Thinking and Telling

Today I’m going to tackle one big guideline for writers: Don’t confuse thinking with telling. They’re not the same thing.

Thinking on paper can look like telling. There are lots of words, many ideas, tons of examples. You’re scribbling or typing very fast. But you’re not writing for an audience…yet. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that your audience is you.

People often get thinking and telling mixed up. I do it all the time. I’ll be rattling away excitedly about some idea that has just grabbed me. Suddenly my husband (or someone else who loves me) puts up a hand and says, “Stop! What are you talking about?”

And it hits me: I was talking to clarify my thinking for myself, rather than the person who’s listening.

Writing has (or should have) two clear-cut stages: Thinking and telling. Don’t even attempt to present your thoughts to a reader until you’ve thoroughly explored them. That often requires research, and it ALWAYS involves a first draft.

I’m convinced that many of the weak student essays I’ve read over the years are the result of the same mistake. Ideas – facts – opinions pour onto a piece of paper. The student is overjoyed. I’m writing! I have something to say!

Wrong. You’re preparing to write.

Here are some signs that you’re in the discovery phase:

  • You’re surprised by some of the things coming you’re saying or writing
  • The topic is new to you
  • If someone asked you to summarize your point in a single sentence, you wouldn’t know what to say
  • You have a pile of notecards in front of you that you’re trying to string together
  • You’re so busy thinking about your topic that you haven’t thought about your readers

Discoveries are a good thing! Write them all down. Explore your topic from every possible angle. Marshal all your examples. Then you can start shaping them for your readers (devising an opening strategy, organizing your supporting ideas, thinking about transitions and climaxes).

Think first, tell second: Simple advice that can make all the difference in your success as a writer.


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