Writing as a Social Activity

By Tobias Lee, Writing Consultant

Recently, a writer came in and started off her appointment with me by saying that she thinks of herself as a good writer and generally hasn’t had any trouble. This was her first visit to the University Writing Center, and her reason for making the appointment was the promise of extra credit from her professor. Wonderful, I said. I was glad to hear that she had confidence as a writer and felt able to approach new writing situations with aplomb. Indeed, it’s far more common for writers to preface their session with harsh self-appraisals of their abilities, saying “I’ve never been a good writer” and claiming they’re terrible at grammar.

The comments from both types of writers point to the same belief about the UWC’s purpose: that we exist to help writers correct their writing, to get you on the “right” track. Such a purpose would be consistent with a deficit view of student writing, which unfortunately is all too common. Of course, we’re happy to work with writers whatever their sense of their ability, and we can certainly share our knowledge of grammatical conventions. But another way of thinking about the UWC is as a space that recognizes and celebrates the fact that writing is an inherently social activity.

A social activity? How so? I see that one eyebrow creeping upward.

“Hey what are you doing later, me and some friends are gonna get together and write.”

“I had a great time writing with you, let’s do it again sometime.”

“You going to Jen’s writing party later?”

Okay, not quite like that (although writing in a group is very much a thing–see our events page!). Sure, it may be that quiet time to oneself is slightly more conducive to the penning of epics. Proust wrote A la Recherche du Temps Perdu in his bed, not at Starbucks. But when I say writing is an inherently social activity, I mean that in a deeper sense.

People working in composition, rhetoric, and communication often talk about audience. No, not the ones lobbing rotten tomatoes; I mean the people who are going to read your writing (and if reading this makes you wonder if there are any serviceably well-aged tomatoes in the back of your fridge, well, now you know why I chose academia and not stand-up comedy). Ede and Lunsford (1984) identify two popular ways of conceiving audience: audience addressed and audience invoked. Those who suggest it’s the former argue for the supreme importance of knowing your audience. You need to know as much as possible about who (okay fine, whom) you’re writing for so that you can tailor your message to suit. The latter camp, however, insist that audience is necessarily a fiction. It’s imagined by the writer, abstracted from assumptions. You can’t possibly “know your audience.” Are they a bunch of persnickety prescriptivists who still insist on using “whom”? Which translation of Proust do they prefer? Shoot, I’ll bet you don’t even know what they had for breakfast this morning. Ede and Lunsford, however, suggest that the reality is far more complex. Audience is both invoked and addressed! It’s who(m) you imagine you’re writing for and the actual persons who will read your work because, in fact, it’s everyone who has ever influenced you. All those voices in your head! The ones reading this now, the ones metaphorically looking over your shoulder as you write, urging you toward this or that grammatical choice. From birth we’re continually internalizing, revising, and producing language: an ongoing dialogue with our environment.

And they weren’t the only ones, Ede and Lunsford. Matter of fact, their work was part of a much larger transdisciplinary shift in thinking whereby knowledge (and knowledge of writing) has come to be understood as generated through interactions and thus as socially situated and always emergent (rather than, say, residing inert in dusty books). Sociocultural anthropologist James Wertsch (1991) wrote a heady (pun absolutely intended) philosophical work on the matter called Voices of the Mind. He draws on Vygotsky, Bakhtin, and others and using words like “intermental” and “mediational means” to demonstrate that, well, basically, “no man is an island,” as John Donne put it. We’re part of a society, you and me, and it’s not just the laws, the economics, or the social media that link us. It’s the ongoing knowledge production that results from our interactions, no matter the time or the medium. The suggestion popular in history and Hollywood that great works are the product of a genius toiling in isolation not only isn’t true (Proust was quite the socialite, but more to the point, he was heavily influenced by many other writers before him); it also makes writing a lot harder than it already is and actively prevents people from challenging themselves since they weren’t born into the Mensa society and can’t afford the rent on an ivory tower.

So, come write with us! We love to listen deeply, to engage with your ideas, to muse aloud with you, think things through, see how they’ll play out. We’ll join the chorus of voices in your head, not to add to the cacophony, but to help you coordinate them into a beautiful song.

Ede, L. & Lunsford, A. (1984). Audience addressed/audience invoked: The role of audience in composition theory and pedagogy. College Composition and Communication, 35(2), pp. 155-171.

Wertsch, J. (1991). Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s