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Writing for visual thinkers

Anne Wilson

If you think in pictures, or in 3D, how do you write a sequential, linear academic argument? How do you express your creative ideas, constrained by the narrow margins of the page?

Academic writing is a significant challenge for predominantly visual thinkers. Its conventions require us to take the reader on a particular kind of journey, regardless of how our brains process information and generate ideas.

At odds with convention

Ideally, readers should understand our ideas and follow our argument effortlessly, and they should be guided through the text via a familiar system of signposting. However, some capable students produce texts that lack direction, with rambling arguments, disjointed sentences, poor grammar, and irrelevant diversions. Many tutors and supervisors express frustration when this type of writing is produced by students they know to be bright and able. And even if they know the student is dyslexic or dyspraxic, or has ADHD, they struggle to provide helpful writing support.

My workshop, Writing for Visual Thinkers, brings together PhD students who feel at odds with the conventions of academic writing, yet want to communicate their research effectively. They are also conscious of having to satisfy examiners that their writing is of doctoral quality.

Feelings about writing

I start by asking participants how they feel about their writing. In online workshops, I might open a poll; face to face, I might ask them to draw or use a physical object to represent how they feel. The activity acts as a springboard for discussion and gives me a chance to ‘read the room’ before launching into activities.

Common themes emerge: their writing doesn’t adequately express their ideas; they are criticised for ‘careless’ proofreading; they enjoy drafting but spend too long editing; and they struggle to construct a coherent argument. Supervisors praise their innovative ideas, but respond less positively when they express those ideas on the page.

Idiosyncratic processes

Having heard the group’s challenges, I explain that academic writing in English puts a heavy burden on the writer. We must be clear, concise, explicit. We must choose exactly the right word to express a specific idea, and we must give the reader a seamless, enjoyable experience.

But the academic / creative practice that underpins and precedes writing – reading, thinking, planning – is often not ordered, logical or linear. So I ask participants to represent their personal writing process visually and then talk through what they have drawn. As they explain their process to the group, light dawns that everyone follows their own path towards the written page. The process can be messy, iterative, circular and highly idiosyncratic — there is no perfect method that automatically produces clear, logical writing.

The 5Cs

I now frame the writing process as a series of tasks I call the 5Cs:

Classify – group the material by theme / relevance to argument

Curate – decide on important ideas / themes / level of detail for the reader’s understanding and interest

Connect – establish relationships between different ideas

Construct – visualise the shape and depth of the overall piece to construct the argument (what the reader needs to know and in what order)

Censor – edit the draft so you keep what the reader has to know and cut everything else.

These tasks overlap, and researchers may repeat them again and again, in a different order. Most strongly visual thinkers, by this stage in their academic career, have developed strategies for all or some of these tasks. I write them one by one in the chat box and invite participants to share strategies that work for them. A quick-fire crowdsourcing of successful strategies boosts the group’s confidence, sparks ideas and encourages participants to refresh their practice with new techniques.

Roadmap for ideas

After the discussion, I add general tips for how to organise ideas and plan an argument. My suggestions focus on breaking out of traditional planning formats into a bigger, messier, more flexible space: splurging ideas on plain wallpaper spread across a floor, which can be trodden on, ripped and re-arranged; attaching sticky notes to a wall; using colours to identify key themes.

Then we tackle the million-dollar question: how to convert an explosion of connected ideas into a linear format. It helps to consider the reader. What is most important for the reader to understand at each stage of the main argument? A series of no more than nine key statements provides a solid road map for a section, a chapter or the whole thesis.

A ‘big picture’ of a section or the entire work, seen from the reader’s perspective, is vital. It helps the writer decide what to put in, what to leave out, where to be succinct and where to expand, and it encourages them to stay on the path of the main argument.

Positive feedback

The feedback from this workshop often moves me, because participants say how isolated and self-critical they felt beforehand:

‘Hearing about other students’ approaches to writing (knowing I’m not alone!)’

‘I have struggled through my PhD, wondering if I’m doing things wrong by making maps and it’s made me feel like I’m disorganised. This gives me confidence to do things my way.’

They are relieved to be discouraged from diving into stream of consciousness writing, which can be difficult to unravel and edit:

‘Being told that I don’t need to just jump into writing (which is what normally happens when I panic).’

A strategy for progress

The 5Cs approach makes sense to visual thinkers and, by validating the ‘thinking’ stage of writing, helps them to find a process that is conducive to coherent writing. Most importantly, researchers see adventurous and exciting strategies to move forward and improve their writing:

I am so happy I did this course. It was really affirming to be in the group and helped me shift my experience of my thinking from being a problem that wasn’t right to being something good. . . . This has opened up a more tactile and playful method for organising writing and thought.


5 November 2020

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