writing from thinking.
We are understandably concerned with results, with writing that communicates well. But when that preoccupation combines with the popular notion that writing ability is a 11 gift" or inborn talent, the effect is to cloak the activity of writing in false mystery. Add to the pot the mistaken belief that good writers find "just the right words right away," and the mystery is complete. Little wonder that writing takes on the proportions of a quixotic quest. On the other hand, eliminate the mystery and the way is open to-writing mastery for virtually any practical purpose. This means ridding yourself of misconceptions about writing that seriously inhibit the effort to do it.
Thefirst step is to get clear in your mind what writing is, and what it isn't. The second step is to get you going in a way that frees your intelligence and imagination from the oppressive weight of searching for "just the right words." Those are the objectives of the remainder of this and the next chapter respectively.
Thinking in Writing: Three Propositions
Understanding the nature of the task is crucial to getting started in writing as in anything. Three propositions help to explain the complex relations among writing, thinking, and communicating. They are:
1. Writing is a symbolic activity of meaning-making;
2. Writing for others is a staged performance; and
3. Writing is a tool of understanding as well as of communication.
Together these add up to the claim that writing is "thinking on paper" in which both writer and reader are witnesses to meaning-in-the-making, a meaning that the writer creates and the reader attempts to re-create. Each of these propositions clarifies different aspects of how we think in writing.
Proposition 1: Writing is a symbolic activity of meaningmaking.
Symbols are essential to any process of meaning-making, including writing. The fact bears mention, for many people are unaccustomed to think of letters, words, or language as such as consisting of symbols, perhaps because speech itself appears to be "second nature." To others, the word symbol connotes the idea of obscure meaning, meaning that is esoteric or hidden, requiring special training or sensitivity to understand. Examples of the latter would include poetic images, religious icons, the hidden meanings of dreams, or the "body language" of gestures.
Symbols can be eitherspecial, like the aforementioned, or quite commonplace. in fact, the word symbol applies to anything that carries meaning, usually by standing for something else: like the word cat in English or gato in Spanish. So the realm of symbolism in the prosaic sense of the term encompasses words, languages generally, and a host of other kinds of symbols: maps, road signs, gestures, diagrams, pictures, and the like (cf. Goodman, 1972; Howard, 1982).
Symbols mediate not only communication but thought itself, and language is our most common symbolic tool to think with: silently, aloud, or in writing to ourselves or to others. Certainly we do not create the world with our symbols, but whatever the world comes to mean to us is literally a symbolic achievement. And the meanings we attach to things and events outside ourselves shape us in turn, including how we think, feel, act, and react. We grasp what our grasp of symbols enables us to grasp.
Practically, this means that communication in writing is never perfect and seldom complete. Perfect communication in the sense of direct transmission of meaning from one mind to another (telepathy) never occurs in writing. Writing is always mediated thought, thought that is embodied in an intervening structure of language. Communication is seldom complete except in very simple statements like "Go left!" or "It's raining," and even those can misfire if the context is unclear. "Go left!" at the next interesection or politically? "It's raining," outdoors or in my heart?
You as a writer create a tapestry of linguistic symbols on paper that enable your reader to unravel your meaning as best he or she can. You cannot communicate your meaning except as youarticulate it and your reader re-creates it via the medium of language. of course, there are no guarantees that you will fully articulate your meaning or that your reader will fully grasp it. Success or failure can occur on either side.
Attending to these simple facts helps lay to rest two inhibiting preconceptions about writing; namely, that it aims solely at communication (ignoring articulation), and that such communication should be perfect and complete. Both engender the self-defeating quest to get it right the first time, perhaps the single greatest "block" to getting started.
Proposition 2: Writing for others is a staged performance.
Writing becomes a staged performance the moment you as writer become aware of a possible audience (including your later self). You should not think of writing as performing, however, until you are ready to. Up to that point, writing is a private activity of thinking on paper, a relatively unselfconscious effort to shape your thoughts without any intention to share them as such. No sooner do you ask how the words look or sound, 'or step back to criticize their gist, than you are performing. Therein lies the difference between free-flowing articulation and critical revision directed at communicating your ideas.
Most books on writing assume that the sole purpose of writing is communication. These manuals seldom go beyond teaching how to avoid the problems of punctuation, grammar, and style that at one time or another ensnare the best of writers. Few, if any, of these books explore writing as a way of shaping thought.
V.A. Howard and J.H. Barton, two Harvard researchers in education, take a radically different approach. While they agree with their predecessors that an important function of writing is the clear, direct expression of thought, they point out that many of our thoughts first come into being only when put to paper. By failing to recognize the link between thinking and writing, we fall into the deadlock innappropriately named writer's block.
Thinking on Paper shows how writer's block as well as many other writing problems are engendered by the tendency, supported by traditional approaches, to separate thinking from writing. Drawing on the developing field of symbol theory, Howard and Barton explain why this sepapration is unsound and demonstrate how to improve dramatically our ability to generate and express ideas. For everyone who writes, this is a readable, accessible manual of immense educational and practical value.
About the Author
V.A. Howard, Ph.D., is co-director, with Israel Scheffler, of the Philosphy of Education Research Center at Harvard University.
J.H. Barton, M.A., is an associate at the Philosophy of Education Research Center and a private business consultant.
What Our Readers Are Saying
Other books you might like