Reading and Writing in History
Compared to speaking and listening, writing and reading are much more recent phenomena. For many centuries it was assumed that the best way to learn to write well was either to pray, entreat the muses, or carefully imitate writings that were already considered great. In England in the Middle Ages, reading was reserved for those in the clergy, nobles, and other elites, and "in 1820, only 12% of the world population could read and write."
In the Middle Ages, the invention of the printing press revolutionized the accessibility of books and pamphlets, and laws that had previously prevented people from learning to read were revoked, so more people learned to read. As more people read, more people wanted to write. Later, as more people went to school, teachers created rules to help them write "correctly." Unfortunately, this heavy emphasis on correctness and writing with a narrow set of rules did little to improve student writing. Simply knowing how to write grammatically correct prose is important, but it is not enough, by itself, to make writing effective or persuasive. Indeed, too much attention to correctness can result in unintentionally rigid or even comical writing. Legend has it that Winston Churchill grew so irritated at pedants telling him not to end his sentences with prepositions that he said to one of them, "Madame, that is a rule up with which I shall not put." Really, the best way to learn to become a better writer is to read more and note what the writer says.
Since the 1970s, writing instructors have been teaching writing, not as the following of fixed rules but rather as a dynamic process: a series of steps that writers can follow to produce texts. At first, these steps were taught as a somewhat rigid sequence. Since then, however, writing teachers began to emphasize "recursivity"--moving forward through some steps and then circling back to redo previous steps--as the more natural way to write. These steps involve both reading (someone else's or your own work) and writing throughout the composition process. In other words, while we still think of writing as a process taking place in a series of steps, we now understand that good writers tend to switch frequently among the different steps as they work, and each of these steps involve both reading and writing. An insight gained while editing (reading) one chapter might convince the writer that an additional chapter is needed; as a result, she might start another drafting phase--or even decide to divide one chapter into two or three, and begin reorganizing and developing new drafts. Likewise, failure to satisfy a publisher--whether it is your boss looking at a pamphlet you've written, or a book publisher deciding whether to print and sell your book--might lead the author all the way back to the idea-development or organizing stages. In short, while it is very useful to think of writing as a process, the process is not a clear, always-the-same series of steps. Instead, it is sometimes a forward-and-backward process in which you strive for simplicity while appealing to your audience, create but also organize, go crazy but follow some rules, and eventually create a product that works.
Product versus Process Approach to Writing
How do you develop an essay? The first and most important concept to understand is this: Essays do not happen all at once. An essay writer rarely creates an essay (the product) in one sitting due to the nature of essay writing. Essay writing is a process and, like any process, there are several stages or steps that you can learn and apply so that eventually you will develop your own process or processes for writing.
The chart below offers a fuller comparison of process versus product writing.
Example: writing a news story under a deadline for a blog post
Example: writing a college essay
Process-Based Writing and Reading
In order to learn to see reading and writing as processes, it is first important to understand that the meaning of any text is created during the act of writing itself, not before. This is not to say that meaning is completely determined by the writer. A reader can also help conjure the meaning of a text, and -- during the drafting process -- can help the writers develop meanings that they may not have seen on their own.
In addition, reading is also a process that -- when a person reads actively -- involves writing. For example, when readers annotate texts, they think about their own experiences, the meaning of the words, and the connections between what the text says and other aspects of their lived experiences. Readers may annotate -- or take notes -- on the text, which in itself, is an act of creation.
Here are some basic principles of process-based reading and writing:
- Writing is a process and practice. The meaning of any text is created and evolves during composing and revision.
- In order to develop meaning fully, multiple drafts (which a writer and others read and re-read), are necessary. Writing is much more than a transcription tool. It is a means of making knowledge, learning, and critical thinking.
- The reading-writing process can be divided into stages that include research, invention, revision, and editing.
- Writing is a non-linear process, and its stages often overlap.
- Writers actively seek feedback from readers and judiciously use that feedback in their revisions.
- The process model empowers writers by encouraging them to understand and refine their writing strategies and techniques, and it encourages readers to look at texts and ideas from different points of view and revisit their original understanding.
Most writers do not begin a new piece with a set meaning in their minds. We may have an initial idea for a piece of writing, but in order to implement that idea, we have to shape and re-shape it constantly as we write, read, and re-write. The meaning of any text is an ever-evolving entity. Thinking does not precede writing, but happens simultaneously with writing. This shaping and re-shaping of the text’s meaning takes place through drafting, re-reading, and revision. For example, all of the chapters in this book went through several reads and drafts with multiple revisions before it was published.
Common Misconceptions about the Reading-Writing Process
Most people have used this creative process in one way or another, but many have misconceptions about how to use it to write. Here are a few of the most common misconceptions students have about the writing process:
- “I do not have to waste time on prewriting if I understand the assignment.” Even if the task is straightforward and you feel ready to start writing, take some time to develop ideas before you plunge into your draft. Freewriting—writing about the topic non-stop for a set period of time—is one prewriting technique
- “It is important to complete a formal, numbered outline for every writing assignment.” For some assignments, such as lengthy research papers, proceeding without a formal outline can be very difficult. However, for other assignments, a structured set of notes or a detailed graphic organizer may suffice. The important thing is to have a solid plan for organizing ideas and details.
- “My draft will be better if I write it when I am feeling inspired.” By all means, take advantage of those moments of inspiration. However, understand that sometimes you will have to write when you are not in the mood. Sit down and start your draft even if you do not feel like it. If necessary, force yourself to write for just one hour. By the end of the hour, you may be far more engaged and motivated to continue. If not, at least you will have accomplished part of the task.
- “My instructor will tell me everything I need to revise.” If your instructor chooses to review drafts, the feedback can help you improve. However, it is still your job, not your instructor’s, to transform the draft into a final, polished piece. That task will be much easier if you give your best effort to the draft before submitting it. During revision, do not just go through and implement your instructor’s corrections, see where else the comments written by your instructor apply. Remember, instructors are not editors; instructors guide you to learn to edit your own work. Take time to determine what you can change to make the work the best it can be.
- “I am a good writer, so I do not need to revise or edit.” Even the best writers need to revise and edit their work.( It could help you catch an embarrassing typo or two). Revising and editing are the two steps that make good writers into great writers.
Contributors and Attributions
- Adapted from Writing for Success. Provided by: The Saylor Foundation. License: CC-NC-SA 3.0.
- Adapted from Methods of Discovery: A Guide to Research Writing. Authored by: Pavel Zemliansky. License: CC BY: Attribution.
- Adapted from College Writing. Provided by: Lumen Learning. License: CC-BY-NC.
This page most recently updated June 3, 2020.