Writing is thinking

Assumptions about writing that hinder the writing process.
Part III in a series.
Part I here.
Part II here.

In a previous piece on writing as as craft, I compared writing to drawing. To continue the analogy: both writing and drawing are ways to express your inner world in the outside world. We could say that writing expresses the words inside, and drawing expresses the images inside.

But that is not the whole story. The inner world is a swirling galaxy of everything all together at once. You do not often think in neat, reproducable sentences, as you find out when you begin to write. And just as you might see images when you write, you might hear thoughts when you draw. And you can write images, and sounds, for that matter; and you can draw words, and thoughts, and music…

To refine my earlier statement, then: writing and drawing both are means of finding out what lives inside, by bringing it to the outside. They are ways of thinking out loud.

Writer Joan Didion had this to say about it:


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. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Strait seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the Bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind?’

Joan Didion, ‘Why I write’, in: Let me tell you what I mean (2021).

image: Albrecht Dürer, Mein Agnes, 1494. Albertina Museum Vienna, via Wikimedia Commons

writing changes your thinking

From the questions I get, I gather that many people see writing as a process where you think a thought, then write it down:


But writing is much more vast and mysterious than that. Sure, there can be times when a sentence or a paragraph just pops into your head and you rush to get a pen to write it down. At other times, you sit down at your computer and a voice in your head starts dictating the words, all you have to do is let your fingers type them. Magic! Then again, there are other times, when words come haltingly, and seem to fit together badly. Or something pours from you in a daze, and when you look at it, it does not appear to make much sense.

Some things only come out when you express them on paper, and you surprise yourself (again, as in drawing). Other things can feel right in your mind, in your body, but be hard to put into words. And even at times when the words flow from you without effort, if you listen carefully, you will see that the words in your mind are not exactly the same as the words that appear on paper.

In the transfer from inside to outside, your thoughts change. No longer are they thoughts in your body; they are now thoughts on paper. They are not the same. In other words: the act of writing changes your thinking.

So becoming a better writer does not mean getting stuff out of your head onto paper in a very literal sense (‘I think the thought, I write it’). No, it means that you begin to accept and even enjoy the fact that expressing yourself in words creates something that was not there before. Just like the experienced draughtsman, you know that your hands (and shoulders and arms and…) contribute to the expression. No one can write or draw precisely what goes on in their mind, like a copy.

Part IV here.

main image: photograph by Merel Boers