Thinking Through Writing – ‘thinking and writing in the arts’

Thinking Through Writing

Jennifer Moriarty, MPhil Candidate in the Department of English and Humanities, reports on a recent workshop that brought together researchers to discuss the relationship between thinking and writing in the arts.


In the early days of my PhD, my supervisor told me that ‘writing is how we work out what we think about things’. I nodded — hopefully sagely — and wrote it in my notebook, not really grasping the significance of the statement. Then I went away and promptly struggled to write my first chapter. A constant stream of academic memes reminding me that I ‘should be writing’ seemed merely to underline that, unless writing was ceaseless, it was never enough. But, I began to think about how writing, if it truly was a means of understanding my own creative input, should be deployed alongside the reading of inputs produced by others. Did ‘writing’ mean writing or was the word used as shorthand for a more nebulous combination of reading/writing/thinking? Seeking greater insight into this balancing act, I attended several ‘academic writing’ workshops in which speakers largely addressed questions of how to unblock the mind that already knows what it thinks or how to use the predefined structure of the scientific PhD document to galvanize writing. While I did learn some practical tips about structuring sentences and paragraphs, my questions about the writing process as a way to generate ideas went unanswered. None of these sessions got at the heart of how to use writing to synthesize existing research and original ideas within the context of the arts-based thesis. Using the training-needs-analysis document as a catalyst to articulate my questions, I was delighted when Luisa Calè, the Assistant Dean for the School of Arts, identified that guidance on the use writing to generate thinking was lacking in the training provision and that deeper scrutiny of the writing process would be of interest to students across the School.

On 2 July, researchers came together in a day-long ‘Thinking Through Writing’ workshop that offered a mixture of advice from experienced writers and practical hands-on writing sessions. What we learned — spoiler alert— is that the process of writing is difficult and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. But feedback from attendees said that hearing about others’ methods and finding solidarity among peers facing the same struggles offered fresh perspectives and rejuvenating energy. The message reiterated throughout the day was that writing and thinking are inspired as much by reading as they are seemingly non-academic activities like exercising, baking, or listening to music.

Panel 1 — Thinking through writing: approaches to composition

An initial panel presented the reflections of three writers on their process of writing from different fields.

Mark Blacklock, drawing on his experience as a journalist, novelist, and academic writer, encouraged attendees to think of critical writing as a process of responding to something, for example, a primary source or a historical idea. Among the steps he outlined for generating ideas were:

  • The ‘first mark’—get over the blank page as quickly as possible by breaking ground with handwritten notes in notebooks or margins or books. Once digitised, these notes can be searched, often throwing up serendipitous connections.
  • Keywords— brainstorm keywords in response to the primary source then really zoom in on the words and concepts.
  • Sentences— use sentences to add meaning and order to your ideas. Mark mentioned Don DeLillo ‘s practice of writing only one sentence per page in order to leave space to unpack each one thoroughly.
  • Sections— compile granular-level sentences into sections and then rearrange these to see which content is redundant or to identify any gaps
  • Editing— allow some time to pass before editing your own work, but also consider editing others’ work as a means of gaining insight into alternative writing styles.
  • Publishing— commit to publication (journal articles or conference papers) to impose often helpful deadlines on your writing. Mark recommended blogs as a lower-stakes place to practise writing. Blog posts must be good enough to put out before the public, but they don’t need to be up to academic standard.

Sam Dolbear, speaking from his experience of writing his PhD, discussed several tactics that he employed to find ideas in his own writing. Sam suggested rearranging sentences either electronically or by printing out and cutting them apart to speak new connections. Importantly, Sam emphasized that the writing process is difficult and can involve as much failure as productivity. Introducing an idea that would be reiterated throughout the day, Sam noted that distraction often serves as a productive force, enabling the mind to process ideas. Activities away from the desk, such as walking, cycling, or going to the cinema can often trigger reflective modes of thinking, but no one approach would suit everyone.

Emily Baker took up this idea, drawing a parallel between the processes of writing and musical composition. While Mozart wrote by thinking through his entire work before drafting and made infrequent adjustments to his core ideas afterwards, Beethoven’s approach was to consider each note as it was influenced by those preceding it and to make endless improvements even after publication. Emily recommended a hybrid approach of planning and chance tailored to suit each individual writer’s temperament. She noted that some people react productively to self- or supervisor-imposed deadlines and benefit from outside accountability, but others are more likely to rebel and won’t find motivation in these pressures. Emily also recommended the Forest app as a tool to help resist the temptation to be distracted by social media or other websites while writing.

Music proved a rich metaphor and topic of discussion. Bach’s method of ‘counterpoint’—where one melody responds and interacts with another within the same piece— was suggested as a helpful way to think about dialogic forms of writing. Others noted that pieces of music listened to repeatedly while writing can become associated with arguments or chapters, providing a useful trigger for returning to an earlier train of thought. Max Richter’s Sleep (2015) and the website Noisili were mentioned as examples of neuroscience being used to inform compositions designed to aid concentration, productivity, and/or relaxation.


