What Is Writing: A Slightly Longer Introduction

Among its many definitions, writing can be defined as a means of expression, a tool for learning, a representation of verbal language, a recording device, an artistic composition, or the act of making marks on a page.  In other words, although this word writing can at any one particular moment refer to one discrete thing or activity, generally, it is always referring to several different things, activities, and systems.  Why?  Well, one way of answering that question is by thinking about writing as a technology.  As such, and like every other technology, writing becomes embedded in and generates other technologies.  These technologies are sometimes things that we recognize as technologies, or tools, but are more often they things that we do not recognize immediately as technologies because they are not tools per se but the many things related to the use of tools and the implications of their use, namely, various processes, institutions, networks, and beliefs.  If writing were just one thing, for instance, knowing how to physically and mentally make marks on a page, there would be few reasons for you to be interested in learning more about writing.  But writing is not just one thing, and it is because of that and of the many intricacies and issues involved with writing in use that you are interested in learning more about the subject.   

The rhetorician Susan Miller often posed the following question in her work: “What does it mean to be able to write?”  The simplest answer to this very complex question is:  it means many things.  Among these, it means knowing how to physically and mentally make marks on a page.  However, it also means knowing why someone would use writing at any particular moment and in any particular context, knowing how to use writing in such situations, and knowing how writing and the artifacts created through its use function.

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!   Prior to this date, graphic inscriptions were made and used, but writing systems as we think of them today were not in common use.  As a result, oral communication was the primary means of exchanging and recording information.

This may sound like a very a different world from the one we live in today.  And yet, there are people in the world now who, for a number of different reasons, continue to rely primarily or exclusively on oral communication to interact with other people, conduct business, and exchange information.  What is more, the relationships between writing and speaking may be changing. For, one paradox of the 21st century is that although written messages are more present than ever, they may have, in certain ways, as much to do with spoken as written communication.  The relationships between speaking and writing are an ongoing subject of inquiry for researchers and are ones that are considered in this book.  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 in use.  However, beyond that very basic definition, writing is many different things. If you consider how you use the word writing, or what your experience with this word is, the fact that writing is not just one thing will be apparent and even possibly familiar.  For, in addition to being a verb, or an act of making marks on a page, writing is also a noun referring to a piece written work.  Writing is therefore at once a noun and a verb, a thing and an action.  So what is it?  Well, the best way to answer that question is to come to terms with the fact that writing is never just one thing.  It is at once an act, a process, and a material trace.  It is used to refer to what is found in books and articles and papers and letters, to the actions and complex publishing networks involved in creating, designing, producing, and distributing those works, as well as to the diverse attributes and functions of writing as a medium of communication.  

Thinking about writing as a somewhat old and ever evolving communications technology may help you to understand and participate in the discussion of what writing is and why there is not just one answer to that question.  For some people, it may be somewhat odd to think of writing in such terms. But these are different times and we use writing today in both new and old ways.  By reading this book, 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 engage with and understand just why so many people have spent so much time thinking about the question of what writing is.