The Authorial Functions of Writing

What are the functions of a hammer? Does that depend on the nails?

Students often think that writing functions as a conveyor belt. An idea exists in the student’s brain. They write down a copy of that idea, and the writing moves along to the teacher, who ingests the idea as the writing travels past. This metaphorical conveyor belt generally ends in a trash can, where most writing for school ends up.

But outside the traditional classroom environment, writing serves other functions, many of which constitute threshold concepts of writing studies. In this discipline, we see writing as an invented tool that negotiates meaning, expresses ethics, and establishes expertise.

Writing is an Invented Tool

Humans create tools to help them achieve goals. Writing—indeed, language itself—is every bit as much an invented tool as is the plow, the hammer, or the computer. Brooke and Grabill assert the importance of writing as great projects in human development and progress, yet they skip over the fundamental assertion of their claim. To be sure, they explain what writing lets us do. But they skip right over the idea that writing was invented, created to address a specific problem, and that it continues to be developed iteratively as the problems we want to solve themselves become more complex, more nuanced, or more specific.

For example, language use in today’s “United” States is far more sensitive to issues of inclusivity and imperialism than in decades past. Social pressure has made a number of words and phrases fall out of favor. We collectively come to understand that this tool we share may be so blunt at times. So blunt, in fact, that it does collateral damage. It’s sometimes like using a wrecking ball to hammer a nail into a wall. Writing is a technology, and technology adapts over time. We need to see and expect that sort of change because the people—the societies—that use writing themselves change. Writing cannot be static.

Writing Negotiates Meaning

In “Words Get Their Meanings from Other Words,” Dylan B. Dryer paraphrases de Saussure when he says that “there is no necessary connection between any sounds or clusters of symbols and their referents” (23). However, research from 2017 suggests that parents universally inflect their voices in specific ways to convey feeling (or perhaps meaning) to infant children. And I suspect folks who use logographic writing systems would argue that the symbols and shapes indeed do have connections between the symbols and their referents. Dryer/de Saussure’s argument, of course, fully stands in the context of alphabetic writing.

Dryer goes on to expand the context of his ideas. “The relations that imbue a sentence with particular meanings come not just from nearby words but also from the social contexts in which the sentence is used” (24). Here, he argues that meaning comes from outside the text. That perspective is absent in far too many reading/writing classes. Contrary to the popular belief that writing merely conveys meaning, Dryer here suggests that writing articulates or refines existing meaning shared (or negotiated) between rhetor and audience.

Writing Expresses Ethics

If I opened this post by telling you what Webster says the word writing means, you’d likely roll your eyes at best or think I’m a fool at worst. Of course you know what that word means. By opening with a definition, I imply that you need to be told. That move should come across as offensive because it would insult the reader’s intelligence. Writing always conveys the rhetor’s perception of the audience. And there’s always an implied judgment behind that perception.

John Duffy asserts that “Writing Involves Making Ethical Choices.” While I appreciate the fresh, accessible approach he takes, I’m surprised Duffy didn’t explicitly connect ethics with ethos. The two words share a common root. Also, most of his readers are familiar with the significance of ethos in rhetorical studies. A rhetor’s ability to build credibility rests on their ability to make ethical decisions and to convey clearly the decisions they’ve made. An ability to make decisions ethically builds credibility with an audience. We rarely acknowledge that layer of writing in the classroom.

Writing Establishes Expertise

In order to serve as an expert member of a discourse community, a rhetor must be able to write within, for, and on behalf of that community. Rhetors develop those abilities through practice. Members of a discourse community exchange writing to distribute and negotiate linguistic standards, identify common goals, etc. With enough experience, a rhetor can predict expectations and write in ways that are appropriate, if not even trend-setting, in the community. Outsiders, then, would see this writing as representative of the community and thus confer expert status on the rhetor.

The Functions of Writing in Pedagogy

As Michael Carter notes in “The Idea of Expertise: An Exploration of Cognitive and Social Dimensions of Writing,” we face a dilemma in writing instruction. In his words, “How can we teach general knowledge about writing without resorting to either allegedly generic writing domains or decontextualized instruction in strategies?” (283). This dilemma grows directly from Elizabeth Wardle’s lay-audience explanation that there’s no such thing as “writing in general”. Administrators and non-writing-specialists often think of writing as generalizable skills. But writing scholars have spent decades demonstrating that it is anything but.

Our challenge is to understand the functions of writing and help students build facility in employing those functions in a variety of settings. How best to do that remains an active topic of disciplinary debate.