Doctoral writers often say: “I find out what I think by writing about my ideas”. It is a statement that puzzles me, and doesn’t seem to resonate with how I imagine my own writing process occurring. What follows is an attempt to unpack this notion to help us see how we might encourage doctoral writers to use this approach effectively.

I am intrigued by this idea of “thinking by writing”, and my interest was sparked again by an article published recently in HERD by Heron, Gravett and Yakovchuk, “Publishing and flourishing”. Their analysis of experiences of academic writing generated several themes, including “Writing for thinking” under the subheading of “Flourishing”. This positive, optimistic paper includes useful resources related to this idea that thinking happens through writing – see Mitchell (2010), Richardson (2003), Turner (2011) and the glorious piece by Badley (2015).

As far as I can tell, writers are referring to the process of responding to a niggling sense of an emerging idea at the back of their mind but not yet formed into conscious understanding. The task might be to work out how different elements fit together, to find a way of articulating the structure of a concept, to identify the patterns or connections between different concepts, or to step out the sequence of statements to make an argument.

I’m certainly familiar with the experience of thinking through an idea while walking or performing some mundane, repetitive task and having a triumphant sense that I’ve reached a clear, deep understanding. Then, when attempting to write it down, discovering that it doesn’t make sense when I see it on the page.

Doctoral writing is a creative process aimed at producing original knowledge. This is partly why Essén and Värlander (2012) identify the wrongness of conceptualising “writing up” as a simple record of what happened during the research. Instead, they encourage doctoral writers to appreciate the significance of creating connections between ideas as they make sense of their findings—writing is thus seen as an integral part of the process of analysis and interpretation of data. (Perhaps this is also why doctoral writers so often underestimate how long the final thesis writing actually takes if they haven’t done much of it along the way.)

So, when people talk about “thinking by writing”, do they mean the action of settling down at the desk and focusing on the ideas, writing as a type of brainstorming activity that appears progressively on the screen? Is it a matter of moving vague, fuzzy, pre-linguistic notions towards clearly articulated concepts and arguments? Or is it the process of finding the subtle nuance of expression in the sentence that pins the idea down exactly?

Photo by Trent Erwin on Unsplash

One of my concerns about the “thinking by writing” approach, though, is that it can result in lots of text that circles round and round ideas without pinning down the key message. This isn’t necessarily a problem—Badley (2015) reminds us of the importance of trying out ideas in writing and taking pleasure in the process itself. Doctoral writers do need to understand that not all their writing will go into the final thesis document they submit for examination. Nevertheless, it can be frustrating to have pages and pages of unstructured writing that seems to repeat much the same material over and over again.

Perhaps “thinking by writing” might be better served with dot points rather than full sentences? This process of jotting down ideas is what I’m more familiar with. It still provides a means of seeing how the points in the argument are laid out and helps the writer identify gaps in logic or nonsensical descriptions. But it is a much easier editing job to move points around when they aren’t stitched into the sentence structures of prose paragraphs.

Of course, reading about writing while trying to write about writing brings its own self-awareness of the practices that integrate writing and thinking. There’s a lot here for contemplation, and I’d be very interested to hear how others regard the “thinking by writing” approach. I’ve certainly got lots more thinking to do on this topic—not sure if I’ll do that while walking or writing or both…