When Julia Child first met the man who would become her husband, they didn’t particularly like each other. Paul Child wrote of her faults, noting she was a “sloppy thinker.” Use the search engine of your choice and you’ll find myriad quotations that equate writing to thinking. These usually pithy words of wisdom have been attributed to William Knowlton Zinsser, David McCullough, Bill Wheeler, Mason Cooley, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Isaac Asimov, George Orwell, and others. Most agree that good writing requires clear thinking:
- “Writing is thinking on paper.” (Wiliam Zinsser)
- “Writing is thinking and thinking is hard work.” (Lewis Black)
- “Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.” (David McCullough)
- “Good writing is thinking made visible.” (Bill Wheeler)
- “You can’t think yourself out of a writing block; you have to write yourself out of a thinking block.” (John Rogers)
- “Good writing is the hardest form of thinking.” (Pat Conroy)
- “If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.” (George Orwell)
You get the idea.
The imperative for clear thinking guides the process for developing nonfiction, especially instructional guides, construction specifications, technical writing, and scholarly papers. The application of clear thinking to fiction muddies the process.
Methodical writers who plot their stories chapter by chapter, create outlines, and develop character descriptions do so to clarify their thinking. Such preparation does not mitigate the creativity of their work, but can limit impromptu inspiration which may take a story into an entirely new and unanticipated direction. “Plotters” organize their thoughts and write with an emphasis on logical progression.
At the other end of the spectrum are “pantsers” like me. This type of story creation begins with an idea. The idea’s source doesn’t matter. The idea for The Falcon of Imenotash came from a movie; the idea for Ulfbehrt’s Legacy combined a picture of a handsome Norwegian naval officer and a PBS special on the legendary Ulfbehrt forge; the idea for Pure Iron came from my having read one too many angst-ridden, poorly composed “New Adult” books that featured characters who disgusted me, which spawned the boast, “I can do better than that crap.” Sometimes the idea is the opening scene, sometimes not. I adhere to the advice within Robin McKinley’s 1978 book Beauty: “Begin the middle and work outwards. Don’t be stuffy.” Pantsers have a process, although it may not be readily apparent and it is subject to changing at whim. Regardless of the chaos of their processes, pantsers must also think clearly so that they write their stories clearly.
The final product–the story–should not show the thinking process. Formulaic work may implement logical thinking, but it often reads like an outline filled in by the author adhering to a tried and true formula for story production. The mysteries of Hercule Poirot or the adventures of Jack Reacher follow predictable formulae. The reader knows that Poirot will solve the mystery and that Reacher will beat the bad guys into bloody pulps. I think romance most often, and perhaps most unfairly, suffers from accusations of formulaic writing. Formula-driven stories can be and often are enjoyable: they’re about the journey, not the destination.
The journey itself requires good writing, which relies upon clear thinking. Clear thinking requires asking why something happens and then determining its importance to the story. Does the answer to that “why” advance the story or is it background information dumped upon the reader?
Good storytelling needs more than logical progression of thought. It needs the divine spark of creativity to immerse the reader within the imaginary journey. If a story makes the reader oblivious to the world beyond the book and engages the reader’s emotions, then the writer has succeeded, regardless of whether the story itself follows a formula or outline.