Writing things down in a learning log or just doing some writing every day will train you to write better and to organise your thoughts. Most importantly, it will help you to start and think critically about what you are doing. Thinking critically does not mean being negative or, as one of my creative writing students put it recently, ‘dissing’ something. It means standing back from what you are doing and reading and thinking carefully and discriminatingly about it. As we shall see, thinking critically is a crucial part of writing at university.
Thinking clearly 1: catching your thoughts
We are all born being able to think but we all have to learn how to think critically and how to think clearly. The late poet laureate Ted Hughes once wrote that “At school, I was plagued by the idea that I really had much better thoughts than I could ever get into words.” This wasn’t, he goes on, because he didn’t know the right words or because what he was thinking was too complex for the words he knew. The problem was that when he tried to write down his thoughts, they disappeared. Hughes says that we have to learn how to catch our thoughts and that we can learn how to catch them by learning how to concentrate. He suggests a simple exercise to learn this skill: look at an object intently for five minutes then spend ten minutes writing down everything you can see about the object, everything you know about it, everything the object suggests to you.
Thinking clearly 2: seeing what’s in front of you
Hughes’s discussion of thinking and concentration comes from a creative writing book aimed at schoolchildren – which may seem a long way from having to write a psychology essay about ‘the dominance of scientific paradigms’ or a management essay about SWOT and PEST analyses. Nonetheless, his overall point is an important one: he is talking about observation. A comment by a famous poet in a creative writing handbook starts to make more sense when we remember that two of the meanings of the verb ‘to study’ are ‘to observe or analyse in detail’ and ‘to look at attentively’. One of the meanings of the word ‘student’ says something similar: ‘a person who carries on a systematic study or detailed observation of a subject’. We can’t write clearly until we can think clearly and we can’t think clearly until we can see clearly what is in front of us.