I Write, Therefore I Think

I came across an interesting article in The Atlantic a little while back that discussed the connection between writing and thinking. New Dorp, a Staten Island high school in a poor and working-class neighborhood, was able to improve student performance when they realized that their students couldn’t write. These underperforming students often could read and could do math. The majority of them were well-behaved, and seemed to want to learn. Yet they couldn’t pass standard proficiency tests, and couldn’t graduate. All because they couldn’t form complex sentences.

The harder they looked, the teachers began to realize, the harder it was to determine whether the students were smart or not because the tools they had to express their thoughts were so limited that such a judgment was nearly impossible.

PenPhoto: Nina Zumel

The solution the teachers devised was to teach analytical writing skills in almost every class. For example, in chemistry classes, students had to describe the properties of chemical substances in sentences that used specific subordinate clause forms, such as a sentence with although, or with unless. Students in literature classes had to hold oral discussions using structured sentence forms: “I (dis)agree with your statement because…”, “Can you explain your answer?” They had to write expository essays in history class.

The result? Graduation rates have risen from 63% to almost 80% since the beginning of the program. Pass rates on proficiency tests rose from 67% to 89% for the English exam, and 64% to to 75% for the History exam. There’s still room for improvement, but the outlook at New Dorp is optimistic.

Reading the Atlantic article, I got the suggestion that knowing how to form sentences and how to express themselves strengthened the students’ ability not only to write and to pass tests, but also actually strengthened their ability to think. Once you know that there exist words and phrases like because or for instance that help expand your sentences, to elaborate on your basic premises, then you will want to start using them, right? It’s like turning on a faucet.

This apparently causal relationship between writing and thinking is no surprise for anyone who has to write as part of making a living. I find that I often don’t truly understand a technical topic until I sit down to write about it. And some of my best non-technical writing happens when I have no fixed notion of what I’m going to say, just a vague idea that I must write about some topic, or that I must expand on some passing thought I had over a cup of coffee. The end result of the article or blog post surprises even me. Usually pleasantly, even.

Here’s Joan Didion, from her wonderful essay “Why I Write”:

Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. … What is going on in these pictures in my mind?

And here’s George Orwell, on why jargon is evil (from the essay “Politics and the English Language”):

A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.

Orwell is talking about how words like “freedom,” “terrorist,” or “socialist” gradually lose their true meaning after years of overuse and mis-use, until they become content-free. Dialogue or debate that uses such words therefore also becomes content-free, and we all spend a lot of words saying nothing. When we say nothing, we think nothing: a vicious cycle. Places like New Dorp give us hope that words can feed a virtuous cycle, as well. Words have power.

On the other hand, the New Dorp approach is rather formula-oriented, isn’t it? It’s old-fashioned, redolent of the old classic high school expository essay form. Remember that? State your thesis. Support it in the body of the essay; each body paragraph has a topic sentence and evidential support. Conclude by restating your thesis and re-examining it in the light of your evidence. The format is clear, and when done properly, it’s an efficient way to get a point across. It’s also usually quite dry.

There are people who think old-fashioned is a good thing; back to the basics, and all that. There are people who don’t. As some civil-rights activist supposedly once said (sorry, I don’t remember who): “I am suspicious of people who are nostalgic.” With reason: the “good old days” were often not so good, for many different groups of people. In our discussion, that would be the disengaged student.

So the modern teaching approach, apparently, encourages the student to develop self-expression, in the name of keeping them engaged, and fostering creativity. Sentence structure and the craft of organizing your thoughts don’t seem to be primary lesson goals. So the Atlantic article claims; I’m not a teacher, and I don’t have school-age children, so I don’t really know. But if it’s true, it’s interesting, because some people would claim that the art of creative writing is the antithesis of thinking. Here’s Robert Olen Butler, from his book From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction:

Please get out of the habit of saying that you’ve got an idea for a short story. Art does not come from ideas. Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you. … If you want to think your way into your fiction, if you think you can analyze your way into a work of art, we’re going to be totally at odds philosophically about what art is and where it comes from.

The truth, as always, is probably somewhere in between, but the point is that by Butler’s argument, teaching creative writing is not teaching children how to think (it might even be teaching them not to think). And isn’t the point of school to teach children how to think? That’s what they keep telling us. It’s interesting to contrast this with some current discussion about teaching math in schools, for example Andrew Hacker’s now-infamous opinion piece from a few months ago, “Is Algebra Necessary?” According to Hacker, algebra is not a life skill; most people won’t ever use it again. Putting aside whether that’s true (it’s not), a similar argument, it seems to me, could be made about creative writing. Why is algebra bad for being allegedly impractical, while analytical writing is bad for being merely practical?

