Writing to Think: Critical Thinking and the Writing Process

“Writing is thinking on paper.”

(Zinsser, 1976, p. vii)

Google the term “critical thinking.” How many hits are there? On the day this tutorial was completed, Google found about 65,100,000 results in 0.56 seconds. That’s an impressive number, and it grows more impressively large every day. That’s because the nation’s educators, business leaders, and political representatives worry about the level of critical thinking skills among today’s students and workers.

What is Critical Thinking?

Simply put, critical thinking is sound thinking. Critical thinkers work to delve beneath the surface of sweeping generalizations, biases, clichés, and other quick observations that characterize ineffective thinking. They are willing to consider points of view different from their own, seek and study evidence and examples, root out sloppy and illogical argument, discern fact from opinion, embrace reason over emotion or preference, and change their minds when confronted with compelling reasons to do so. In sum, critical thinkers are flexible thinkers equipped to become active and effective spouses, parents, friends, consumers, employees, citizens, and leaders. Every area of life, in other words, can be positively affected by strong critical thinking.

Released in January 2011, an important study of college students over four years concluded that by graduation “large numbers [of American undergraduates] didn’t learn the critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication skills that are widely assumed to be at the core of a college education” (Rimer, 2011, para. 1). The University designs curriculum, creates support programs, and hires faculty to help ensure you won’t be one of the students “[showing]no significant gains in . . . ‘higher order’ thinking skills” (Rimer, 2011, para. 4). One way the University works to help you build those skills is through writing projects.

Writing and Critical Thinking

Say the word “writing” and most people think of a completed publication. But say the word “writing” to writers, and they will likely think of the process of composing. Most writers would agree with novelist E. M. Forster, who wrote, “How can I know what I think until I see what I say?” (Forster, 1927, p. 99). Experienced writers know that the act of writing stimulates thinking.

Inexperienced and experienced writers have very different understandings of composition. Novice writers often make the mistake of believing they have to know what they’re going to write before they can begin writing. They often compose a thesis statement before asking questions or conducting research. In the course of their reading, they might even disregard material that counters their pre-formed ideas. This is not writing; it is recording.

In contrast, experienced writers begin with questions and work to discover many different answers before settling on those that are most convincing. They know that the act of putting words on paper or a computer screen helps them invent thought and content. Rather than trying to express what they already think, they express what the act of writing leads them to think as they put down words. More often than not, in other words, experienced writers write their way into ideas, which they then develop, revise, and refine as they go.

What has this notion of writing to do with critical thinking? Everything.

Consider the steps of the writing process: prewriting, outlining, drafting, revising, editing, seeking feedback, and publishing. These steps are not followed in a determined or strict order; instead, the effective writer knows that as they write, it may be necessary to return to an earlier step. In other words, in the process of revision, a writer may realize that the order of ideas is unclear. A new outline may help that writer re-order details. As they write, the writer considers and reconsiders the effectiveness of the work.

The writing process, then, is not just a mirror image of the thinking process: it is the thinking process. Confronted with a topic, an effective critical thinker/writer

  • asks questions
  • seeks answers
  • evaluates evidence
  • questions assumptions
  • tests hypotheses
  • makes inferences
  • employs logic
  • draws conclusions
  • predicts readers’ responses
  • creates order
  • drafts content
  • seeks others’ responses
  • weighs feedback
  • criticizes their own work
  • revises content and structure
  • seeks clarity and coherence

Example of Composition as Critical Thinking

“Good writing is fueled by unanswerable questions” (Lane, 1993, p. 15).

Imagine that you have been asked to write about a hero or heroine from history. You must explain what challenges that individual faced and how they conquered them. Now imagine that you decide to write about Rosa Parks and her role in the modern Civil Rights movement. Take a moment and survey what you already know. She refused to get up out of her seat on a bus so a White man could sit in it. She was arrested. As a result, Blacks in Montgomery protested, influencing the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Martin Luther King, Jr. took up leadership of the cause, and ultimately a movement was born.

Is that really all there is to Rosa Parks’s story? What questions might a thoughtful writer ask? Here a few:

  • Why did Rosa Parks refuse to get up on that particular day?
  • Was hers a spontaneous or planned act of defiance?
  • Did she work? Where? Doing what?
  • Had any other Black person refused to get up for a White person?
  • What happened to that individual or those individuals?
  • Why hadn’t that person or those persons received the publicity Parks did?
  • Was Parks active in Civil Rights before that day?
  • How did she learn about civil disobedience?

Even just these few questions could lead to potentially rich information.

Factual information would not be enough, however, to satisfy an assignment that asks for an interpretation of that information. The writer’s job for the assignment is to convince the reader that Parks was a heroine; in this way the writer must make an argument and support it. The writer must establish standards of heroic behavior. More questions arise:

  • What is heroic action?
  • What are the characteristics of someone who is heroic?
  • What do heroes value and believe?
  • What are the consequences of a hero’s actions?
  • Why do they matter?

Now the writer has even more research and more thinking to do.

By the time they have raised questions and answered them, raised more questions and answered them, and so on, they are ready to begin writing. But even then, new ideas will arise in the course of planning and drafting, inevitably leading the writer to more research and thought, to more composition and refinement.

Ultimately, every step of the way over the course of composing a project, the writer is engaged in critical thinking because the effective writer examines the work as they develop it.

Why Writing to Think Matters

Writing practice builds critical thinking, which empowers people to “take charge of [their] own minds” so they “can take charge of [their] own lives . . . and improve them, bringing them under [their] self command and direction” (Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2020, para. 12). Writing is a way of coming to know and understand the self and the changing world, enabling individuals to make decisions that benefit themselves, others, and society at large. Your knowledge alone – of law, medicine, business, or education, for example – will not be enough to meet future challenges. You will be tested by new unexpected circumstances, and when they arise, the open-mindedness, flexibility, reasoning, discipline, and discernment you have learned through writing practice will help you meet those challenges successfully.

References

Forster, E.M. (1927). Aspects of the novel. Harcourt, Brace & Company.

The Foundation for Critical Thinking. (2020, June 17). Our concept and definition of critical thinking. https://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/our-concept-of-critical-thinking/411

Lane, B. (1993). After the end: Teaching and learning creative revision. Heinemann.

Rimer, S. (2011, January 18). Study: Many college students not learning to think critically. The Hechinger Report. https://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/national/article24608056.html

Zinsser, W. (1976). On writing well: The classic guide to writing nonfiction. HarperCollins.

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