Friday, November 8, 2013

Think like a Writer


In a recent post, I made an argument for including creative writing in school curricula. Here’s another advantage: everybody, regardless of their profession, can benefit from thinking like a writer.

I’m not saying that all students should aim to become novelists any more than a P.E. teacher would suggest that all the kids in her 5th period class should set their sights NFL careers. Nor am I trying to argue that it’s the only proper way to think: people should never stop experimenting and weighing evidence like a scientist, or sequentially calculating results like a mathematician, or seeking causes and connections like a historian.

Creative writing isn’t the only window through which one should view the world, but it’s at least as valuable an approach as any other. Everybody can benefit from practicing the habits of mind required to be a writer.
For starters, writing demands knowledge. Anyone who’s ever written a novel will testify that stories are ravenous beasties that will gobble up everything you ever thought you knew and then come back for seconds. For any given piece, a writer might need to delve into the history of the French revolution, or current trends in emergency medicine, or Creole table manners, or the predictions to be tested by the CERN particle accelerator. You might even have to investigate all of the above—I’d love to read that book!

A writer must develop an insatiable curiosity about the little wonders all around us—the color of a sidewalk after a rainstorm, the texture of a dandelion leaf, the crooked finger on the bus driver’s right hand. Fully half of this knowledge will never be useful, but one never knows which half. “Write what you know” is absolutely true, and therefore you can never know enough. A writer must be a compulsive collector of ideas and experiences, and that’s a good way to live.

It’s not enough to simply observe and know, because a writer must weave all these things into something new. How does a treasure-hunting crew in the Caribbean navigate international banking laws? If a vacationing detective found his hotel room burglarized, whom would he call first? What effect would an electromagnetic pulse have on a cell phone? Failing to answer questions like that could result in phony characters and yawning gaps in the plot.

On top of all that, the story must form a cohesive whole inside a reader’s mind. This is one of the most challenging tasks in any profession, and it cannot be accomplished through sentences fragments or text-message contractions because the slightest bobble could break the reader out of the delicate cocoon of willing disbelief. Creative writing is more than just making up stories, it’s the science of how the human brain makes sense of the world and the art of structuring words to expand that sense.

In my class, the idea that creative writing is really about refining human experience and ideas usually doesn’t win over a lot of students right away, but that’s okay because we have a whole  semester for me to show what it mean. I start by giving them free rein to pick their topics, and for many of them this is a first. You didn’t like Holden’s view of the world in Catcher in the Rye? Okay, give me your view. Sick of writing essays about history? No problem, just make up your own history. Or your own future. Within a few weeks, one by one, they get sucked into their stories, and they start to find that they need to search out more from the world around them than they had ever needed to in the past.

It’s not as important to me that they become novelists as it is that they learn to think like writers. At least, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. 

Be good, and dream crazy dreams,

Sechin Tower is a teacher, a table-top game designer, and the author of Mad Science Institute. You can read more about him and his books on and his games on

1 comment:

Jordan Dane said...

Well said, Sechin. I love this. Writers must also read into human nature and convey the emotions of a story, which can enrich our lives in many different ways, as reader and author. The personal satisfaction of creating something from nothing that can touch so many people.

You are so right. Writing has a great deal of value, well beyond the obvious.