Writing: Clear Thinking

The ability to think well is the single most important asset of any writer. It's also an ability anyone can cultivate, not a secret available only to a select few: it might cost some students more effort, but it's available to all of them. And, unlike learning to do long division or memorize the elements of an atom, learning to think clearly in order to write well is a skill that will come in useful for every subject.

Organizing one's thoughts is kind of like playing poker. You get some cards dealt to you at random; you put them in order, maybe trade a couple for new ones; then you lay what you have on the table. Of course there's no gambling element in writing, though the analogy doesn't entirely break down—sometimes writing fails.

Writing fails for much the same reason poker hands fail. You might think your three of a kind is pretty great, but if someone has a straight flush you're going to lose that hand. In the same way, if you write a confused essay or short story, it's likely going to fail with your readers. The need to think and write clearly cannot be overstated.

That's not to say writing is a competition. If you're able to write well, it won't matter too much how well anyone else can write; your compositions will stand on their own. Don't let that make you lazy. Instead, let it encourage you to write as well as you can, and to think as clearly as possible while doing so.

Some beginners mistake authority for clarity of thought. They think because an author is able to write with confidence, as though he knows what he's talking about, that he must be a clear thinker. However, some of the most confident writing is also the most confused, because what is written dogmatically as fact has often not been reflected on at length and is the result of assumption and empty assertion.

This isn't always the case, obviously. Nor is the above paragraph meant to hold uncertainty on some kind of weird pedestal the way postmodernists do: a measure of certainty is something humans can have, and when they have obtained it they should make it known to others.

But consider propaganda. Propagandists speak authoritatively on a variety of topics, yet the purpose of their writing isn't to present truth clearly, it's to obscure the truth and muddle clear thinking with the goal of controlling or at least influencing readers to the writer's own ends. This is the kind of authoritative writing to which we object.

By the same token, a lack of authority is equally muddled and confusing. Writers who base everything on supposition, who merely ask endless questions, or who qualify every statement with an affirmation of doubt, are not adept at communication, and are guilty not only of unclear thinking, but of dragging others into murky logic and uncertainty.

Clarity is not the only concern of a writer, however. As essential as it is to good written communication, successful writers are also those who are able to demonstrate to their readers each step in the logical progress of their ideas. This includes, but isn't limited to, making sure there are no logical errors or fallacies in one's writing.

It also includes the positive ability to show how each length in the logical chain relates to the previous one and leads into the next one. To do this without drawing explicit attention to the endless linking takes definite skill and knowledge, but it is the goal toward which every writer, whether a student or not, should be striving.

One element of clear thinking that writing instructors often ignore is the importance of vocabulary. You can have exceedingly clear thoughts, but if you don't have equivalently clear words with which to express them, your writing will suffer. That doesn't mean every student needs to be a walking dictionary, just that they need to have access to dictionaries, thesauruses, and other word reference books, and know how to use them.

Writing stands or falls on the ability of the writer to think well. If a student continually fails at self-expression on account of muddled thinking, the first task of the instructor isn't to teach them grammar and usage, but to train the young person in the rules of logic and critical thought.

That's not to say there's a complete disconnect between grammar and logic. In fact, the two are integrally united, and both together determine the quality of an essay, short story, or research paper. Yet at a time when writing instructors focus so much on grammar rules, it's essential that students also understand the importance of clear thought, and are able to pursue it.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.

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