“If you want to become a better reader, you need to become a better writer. If you want to become a better writer, you need to become a better reader.” Reading and writing are integral parts of one another. Ask any published author what he or she wrote about and he or she will be quick to tell you most of their ideas came from what they’ve read. Literature, in whatever form, is about life. What do writers write about? Life. They write about what they know, what they’ve experienced or what someone they know has experienced, or how they imagine something happening. Whether its fiction or non-fiction, writing is about the experiences, people, places, and events we encounter in every day life or about what we imagine the characters we create or encounter experience and their perspective of those experiences.
“Life” itself is a very broad topic – overwhelming is more like it. Think about it. Over the course of 23 hours and 59 minutes and 59 seconds, what do you experience? Who are the people you encounter and interact with? What are all the various places and the events which happen in those places? Why did what happened in a particular place happen? How did it happen? When did it happen? Who was involved directly and who was involved indirectly? Why? And so on . . . . The prospect of writing about every day “life” becomes overwhelming and most people give up before ever putting pen to paper.
Then the question arises, especially with many of my high school students – “Do I need to write? Do I really need to know how to do this?” Yes, of course if you are a college-bound junior or senior than good writing is an essential skill you will need for your undergraduate, graduate and even post graduate studies. However, this is the 21st century and this first 21st century generation is a technological / electronic generation. Most types of writing this generation engages in includes e-mail and text messaging. Many are online students who correspond virtually with teachers and classmates, never setting foot in a traditional brick and mortar English classroom. Many traditional classroom students are never taught the basics of English grammar and so never really learn how to write. The only writing they might learn to do is how to write to impress a standardized test scorer – or the “How to Write a 5-Paragraph Essay in 30 Minutes or Less and Score a 4 or Higher” strategy. Students are taught writing as a recursive process (pre-writing, draft, revise, edit, publish) rather than using the writing process to produce a product the WRITER is satisfied with. In addition, does the average business person really write compositions? The answer is “no”.
So why bother to become a better writer? Writing is a form of communication – it is how we communicate with ourselves and how we communicate those ideas to others. Think about the last novel you read. The author had a message he or she wanted to communicate to the reader. The message or central insight about (you guessed it) “life” the author wants the reader to understand is referred to as “theme.” Every piece of writing centers on a particular theme or themes. Theme is the hidden message and the reader must use clues left behind by the author or infer (ah, the reading comprehension dilemma) – that is, what is understood is not stated directly – the hidden message(s) in the piece. The author used writing to communicate with you, the reader, the central idea or insight about life that he or she has learned and wants the reader to know. When we write, we communicate things locked deep inside us – those private thoughts and memories – and writing enables us to express our thoughts and feelings about those experiences in ways that spoken communication does not allow us.
What many of us do not realize is that writing is actually one of the best ways to learn and to develop higher level (“critical thinking”) skills. Yes, you read that correctly. In her essay, “Writing as a Mode of Learning”, Janet Emig states that writing represents a unique mode of learning – not merely valuable, not merely special, but unique. Writing serves learning uniquely because writing as a process-and-product possesses a cluster of attributes that correspond uniquely to certain powerful learning strategies (p. 122). Huh?? Simply put: writing is a form or mode of learning – writing helps us learn when we use the writing process to produce a [specific type] of written product. Writing itself is learned and we learn as we write. The learning strategies we use in writing are easily transferred to reading and critical thinking. Writing requires the writer to think on a deeper level and to think critically about what he or she is trying to communicate (remember ‘theme’?). The writer must think critically about the theme or themes of the piece he or she is writing in order to hide it with clues that the reader must uncover through a series of inferences.
Writing is also a form of freedom. While a teacher can teach you the process of writing (which you should learn), a teacher outside of a standardized test open-ended question / constructed response or essay cannot dictate what you as the writer think, feel, know, understand, want to understand, and so on about that experience. Your experiences and your perception of those experiences are unique to you. Your perspective depends on where you are standing: the pigeon or the statue? Both have a different perspective of the same event. However, your version of the same event(s) is open to your interpretation of those events. If you are the pigeon, well, you probably have an altogether different opinion about that convenient statue. :) Just as the pigeon can only tell his or her version of the story, so the statue can only tell his or her version of the story. And where you’re standing during the events has a lot to do with how you write about those events. A person standing at the base of the statue will have a completely different perspective of the events if the pigeon misses the statue. Consider the tone (word choice) and mood each of the writers would try to communicate to the reader. All want to connect with their readers so they are going to choose words which appeal to the readers’ emotions. Yet, all will choose different words to evoke different emotions out of the reader to get the reader to emphasize with them and persuade the reader that their perspective of the events is correct. Writing allows the writer to be free to evoke those feelings through different modes: poetry, essay, composition, narrative, persuasive, descriptive, expository, informative, fiction, non-fiction.
Writing is considered one of the four types of communication processes: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. There must be a connection here somewhere, right? There is! How do writing and learning correlate with each other? Take a quick look at this chart (Emig, p. 128) and compare the learning strategies emphasized in listening, speaking, and reading with the attributes of writing as a process-product:
Selected Characteristics of Successful Learning Strategies-Selected Attributes of Writing (Process and Product)
Successful Learning Strategies profit from multi-representational and integrative reinforcement
Writing represents process uniquely multi-representational and integrative
Successful Learning Strategies seek self-provided feedback:
Writing represents powerful instances of self-provided feedback:
a) provides product uniquely available for immediate feedback (review and reevaluation)
b) provides a record of how the writer’s thoughts evolve through the process of writing
Successful Learning Strategies make connections:
a) makes generative conceptual groupings, synthetic (synthesis) and analytic (analysis, evaluation)
b) proceeds from propositions, hypotheses, and other (elegant) summaries
Writing provides connections:
a) establishes specific and systematic conceptual groupings through lexical (vocabulary), syntactic (sentence structure), and rhetorical (style, mood, tone, etc.) devices
b) represents the most available means (spoken language) for an economical method of recording abstract ideas
Successful Learning Strategies are active, engaged, personal, and self-rhythmed
Writing is active, engaging, personal, and self-rhythmed
In conclusion, let’s go back to our original question: Why bother to become a better writer? If you want to develop the learning strategies needed to master the other three communication processes, you need to become a better writer. Secondly, if you are looking for freedom from the rigid “standardized test” formats – writing provides an outlet which only you, the writer, can determine is the appropriate format for communicating your personal thoughts and ideas. And, finally, writing not only serves as a method of learning, it is a method of learning. Writing is a learning strategy and serves as a strategy of learning for reading, listening, and speaking. “If you want to become a better reader, you need to become a better writer. If you want to become a better writer, you need to become a better reader.”
Enough said. It’s time for you to get started. Don’t know where to start? Buy a 1-subject notebook and begin by keeping an [informal] journal. Write about the events in your life and your perspective of those events over the course of one 23:59:59 period. Or imagine yourself as the pigeon or statue, or even the (innocent?) bystander and write about the event(s) from that character’s perspective. “Oh the places you’ll go . . . .” Have fun!
Emig, J. (1977). Writing as a Mode of Learning. College and Composition, 28, 122 - 128.