All of the problems identified by this approach sound like the familiar problems of "basic writers." What difference, then, does the present theory make? -- It leads us to a major conclusion that could have widespread consequences: Clashes between nonverbal and verbal thinking could be a hidden factor in the writing problems of many students, even though those problems have previously been analyzed as having other causes. In her widely respected analysis of writing errors, Shaughnessy (1977) cites many of examples that, from our perspective, sound very much like the byproducts of visual thinking.
|This paper has implications for
a second approach to the teaching of writing--the orality-to-literacy
model. Some of the central characteristics attributed to "orality"
appear in the student writings quoted in this paper, where they
are explained rather as characteristics of visual thinking. "Preliterate"
thinking may thus not be as intensively oral (sound-derived)
as Ong and others insist.
Visual, synesthetic, and other forms of non-verbal thought may well account for some of the features currently attributed to preliterate orality. Furthermore, visual thinking can continue in force after the acquisition of full literacy as a parallel mode of mind and may not be assimilated by literacy--as orality is thought to be. The orality-to-literacy model envisions verbal thought replacing other modes as one matures. This paper envisions mature thought as an interpenetration of several different highly developed modes of thought.
Visual thinkers, as described in this paper, have several tendencies opposed to those Ong and his followers attribute to oral thinkers. Because words are secondary to their thinking, the language of visual thinkers may be more private and eccentric than the communal language of orality. Because their primary thought processes are non-sequential, I have proposed that visual thinkers have difficulty with the dominant mode of oral thinkers: narration. And, throughout his analysis, Ong (after McLuhan, I believe) considers the visual to be severely analytical; this paper assumes a more holistic concept of visual thinking (a view also held by many others writing about visual thinking, such as Franck, 1973; Jackson, 1975; McKim, 1972).
This paper differs in another respect from the orality-to-literacy model. Visual thinkers are not necessarily orally competent; some speak poorly and only when required to. Even in a primary oral culture, there must have been inarticulate people. I have argued that it is important to consider visual thinking as a modality separate from orality. In addition, anyone tempted to adapt the orality-to-literacy transition to visual thinkers should read Brandt (1990) for her critique of the orality approach.
The theory offered in this paper is a first step toward improving
the teaching of writing to visual thinkers-and perhaps to musical,
kinesthetic, personal, and interpersonal thinkers as well-to
use Gardner's (1985) categories. The concept in this paper directs
us to improve writing by first identifying the underlying thought
processes, rather than assuming verbal thought and working to
improve the mechanics of grammar and syntax.
Studies of the interrelation among different modes of thought
-- what Stacks and Andersen (1989) called "intra­p;personal
communication" -- may also provide valuable resources for
writing improvement, especially if this helps maintain the integrity
of nonverbal experience in the face of literacy's power.
|In this study, visual thinking has been limited mainly to "static imagery," a limitation not acceptable in more advanced studies of "spatial ability." There are other types of visual thinking. The analysis presented here and the students studied probably should be considered in terms of "spatial thinking" (Brown & Wheatley, 1990), in contrast to "visual thinking" (such as generating and transforming mental images) or "pattern recognition" (seeing similarities in complex forms). There may be several distinct forms of visual thinking that have distinctly different effects on the dynamics of writing.|
|The "writing" considered
in this paper refers to the kind most college teachers would
consider desirable (Olson, 1977a): writing to prove that you
have learned. But perhaps such highly organized, logically-sequenced,
fully-explicit expository prose should be looked upon as an unusual
and highly specialized form of human expression. Certainly, stories
are more universal than research papers, and disorganized, illogical
writing is more common than logical, organized writing. Illustrated
writing may be more "natural" than writing in words
Perhaps visual thinkers need to learn not to "write" (in Olson's sense of "text" -- logical, fully-elaborated, expository sequences made exclusively of words), but to "communicate" through mixed media. The dominant concept of writing -- based on the typographically traditional book format -- has been severely challenged by easy interplay between graphics and text that can be found in any well-designed magazine.
Fortunately, typography has recently been rescued from the near-invisibility imposed on it by the typewriter. In page-layout software, text can be divided into segments that can be typographically differentiated and arranged into sidebars, boxes, tables, pull-quotes, and the like, creating what Bolter called "topographical" prose that is at once verbal and visual. The user of hypertext can go even further and organize prose in a multidimensional non-linear structure (for good discussions, see Tuman, 1992, and Bolter, 1991). (Hello, we are in a form of hypertext now!)
