Concept 4: All Writers Have More to Learn
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C o nc e p t 4 All Writers Have More to Learn DOI: 10.7330/9780874219906.c004 4.0 All Writers Have Mo re to Learn Shirley Rose Many people assume that all writing abilities can be learned once and for always. However, although writing is learned, all writers always have more to learn about writing. The ability to write is not an innate trait humans are born possessing. Humans are “symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animals,” and writing is symbolic action, as Kenneth Burke has explained (Burke 1966, 16). Yet learning to write requires conscious effort, and most writers working to improve their effectiveness find explicit instruction in writing to be more helpful than simple trial and error without the benefit of an attentive reader’s response. Often, one of the first lessons writers learn, one that may be either frustrating or inspiring, is that they will never have learned all that can be known about writing and will never be able to demonstrate all they do know about writing. Writers soon discover that writing strategies that are effective for them in one context are often inappropriate and ineffective in another context in which they need or want to write; even when strategies work, writers still struggle to figure out what they want to say and how to say it. They struggle because writing is not just transcribing preformed ideas but also developing new ones; thus a writer never becomes a perfect writer who already knows how to write anything and everything. This difficulty and imperfectability of writing, and the fact that it is not a “natural” phenomenon (see 1.6, “Writing Is Not Natural”) is one reason formal writing instruction is typical of schooling in the United States at all levels. But learning about writing doesn’t happen only in school. For example, James Gee (2004) showed how a teenage writer of fan fiction learned about writing outside school through the practice, advice, and modeling provided by her online community of other writers. Likewise, instruction in writing does not necessarily end when formal schooling ends. Writers encounter new 60   Part 1 : Threshold Concepts of Writing contexts, genres, tasks, and audiences as they move among workplaces and communities beyond formal schooling, and these new contexts call for new kinds of writing. With experience, writers do discover that some writing habits developed in one context can be helpful in another. For example, habits such as writing multiple drafts or setting aside regular, frequent periods for writing in a place free of distractions often prove effective regardless of the writing task or context. Likewise, writing strategies useful in one context, such as using explicit transitional words to signal organization or using illustrations to develop an idea, will work well in many different writing contexts for many different purposes. However, these same writing habits and strategies will not work in all writing situations (see 5.3, “Habituated Practice Can Lead to Entrenchment”). There is no such thing as “writing in general”; therefore, there is no one lesson about writing that can make writing good in all contexts (see 2.0, “Writing Speaks to Situations through Recognizable Forms,” and 2.2, “Genres Are Enacted by Writers and Readers”). Writers must struggle to write in new contexts and genres, a matter of transferring what they know but also learning new things about what works in the present situation . The difficulty of drawing on prior knowledge in this way has spawned a thread of research on transfer of knowledge about writing (see Wardle 2012). The working knowledge that enables a writer to select the practices and strategies appropriate for a particular writing context and task is learned over time through experience as a writer and as a reader of writing . Therefore, a demonstration of one’s ability to write effectively in one context cannot constitute proof of one’s ability to write in other contexts. Writers—and teachers of writing—might sometimes wish all writing abilities could be learned once and for always, just as one can learn how to spell a particular word correctly or how to punctuate a quotation correctly once and for always. However, many writing abilities, such as choosing the most appropriate and precise word, and exercising good judgment in deciding whether to quote directly or to paraphrase in any given writing situation, cannot be learned just once. This imperfectability of writing ability is even more evident when a writer must learn how to choose and use evidence to...

Subject Headings

  • English language -- Rhetoric -- Study and teaching.
  • Creative writing -- Study and teaching.
  • Academic writing -- Study and teaching.
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