While reflecting on the process of writing, writer Anaïs Nin wrote, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect (38)”. Indeed, writing helps us think critically, evaluate, analyse, generate ideas and present them coherently. While writing, one sifts through a range of new ideas and is able to present them through various forms- articles, essays, letters, notes, etc. Through writing, we communicate with a range of readers, in fact critical writing is a learning process in itself.
When students write frequently, they become comfortable with the process and are able to maintain or even improve upon their writing skills. Writing is an inherent part of all disciplines across the curriculum; be it science, social science, literature or even mathematics! From the expression of comprehension to the analysis of real world problems, everything requires advanced writing skills. Writing not only helps us connect with the real world, it is a method of learning as well. Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) came to be acknowledged in the late 1800s as a method that creates a dialogue across specialized fields. It was further appreciated because it encourages students to think strategically about the words and formats in which they express their ideas about various subjects and the world around them.
Writing as a Tool for Learning
Writing is most likely to encourage thinking and learning when students view it as a process. By recognizing that writing is a process, and that every writer uses the process in a different way, students experience less pressure to “get it right the first time”, and are more willing to experiment, explore, revise, and edit. Yet, novice writers need to practice “writing” or do exercises that involve copying or reproduction of material in order to learn the conventions of spelling, punctuation, grammatical agreement, and the like. Furthermore, students need to write in a particular language through engagement with a variety of grammar practice activities of a controlled nature. Finally, they need to begin writing within a framework that is flexible and involves a number of activities such as generating ideas, organizing information, using appropriate language, preparing a draft, reading, reviewing, revising and editing.
While writing one has to keep in mind some points. These are:
- appreciate how writing is a means for learning
- identify how writing correlates with critical thinking
- understand that writing is a meaning-making process across the curriculum
- ascertain how writing as a process leads to constant improvement
- understand the difference between critical writing and descriptive writing
- use writing as a means to communicate with readers
- develop higher order thinking skills
How does writing aid learning? One must not think of writing as a mechanical activity. Instead, it is an engaging and invigorating process that involves thinking, reasoning and analysing. In the form of an argumentation, writing involves cognitive processing of ideas. Therefore, it is viewed as a tool for learning.
Today, we have moved on from the “product approach” to “process approach” of writing. The goal of writing activities therefore is not to focus on the finished writing product, but learning and self-discovery through the act of writing irrespective of the form of writing, which may be journal, response to prompts, collaborative writing, etc. This also makes writing less mechanical and helps many writers overcome writer’s block or the inability to express oneself.
Combining writing with other educational activities as well as for representation becomes possible when appropriate writing strategies are used. For example, a problem-solving activity such as a writing task involves cognitive processes such as active knowledge-building and imagination. This process in turn promotes content learning as well as conceptual clarity.
Writing is effective as a learning tool because it helps us become aware of the knowledge around us; this knowledge can in turn be applied to other tasks as well. Writing becomes a lifelong learning tool for a variety of socio-cultural contexts as well because it becomes a source of shared meanings about subject specific terms/concepts. Furthermore, it enables us to reflect on the choices we make while explaining and analysing themes and issues across the curriculum. This cognitivist perspective of writing requires writing processes to be regarded as prisms for reflection, in which reflection takes place not only before writing, but also during and after the writing has been completed. Reflection in turn may lead to a revised draft; an improved understanding of the task or theme at hand!
Writing and Critical Thinking
So, how can writing across disciplines help to develop writing? For this, different types of tasks can be taken up as per the level and interest of the students. There are a variety of writing tasks for various purposes that follow different writing conventions across disciplines. Each discipline has its own unique language conventions, formats, and structures; and therefore presentation, style and organization techniques. The first step would therefore be to identify the common tasks or formats across disciplines such as reports, observational essays, review of literature, project proposals, summative reports, etc.
Writing and thinking are closely connected. Good writing cannot happen without critically thinking about the topic. Hence, content selection (information and ideas) has to be done carefully, followed by an assessment of the needs and expectations of the readers, and a plan of the presentation. These have to then be edited accordingly. Often, writers as well as their readers are not consciously aware of these links. However, becoming aware of and developing oneself along these lines can make one a very effective writer. Writing and critical thinking come only with practice.
Right from content selection to the production of the final draft, critical thinking and writing go hand-in-hand. When a person has to write something, he/she has to gather data, either from memory or by doing research on that topic. One must decide during this process what information is relevant for the topic, using specific criteria to rationalize about what to include and what to leave out. Once a person knows which content is relevant, one must decide how to present the information. This involves thinking about how it can be presented in the most logical and clear manner. This goes well beyond the basic rules of syntax, grammar and organization since it takes into consideration an array of cultural constructs that might make a person’s ideas or words come across differently than intended. Writers have to be aware of how they spin their work and what words they select. The fact that the “best” way to present information is subjective is what makes one writer distinct from another. Different literary “voices” are essentially an evidence of the different paths of critical thinking and writing.
The editing process is another way to relate critical thinking with writing. During this part of the writing process, a person has to think about which data is most important, and isolate the most important elements in order to make edits. Sometimes, editing creates a need for new transitions or connections, so the writer has to think about ways to make one section flow easily into another once the edits have been made. This process is imperative to precise and clean writing.