Perhaps writing has been made unnecessarily difficult by the rarely challenged assumption that students should write in a one-dimensional sequence and produce a document composed exclusively of words typed in a uniform typeface.
Visual thinkers might learn to write better if they abandoned the words-only typewriter format and composed their thoughts directly onto page-layout programs in which the visual presentation of the material is, from the beginning, an essential part of its meaning. Note 12 Visual thinkers may be best at communicating complex ideas in forms where words are used to refine and label images, rather than images used to decorate pages of text.
On the other hand (those "other hands" give this topic a spider-like fascination) Cartoon 1 (gif file, 15K) so many aspects of good writing seem to arise when words are forced to substitute for all other forms of communication (such as gesture, tone of voice, and pictures) that, to develop the right mental muscles, good writers may have to wrestle naked with the naked word. The strength of this engagement could be diluted, not helped, by graphics and layout. Learning to write better might even be influenced (as Halio, 1990, suggested) by whether one uses a computer with a graphic interface (such as a Macintosh or Windows) or a computer with a verbal interface (such as MSDOS). (1996 note: Does anyone still use a non-graphic interface? Are we on the verge of point-and-click writing?)
|This paper arose from a concern
with the fate of students who have a gift for visual thinking.
The context for this concern is the existing educational system
with its bias toward verbal performance and the kind of thinking
that results in analytical, expository prose. Some of the writing
problems of visual thinkers are almost certainly a byproduct
of this narrow educational emphasis. It is like requiring everyone,
regardless of body type, to lift 150-lb. weights in order to
Unfortunately, even the literate bias of schooling (to use Olson's phrase, 1977b) does not necessarily produce good writers, and there is reason to be concerned that many of our future students, visual thinkers or not, will write as poorly as the students cited in this paper. Some students appear to be pre-literate not due to any special gift, but due to the influence of television and the lack of effective education.
Others, impelled by an inner talent for visual thinking, approach writing from a perspective that causes them special problems. And if proponents of visual literacy like Sinatra are correct, visual thinkers will not respond to the kind of writing drill that helps underdeveloped verbal thinkers. Both groups, however, will benefit from learning the importance, specific skills, and hard work of communicating, in whatever modality.
|It is common these days to read
that verbal thought is linear, sequential, slow, located in the
left hemisphere, and fundamentally incompatible with spatial
thought. Note 13 There
are other possibilities.
The increasing use of subliminal audio tapes suggests that the mind may have the ability to think in complete syntactical units at enormous rates of speed, and in several channels simultaneously. One recent experiment suggests that the mind may be able to think a burst of a thousand words as rapidly as it can produce a picture: Korba (1986) estimated that people can think at the equivalent of 4,000 words per minute.
It is my hunch that people engage in high-speed, multi-channeled fully-verbalized thinking, as well as simultaneous "multitasking" in cryptic forms of verbal thought, nonverbal modalities, and integrated forms of thought. Such a concept challenges current ideas about the limitations of "linear" thought and could revolutionize our idea of where writing starts.
Current models tend to set visual and verbal thinking against one another, but there may well be a mode in which visual and verbal thinking are deeply intertwined. Such a concept could revive interest in ideas that rarely appear in current research agendas -- such as intuition and the creative unconscious.
|There are problems with terminology
in this field--and in this paper. More tentatively than it may
sound, I have advanced the idea that visual thinking causes certain
kinds of writing problems. But the three problems I have discussed--lack
of words, problems of sequencing, and difficulty communicating
context--may be separable mental conditions that are not necessarily
linked to visual thinking. Furthermore, many visual thinkers
clearly do not have these problems; and people may have these
writing problems without being visual thinkers. Note
I have used the term "visual thinking" to stand for something that has yet to be defined with care, making a broad sketch of a field in which few details are clear. It is almost certain that the kind of mental states I attribute to visual thinking occur in other kinds of thinking as well, and those may contribute to writing problems in a manner similar to what I have argued for here.
The literature on mysticism, for instance, describes unitary states that are wordless, imageless, utterly holistic, and so contextless as to be given names like "cosmic consciousness." Joel Goldsmith (1959) describes such a state this way: "All that exists in this universe is God 'is-ing'--Is, Is, Is" (185-6) (Note the verb!) Words, analysis, labels, sequence, syntax, context, connectives, and images all vanish to make room for a state of consciousness that is valuable for certain purposes (Goldsmith is a spiritual healer) Note 15 but cannot be written, spoken, or even visualized. Further knowledge about such states may, by contrast, help identify the actual states of mind at work when visual thinkers have writing problems. Note 16