Thinking on the Page: Cooper’s How-To for Effective Writing

by Ruchi Patel (ChE ’18) and Anushree Sreedhar (ChE ’18)

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Photo by Ruchi Patel (ChE ’18)

Although incredibly intelligent, Cooper Union students aren’t particularly known for their writing abilities. Inspired by their students, humanities professors Gwen Hyman and Martha Schulman came up with Thinking on the Page: A College Student’s Guide to Effective Writing, a “how-to” book published in March of this year. The 328-page guide intends to get the good ideas that “bad writers” have onto the page in a way that makes sense to them and to others. 

Schulman: Writing is for everyone, whether or not you plan to read a literary work again after college. You have to tell people what you are doing whether you are a chef or an engineer or applying for a grant. You have to figure out what you want to say and you have to get it on a page clear enough so that some one else can read and understand it. And then you have to do without being there to explain it to them. You cannot—in a million years—do that right on the first or second try. Asking that of yourself is setting yourself up for failure. This book is here to teach you to communicate in any scenario.

Hyman: The theory behind the book is that most people are taught to write as if they are English teachers because they are taught by English majors.

Schulman: When students come and say that ‘I can’t do this,’ we just don’t believe that. You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t amazing at something, and not everyone is equally amazing in everything, but if you have a brain that works that well at one thing, then that has to be harnessed and channelled into other things. There is no mystery or magic dust. We would give you the magic dust if we had it. There’s only work and knowing how to do that work in a productive way. You guys are passionate and you work hard. No one at Cooper is a slacker.

The authors acknowledge that humanities is not why students come to Cooper. But engineers, artists, and architects meet in the writing center and in HSS. Being able to interact with all three schools gives Hyman and Schulman a better perspective on how students think. The duo spent four years forming a theory of how to teach writing to aesthetic, visual learners, the kinds of learners one finds at Cooper. 

Hyman: From being at Cooper for so long, we learned that you guys work together. Engineers work in groups and artists and architects do critiques, all the time! Writers tend to think ‘Oh, I am just going to go into my room and work.’ But watching you guys work gave some value to how to bring that to your work.

Schulman: Writing comes naturally to me and I thought that smartness was the kind of smartness that I had. I taught at Columbia before here and those people were smart in a variety of ways, but they were super well-rounded, which actually made them really boring. Then I came to Cooper, and these students were so smart in ways that I wasn’t. I would ask an architect why she wanted to look at that passage and she would look at me like I’m crazy and say ‘Because it is so spatial.’ I’m thinking ‘It was? It is? Oh, yes it is!’

“Our title has two meanings. One, you get your thinking on the page, and two, the act of writing lets you see what you are thinking”

The duo then continued to talk about the setup of their book and how it is used to outline writings.

Shulman: How do we unpack that knowledge? There are charts, drawings, and dialogic journals to help visualize what otherwise might seem like “Oh, this is a dumb idea” or “This is all in my head and I actually can’t visualize it and get it on the page.” That is why the book is called Thinking on the Page. Writing is thinking and we think that until you see it, you can’t really use it or firm it up, or play with it, or do all the things you do in writing.

Hyman: It is no different than engineering problem sets. You can never do that work in your head. You pick up an idea or you follow a train of thinking and you see where it goes. But people are reluctant to take risks and ask questions as they would in other fields so a lot of our work is how do we get you to ask questions.

Schulman: That’s why there is a whole chapter called “Asking Questions: Generating Ideas,” because one of the big things we are interested in is the thinking process. With engineers, you need a huge trial of numbers as you figure out the calculus homework. You can’t just beam it onto the page. Sometimes you have to go back to middle and track it. But if you don’t have a record, you can’t do that. That is why we make a big distinction between the product and the process.

Grammar can sometimes get in the way of writing, and the book addresses this uniquely. 

Schulman: Sometimes when you don’t know what you are trying to say, the syntax gets all weird and convoluted because you are actually in a process where you are trying to fix it. The act of unscrambling will often rearrange the pieces to make sense and some sentences might even go away. First, we talk about it as a thinking issue and then we talk about  the grammar errors that suggest that you haven’t totally thought through the relationships.

Hyman: It is also a process-product issue. A lot of people try to fix the grammar as they are writing and doing that creates a problem for you because you can’t think and you can’t produce ideas and you can’t test things out because you are so worried about the grammar.

Schulman: You are also wasting time! The one thing about working in a pair is that there is always some working critique. We must have fine-tune edited 100 pages that never got near this book. Don’t do what we did! You don’t need to think about grammar unless you are lost in your own sentence, and that’s a thinking issue more than a grammar issue. When you know what pieces are actually going to be in your final product, you can clean up the grammar and the relationship between idea A and idea B.

Hyman: Writing is hard. And if it is not hard, then you are doing it wrong.

Schulman: Our title actually has two meanings. One is that you get your thinking on the page. But two: the act of writing lets you see what you are thinking and lets you then generate more thought. So it is a process that keeps moving, and if you stop writing and you don’t know how to continue, then you are stuck. In theory with this book, if you are willing to use it, you should never actually stay stuck. You should say “Okay, I’m stuck right now but I’m going to go back into the text and ask these questions and do a mind map. I’m going to have a technique.” Sometimes all it takes to get unstuck is to do something. It’s to move. Those three hours between 2-5 A.M. when you are staring at your computer—that is unproductive time! That is what this is meant to end.

Thinking on the Page

Image from Amazon

How did they make the book easy to understand to engineers, architects, and artists? We all see things differently…right?

Hyman: Even though people learn in different ways, there are more connections across the school that you perhaps don’t perceive while in school. In a way, you all are visual learners. You see the world differently than we do. This forced us to think through the project of the book and make it useful for everyone.

Schulman: Sometimes people get snippy about the other schools, but when you are all invested in the topic, there is suddenly like a huge knockdown fight about what the tower of hexagons in the History of Bable physically looks like. And there is an argument going on between these three different types of people who can all visualize it and know more about a hexagon than I do. And it’s the coolest. And we have that in a way that other schools don’t have. Even if it is at first reluctantly, you all come together. It’s kind of exciting for us.

Hyman: More or less, Cooper students have been our guinea pigs for all this time. So we know what works because we have tried it in the Writing Center and in our classrooms. The same thing does not work with one person as it does with another. We found that in our working style, Martha and I approach things differently. I outline. If I don’t have an outline I’m lost. So we have outline options and “so you hate outlines” option.

Schulman: We feel very fortunate that we have this opportunity. Cooper is unique in the world. The funny thing is we come from this place and we think this book actually works for many, many people who are never going to go to Cooper or want to go to Cooper. If it turns out that you are in nursing school, or a biology major, business major, or music major, or anyone else that may have been told in school that they are not good writers (or who are decent writers only because they color within the lines but don’t necessarily feel connected to it) you will find processes that would work for you. So when you find what writer you are, we tell you how to assess your work so that you can move on to the next stage.

Hyman: We really believe in this stuff and it is very close to our hearts. Writing is power. It is really a big deal for us to share then and instill it and get it out in the world. We would love for more people to learn this stuff and get access to it.

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