In the first of two writing sessions, the group participated in a ‘Pomodoro’. Named after the tomato timer, Pomodoro refers to a time-management technique that recommends using 25-minute intervals of concentrated effort to break tasks into smaller chunks, followed by 5-minutes of break. When sitting down to write, many people find themselves distracted by their surroundings or daunted by what they want to achieve. Others sit for hours without taking a rest.  By setting a writing goal for the time period and knowing that there is a built-in time afterwards in which distraction is permitted, writers applying the Pomodoro technique say that it helps to increase focus and productivity.

Panel 2 — Writing Feelings

In the afternoon, the group discussed the feelings that writing engenders. Many people expressed a combination of frustration/anxiety intermixed with feeling of elation/accomplishment. Others expressed guilt at not writing but also about writing, that arts research wasn’t considered to be ‘real’ work.

Julia Bell encouraged attendees to use the productive energy of anxiety to foster creative bursts of active writing. She attributed this anxiety to the paradox of writing within an environment structured by beats of the clock— scheduled events in our lives, like deadlines— while at the same time reflecting on timeless or historic matters.  Using Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Shapes of Writing’ metaphor, Julia drew a comparison between writers and characters in a novel, both subject to time-bound existence but also affected by thoughts and motivations that sit outside of time. She also suggested that students’ anxiety can spring from concerns that their readers are more knowledgeable than they are, but she encouraged them to take confidence from their work at the coalface and their familiarity with the latest research in their field. While it’s important to be prepared to face an external examiner, that person’s expertise may have been built 10 or 20 years earlier.

Julia pointed out that academic work is embracing elements of creative writing, including a willingness to incorporate the writer’s own experience as evidence and writing in the first person.

‘Shut Up and Write’

In the afternoon, the group completed a one-hour ‘Shut Up and Write’ session. Despite its aggressive name, the longer silent writing session was greeted with enthusiasm by participants. Many enjoyed the feeling of solidarity of writing within a group, knowing that others were also working toward similar goals, and the feeling of accountability group writing fostered, given the social pressure to prevent them from being distracted. Several participants reported being more productive in the day’s short writing sessions than they had in days or weeks!

If you’re interested in group writing, Birkbeck offers a number of opportunities. The Birkbeck Graduate Research School often runs shut up and write days, and Sophie Jones runs a twice-weekly writing group during term times, which is open to researchers at all stages. Please contact Sophie for more details or to be added to the group’s email list.

The Uses of Procrastination

In the final session of the day, historian Emma Lundin, from the podcast Tomorrow Never Knows (with Charlotte Lydia Riley), took up the idea that procrastination can be productive. She reiterated the importance of knowing yourself and, whenever possible, identifying times of day and environments that make thesis writing easier. Often, however, commitments to family or work can impose restrictions on when and where writing takes place. Emma cited Toni Morrison and Nick Laird who discuss how to fit writing around other commitments and also encouraged writers to see time away from writing as ‘thinking time’. Activities like baking cookies or watching movies may feel like procrastination but can offer the mind a chance to consider any problems obliquely or subconsciously. Emma also recommended the use of other writing outlets— blogs, a podcast— to create lower-pressure opportunities to practise writing and to rejuvenate the writer. Twitter, ordinarily considered a distraction from writing, can be used productively as a place for collecting and recording ideas, as well as a forum for conversation with the wider community.

Scrivener offers a digital solution for writers who tend to want to edit what they have already written instead of continuing to write, because earlier work can be ‘hidden’, and writers are encouraged instead to compose chunks of text in any order for later compilation or rearrangement.

So, it seems that maybe we shouldn’t always be writing. To give space for thinking, research can and ought to encompass opportunities at and away from the desk for making connections between ideas and readings. The process of writing can encompass ‘positive procrastination’ as an opportunity for creative and problem-solving parts of our mind to process information. Writing in shorter but more focused sessions, perhaps even with other people, may also increase productivity and help to maintain motivation throughout the thesis.


De Lillo, Don, ‘The Art of Fiction’, Paris Review, 128 (Fall 1993),

Dunleavy, Patrick, Authoring a PhD: How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003)

Explorations of Style, A Blog about Academic Writing:

Hertzmann, Eric, ‘Mozart’s Creative Process’, The Musical Quarterly, 43:2 (1957), 187-200

Kindermann, William, Beethoven’s Compositional Process (University of Nebraska Press, 1991)

Laird, Nick, ‘My lists say things like 1. buy milk. 2. call Dad. 3. finish novel’, Guardian, 27 June 2017

Morrison, Toni, ‘The Art of Fiction’, Paris Review, 128 (Fall 1993)   

Sword, Helen, Air & Light & Time & Space: How Successful Academics Write (Harvard University Press, 2017)

Wolff, Christoph, ‘Composed, Just not yet Written: on Mozart’s Creative Process’, Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 52: 4 (1999), 28-31

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