Critical thinking and writing connect through the reader’s assessment as well. As a person reads, he/she draws on his/her own knowledge and expertise to ascertain whether what the writer is saying makes sense, even if the ideas presented are fictional or speculative. If it does not make sense, then the writer may lose credibility with the reader. Conversely, readers may think about what caused the writing to be particularly persuasive, i.e. emotionally or cognitively stimulating. Readers may also use critical thinking to predict how far the writer may go with the work.
Writing and critical thinking are intrinsically linked with imagination and creativity. Each piece of writing has many smaller ideas, scenes or characters that a writer can expand upon. Once a person has completed a piece of writing or has finished reading it, he/she can think of other ways of presenting it.
Writing for a Purpose
Writing is a process that involves detailed planning. It requires practice, and in due time generally leads to an effective product. Noted writer Leo Tolstoy revised his novel Anna Karenina (1877) about seventeen times before finalizing it! However, there has been a conscious effort to move away from the product approach to the process approach of writing. The process approach requires us to keep in mind two crucial aspects—ample space and time are needed to generate and try out new ideas, and feedback on the content is critical to learning and development.
Following the process approach, students can be asked to generate ideas for writing. They can think of the purpose and target audience for the text, and write multiple drafts in order to present written products that communicate their ideas. Teachers who use this approach give students time to develop ideas independently and then provide feedback on the content of their drafts. In such cases, writing becomes a process of discovery for the students as they present new ideas and identify or discover language forms to express them.
Negotiation with peers and teachers, and a collaborative conversation to construct meaning are also inbuilt components of the process approach to writing. Another essential aspect of the process approach is feedback and guidance. Though these require considerable amount of time, they are essential in order to develop the skill of writing. One of the ways in which the teacher’s time for feedback and guidance can be minimized is by encouraging the students to share their writing among themselves, thereby creating a system of peer evaluation. After the initial vetting, students can then share their ideas with the teacher.
Furthermore, learning to write is a developmental process that helps students to write like professional authors—choosing their own topics and genres, and writing from their own experiences or observations. A process approach requires that teachers give students greater responsibility for, and ownership of their own learning. Teaching and learning therefore become collaborative as the learner writes and the teacher facilitates.
During the writing process, students engage in pre-writing, planning, drafting, and post-writing activities. However, as the writing process is recursive in nature, they do not necessarily engage in these activities in that order. Writing is a means to communicate something to a target readership. However, we communicate not only simple ideas and information through writing, but also complex and abstract ideas; and writing needs to keep the communicative purpose in mind and evolve strategies to maintain contact with the reader, have coherence and organization.
The most important things a writer must keep in mind are the readership, purpose and genre. Communication can’t happen without an audience or a specific agenda. For a writer, it makes sense to know who you are directing your work towards and what it is that you want your work to accomplish. Also, it is equally important that your readers feel that they are a part of your endeavour and that they understand what you want your work to say. In this sense, readership and purpose share a symbiotic relationship; a writer’s readership will influence purpose, while purpose will determine the target reader.
While readership and purpose are the writer’s main concerns, but the way a writer’s purpose is communicated to the reader depends on the genre, the presentation, and the main idea of the book. The main idea connects readers with the purpose and therefore requires attention.
Theories on writing have evolved in a way in which the emphasis has moved away from written products to the process of writing. This involves a gamut of choices—locating, organizing and interpreting information via note-taking and drafting, guessing from the context, examining facts and opinions, transferring information, carrying out investigations, studying layouts, recording results, reviewing, editing, skimming, scanning, summarizing!
So, what makes for an effective writer? According to M. L. Tickoo (2003), an effective writer:
- always thinks of the readership
- does not deviate from the main purpose
- spends considerable time to plan (ideas and arguments)
- makes good use of reliable sources of knowledge
- lets ideas flow smoothly (coherence and cohesion)
- follows a rough organization plan
- seeks and makes use of feedback
- gives a lot of attention to the choice of words (lexis)
- willingly (re)revises (accuracy and appropriacy)
- looks back at the writing after long intervals
To summarize, writing as a process helps to develop ideas and enables us to discover what we think. Writing becomes a process of making meaning across the disciplines. Collaborative conversations help arrive at a shared meaning relevant to the discipline being studied. Unlike descriptive writing, which is summative, critical writing encourages reflection on the motivations of the discipline and its implications. When thought is written down, ideas can be examined, reconsidered, added to, rearranged, and changed. In this lies the essence of all teaching and learning.
Nin, A. (1975). The diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 5: 1947-55. New York: Mariner Books.
Tickoo, M. L. (2003). Teaching and learning English. New Delhi: Orient Longman.
Kirti Kapur is a Professor of English in the Department of Curricular Education at NCERT, India. She has 28 years of teaching experience in the areas of English Language Teaching. She is also an expert in curriculum and syllabi design, textbook development, teacher training, research and consultancy. She is a recipient of the Ray Tongue scholarship awarded by IATEFL and the TESOL award for Professional Development.