When I was a young boy in elementary school first being taught to write, my teachers gave me only a few guidelines to follow when composing a story. First, I had to have an introduction, which set the stage for my story by letting the reader know what they were going to be reading about. Next, I needed to have a conclusion to put an end to my story, and lastly, each paragraph needed to have at least five sentences. The shape of the rest of the paper was up to me. This writing style was fairly easy for me to obey. Once I got past the introduction, I was off to the races; my stories unraveled as fast as my pencil could go. I would only hit a snag if I noticed a paragraph only had four sentences, but that was easily fixed by adding a three word sentence to the end. Only when I arrived at the end of my story would I have trouble again. Everything in the middle was free, I had total control to determine how my story grew.
Then I began middle school. In sixth grade English class, I was taught a few more rules that my teachers in elementary school “forgot” to tell me. Like before, every composition was to have an introduction, conclusion, and each paragraph needed to have at least five sentences. The big change was that now, I could only have three middle paragraphs, and these three paragraphs had to be solely about one point that related to a main point in my introduction called a “thesis”. My freedom was gone. My papers were now birds without wings, they could only go so far. At first it was very difficult for me to write in this style, but being the methodical person I am, I got used to it. All I really needed was to come up with three points that would relate to my thesis, and then add details to those points. Coming up with my three points and thesis proved difficult at times, however. In elementary school, the rules set before me for writing allowed for anything to happen, so it wasn’t necessary to plan ahead when writing a story, all I needed was one idea. Now I needed not just one main idea, but three other ideas that supported it.
When starting a paper, I often spent time writing my first sentence sentence, thinking it sounds bad, deleting it, and then trying again. I needed to have the perfect opening sentence to begin my essay. It seemed like every sentence would now be important and scrutinized for content. Why else would I be required to write a paper with exactly five paragraphs? Every line had to have been significant. I spent many hours working on the perfect introductory paragraph, and if I got too frustrated, I abruptly ended it with my thesis. Next I had to write about one of my three ideas that would relate to my thesis, but after putting so much effort into my introduction, how could I possibly write not one, not two, but three solid paragraphs with separate ideas all relating to my subject? I could usually manage getting through my second and third paragraphs, but when I arrived at my fourth paragraph, I would be fresh out of information to use that would support my thesis. I had used all my good ideas in the second and third paragraphs of my paper. The fourth paragraph of my paper was usually weak and looked like it didn’t belong, but I needed to have five paragraphs, so it stayed. After spending so much effort conforming my paper to the rigid guidelines set before me, I would simply change a few words from the introduction and use it as my conclusion. My teachers seemed to be fine with this, as the conclusion was just supposed to restate all my main points, which were included in my introduction.
I used this writing style all through my middle school and high school careers. Every writing assignment, the same old same old. Through all those years of writing, I became well acquainted to the five paragraph essay, but I never felt like I could easily write one. It always took me a good hunk of time to come up with a thesis and three supporting ideas, and then writing the paper itself always gave me trouble because I was bad at elaborating on my ideas. Though it was difficult for me to compose, it was the only way I knew how to write. I couldn’t write a paper any other way, I needed to have five paragraphs including an introduction, supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. It wouldn’t feel right if I tried writing in a different manner. Writing any other way would be like a guy joining a field hockey team. There is no rule or law against it, but it doesn’t feel right.
I continued this train of thought in all my writing until this summer when I started played saxophone in a band with some friends. I had wanted to be in a band for a while, so desperately wanted this band to work out and hopefully have a few gigs before the summer was over. All the members of the band were good at their instruments, but our singer was horrible at writing lyrics. He wrote the words one song which were about going to the zoo and killing pandas. Needless to say, I knew that if this band was going to go anywhere, I would need to write lyrics myself. I had never written lyrics before, but I didn’t think it would be that hard, as writing notes for the saxophone was fairly easy for me. The two mediums, the saxophone and pencil, couldn’t be that different, could they? One day I sat down to write lyrics to a song and I just sat there blank for about thirty minutes. I had no idea how I was supposed to go about starting a song. In school I was always given an essay topic to write about and I was told how my essay was supposed to be structured. Now it was up to me to choose my essay topic, and it was up to me to decide how my essay was going to be structured. It took me days before I could think of something to write about and how to structure my song, but once I did it was like the Berlin wall coming down. My first song was very primitive and plain, but it opened up my ability to write creatively, which I hadn’t done since I was in elementary school. I began to come up with new ideas for lyrics at ease. Often I would get an inspiration from a rhythm and write a few good lines, then come back later and fill in the rest. The lyrics I wrote could start in different parts of a song. Sometimes I would begin with the beginning, but other times I started with the chorus or even a verse.
