Thinking on the page

“Thinking on the page” is a handle that I’ve found useful in improving my writing and introspection more generally. When I write, for the most part, I’m trying to put something that I already feel is true into words. But when I think on the page, the words are getting ahead of my internal sense of what’s true. I’m writing something that just sounds good, or even just something that logically flows from what I’ve already written but has come untethered from my internal sense. It’s kind of a generalized verbal overshadowing.

I don’t think this is challenging only to people who think [of themselves as thinking] non-verbally, considering how much more universal are experiences like “this puts exactly what I believe into words better than I ever could” or even the satisfaction of finding a word on the tip of the tongue. Some people seem to be better than others not just at describing their internal sense of truth, but at tapping into it at all. But if you think only in internal monologue, you may have a very different perspective on “thinking on the page”—I’d be interested to hear about it.

At best, this is what happens in what Terry Tao calls the “rigorous” stage of mathematics education, writing, “The point of rigour is not to destroy all intuition; instead, it should be used to destroy bad intuition while clarifying and elevating good intuition.” At worst, it’s argument based on wordplay. Thinking on the page can be vital when you’re working beyond your intuition, but it’s equally vital to notice that you’re doing it. If what you’re writing doesn’t correspond to your internal sense of what’s true, is that because you’re using your words wrong, or because you need to use the page as prosthetic working memory to build a picture that can inform your internal sense?

The two places this becomes clearest for me are in academic writing and in art critique. Jargon has the effect of constantly pulling me back towards the page. If it doesn’t describe a native concept, I can either heroically translate my entire sense of things and arguments about them into jargon, or I can translate the bare raw materials and then manipulate them on the page—so much easier. As for art, the raw material of the work is already there in front of me—so tempting to take what’s easy to point to and sketch meaning from it, while ignoring my experience of the work, let alone what the raw material had to do with that experience.

A lack of examples often goes hand in hand with thinking on the page. Just look at that last paragraph: “translate”, “raw materials”, “manipulate”—what am I even talking about? An example of both the jargon and art failure modes might be my essay about Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters. My analysis isn’t entirely a joke, but it’s not a realistic reading in terms of the show’s experiential or rhetorical effect on the audience, intended or otherwise. The protagonist’s belief in the heart of the cards and his belief in his friends are genuinely thematically linked, but neither one is the kind of “shaping reality by creative utterance” that has anything to do with how the characters talk their way around the procedural weirdness of the in-show card game as game. But when I put all these things in the same language, I can draw those connections just fine. I’m playing a game with symbols like “creative utterance”.

How can one notice when this is happening? Some clues for me:

  • I feel like I’m moving from sentence to sentence rather than back and forth between thought and sentence
  • I feel something like “that’s not quite right”
  • I feel a persistent “tip of the tongue” sensation even after writing
  • I feel clever
  • I haven’t used an example in a while
  • I’m using jargon or metaphor heavily

What can one do after noticing?

  • Try to pull the words back into your internal picture, to check whether they fit or not—they might, and then you’ve learned something
  • Rewrite without self-editing until something feels right, with permission to use as many words or circumlocutions as it takes
  • Try to jar the wording you want mentally into place by trying more diverse inputs or contexts (look at distracting media, related essays, a thesaurus)
  • Ask “but is that true?”
  • Connect with specific examples
  • Focus on the nonverbal feeling you want to express; try to ask it questions

What’s a good way to practice?

  • Write reviews of art/media you encounter, then read other people’s reviews. As far as “not being led astray by thinking on the page” is more than the skill of writing-as-generically-putting-things-into-words, I think this is a good place to practice what’s particular to it. People seem to have a good enough sense of what they liked and why for good criticism to resonate, but often not enough to articulate that for themselves, at least without practice. So it can be good to pay attention to where the attempted articulations go wrong.
  • Write/read mathematical proofs or textbook physics problems, paying attention to how the steps correspond to your sense of why the thing is true (or using the steps to create a sense of why it’s true)
  • If it seems like the sort of thing that would do something for you, find or develop a meditation practice that involves working with “felt senses” (I don’t have a real recommendation here, but it’s the kind of thing Focusing aims for)

The goal isn’t to eliminate thinking on the page, but to be more deliberate about doing it or not. It can be useful, even if I haven’t said as much about that.

One thing I don’t recommend is using “you’re thinking on the page” as an argument against someone else. If you find yourself thinking that, it’s probably an opportunity to try harder to get in their head. Like most of these things, as a way thinking can go wrong, this is a concept best wielded introspectively.

(Here’s a puzzle: if this is a first-level skill, can you go up another level? If I’m saying something like “felt senses/thoughts want to make words available”, then what things “want to make felt senses available”? Can you do anything with them?)

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