Writing as Thinking

writers+practice+coverJohn Warner is the writer of two recent books on writing: Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.  Over at the Pedagogy & American Literary Studies blog, Benjamin Murphy, a PhD candidate in English at UNC-Chapel Hill, interviewed Warner.  Here is a taste:

BJM: I want to hear more about the writer’s practice. Could you elaborate on a phrase that comes up in the books a lot. What does the phrase, “Writing as thinking” mean?

JW: To me, the base unit of writing is the idea. And actually, sometimes it’s not even an idea, maybe that’s too strong. It’s a notion—an idea in your brain and you think, this seems true, or this seems interesting. You start there. And the process of writing may reveal other ideas that link to that, or it may enhance that idea; or it may prove that the idea is faulty as far as you can tell. But when we start with an idea, we think through the implications. We follow the chain of thoughts, sometimes bound by logic, but sometimes bound by imagination or surprise. I may be writing on a topic and something from left field comes in and suddenly I see a relationship. I have this idea and I see what confirms or challenges it and head off in a new direction, arriving at the end with an altered idea. When students can do that, they develop a practice. Unfortunately, too much of schooling (as opposed to learning) involves students thinking they have to figure out everything they want to say before they start. In reality, writing is a process of discovery. Saying that “writing is thinking” honors discovery and that each of us has our own view of the world, that we are unique intelligences with unique things to say.

BJM: And I think that connects to another phrase that appears a lot. What do you mean by “reading like a writer”?

JW: Reading like a writer is, for me, the opposite of how many students have been trained to read. They’re accustomed to doing a narrow close reading. Not close reading in the analytical sense, but more like scanning to extract a nugget of information for an exam. That’s what reading often means: finding the pre-determined answer to perform understanding. It’s not a matter of what the text means for a student in particular or about what it might mean in a broad context; just about what information is in a passage according to some abstract state of mind. But reading like a writer considers not raw meaning so much as the creation of meaning—not only what a text means but how and why it means. My graduate degree is an MFA in creative writing, and this approach is built into my origins as a fiction writer. When I read something that blows me away, my first reaction is appreciation; my second reaction is to ask, “OK, how did the book do that?” And my third reaction is usually, “How can I steal that?”

Read the entire interview here.

Should I Quote This?

One of the hardest things to teach college history writers is when and how to use quotations.  Emily Conroy-Krutz , who teaches history at Michigan State University, agrees.  Here is a taste of her post at the Teaching U.S. History blog:

As I read over the drafts of my students’ research papers, I found myself commenting on one writing issue over and over again: quotations. There were different types of issues with quotations. Some students needed to work on how to incorporate quotes into their own writing. There were lots of block quotes. Most students needed to think about how and when to quote at all in the first place. Multiple papers included overly long quotes of things that really didn’t need quoting at all. Some papers quoted historians using theoretical concepts or introducing characters that then didn’t come up in their own papers. These issues were incredibly common, and if I think about it, they are issues I see in papers across multiple courses I teach.

Quotations are a tricky thing to master. Quote too little, and it might seem like you haven’t read or don’t have evidence to back up you assertions. Quote too much, and a paper reads like a copy-and-past compilation of other people’s words. Striking the right balance can be hard, especially when getting your bearings on claiming your own authority as a writer.

To help her students on this front, Conroy-Krutz developed this flowchart:

Quoting Chart

I will be definitely be using this chart in my classes next year.  Thanks, Emily!

Read the entire post here.