More on Writing and Thinking: You Sure You Can Teach Someone to Think Better?

If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.

–George Orwell

By Barnard Law Collier

When I introduce writing to a young person, I recite the George Orwell quote and most quickly grasp the point.

Good writing is a sign of power because the good writing is the transcription of good thinking and good writing is powerful because it does not easily die.

Writing well thus begins with thinking well, and as one 12-year-old asked, “Why don’t we have thinking classes in school?”

Some good schools do, including home schools. Far too many make little effort to instruct students on how thinking works and best thinking methods.

When writing is required, most of what is written merely indicates the writer knows how to compile words in a grammatical way.

Thinking well is the difference between those who mimic and those who succeed, between those who scrawl on walls and those who etch words into immortality.

It is often a good idea to ask children to write about thinking rather than to think about writing.

They will often express clearly in writing several ideas about thinking you may never have thought of.

On my planet, Thinking 101 begins before any classes in reading, penmanship, or spelling, and continues through elementary school.

Jack to Barney: As an editor, I never had much luck teaching writers to think so I’m skeptical you can teach kids to think.

Barney, I have no argument as to the idea that good writing reflects good thinking but how do you teach anyone to think better? As an editor, I worked with many writers who were good thinkers and plenty who were not but I never thought I could teach the bad ones to think better. I pretty much saw it something you’re born with, like athletic or artistic ability.

The most interesting book on the subject is Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. His two systems of thinking:

System 1—fast thinking—operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort.

System 2—slow thinking—allocates attention to the mental activities that demand it. It can overrule the freewheeling impulses and associations of System 1. The diverse operations of System 2 require attention and are disrupted when attention is drawn away.

It’s instinct versus rational thinking.

I had writers who were good thinkers, who were great at research and reaching conclusions. They were not always great talkers but they could think and that made their stories worth reading. Other writers—often good talkers—had no interest in outlines or planning. Let’s start talking to people and then we’ll try to figure out what the story is and how to write it. Those writers needed a lot of help making their stories work.

As an editor, I got burned most often by assuming that a good talker would be a good writer and thinker. Often not the case, which means that editors need a good bullshit detector.

So Barney, an editor can help a writer by talking through a story—trying to improve its thinking—and then editing the story—making it read faster and better—but based on taking a logic class in college and working with about a thousand writers, I’m skeptical that you actually can teach kids, or writers, to be better thinkers.

Barney to Jack: Maybe this MIT guy can help.

Many children are simply never guided into thinking, they most figure it out themselves, often not too well. I have several grandchildren to try the ideas out on, and last night I realized that even newborns are thinking creatures, some of whom do so better than others. I’ll keep thinking about it. I, too, took a logic course and some considerable math, and I understood most of the rules and regs of problem solving (a kind of thinking) but that never helped me think a way out of a tight spot or helped much in relations with people and other creatures (like horses and such) who think in non-logical ways. Also doesn’t work with irrational folks, who think differently, and extremely other-worldly people.

The most profound and prolific thinker about thinking is a supremely weird guy named Pat Gunkel. You may Google him at: to read his MIT stuff. Astonishing in breadth and scope, but won’t be part  of general thinking for, I’d say, at least half a century.

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