Francis-Noël Thomas & Mark Turner, authors of Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose (Second Edition) have written A Natural Way To Write, an op-ed which explores the concept of “teaching writing” and examines the process of writing itself.
A Natural Way To Write
Traditional writing instruction tacitly assumes that writing is a normal human activity requiring no fundamental cognitive work. “Teaching writing,” following this assumption, is almost entirely concerned with teaching surface conventions. Almost everyone acknowledges that attempting to teach writing this way is not very successful—it works best with students who have already achieved a high degree of writing competence on their own and rarely if ever does much of anything for students who have not.
We begin by acknowledging the fundamental fact that writing is utterly alien to the human evolutionary endowment. On the evolutionary scale, writing is a recent invention, at most eight-thousand years old. For most of its history, it was a special purpose activity, the province of a tiny group of professionals who used it, for example, to record inventories. Literature is considerably older than writing. And even after writing was invented, poets such as Homer remained illiterate. Writing as we know it today in literate societies is only a few hundred years old and has a limited reach. Much of the world’s population is even now illiterate. It is a mistake to treat writing as a common, species-wide behavior like talking or walking—a mistake that is possible to make only because the human species is exceptionally skillful at acquiring and then obliviously inhabiting “second natures.” All writing is exotic, but in literate societies it is now taken as “natural.”
There is, however, a species-wide, ancient behavior underlying writing. Cognitive scientists call it joint attention, and we think it is the most sensible and practical place to begin learning to write. In joint attention, two or more people are attending to something, they know they are all attending to it, they know that they are all engaging with each other by attending to it, and they know that they all know all of that. This is home turf for the cognitively modern human mind, which all human beings have had for approximately the past fifty thousand years. More specifically, the cognitive core of writing is “classic joint attention,” in which there are just two people, paying attention to something that is directly perceptible. We never feel any difficulty when we are pointing out something directly perceptible to somebody next to us. We are built for this. We feel at home doing it because the scene of classic joint attention is intelligible by itself. We expect our companion to be able to perceive what we are presenting once it is pointed out.
In order to talk, we blend a complicated mental network, one that often ranges far from home, with a familiar scene—like classic joint attention—so that the foreign network has a domestic anchor. If we make such a blend, and speak from it, our speech becomes intelligible, consistent, coherent, and familiar, even though the speaker is dealing with a diffuse, complex, foreign network of ideas and relationships. The complex network is assimilated to a simple scene through blending.
Consider, as an example of classic style, the following passage from La Rochefoucauld:
Madame de Chevreuse had sparkling intelligence, ambition, and beauty in plenty; she was flirtatious, lively, bold, enterprising; she used all her charms to push her projects to success, and she almost always brought disaster to those she encountered on her way.
One does not learn to write this way by taking some prose one has already written and revising it. Instead, one learns to write this way by first mastering the scene of classic joint attention, and then using it as an anchor for diffuse networks that range far beyond the classic scene. Think of how much is involved in the mental network of La Rochefoucauld’s presentation: Madame Chevreuse’s invisible qualities, the writer’s knowledge of her projects, his distance from them, his relationship to the reader (confiding but controlled). All of it is compressed to a scene of classic joint attention as if the writer is pointing out directly perceptible things to someone standing next to him in full confidence that, of course, they would be recognized at once. No one could write this way through a process of revising surface features of language.
In the scene of classic joint attention, there is something directly perceptible. In contrast, the network of ideas we want to present may not be directly perceptible. The human mind—uniquely among species—is routinely skillful at blending things that don’t naturally go together. In the complex network, the subject may be completely imperceptible. But in the blend, we treat the subject as if it is something directly perceptible. The result is that we can talk about anything at all as if it is directly perceptible: someone’s disappointment or sense of the absurd, a city’s magnificence or a country’s intransigence, a neighborhood’s poverty or a wine’s elegance—all these invisible things and an endless list of others are treated as if they were directly perceptible.
In the mental network of ideas and thought supporting your presentation, the audience may be large and psychologically disposed in a variety of ways. But in classic joint attention, we are speaking to just one other person collusively. So in the blend, we treat the audience like a competent individual who colludes with us to recognize what we are pointing out. In the actual network, the purpose can be anything, or multiple, and conflicting. But in classic joint attention, the purpose is always simply disinterested presentation. So, in the blend, purposes in the network are compressed to presentation.
Whatever difficulties are involved in presenting ideas, judgments, or invisible qualities, writing based in classic joint attention presents no conspicuous evidence that any of this is work or that there is any difficulty in getting the language to serve the presentation. On the contrary, writing based in classic joint attention treats language as a perfect, undistorting window on the subject of the presentation, and the speaker takes the stand that this is a natural way to talk, because in real classic joint attention, it is. In the actual diffuse network of communication, the speaker and audience may not be in a symmetric relationship; the speaker may be speaking for a group; the audience may be hostile; the purpose may be far from disinterested presentation. By blending the actual network of concepts, motives, speaker, and audience with the scene of classic joint attention, we can give the network a manageable anchor, and speak from the blend. There are only two steps to learning to talk this way: (1) think of a scene of classic joint attention; (2) blend it with whatever mental network of thoughts and relationships you confront, and speak from the blend.
After one has mastered the scene of classic joint attention in speech, the next step is to extend the network to writing. Writing is not a scene of classic joint attention, but in classic style the writer uses the classic scene as an anchor so that, in the blend, writing becomes speaking, the indefinite audience that is not present becomes a single person who is right there, and the subject becomes something that can be perceived.
Once the process of learning how to write is anchored in its cognitive core, the scene of classic joint attention—rather than a list of surface features—the process becomes straightforward and intelligible. In a series of steps, one can master the actual scene of classic joint attention, then extend it and practice until the new behavior becomes second nature—and then extend it again, until one has become an accomplished prose stylist. This process takes a scene that human beings everywhere are built for, an activity that is powerful across the entire species. It applies the cognitive process of blending, the hallmark of cognitively modern human beings. Applying blending to the scene of classic joint attention provides a natural, intelligible path to learning how to write. It is the path we have traced in Clear and Simple as the Truth.