Writing to PRESENT vs Writing to DISCOVER


In the next couple of videos I want to talk about the writing process. That’s a big subject of course, but I’m going to focus on one particular aspect of the process that students really need to hear about, and that was very important for me to learn as I developed as a writer. I’m talking about the distinction between writing for presentation, and writing for discovery.

Writing style guides focus a lot of attention on how the final product should look and be organized. But there are some potentially serious down-sides to this emphasis on the final presentation.

First, it can be a source of real, disabling anxiety for writers if they think their work doesn’t look and sound the way they think it should — this is true for writers at any level, but it’s especially true for students.

And second, a preoccupation with the final presentation can interfere with another important aspect of the writing process, which I’m calling the discovery process — the process of learning what it is that you want to say in the piece that you’re working on.

Here’s how I the view the writing process. I’ve drawn this diagram many times on the chalkboard in my classes. The horizontal arrow represents the writing process, from the earliest moments when you start thinking about the writing assignment, to the final product where you hand in your term paper, or your thesis chapter, or submit a manuscript to a professional journal, or whatever.

The point I want to emphasize is that this is a process that has distinct developmental stages, and the way you think about what you’re writing, and how you approach the act of writing, will differ depending on which stage you’re at.

Writing for Discovery

The stage that I’m calling “writing for discovery” is characterized by UNCERTAINTY about what you want to say and how you want to say it.

Maybe your topic is new perspectives on the causes of World War I, or how Japanese culture has influenced American pop culture, or the relationship between Hegel’s dialectical idealism and Marx’s dialectical materialism. At this stage, you don’t know enough about the topic to know what you’re going to say about it — you’re still at the stage of gathering sources and doing research.

The mistake that I see many students make is that they think they can’t start writing, or that there’s no point in starting to write, if they haven’t already worked out what they’re going to say. That is, they’re not using the writing process as a tool of discovery, a tool for figuring out what you think about the topic, what’s worth writing about, and how you’re going to write it.

And part of the reason for this is thinking that writing is all about presentation — assembling a final product that will satisfy whatever audience is ultimately going to read it and evaluate it.

But this is a mistake that more experienced writers don’t make.

Every writer comes to appreciate that, while reading and research are important of course, a great deal of the learning and discovery process happens in the attempt to organize thoughts on paper or on the screen. We use the writing process to figure out what the issues are, and what our point of view is on those issues.

During this process of writing to discover what we think about an issue, we’re really writing for ourselves — we are the audience, not our teacher or the professor or the journal editor.

And we’re not overly concerned with the final look and feel of the piece, because that’s not what’s important at this stage. This gives us a lot of freedom to write in different ways.

This is the stage where we might brainstorm using point-form lists, or sketch lines of argument, or construct alternative outlines for the paper by just writing section headings and sub-headings.

We might start writing sections of the paper, the sections that we know we want to include. We might try a version of what is quaintly called a “vomit draft”, which is an exercise in writing through a topic with a focus on just getting what you have in your head onto the page, knowing that this is not a final draft and there’s no pressure to use any of this in the final draft.

As you move along in this process, your writing starts to take shape, and then you might work on polishing sections of the paper with a view to presentation, but that process itself can lead to new insights and motivate you to rethink a point, so it’s still functioning as a tool of discovery.

Now, writing for presentation involves a different mode of thinking.

Writing for Presentation

Here you’re thinking explicitly about stylistic choices and writing for the audience that will ultimately read what you’re writing. If you’re writing for a sermon that you’re going to deliver orally in front of a congregation, or a writing a speech for a political candidate that they’re going to deliver on television, or writing a chapter for your dissertation committee, who will ultimately be judging whether your dissertation passes, or writing the chapter of a book that is intended for a more general audience — all of these present different circumstances that influence your choice of writing style, and ultimately determine what counts as a successful piece of writing.

So obviously you have to keep the context of presentation in mind when you’re writing. The trick is to not let it interfere with the process of discovery — it’s easy to become preoccupied with stylistic conventions. Ideally, you want your choice of style to help you in discovering what you want to say and how you want to say it, by helping to clarify in your mind who you’re writing for and what your ultimate goals are.

In the end, writing for discovery and writing for presentation aren’t mutually exclusive. When things are going well, they tend to reinforce one another. It’s more accurate to think of them as different aspects of a continuous process, or two modes of thinking that might be present simultaneously while you write.

The version of the diagram you’re looking at now highlights these two features. It’s not that, in the first half of your writing, you’re only thinking about discovery, and in the second half you’re only thinking about presentation. At any stage of the writing process, both types of thinking can be engaged.

But the priority is going to shift as you move closer to a final product. Early in the process, writing for discovery is going to dominate, but this switches over as you move closer to the end, where more and more of your time will be spent on writing for presentation.

As I said earlier, experienced writers are very familiar with this process, there’s nothing new or revolutionary about this. But students typically don’t think about writing in this way.

Very often they avoid doing any sort of writing until the last minute, where they try to write a final product in one draft.

Sometimes this is a matter of time management for them, they’ll say that they just don’t have enough time to work on the essay any earlier.

But sometimes it’s a matter of thinking that essay writing really is only about writing for presentation — it never occurs to them that they can use writing to help them discover what they want to say.

Or if it does occur to them, they have no idea HOW to write with discovery in mind, because they’re preoccupied with how the final product should look.

This is reinforced by writing style guides that focus on what a polished final product should look like.

Students need to be exposed to this way of thinking about writing as a developmental process, and the distinction between writing to present and writing to discover.