The way I wrote lyrics totally differed from the way a wrote papers in school. They could start anywhere, be about anything, could rhyme, could not rhyme, or follow any kind of pattern. I would start writing them whenever I had an inspiration, as opposed to in school when I was told when to begin writing. The only part of writing lyrics I have found difficult is finishing them. Once I have created a pattern or rhyming scheme to a song, it becomes tedious to finish the last few lines because I’ve created a structure I need to follow. The first few lines I create are pure inspiration, but the last few are usually lines I need to complete the song. Unfortunately, it’s necessary to write those last few words to the song, or else it would be unfinished and it wouldn’t be something that people would want to listen to. It is important to polish any song I write because when I let my thoughts flow, sometimes a few less than stellar ideas come out and they need to be revised. This is a boring mundane process that has to be done to get my ideas and messages across as clear as possible. This process that I now go through is much like Peter Elbow’s ideas of first-order and second-order thinking.
Elbow says that there are two different ways to think about your writing process, first-order and second-thinking. First-order thinking is what Elbow describes as being “intuitive and creative and doesn’t strive for conscious direction or control.” It is an uncensored type of writing process in which the writer simply writes whatever comes to them. Spontaneity and creativity define this writing style. “We use it when we get hunches or see gestalts,” says Elbow. In order to truly write with passion, Elbow says we must use first-order thinking to get our ideas down, regardless whether they make total sense or not. Carelessness takes a front seat over control in first-order thinking.
In second-order thinking, consciousness is crucial. It is necessary to know the direction of the writing and what kind of structure it is going to follow. Grammar plays a big role in second-order thinking, when in the case of first-order thinking, it is an afterthought. When describing second-order thinking, Elbow says, “We steer; we scrutinize each link in the chain. Second-order thinking is committed to accuracy and strives for logic and control: we examine our premises and asses the validity of each inference.” While this ordered type of writing may seem best suited for writing something like an essay for school, this is not necessarily the case.
Elbow says that, “second-order thinking often brings our people’s worst thinking.” When we strive for structure and organization, we make it more difficult to think freely and have an open mind with ideas. We tend to filter thoughts out before we even write them down because they may not fit perfectly within a paper’s format. So does this mean we should write solely with first-order thinking in mind? First-order thinking is what gets our ideas and thoughts down on paper, but it can often be a string of incoherent sentences. Elbow believes that we need to use both first-order and second-order thinking when we write. First-order should be used when beginning to write a composition in order to get any and all ideas down on paper. Once we have expunged our brains of any notions for our paper, we must go back and retool. Second-order thinking lets us fix our grammatic mistakes, revise any unclear points, and overall make our paper understandable to other people. The use of both first-order and second-order writing is what really allows us to get our best ideas through to other people.
I wholeheartedly agree with Elbow, especially when it comes to my process of writing lyrics. I must start out writing what comes to my mind; I can’t filter what I think about or else my creative drive will go away. If I think too much about what I’m writing, I start to go back and edit my lyrics when there are still more in my head, I may forget the ones I had in my head or decide they don’t work with the edits I had just made. I must use first-order thinking when writing songs, it is the only way for me to get my ideas out. Once I have emptied my mind of inspiration, I will go back over my lyrics and make sure they make sense, have the right amount of syllables, have the right rhyming scheme, and have the right form. If were to present my raw lyrics as a finished product, they would make no sense to an outside party. Once I revise them, they become something that anyone can understand and appreciate. Second-order thinking is needed in my writing process to make sure my thoughts are coherent. Without first-order thinking, I my best ideas would not come out on paper in the first place and without second-order thinking, they would not be comprehensible. Through the use of both, I am able to express any ideas, thoughts, and beliefs in a professional manner.