how to talk about writing…

Everyone who talks about writing has to use language that people can relate to and understand. Of course. Duh. Sometimes this means using terms that are already in circulation – like pomodoro and shut up and write. while these terms were once new, they are now just part of writing conversations. But at other times talking about writing means inventing new words. The resulting language differences means that very often you can hear talking about writing and read writing about writing and see exactly or much the same thing described in different words. 

It’s inevitable that at least some of the time the different writing terms exist because people are playing their own kind of academic game – making up a term which they can lay claim to when it’s used by others. But at least as often, it’s because the word-inventor thinks that the term or terms they are replacing are problematic.

Take the notion of writing as binging and snacking, for instance. The terms were originally used to suggest that it was better to write small everyday than wait for a long interrupted period. Many people have objected to the term binging because of its associations with eating disorders and because in reality many writers do both short and long writing sessions. Wendy Belcher has used the terms writing sprints to get away from any negative associations with eating. Katherine Firth has also recently tackled these terms offering Spreader – for the writer who spreads their work out into smaller time slots – and Stacker – for the person who does longer, more sustained writing. 

It’s worth paying attention to the terms that people use when they talk about writing as they are often emphasising a particular point. One of my favorite writing wordsmiths – and I have to say favourite with at least a million other people – is Larry McEnerney, the former director of the U Chicago Writing Centre. One of McEnerney’s favourite terms is VALUE

McEnerney uses the term value to get at the difference between writing for university teachers and writing for another reader. University teachers, including supervisors are paid to read your work. But other readers aren’t. Other readers have to want to read your writing, McEnerney says. Why do they want to? Well, here’s when his term value comes in. A reader will read your work if they find it has value to them. 

McEnerney argues that understanding value to readers means that you have to shift your focus away from what you find interesting. Or shift from explaining and describing as the primary function of your text. Instead you need to concentrate on what the reader will perceive as being of value.

There are a whole lot of implications that stem from thinking about your reader and what they value:

  • Writers need to know their readers. What they find important. What will interest them. What will solve a problem they may not even know that they have.
  • Writers need to know something about the situation in which their reader is going to read – for example, an academic reader approaches a newspaper or social media differently from an academic journal. And a reader of a professional journal is looking for something that is meaningful to their practice. 
  • Writers need to introduce their text by showing the reader how it is going to have value. Most of the time the writer spells out a problem or puzzle, which McEnerney says is a coded way of saying that the reader is either wrong or doesn’t know something they need to know. The writer unsettles the reader and creates a desire to know more. So the notion of writing about the background or context to a problem is wrong, McEnerney asserts, because its all about the writer enriching the reader’s understanding of the problem and making them want to read on.
  • In making the case for writers to switch their attention from themselves to readers who want something of value, McEnerney attacks a number of common writing beliefs. He holds that there are no rules about for example sentence or paragraph length, passive voice, use of specific terminology – because it’s all about understanding what the reader wants. If the text has value the reader often wont notice these things, they only notice if the writing gets in the way of them getting to the value in the text.   

That’s not all he says of course. But I find McEnerney’s notion of value, and the term value, helpful. But not everyone does of course. However it is a language that helps at least some of us to think and talk about the importance of focusing on the reader and what this means for the authoring process.

Finding generative words to assist talking about writing is useful, I maintain. particularly in supervision and writing groups. So I reckon it’s worth keeping a conscious ear out for writing terms and their various meanings and emphases. What terms do you use to steer you towards helpful writing conversations and practices?

If you are one of the people who hasn’t yet comes across McEnerney, there are two videos of him teaching about writing. These are well worth watching even if you do end up never using the term value in your own thinking, talking and writing about writing. 

And a note – I’ve been asked to talk more about writing resources I recommend. This is one response, more coming.

Image credit Library RHUL on Flickr

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, Larry McEnerney, reader, talking writing, value and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to how to talk about writing…

  1. Hi Pat
    Thanks for this. I just noticed that the title for your posts sometimes picks up an invisible character [OBJ] at the start. For example, this one is:
    “how to talk about writing…”
    and another example is:
    “using the progressive disclosure principle in academic writing”.

    That wouldn’t be a problem, except that the title is then being turned into the web address. So the web address for this article is:
    If someone deletes the invisible character, the web address becomes an error: doesn’t lead anywhere.

    I’m guessing that you are getting these invisible characters if you paste from Word, perhaps? If that is the case, hitting [backspace] at the start of your title in WordPress might delete the invisible character.

    Anyway, just thought that you should know.

    Thanks for all that you do.



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