I wouldn’t want the pinnacle of my literary achievement to be the high school expository essay, and I do wish I had taken more classes in creative writing during my formal education. The world would be a bland place if it were merely practical. But if writing well begets thinking well, then it transcends the practical: it’s essential. And what else should we be teaching in schools, if not the essential?

About nzumel
I dance. I'm a data scientist. I'm a dancing data scientist. In my spare time, I like to read folklore (and research about folklore), ghost stories, random cognitive science papers, and to sometimes blog about it all.

12 Responses to I Write, Therefore I Think

  1. Pingback: Reblog: I Write, Therefore I Think « Multo (Ghost)

  2. Pingback: Win-Vector Blog » “I Write, Therefore I Think” new post from Win-Vector LLC’s Nina Zume

  3. Pingback: Win-Vector Blog » Win-Vector’s Nina Zumel: “I Write, Therefore I Think”

  4. eleniaturner says:

    This is a brilliant article. My younger brother often ha trouble with his written work – not because he doesn’t know the words necessary, however, but because he has trouble writing them down, and lacks confidence in himself. I think program’s such as the one introduced in New Dorp are always beneficial, not only because analytical writing and thought are both practical abilities, but also because they give the students confident in themselves which can make a whole world of difference.
    For me, writing is thinking. Often I have trouble verbally sorting out my thought, and when making spontaneous contributions during seminars, I find myself trailing off into ‘yeah, so… Yeah’. I love essay writing, and I think when done well essays are a treat to read, but I am a creative writer at heart, and I think that’s partially why my essays are marked well. I think there needs to be a balance reached in schools, so that kids are taught not only to think and write analytically and creatively, but also when each style s appropriate, and how they can be mixed.
    Once again, lovely article, with lots of fodder for thought. :)

    • nzumel says:

      Thank you! I also think best with a pen in my hand (or a keyboard at my fingertips, in some situations), so the New Dorp situation really spoke to me. Like you, I wouldn’t want creative writing skills to be completely ignored, but I do think that you can’t get to creative writing (or do it well) until you can, well, write. When you can express yourself well at least in formal sentence structure.

      Once you have the technique and are comfortable, you can handle yourself on paper well enough to break the rules, or make your own rules, creatively. There was a famous dancer who once said something to the effect that the only reason to learn technique was so that your body didn’t prevent you from expressing what your heart felt, and I think the same can be said of writing.

      Thanks also for the point about confidence — that came through in the Atlantic article, too, and you are right. Confidence is what you need to even try to stretch and express yourself. And confidence comes with practice…

      • eleniaturner says:

        That whole ‘so that your body preventing you from expressing your heart’ is certainly true! I’ve known people who can come up with amazing work when they’re talking aloud, or even when they’re dictating, but once they’re left on their own – well, it falls to pieces. I think one of the main faults with the school system here in England is that there isn’t a lot of support, and children who get labelled as ‘can’t do’ aren’t really helped. That’s why it’s so especially nice to hear about new programs like this – it gives me hope for everywhere else!

        • nzumel says:

          Yeah, that’s me with fiction: I can come up with great ideas for other people’s short stories or screenplays, but I don’t have to execute them! If I try to execute my own ideas, well, doesn’t always turn out so well. But I don’t have as much practice (or training) with fiction as with essays and non-fiction, so I shouldn’t be surprised.

          And I suspect the U.S. school system has many of the same problems as the English system… Yes, New Dorp is a hopeful story.

          • eleniaturner says:

            I have an almost chronic inability to finish things. Or when I have a brilliant idea for a scene or chapter that refuses to be written down because it’s mostly feelings and significant looks. It’s a hard life :’) and the worst part is the execution is where all the acclaim lies!

            • nzumel says:

              I find that ideas I really love, even if they don’t work for the current piece, will work their way into some future piece, somehow.

              Have you clicked through on the Joan Didion essay? She talks a bit about the persistence of, not ideas, but images that insist on being written about, if not in the present, then someday. It’s not quite what we are talking about here, but it’s similar. Great essay, too.

              • eleniaturner says:

                I get that too – a little like diamonds in the dirt. Although, in my case sometimes it’s more like rhinestones. I get that more with characters – personalities that simply won’t leave me alone.
                I haven’t looked at the essay, but I shall. And isn’t that just illustative of our point? An essay can be informative, thought provoking and interesting, not just a chore to read or write.

  5. Excellent post. There’s so much here.

    “And isn’t the point of school to teach children how to think?”

    You hit the nail on the head and I might add “what the best minds have thought, written, composed and painted, both now and in the past.”

    • nzumel says:

      Thank you!

      And thank you as well for that excellent point. Learning is partly by doing and partly by example, so examples of great thought, great writing, and great creativity should also be essentials in education.

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