"Thinking on Paper," Howard and Barton

Pros: Good basic information on thinking your way into better writing
Cons: Boring; made me snooze
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

First published 1/30/2002

Okay, let me get this part out of the way first – I thought this was a book about writing. Certainly when someone told me about it, that’s what they billed it as. It isn’t a book about writing. Well, it partially is. But it’s much more a book about thinking. If you happen to write essays meant to present a case for a side of an issue, then these two things are pretty much one and the same. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Thinking, But On Paper

The authors of this book want us to see that thinking and writing aren’t wholly separate functions. They put forward the idea that by putting things into words on paper, we can do a much better job of thinking our way through an issue, even if we don’t intend to ultimately write it up formally. This is a very interesting premise, and one that I found myself agreeing with. The authors present some very specific methods for “thinking on paper,” and they make a lot of sense. They lead you through the generation of ideas, the composition of ideas, and the expression of ideas – all through writing.

Their methods concentrate on several things. One is keeping your ideas flowing. Another is finding ways in which to express those ideas. Yet another is the process of imagining what objections your readers might raise to your arguments, and handling them. The authors provide several means to aid in this; one is a careful study of the framework of the essay, and why it aids in the presentation of thoughts:

The essay is more like a flexible framework within which to think and to communicate than a rigid box into which thinking’s results are compressed.

In this section they deal with various helpful topics, such as ways not to introduce your topic (“backing into the topic,” “barging into the topic,” and “bungling into the topic”). They discuss ways in which you can order your topics to make them more coherent, and ways in which you can make connections and transitions between thoughts.

Next the authors further delve into the ways in which we reason. How do we think about issues? How do we solve problems? How do we make our arguments sound plausible? How do we reason by asking questions? They even introduce the most common types of counter-arguments people tend to use when faced with an argument. The idea is that you can use these as blueprints – you go through your writing using them as a checklist, and think of the counter-arguments your readers are likely to use; then you can address those counter-arguments in your writing. Very useful!

Thinking for Presentation

After thinking for yourself comes the stage of thinking for an audience. The authors address the differences – what further steps you need to take and what depths you need to delve into. The book gets into the differences between thesis and antithesis. It discusses pro and con arguments, persuasive vs. unpersuasive, and weak vs. strong. There’s an “impact checklist” to help you figure out how much impact your arguments will have on your reader. Finally, there’s a simple-yet-thorough guide to punctuation and grammar. The authors make the very valid argument that these are important elements of clear expression and effective presentation.

There are also a few brief appendices – deductive and inductive reasoning, further reading on punctuation and grammar, and references.

The suggestions for spurring on a flow of ideas would probably be useful to any sort of writer. The suggestions for presenting good arguments would be great for essay writers and, well, anyone who has to convince an audience of something! The punctuation and grammar material provides a good starter or brush-up course for anyone who wants to sound professional. In short, while this isn’t a book about writing, it is useful to many writers–particularly if you can find it on sale. I do suggest, however, that you stick to using it as a reference work, reading it one section at a time as the authors suggest. Otherwise the dry, academic tone could put you to sleep.

Posted in Writing
One comment on “"Thinking on Paper," Howard and Barton
  1. Sathya says:

    Thanks for the post.
    I learnt about Thinking on Paper using writing.
    I got inspired by Mark Levy of Accidental Genius and never have stopped writing since then.


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