Writing is not a simple mechanical activity but can be viewed as a cognitive process through which writers explore and clarify their meanings.
Written texts usually appear permanent and stable; however a closer analysis will often reveal the negotiative and undetermined nature of written signs as they acquire different meanings in the decoding process depending on the readers’ schemata and intuitions.
The act of writing includes both encoding and decoding; it is not a one-way process from addresser to addressee, but a complex multidirectional process from addresser to addressee and vice versa. Furthermore, in the absence of readers, the writer also acts as the recipient, anticipating objections and queries, and integrating this fictional interaction in the writing process. In this way, the very addresser also acts as the addressee of his/her own message.
Depending on the genre or function of a written text, more or less careful thinking and planning go into it. Whether it’s a quick note to inform your flatmate you’ll be back in an hour, or an examination paper assessing your school work, you’re going to invest a different amount of time, energy and care. The more demanding a piece of writing is, the more you need to plan ahead.
A draft is a very useful tool for structuring, that is for placing the content units in logical sequence, and for highlighting the key points. The form of a draft is a very personal thing: it could be a rough outline of the main points to be dealt with, or it could look like a discursive piece of writing. However, a sketchy draft has a distinct advantage in that it allows the writer to check the coherence and salience of what s/he writes.
We can always improve our written texts to make them more effective; the revision process can, indeed, be endless. We should get used to reading our pieces of work slowly and carefully as if we were not the writers of our papers but casual readers who happen to see them for the first time.
In our daily life we may carry out various writing activities, some of which more demanding and some more trivial:
Writing in a second language will obviously require even extra care with language use and text organisation. As a general rule you should keep it simple and try to avoid the complex syntax and sophisticated verbiage the Italian rhetorical tradition is so fond of.
We can distinguish four main kinds of writing depending on the dominant function performed in the text:
The structure and style of a text are obviously affected by its function; for example, narrative texts usually present a chronological sequence and are in the past tense, while expository texts present an impersonal style (it can be observed…) and use the present tense.
However, it is also worth bearing in mind that these functions often overlap. For example, news articles blur all these distinctions since they do many things at once: inform, recount, describe, and argue.
Just like speech, writing may serve either an interactional or a transactional purpose. In the first case, writing is used for socialising and establishing relationships (for example, personal communications in letters); in the second case, writing performs some practical function such as a business transaction. However, these two aspects may often intertwine: for example, in business communications, the politeness formulas and greetings are used to reach a transactional aim.
In English writing a lot of attention is devoted to text organization, since careful structuring greatly contributes to the reader-friendliness of the final product. While, roughly speaking, the Italian rhetorical tradition seems to allow for greater flexibility in argumentative and expository writing, the English tradition aims for a more conventional standard of writing, with a clear structure wary of digressions and associative (rather than logical) transitions.
Each new concept or item needs to be developed in one paragraph, which usually consists of three to four sentences.
Paragraphing is a very useful tool for checking the clarity and readability of one’s own writing. It also helps relieve the eye strain of reading very dense text, especially on a computer screen.
Linkers or connectives link clauses, sentences and paragraphs, contribute to the smooth development of ideas in a text, and also cue readers as to the preferred way to interpret them, for example, making explicit whether there is a causal or a temporal relation between two concepts (see Haarman, Leech, Murray 1988: 47).
There are four main categories of linkers expressing:
and, besides, further, furthermore, what’s more, moreover, in addition, firstly, secondly, finally.
but, yet, on the other hand, however, nevertheless, on the other hand, on the contrary, by comparison, although.
because, for, since, for the same reason, therefore, consequently, evidently.
When, while, as, since, after, before, next, and then, subsequently, until.
When we write, we aim to produce coherent and logical texts, which shouldn’t put too much strain on our readers. We may achieve a high level of readability by relying on cohesive ties or on the inner coherence of our text.
COHESION: the presence of explicit linguistic links such as pronouns and connectors between the various parts of the text which help to give the whole thing a clear structure.
COHERENCE: the presence of often implicit logical connections which make a text comprehensible and meaningful. (see Trask 1997: 45-46)
Let us consider the following examples:
Mr. Jones turned on the television and watched the evening news.
Mr. Jones turned on the television and went to the post office.
Both present cohesive ties, e.g. the linker “and”, the implied subject “he”, but different degrees of coherence. In fact, while the first one introduces a logical sequence of actions, the second presents an unusual sequence of events (we usually switch off the TV before going somewhere, not the opposite).
› Written language is generally more concise than spoken language because it dispenses with the repetitions necessary in spoken interaction to ensure that the message has come across.
› Conciseness is the aim of many kinds of written communication, from papers to reports: in our transactional encounters, we need to go to the point so as to avoid boring or alienating our readers. It might be convenient then to trim unnecessary pieces of information, together with decorative expressions and verbiage:
FOLLOW-UP: Read the tips for concise and effective writing at
Writing More Concisely: An Abridged Version of OWL at Purdue
You can have a go at correcting some lexical and grammatical mistakes at Correct the Mistakes.
Computer assisted writing
By just inserting a few personal details in the scroll-down menu at Computer Assisted Sentence Production (CASP) you’ll come up with various versions of your own self-presentation and with a quick letter to a friend.
Guided Business writing
You’ll have the opportunity to practise some useful business vocabulary at Auto English
Contributing to a forum
By registering at Guardian Unlimited Talkboard closure you can join several special issue or general interest forums and exchange ideas and opinions using English as a medium of communication.
L. Haarman, P. Leech, J. Murray, 1988, Reading skills for the social sciences, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
R.L. Trask, 1997, A Student's Dictionary of Language and Linguistics, London, Arnold.