Vision: A Resource for Writers

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Think, Write, Think

By Scott Warner
Copyright 2008 by Scott Warner, All Rights Reserved


Scriptum ergo cogito, to coin an anachronism. I write, therefore I think. Understanding how we think can make us better writers.

As American writer William Zinsser puts it, "Writing is thinking on paper." And thinking is defined by The American Heritage Dictionary as "to have or formulate in the mind."

Writing is thinking. As writers we jot down what pops into our head, but it exists in our minds first. And this mental process concentration, recall, visualization, reasoning, and judgment makes a writer a recorder of thought. What this suggests is that an uninhibited first draft that unruly, difficult beast is our mind.

If writing is thinking, then the maxim "all writers are different" is logical. We all think differently. Our brains are said to be left- or right-hemisphere dominant, an idea developed by American psychologist Robert Sperry in the 1960s. "Left-brained" people prefer logic, order, math, and science. "Right-brained" people use feeling and imagination to see the world.

You can Google fun tests online to tell you which side of your brain dominates. (I'm left-brained, for instance, which means I prefer the orderly and logical. But, being left-brained, I had already inferred as much.)

Let's say Sperry's model is true. A first draft might reveal how you think regardless of what you perceive about your own mind. Consider this question:

  • Is writing a logical or intuitive process?

How you answer reflects how well you understand your mind assuming you are being honest. The popular imagination, fueled by books such as Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, sees the right brain as the seat of creativity. It can be difficult to imagine "logic" as creative.

My guess is the real answer is "It depends." For one thing, although we tend to one side or other, our brains aren't as polarized as Sperry's model suggests. We perceive with a blend of preferences dependent on context. Different subjects in different emotional settings affect how we think, and so, how we write.

But if writing is thinking and we accept that we tend to prefer one way of thinking over another, then it seems reasonable to assume our writing process should reflect our thinking process.

The next questions are these: do your first drafts reflect the way you think? Are they helping you to think?

Helping doesn't mean making more efficient. As writers we are interested in making connections that take on a life all their own. How we try to make that happen can be important.

Consider the extremes.

If your first draft is logical, orderly, and you have written it to an outline or schedule, then this is how your mind works if you are left-brained. Perhaps, you prefer composing in a word processor on a timetable.

If your first draft leaps from one idea to the next interspersed with poetic imagery, then your mind makes different connections and is right-brained. You may prefer to write in longhand at all hours.

(I start at the beginning and proceed to the end, usually at similar times of day. And I hate writing by hand. But that's me. You might be different.)

Do these examples suggest that left-brained people are suited to nonfiction and right- to fiction? One can imagine either extreme unable to grasp emotion or logic, relationships or technical exposition. While not great for your self-esteem, it's a thought.

Left-brained people are more analytical, relying on verbal and language clues to gather information into a meaningful whole. Right-brained people process information visually, often relying on intuition or underlying patterns. I suspect either approach can create brilliant writing no matter the form or subject. They are different, not unequal.

What is interesting about Sperry's model is that it suggests that different approaches to writing work for different types of minds. At least, for the first draft. We can assume that all writers will use their analytical "left-brain" when rewriting. But to tease the thoughts from the mind takes technique.

Self-awareness from critically considering how you think can help you decide how to work. Outline or doodle, an approach can connect ideas into something new and unique, better for one writer than another. If our minds work differently, then no one approach to writing works equally well for all writers.

The real question is: does the way you write keep you from thinking?

Think of each approach as a key to unlocking your thoughts. There are many different keys, and you should keep trying until you find the right one.