Thinking On The Page

I recently came across Theresa MacPhail’s article “The No-Fail Secret to Writing a Dissertation” (thanks to someone else posting it, but now I’ve forgotten who–sorry!). It’s obviously relevant to me as a graduate student, and will be even more so in a few years. However, what struck me most was that, with a few exceptions, if you replaced the word “dissertation” with “novel” throughout, you would have a great article on how to write a book. Not surprisingly, a lot of the same advice applies: the only way to finish is to write, write every day, accept that you will have good and bad writing days, reconcile yourself to producing a terrible first draft.

One of MacPhail’s ideas in particular lingered with me. It was this: “Writing is thinking.” More precisely, “the best ideas almost always come about through the act of writing itself.” Now, I think there’s more than one way in which this can be true. I believe MacPhail is talking about the actual drafting of the dissertation since she mentions that you should have the necessary research done before beginning a writing session. I would draw a distinction between a brainstorming type of thinking through writing and a drafting type.

The former is freer and more haphazard; it’s batting around ideas for a term paper or free writing about a character’s background in hopes of figuring out exactly what role she should play in the plot. For me, it’s also deliberate: I need to come up with a paper topic or solve a plot problem, so I set myself the task of writing down all the possibilities until something feels right.

The latter (the drafting type) is more controlled, or at least the writing part is (I’m not sure my thinking is ever controlled). I’m in the midst of actually writing the paper or the novel. I’m using complete sentences and ostensibly producing material intended for a professor or a reader’s eyes. At the same time, it’s also more spontaneous because I’m not actively trying to think on paper. I’m actually trying to write a real draft. But maybe I reach a certain point in my analysis and suddenly notice an implication I hadn’t thought of before and quickly discuss it in a few sentences before the idea slips away. Voilà: my paper makes a point I hadn’t originally planned on making. Or maybe I’m writing a conversation between two characters and a plot hole occurs to me, so I have one character say to the other, “Wait, how can X do Y?” And either the other character replies with an ingenious solution that just popped into my head, or it’s a reminder to me when I go back and reread to fix this problem.

The “writing is thinking” slogan rang especially true for me because I’m currently writing the first draft of a novel and I realized I absolutely am thinking on the page. It’s making for a long, meandering rough draft, but that’s what always happens to me. I refuse to do anything but move forward, so my thinking remains in the draft until I embark on a revision. Thus, for instance, I have a character telling another, “You’re probably going to have to skip school to get into the government archive because it’s only open during business hours,” and then a few lines later saying, “Oh, wait, actually historians can make appointments, so we’ll get ourselves a weekend appointment instead.” That was just me changing my mind about logistics in mid-scene.

Elsewhere, I have characters expressing their feelings at great and unnecessary length, just so I can explore the subtleties of their emotions for myself. Ultimately, I’ll distill their ridiculous monologues into a sentence or two that conveys exactly what I need it to. Also, there are places where characters remark to each other that something doesn’t make sense or seems implausible. These are really thinly disguised messages to myself about the state of the plot. Thinking on the page helps me get through the first draft and lays the groundwork for the first revision, but in the end, once all that thinking has gone into shaping the final manuscript, the thinking itself should be gone from the novel.

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2 thoughts on “Thinking On The Page

  1. I absolutely think while writing. I have never been good at brainstorming or planning my writing, be it fore academic papers, creative pieces, or my blog, so what usually happens is I start without a big picture in mind and let whatever comes my way end up on the page. I sometimes create outlines after I’ve already begun, because it’s only after I’ve read a bit of what I produce spontaneously that I get a good feel for what the rest will look like.

    Somehow this slapdash process got me through college.

    But I imagine that this method for writing a novel is completely normal. It’s like how painters don’t have every detail sketched on campus before starting. They’ll change things as they go, paint over bits and shade other areas differently from when they began. Nobody actually paints by numbers.

    • There’s a traditional dichotomy between writers who outline and writers who plunge in headlong, but I think a lot of people can be somewhere in between. I’ve definitely done the create-an-outline-after-I’ve-already-written-some too.

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