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The Writing Problems
of Visual Thinkers

by Gerald Grow

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This is an expanded version of a print article that appeared in the refereed journal, Visible Language, 28.2, Spring 1994, pp. 134 - 161. © 1994, 1996 by Gerald Grow.

Key words: writing, visual thinking, visual thinkers, orality, literacy, teaching writing, basic writers, verbal bias of schooling, learning style discrimination.


Some people produce characteristic, recurring writing problems as a result of inappropriately applying visual thinking to writing. This paper proposes that the writing problems of such visual thinkers derive from three factors:

  • a lack of words,
  • unfamiliarity with the kind of analysis that leads to the logical sequencing of prose, and
  • difficulty understanding that context must be communicated.

Table 1 summarizes the writing problems of visual thinkers. Visual thinkers have difficulty organizing expository prose because their preferred mode of thought is fundamentally different from the organization of expository prose. Prose is organized by story, focus, sequence, drama, and analysis -- none of which is native to the visual thinker. The writing of a visual thinker is like a map of all the possibilities; a verbal thinker writes like a guided tour.

Because some gifted visual thinkers have difficulty producing the kind of writing required in schools and colleges, they may become casualties of a form of learning style discrimination built into the educational system. This exploratory paper pleads for better understanding of the thinking processes that produce such writing problems and the development of new ways of teaching writing that directly address visual thinkers.

On a more technical level, this paper offers an alternative to the "orality to literacy" explanation of writing problems, and to Piaget's theory that children replace visual thinking with abstract thinking as they age.

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"The Writing Problems of Visual Thinkers," by Gerald Grow


Table 1: Writing Problems of Visual Thinkers

I. The Lack of Words

Absence of Analysis
Words as Labels of Unseen Pictures
Fear of Words
Stacking, Packing, and Enfolding Words
Difficulty with Description

II. Problems of Writing in Sequence

Importance of Sequence
Difficulty with Transitions
Overuse of To Be
Weak Narrative

III. Problems of Context

Forest and Trees
"Aesthetic Indiscrimination"


IV. Discussion

Shaughnessy and "Basic Writers"
Orality, Literacy, and Visual Thinking
Implications for Research
Varieties of Visual Thinking
Varieties of Writing
Verbal Bias of Schooling
Verbal Thought Reconsidered
Limitations of the Study




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