Thinking Well

It has been said that the teacher often learns more than the students, and I can vouch for the truth of that adage. For the past ten months, I have been teaching a writing class for ESL students. The experience has greatly expanded my understanding of writing.

To set the context, my students are all Asian women. They are fluent in English, but their reading and writing skills do not match their ability to speak the language. Most of the students have a college degree from a school in their native country. In short, these are educated women.

From the beginning of the class, I have stressed the need for clarity. In fact, in nearly every session I say something like “Clarity is King.” Yet, I see my students continue to avoid clarity as if it were a contagious disease.

To be fair, the lack of clarity isn’t confined to my students. It’s a problem that plagues Americans in general. And it stems from a more fundamental problem—unclear thinking.

I have repeatedly told my students that writing is primarily a thinking issue. Before we can write clearly, we must think clearly. Before we can communicate an idea in writing, we must understand it in our own mind. Unfortunately, most people want to start writing before an idea or thought is clear in their own mind. And the results reflect that fact.

About a month ago, I decided to take the class through the process of writing a short essay. Our topic was: How people define success. We began by brainstorming and listing ideas as they occurred to us. We then chose a theme and developed an outline. Finally, we wrote an essay on the topic. All of this was done collaboratively in class. (This is not the ideal way to write, but it helped me lead them through the process.)

We spent most of two 90 minute classes brainstorming and developing the outline—nearly 2.5 hours. We wrote the first draft of the essay in twenty minutes. We then spent another two classes editing the essay.

My students were amazed at this. Yet, they could see the immense value in thinking before we wrote, and then thinking after we wrote. They could see that the more we thought, the better we could express the ideas. They thought that the final product was a huge improvement over the first draft. And it was.

I began this post by saying that the teacher often learns more than the students. So what was the lesson I learned from the above exercise?

I have been writing regularly for nearly thirty years. Over that time, I have developed habits and processes, many of which I now take for granted. Those habits and processes are how I write. But they were developed over many years, and I made many errors during that time.

In teaching those processes, I really appreciated the fact that the skills required for writing well have very little to do with putting words on paper (or pixels on a screen). Writing well is truly about thinking well.

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