Writing as Conversation
Writing does not happen in a vacuum but within a specific context and time. The process of writing can be better understood if it is viewed as a conversation between writer and reader within a specific context and time, rather than a static text. As a college student, you are expected to engage with, and join, the conversations about myriad topics --not only with classmates, but also writers who are experts in their fields. Imagine you are entering a room buzzing with different conversations...you choose to enter one of the conversations. Most of you have learned the required etiquette needed to not only join the conversation politely, but also to add something of value. Joining the world of written conversations is not much different and has its own set of etiquette and rules.
One of those rules is to acknowledge what has already been said about a topic and who said it. No one likes that person in a conversation who just repeats what someone else said as though it were their own original idea. If you do this without any citation or attribution, then you've plagiarized.
By now, you have already learned how to write cohesive paragraphs and short essays. Now you need to engage critically with texts written by experts by adding your written opinions. You will need to
- hone your research skills to actively seek out the latest conversations in specific subjects,
- practice your reading skills to recognize the ways that sources are taking part in a conversation,
- and fine-tune your methods of presentation to join in the discussion.
Michael Charlton, Professor at Missouri Western State University, writes in his essay, "Understanding How Conversations Change Over Time" that we are surrounded by conversations with which we engage meaningfully. The following excerpt is adapted from his essay:
Writers make their claims in the real world where people with other opinions, values, beliefs, and experiences live. To make a claim is to enter into a conversation with these people. The rhetorician, Kenneth Burke, once famously described this as a parlor or party to which you have come late to find out that people are already in heated discussions about a topic. After you see who is part of the conversation and hear what they are saying, you begin to feel comfortable enough to offer your own take on the subject.
For example, you arrive somewhere to meet two friends and discover that they are discussing where to go to dinner or which movie to see. Each friend presents his or her argument, setting out evidence for why this restaurant or movie is a good choice, and each friend pokes holes in the other person’s argument, pointing out why he or she would not enjoy that restaurant or movie. You are expected to take a role in this discussion. Maybe you take a stand with one friend over the other, or maybe you try to reach a compromise and propose a third restaurant or movie that everyone could accept. This can lead to even further discussion.
This discussion between three friends is somewhat like Burke’s idea of the parlor, but there are differences. Eventually the conversation between the three friends will reach an end: they will go to dinner or a movie, perhaps, or they will all go home. Everyone entered into the conversation, made his or her claims, responded to other people, and went on with their lives. Burke, however, was talking about the conversations and arguments that take place in the larger culture and the world as a whole. In his metaphor, the conversation never truly ends. A writer enters into it at a particular place and time and tries to react to everything that has come before. He or she may even be influential in changing the direction or tone of the conversation by looking at it from a new angle or focusing on a different aspect of it; for example, maybe the three friends need to consider whether there is a certain type of food or movie one of them dislikes or maybe the three friends need to consider a different activity.
Conversations about important issues do not end
In your writing, you might have the urge to solve all the problems of the world. Sometimes writers who begin an essay with "Since the beginning of time . . . " end their essays with the belief that they've now solved a problem for all time. But for most complex issues, the conversation never truly ends.
One widely discussed social trend that continues to inform American and global discourse is the increasing prominence of women in the workplace during and after the Second World War. At that time, this was a controversial development for many people, who felt that women were leaving traditional gender roles and the home in order to pursue work conventionally identified with men. (Although, as some historians have noted, women have always played an important role in businesses from agriculture to manufacturing, and so this conversation is far older than the mid-twentieth century.)
Most viewers watching an educational film made in 1959 entitled The Trouble with Women find its depiction of female workers to be so incredibly dated that it is almost comical. Changes in social values have rendered the film’s discussion between two men about female employees ridiculous. Both the “con” side (with his insistence that female workers are inherently inferior) and the “pro” side (with his argument that what he calls “gals” or “girls” can be just as good) have no mainstream place in contemporary discussions of gender in the workplace. The entire question up for discussion (can women fit into the workplace?) is one that has been answered by fifty years of history in which women have fully integrated into the American workplace, and social values around gender issues and equality have changed.
If a writer were seeking to end a conversation, they could argue that things have vastly improved since 1959, and thus the problem has been solved. Of course, as any woman in the workplace can tell you, the conversation has not ended. Rather, the conversation about whether women should be allowed in the workplace has morphed into a discussion of how all genders are treated in the workplace. A writer who wants to join a conversation would instead look for a way to advance the conversation.
Yes, the situation of women in the workplace has improved significantly in the past 60 years, as evidenced by a 1959 video
But, problems like income disparity; the balance between family life, childcare, and the workplace; why certain professions are still dominated by one gender; sexual harassment; all still exist
So, the increased prominence of women and the rise in social movements such as feminism, which gave women a greater voice in the public sphere and a greater ability to steer the conversation, still need to be leveraged to solve the problem
Hopefully you recognized the Yes, But, So pattern. This is a great pattern for conversation because it forces you to continue the conversation and to invite other to join. For example, if someone now wanted to join the conversation with you, but had a different idea about inequality in the workplace, they could structure their conversation in this way
Yes, the increased prominence of women and the rise in social movements such as feminism, which gave women a greater voice in the public sphere and a greater ability to steer the conversation, can be leveraged to solve the problem of inequality in the workplace
But, many of the gains achieved by feminism have benefited primarily white women. But, according to the Pew Research Center, the income disparity for Black men is the same as it is for white women, and Black women suffer from income inequality even more.
So, we need to establish broader coalitions when fighting to end workplace discrimination
Contributors and Attributions
- Adapted from Reading and Writing for College Success by Athena Kashyap & Erika Dyquisto
- Revision and adaptation of the page Writing Commons: Michael Charlton's Understanding How Conversations Change Over Time . Authored by: Susan Oaks. Provided by: Empire State College, SUNY OER Services. Project: College Writing. License: CC BY-NC: Attribution-NonCommercial