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A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words, But ...

What happens when we try to translate that picture or mental image into words so readers who don't have the picture in front of them can understand the meaning? Oftentimes...chaos.

Gerald Grow's article "Writing Problems of Visual Thinkers" describes how persons who are visually oriented often have trouble putting their thoughts into words.

Grow notes that putting ideas into words requires analytical processes which sequence events. "Seeing" an image, on the other hand, requires a grasp of the whole which contradicts breaking the image into parts which can be represented by words.

Some writers learn to move comfortably back and forth between these two modes of thought. However, Grow, by studying the writing of students in programs in which visual thinking plays an integral role (interior design, architecture), identified three types of writing problems often associated with visual thinkers.

Lack of words

The real thoughts of visual thinkers are taking place in another dimension. They don't have words to describe them.

Problems with sequential writing

Because visual thinkers tend to think in wholes rather than sequences, certain characteristics tend to appear in their writing.

Problems of context

Visual thinkers love detail, but the visual details of an image often need no sequencing to put them in context. Visual thinkers can often see the context in their thinking and they write as if they think readers can "see what they see." As a result, visual thinkers often overlook the need to supply context in their writing.

In conclusion, Grow posits that some of our assumptions about writing maturity may be overly simplistic. For example, Ong's orality-to-literacy modal portrays the replacement of visual thinking with the sequential writing patterns of literate cultures.

Grow suggests there is a place for both verbal and visual thinking. Furthermore, studying grammar and syntax will not solve the kinds of problems reflected in the writing of some visual thinkers.

Strong visual thinking is critical to the solving of many of the important problems in the modern world and schools need to encourage and develop both types of thinking.

See also Gerald Grow's "Serving the Strategic Reader" for a good review of the literature in cognitive reading theory and a discussion of how these studies provide insight into the teaching of writing. An extensive annotated bibliography is included.

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