As teachers of writing at the college level, it can be all too easy to forget the big picture. Our focus is often on the day-to-day requirements of lesson planning, designing and grading assignments, or deep in the details that make the difference between polished and unpolished writing. And rightly so. This is where teachers can make the most impact on their students’ progression as writers.
Sometimes, though, it’s important to remind ourselves, and our students, what the big picture of writing looks like. For students, writing can easily become something akin to a chore one does only while in school. How many young writers have a clear picture of what writing is? Even if you, as a writing instructor, have an excellent grasp of the answer to this question, are you certain all your students share this same understanding? What is writing, anyway?
It’s a question that seems almost too basic to even need addressing in a college classroom. We read and write so ubiquitously in literate, tech-oriented societies that it’s easy to forget just how much of an outlier this seemingly-natural endeavor actually is. Only in the last couple centuries have the numbers of people living in literate societies begun to rival those in pre-literate societies. As renowned cognitive linguist Steven Pinker writes in his 2015 style guide, “The spoken word is older than our species, and the instinct for language allows children to engage in articulate conversation years before they enter a schoolhouse. But the written word is a recent invention that has left no trace on our genome and must be laboriously acquired throughout childhood and beyond.” An emphasis should be placed on the importance of the schoolhouse regarding literacy rates in adults, as rates of adult literacy are highly correlated with rates of primary school enrollment. In other words, it takes years and years of schooling and practice to do something we largely take for granted in the university setting nowadays.
So writing is a skill that takes years to acquire, yes. But there’s much more to be said here, because writing isn’t just a skill. Writing is at least, in part, a technological innovation. Unlike speech, which uses sounds to symbolically represent ideas, objects, actions, or abstractions, writing requires a system of symbolic representation to be captured on a substrate—whether it be imprintations in clay tablets, characters chiseled into stone, chalk scrawled onto a blackboard, ink scratched across paper, or pixels in black-and-white projected on a computer screen. It’s this substrate—stone, clay, paper, plastic, or digital memory—that gives writing perhaps its most important quality, a quasi-permanence that allows an idea to endure in its original written form for centuries or even millennia.
That state of quasi-permanence is one of the attributes that makes writing such a powerful cognitive tool, allowing people to record ideas and transmit them unaltered, indefinitely across time. During a recent road trip across the country, I stopped at a rest area along the interstate in the mountains of Utah. Upon entering one of the bathroom stalls, I saw the following—CKG WAS HERE—carved into the toilet seat. I wondered what kind of person would go to such great effort to leave such a banal message on a toilet seat. But CKG, whoever they are, has left an indelible mark on the world that will be seen by every person who steps into that same bathroom stall for years to come—not unlike the citizens of Pompeii who left similar markings in the latrine, hardly suspecting they would be unearthed thousands of years in the future.
In that way, we might think of writing as a sort of vast fossil record of human ideas. And from this record we can read Phoenician cargo ship manifests as clearly as the day they were written; we can compare nuances in fiscal philosophies on a balanced budget between Bill Clinton and Cicero; or we can explore the psychological effects of disease outbreaks in the nineteenth century by reading Victorian novels. The written word lasts. With it, we can capture countless ephemeral things that otherwise would be lost to history. That’s one of the main reasons we spend thousands of hours over decades of our lives learning and refining our reading and writing skills—to access that priceless trove of knowledge and leave ours behind for the generations to come.
“Writing” as teachers of writing think about it, though, means so much more than merely being able to memorialize an idea in a long-lasting substrate. The physical permanence of writing allows the writer to read and reconsider what they’ve written. It allows for re-writing and revision. Editing. Writing allows the writer the freedom to craft a message in such a way that it becomes sharper, smarter, and better formed than the expression of the same idea in conversation or in a passing thought. Writing isn’t simply about permanence, but about dressing up our fossilized ideas to convey information effectively, to present arguments convincingly, and to tell stories beautifully. By design. Writing can do this in a manner that allows people to distill the best of their wandering thoughts into ideas worth reading years, decades, and even centuries down the line.
This big-picture understanding of what writing can be is worth remembering as we aim to help our students improve their writing. It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to carve CKG WAS HERE into a toilet seat. An elementary schooler has the literary know-how to do that. Instead, college students are here to learn to say that CKG was here, and that CKG had a useful idea, and that CKG can communicate that useful idea to others in such an effective manner that they think CKG’s idea is worth learning and sharing, both now and in the future.
Writing is the process of curating thoughts, crafting their presentation, and capturing the result of that process in fossilized form. It may seem almost too simple to warrant saying, but what could it hurt to remind ourselves and our students of this from time to time?
 Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style. Penguin, p. 27, 2015.