Writing Can Help You Learn

“Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly should be able to write clearly—about any subject at all.”

That sounds like a challenge, doesn’t it?

The truth is that we can learn a lot when we take the time to write about it. Unfortunately, many of us have a fear of writing.

William Zinsser explains it this way,

“I wrote this book to try to ease two fears that American education seems to inflict on us all in some form. One is the fear of writing. Most people have to do some kind of writing just to get through the day—a memo, a report, a letter—and would almost rather die than do it. The other is the fear if subjects we don’t think we have an aptitude for. Students with a bent for the humanities are terrified of science and mathematics, and students with an aptitude for science and mathematics are terrified of the humanities—all those subjects like English and philosophy and the arts can’t be pinned down with numbers or formulas. I now think these fears are largely unnecessary burdens to lug through life.”

That passages resonates with me for a number of reasons. Obviously, I have no fear of writing, but I do of the sciences. I stayed in my lane in school and even tried to in the course of my teaching as well. Did school teach me this fear? And is there a way we can make sure this no longer happens to our students?

Writing across the curriculum is one of the ways we can do this. Instead of writing being solely part of Language Arts instruction, we should weave it across all subject areas.

“Writing is a tool that enables people in every discipline to wrestle with facts and ideas. It’s a physical activity, unlike reading. Writing requires us to operate some kind of mechanism—pencil, pen, typewriter, word processor—for getting our thoughts on paper. It compels us by the repeated effort of language to go after those thoughts and to organize them and present them clearly. It forces us to keep asking, “Am I saying what I want to say?” Very often the answer is “No.” It’s a useful piece of information.”

It has an added benefit as well.

“I saw that ‘writing across the curriculum’ wasn’t just a method of getting students to write who were afraid of writing. It was also a method of getting students to learn who were afraid of learning.

Our education system needs to focus more on reasoning. Zinnser even wants to redefine the 3 R’s as “Reading, ‘Riting and Reasoning” because “together they add up to learning. It’s by writing about a subject we’re trying to learn that we reason our way to what it means.”

All that you need to do is separate yourself from what you have written. As Zinnser explains, you look your writing “with the objectivity of a plumber examining a newly piped bathroom to see if he got all the joints tight.”

You just need to use the tools of writing without fear.

“They are not some kind of secret apparatus owned by the English teacher or any other teacher. They are simple mechanisms for putting your thoughts on paper. Enjoy finding out how they work. Take as much pleasure in what an active verb will do for you as in what a mathematical formulas will do, or a computer, or a centrifuge. The self-esteem will then take care of itself.”

So if you want to learn something, write about it. You can check out this book for examples of great writing passages from several different disciplines and get inspired. Happy writing and learning!