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Thinking on Paper Paperback – February 25, 1988

ISBN-13: 978-0688077587 ISBN-10: 0688077587 Edition: 1st

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

V.A. Howard, Ph.D., is co-director, with Israel Scheffler, of the Philosphy of Education Research Center at Harvard University.

J.H. Barton, M.A., is an associate at the Philosophy of Education Research Center and a private business consultant.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 160 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks; 1 edition (February 25, 1988)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0688077587
  • ISBN-13: 978-0688077587
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.4 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #736,930 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Kim Boykin on January 8, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
So you've opened a new file and are staring at a blank screen. Now what?

Howard and Barton, two Harvard researchers in education, argue in Ch. 1, "Writing Is Thinking," that writing is about generating ideas, not just communicating them, and that writer's block comes from preoccupation with the "performance" aspect of writing (and also from the myth that you need to wait for flashes of insight from a fickle "muse").

Ch. 2, "From First to Last Draft," explains a process that puts concerns about performance at the very end, where they belong: (1) Record every thought you have on your topic--half-formed thoughts, confused thoughts, silly thoughts, sentences, phrases, lists, feelings, questions--quickly, with no concern about clear formulation, aiming for quantity, not quality. (2) Go over these notes and give topical labels to large and small chunks of text. (3) Retype your notes (don't cut 'n' paste), grouping sections by topic. While this step is fairly simple and mechanical, you'll inevitably do a bit of rethinking, ammending, and revising along the way, but without stirring up performance anxiety. (4) Rearrange the topics into a sensible sequence. (5) NOW work on performance issues.

The remaining chapters are about organizing ideas into an essay format, making an argument, and grammar and punctuation. These chapters may be helpful too, but I think the real gift of this book is not so much that it helps you write well but that it helps you write instead of not writing.

The process works. I can vouch for it. I'm hyper-perfectionistic, but with the help of this book and Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird," I wrote a book without ever getting paralyzed in front of a blank screen.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By on February 22, 2005
Format: Paperback
The title, positive reviews, and Harvard affiliation of the authors was enough to make this book sound intriguing.

I must say that that I was astonished by the slenderness of the content. In this 150 page volume, the last third is dedicated to an overview of grammar and punctuation, covering basics which almost anyone expecting to be an author probably learned in middle school - or would have in any of several basic writing manuals.

Within the remaining 100 pages the authors do present an interesting breakdown of the writing process into three phases (of Generating and Recording Ideas; Composing Ideas; Expressing Ideas) in Chapters 1 and 2 (20 pages). The authors do explain the psychological importance of keeping these processes separated and helpfully suggest a strategy of portioning your writing time (esp. against a deadline) into roughly equal thirds for these three processes. These suggestions, however, can be adequately presented in a couple hundred words, e.g., as done in reviews, below.

Chapter 3 offers 20 pages on "The Essay" (e.g., It is composed of an introduction, a body, and a conclusion). The authors tell of the importance of developing a thesis and of making connections between points between evidence presented in the body. Indeed!

By the time I had read Chapter 3 it was becoming clear that some of the subtitle's intriguing promises (to aid the reader better to REFINE, EXPRESS, and GENERATE IDEAS) were going to be fulfilled at very rudimentary levels: perhaps as preparation for taking one's very FIRST course in composition.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By John C. Dunbar on December 7, 2004
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book will help any high school or college student write classic 3+2 essays as well as help anyone write well-reasoned essays for publication.

Here's some of the things that I particularly liked:

"Three propositions" for written communications: "1) Writing is a symbolic activity of meaning-making; 2) Writing for others is a staged performance; and 3) Writing is a tool of understandning as well as of communciation." The authors demonstrate how the writer must first discover what he wants to say ("meaning-making"). Then, the writer must fashion that into something understandable to the reader ("staged performance").

They offer questions the writer needs to ask during the writing process, such as: "What do I want my readers to know?, What do I want my readers to feel? What do I want my readers to do?" The authors also explain why the questions "What?, Why?, Why Not?" are so important to inventive problem-solving.

This book details how an essay should be developed mechanically. Their coverage of developing a Thesis Sentence was most helpful for me.

Here's their definition of a Thesis Sentence: a rational defense and development of an opinion as precisely worded as possible, or, raising a precise question about something controversial and trying to answer it. The authors spend a good deal of time discussing the development of a Thesis Sentence and then how to develop the ideas that support it.

I also found their discussion of Introductions very helpful, particularly that we should not be "Barging into the Topic" nor "Bungling into the Topic" -- both sections in the book describing common errors in Introductions.
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