What Is Writing?: A Brief Introduction

Johannah Rodgers


Whether or not you currently believe that writing is a complex and interesting subject of inquiry, you will probably agree that an awful lot of time is devoted to the subject in college and that a vast number of books and Web sites are dedicated to the study and teaching of it.  So what is so interesting about writing and why is there so much to say about it?  Part of what makes writing interesting--and so often discussed and written about--is that it is not just one thing.  It is, in fact, a complex number of things, which is, at least in part, why you are reading this essay.

We live in a time when writing is not only all around us, but when we may be using writing to respond to written messages on a daily or hourly basis.  This was not always the case.  Writing in the context of human history is a fairly recent invention.  In fact, the oldest archaeological evidence dates writing systems to the 34th century B.C.E., probably sometime around 3300 B.C.E. In other words, writing in general emerged almost 2.3 million years after the advent of humans and a mere 5400 years ago!   Before systems of written communication were invented, oral communication was the only means of exchanging and recording information.

It was a different world.  And yet, there are people in the world who, for a number of different reasons, continue to rely primarily or exclusively on oral communication to interact with each other, conduct business, and exchange information.  You might consider yourself one of them.  For, one paradox of the 21st century is that although written messages are more present than ever, some may have, in different ways, as much to do with spoken as written communication.  The relationships between speaking and writing is an ongoing subject of inquiry for researchers and it is one that you will have to think about as you think and learn more about writing.  Like the question What Is Writing? the question of what connects and differentiates spoken and written communication is a broad and multifaceted one.

But before addressing that question, we need to get back to the first one:  What is Writing?  In its most basic definition, writing is a graphic system for representing language.  And language, as you may know, is not only its own large and fascinating topic but is also something that all sentient beings use.  We may speak different languages, but the fact of the matter is that we all use language to interpret and interact with the world.  Even those who cannot speak use language, as do those who do not use writing. 

In addition to being a system for representing language, writing is also a system of communication.  And it is with its use that another level of complication is added.  For the question "What Is Writing?" is not merely "rhetorical."  It is a real question that can be approached from a number of perspectives.  What do you plan to do with your writing?  To whom are you writing?  Are you asking because you want to write something or because you want to read something?  Are you asking because you want to understand writing as a means of communication or use writing as a means of communication?

Thinking about writing as a means of communication and as part of a larger system of communications technologies may in some ways help you to understand and participate in the discussion of what writing is and why there is not just one answer to that question.  In doing so it is my hope that you will not only learn more about writing and how to write in a variety of ways and in a wide range of situations, but that you will begin to understand just why so many people have spent so much time thinking about the question of what writing is and to possibly even start engaging with and responding to that question yourself.     

Engaging with, rather than eschewing the multidimensionality of writing as a practice and a subject, What Is Writing? is an introduction to the key words and concepts that inform every act of writing.  Designed as an approach to writing instruction that can be used in the first year composition course, as well as by anyone with an interest in knowing more about how and why people write, this Framework for Understanding Writing as an Act and Medium of Communication invites readers to engage and explore the paradoxical fact that writing is, from the perspective of the basic elements that define it, fairly simple, and from the perspective of its use, endlessly complex. Working with this framework and thinking about it in relation to one's own writing projects, it may then be possible to develop a shared language for describing and thinking about the many different things that writing is and can be.

Adapted from What Is Writing?: An Introduction to Writing as an Act and Medium of Communication (2015). 


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