What the Heck IS Writing?

It’s rough when one takes issue with something early in an essay and finds it hard to get anything meaningful out of it because of that. Such is the case for me with Janet Emig’s essay “Writing as a Mode of Learning.” While I finally managed to trudge my way through and ultimately agree that writing does, in fact, seem to be an effective learning strategy according to her definition, two of her early claims about the difference between talking and writing had me stuck for a long time.

  1. “Writing is learned behavior; talking is natural, even irrepressible, behavior.
  2. Writing then is an artificial process; talking is not” (9).

The rest of the list doesn’t concern me much; the third point is reminiscent of Ong’s view on writing as technology, for instance, a fact which we’ve discussed at length in class. However, it is particularly the first point, and the second half of that point, that strikes me as problematic. Is talking, in fact, natural behavior? I’m not convinced it is. No matter how many times I reread this section, this potentially fallacious argument keeps jumping out at me. While I would agree that as humans, we seem to require communication of some sort, I do not believe talking is natural behavior. Talking, after all, is built on language, and is language not itself learned behavior? Were it natural, why are we not born with the innate ability to talk? Why are there so many different languages, and why is it so difficult to learn a language not native to us, especially the older we get?

This may seem like something nit-picky to focus on, but these are the first two points Emig cites as “very real differences” between talking and writing (9). They are the foundations of her other points, and help form part of the foundation of her overall argument. Hence my difficulty reconciling the rest of the essay with this problematic beginning.

Another of these differences between writing and talking brings to mind a very interesting question. Emig asserts that “writing tends to be a more responsible and committed act than talking” in her ninth difference (9). Does this still hold true? I ask this because it would seem that social media and texting may affect this claim somewhat, blurring the lines between talking and writing. Do social media and texting put writing on a level playing field with talking in this respect (that is, do they make writing no more responsible and committed than talking)? Or must we adopt a narrower view of writing in order for Emig’s argument to make sense?

Taking social media and texting into account in our current climate seems to make her overall argument a bit fuzzier, too. Is process involved in writing for these contexts in the same way that Emig means when she discusses processes of writing (throughout the essay, but particularly in Figure 1 on pg. 14)? If not, does that mean only certain forms of writing are modes of learning, or are all forms of writing useful in this regard?

This reading has sparked more questions for me than answers, it seems.


3 thoughts on “What the Heck IS Writing?

  1. I agree with you, Amber, that the general statement “talking is natural” presses uncomfortably close to the nature/nurture debate of linguistics. It seems to dismiss the semiotic process of language development. I wonder, however, in the context of Emig’s argument, if the intent of such a statement is meant more to highlight the mediating tool of writing as a problematic for communication rather than suggest that speech is naturally endowed. Once language has been learned (choose your flavor of theory – Lacanian, Saussurian, Kristevian, Piagetian, etc.), it can be delivered without the additional separative technology of writing (to borrow Ong’s terminology). With that said, the argument could and should be made that language is also a technology that mediates thought in the communication process. From this perspective, talking is also “artificial” because it requires the production of an internal script in order to convey a message. I can certainly see how Emig sort of paints herself into a corner with that statement.


  2. Agreed with Rob. I’m fascinated by this concept of writing as “artificial” and talking as “real.” Also, this false dichotomy of technology/civilization as opposed to the “natural” world seems incredibly problematic. People as far back as Thoreau (and certainly further, but I’m more familiar with Thoreau) have complicated this notion. Are the two–nature and technology–mutually exclusive, and where do we draw the line? We typically consider Thoreau to be a pro-nature, anti-society kind of guy, but late in life he wrote of the beauty of gardens in cities. Lawrence Buell and others have pointed to the fact that such gardens are the result of “civilizing” forces or technologies, but they seem highly natural because, y’know, foliage. So, where do we draw the line between unnatural and natural, and is it even important to draw that line? Why do we continue to push for more “natural” communication when communication is inherently technological?


  3. I’m jumping on this train with Rob and Justin. Additionally, note that the language of “natural” and the, well, natural opposite of the word, “unnatural,” communicates a dangerous implication. If talking is natural, what of people who are disabled and lack the skills to speak? Does this make them somehow other-than-human because they lack this “natural” form of identity? I’m scared about these implications and, similarly, the other side of the coin that if robots talk they somehow become “natural.”


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