Writing IS Thinking

Writing is thinking. 

It’s an interesting idea, isn’t it? Writing doesn’t only involve thinking. Thinking doesn’t happen before we write. Instead, writing may be a way to develop that skill that professors and employers alike so deeply prize: critical thinking.

A few years ago, I began leading creative writing workshops for children in my small town. My goal in these creative writing workshops expanded beyond helping students to write fiction and poetry. In fact, my goal might’ve seemed odd: I aimed to develop students’ critical thinking skills through the process of writing. But what does creative writing have to do with critical thinking?

I recently started reading John Bean’s (2011) book Engaging Ideas, an easily accessible book written for any professor interested in engaging students’ critical thinking skills. In the first chapter, “Using Writing to Promote Thinking,” Bean argues that writing and critical thinking are linked because writing is “both a process of doing critical thinking and a product that communicates the results of critical thinking” (p. 4). To Bean, writing is a communication skill PLUS more: writing requires writers to think deeply about subject matter as well as rhetorical problems, such as the intended audience for the written composition.

That writing and critical thinking relate in this way has important implications for teachers of writing as well as teachers of other subjects who wish to improve students’ critical thinking. For one, if the writing process encourages critical thinking, then writing deserves a place in all college classrooms.

However, Bean writes that simply assigning writing in college courses may not be sufficient to spark critical thinking. Writing needs to be treated as deeply integrated with thinking. Good writing isn’t about polishing the silver; writing is the silver. Writing isn’t simply a skill that involves knowing the rules of grammar; writing involves “confusion and disorder” (Bean, 2011, p. 18) and “emotional struggle” (p. 23). That’s because the writing that is done in college is about deeply engaging with problems. As I defined in an earlier post, critical thinking can be thought of, too, as deep engagement with a messy problem that cannot be solved with a simple answer. Thus, college-level writing is distinctly tied to critical thinking.

What does this vision of writing as thinking mean for teachers of writing? What does it mean for teachers of other subjects who wish to engage their students’ in critical thinking? And, importantly, if we buy into the relationship between writing and critical thinking, how can we enact this vision in the classroom?

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