Think on Paper


“Don’t think and then write it down. Think on paper.”
Harry Kemelman


Get things down on paper first. Then rearrange, adjust, and tweak.

Right now, I have three clients in the humanities who keep getting stuck on the outlines of their dissertations. As they plan the sequence of their arguments, they get stuck because every theory and every argument can be connected in a multitude of ways.

There is no perfect order, I tell them. In life, things are not linear and don’t follow a single sequence. Complex ideas are truly connected in a multitude of logical ways.

Write first, I suggest. Work with the outline you’ve got and, as you’re writing, if you find that things come up in a different way, then take that path. Don’t worry about whether it is the “right” path, or even the “best” path. Get it down on paper. Then assess.

You can go back and evaluate the order of your narrative at a later phase. You can get feedback from other people – especially your advisor – about choosing a sensible line of reasoning.

Trust your unconscious more: When you allow yourself to slip into the flow of steady writing, you may be surprised at the fluidity of the logic that emerges as the words tumble out.

Thinking on paper is just as important for people in the sciences.

In most cases, the order that scientific data should be presented is fairly clear; but scientists can still gain important benefits by writing before they have finished data collection.

I’ve convinced one of my clients to begin writing his results section even though he still needs to conduct a few more experiments.

As he has begun to put together his tables, and writing up his results, he has discovered gaps in his argument that need to be filled. There are a few logical holes that suggest additional experiments and appropriate controls. As he writes, my client is locating areas where he can strengthen the power of his propositions.

Of course he can’t write about experiments that haven’t yet been conducted. Therefore, when he can’t add any more prose to his results section until he conducts a certain experiment, he keeps his paper moving forward by writing the methods section, the literature review, and pieces of his discussion. Daily writing is possible while he’s still in the process of data collection.

The scholarship of social scientists falls in between that of those in the humanities and the sciences.

Their research tends to alternate between clear linear progression and areas that could be connected in many, equally valid directions. Either way, social scientist can think on paper.

Writing as you go, watching your ideas and findings take shape on paper, is a useful approach in any field.

It is my experience that all scholars should attempt to write on a consistent basis, from the inception of a project and during data collection process, rather than at the conclusion of their research process. Unfortunately, this skill is not taught.

In fact, high school students and undergraduates are routinely expected to collect and read material and write their papers as the final step. This habit usually persists, unexamined.

It may not feel natural at first to write as you go. But it is a technique that can be learned. And I promise that if you think on paper, on a consistent basis, your scholarship will improve and your productivity will soar.

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