Each of these three uses of language has a distinct function: to communicate, to create, and to explore reality, of course, any single piece of writing may have features of the other modes:for example, a piece of writing may be primarily informative but also have aesthetic and personal features. Of the three forms, the most consistently useful for you as a student and learner is the exploratory writing you do to think with. In fact, we could say it is the very matrix from which the communicative and imaginative modes of writing emerge, as we work through possible meanings we would be willing to share with others.
If, for example, you are assigned a term paper, a good way to begin would be to write to yourself about what you could write about. Do some writing to help you think about doing more writing; but the kind you do first, for yourself, need not be shown to anybody else or graded. In the following example from one of my American Literature classes, Robin works out her impressions and questions about the Edgar Allan Poe story "Descent into the Maelstrom" in her journal before she begins the first draft of a critical review paper:
9/13 I have to admit, after reading this story over for the second time, I am still not sure what Poe is trying to tell us. The only thing that even crossed my mind about the whirlpool was, what a fool Poe's companion was not to try some means of escape. Certainly by hanging on continuously to the "ring bolt" he was headed for inevitable death.
Maybe that was one part of what Poe was trying to say, that as life goes on day after day, you can sink into the same routine causing your life to become stagnant and boring. ... In the story, for example, Poe took the chance of jumping off the boat and hanging onto the barrel—so what could trying something else hurt? Perhaps Poe is also trying to show how fear of death can paralyze a person.
I reproduce Robin's journal entry here because it shows so clearly how a writer must start wherever he or she can to make sense of new information—in this case a story—before being able to write about it for someone else. By admitting her initial confusion, and then going on to speculate about possible interpretations, Robin begins to make sense of the story. The informal writing helps the thinking, which, in turn, helps the formal writing.
What all this means in practical terms is simply this: thinking takes place in language, sometimes language that is mathematical, visual, musical, and so on, but most often in everyday words of our native tongue. The degree to which we become fluent, efficient, and comfortable with language as a mode of thinking is, to a large extent, the degree to which we advance as learners.
By writing to ourselves in our own casual voices, we let the writing help us think and even lead our thinking to places we would not have gone had we merely mulled things over in our heads. When you write out your thought, it becomes language with which you can interact, manipulate, extend, critique, or edit. Above all, the discipline of actually writing guarantees that you will push your thought systematically in one direction or another.
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