Thinking Is Writing

“He who understands also loves, notices, sees…the more knowledge is inherent in a thing, the greater the love.” (Paracelsus 1493-1541)

“Now, a few words on looking for things. When you go looking for something specific, your chances of finding it are very bad, because of all the things in the world, you’re only looking for one of them. When you go looking for anything at all, your chances of finding it are very good, because of all the things in the world, you’re sure to find some of them.” (The Zero Effect, 1998)

We’ve already said this, but it is a key point so we’ll repeat it here. In a very real way, writing is thinking. In our experience, writing something down in a way that makes sense is how we determine that we have really understood a topic or a point. It is also the first step in making that idea our own. Although we will continue to give the originators of ideas credit with appropriate citation, when we can express an idea in our own words, it’s on the way to becoming ours.

You’ve probably often heard that the way to test your knowledge of something is to teach it to someone else. This is the same concept, but earlier in the process. There are several stages of this process and as you move through them the ideas will become progressively more your own, because you’ll be progressing from recording data to interpreting that information and making it relevant to your own interests or project.

Generally, the steps in the process are:

  1. Highlight a text and write a set of “Reading Notes”,
  2. Review your “Reading Notes” to create “Permanent Notes”.

In some cases, there may be a third step, in which you create what some people call an “Evergreen Note” which contains a distilled insight that you consider very important. This might be the type of idea that could direct a research project or become the theme or thesis of an essay.

Although it will obviously vary depending on the content you’re working with, the ratio of these types of notes will probably contract sharply as you make them your own. You can probably expect to reduce the number of Reading Notes to Permanent Notes by an order of magnitude, and then to do the same with Evergreen Notes. In other words, for every 100 Reading Notes, you may produce ten Permanent Notes and only a single Evergreen Note. This is a pretty good result, if after making note of a hundred interesting points in a text you manage to achieve an important insight. And obviously, the more Reading Notes you take, the more insights you can expect to gain.

So if the first step in creating new knowledge and then reporting on it is finding sources and learning from texts, the very first question of all might be, what is a text? For our purposes, a text is any statement you run into in written or spoken form. One of the two epigrams at the beginning came from a centuries-old book, the other from a recent movie. Many scholars in specialized fields consider images, artworks, or music to be a text that they can analyze. At the very least, in the context of a class, anything you read in a textbook, an assigned reading, a primary source, or a lecture is a text. You can take notes on what the instructor says and review those notes later. Even a discussion can be a source of valuable notes, if people have prepared their arguments. All the material you’re putting into the “mill”, grinding up, analyzing, rearranging, thinking about, and turning into new knowledge, counts.

We should be constantly looking for new information to expand our understanding, thinking about texts and analyzing them all the time. Try not to passively accept what you’re told or what you read. Ask questions, look for evidence that might corroborate or challenge claims, and compare what you’re reading or hearing with things you’ve heard before, things you’ve read, things you believe. And write your thoughts down, because, again, writing is thinking. And to be effective, we argue, thinking should be writing. We’ve probably all experienced an “Aha!” moment, when things we’ve been pondering suddenly fit together and make sense. But how often have we lost that insight, because we didn’t write it down and then forgot it. Also, trust us on this: the “Aha!” moments become more frequent and rewarding, when you’re writing stuff down.

Once you’ve discovered a text you’re going to process for its ideas, analyzing the text is the same as analyzing anything else. You take it apart so you can see what it’s supposed to do and how it does its job. Author W.H. Auden demystified both literature and criticism when he said, “Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?”

We all learned in an English class that authors use the tools of plot, imagery, symbolism, and allusion to express ideas and values in literature. We often forget that authors of nonfiction do this too, using pretty much the same set of language tools. This is how reporters write the news and how historians tell stories. Even physicists, when they leave equations behind and try to describe their discoveries to the rest of us in plain English, find themselves using analogies, metaphors, and the other language tools we all use. We’re really doing two related things in this handbook: showing you how to analyze someone else’s writing and showing you how to write yourself. Writing an interpretive essay uses a subset of these language tools, so as you’re learning to recognize how authors do it, remember that you’re going to be doing it too.

In the next section, we’ll dig deeper into evaluating sources and taking Reading Notes.

Also a video at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s