Definition, Examples, and Observations on Writing

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

woman writing next to tree

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(1) Writing is a system of graphic symbols that can be used to convey meaning. See the observations below. Also, see the following topics related to the writing system:

(2) Writing is the act of composing a text. See the observations below. Also, see the following topics related to composition:

Writers on Writing

Etymology and Pronunciation

From an Indo-European root, "to cut, scratch, sketch an outline"

Pronunciation: RI-ting


Writing and Language

Writing is not language. Language is a complex system residing in our brain which allows us to produce and interpret utterances. Writing involves making an utterance visible. Our cultural tradition does not make this distinction clearly. We sometimes hear statements such as Hebrew has no vowels; this statement is roughly true for the Hebrew writing system, but it is definitely not true for the Hebrew language. Readers should constantly check that they are not confusing language and writing.
(Henry Rogers, Writing Systems: A Linguistic Approach. Blackwell, 2005)

Origins of Writing

Most scholars now accept that writing began with accountancy. . . . In the late 4th millennium BC, the complexity of trade and administration in Mesopotamia reached a point at which it outstripped the power of memory of the governing elite. To record transactions in a dependable, permanent form became essential...
[E]ssential to the development of full writing, as opposed to the limited, purely pictographic writing of North American Indians and others, was the discovery of the rebus principle. This was the radical idea that a pictographic symbol could be used for its phonetic value. Thus a drawing of an owl in Egyptian hieroglyphs could represent a consonant sound with an inherent m; and in English a picture of a bee with a picture of a leaf might (if one were so minded) represent the word belief.
(Andrew Robinson, The Story of Writing. Thames, 1995)

The Literate Revolution in Ancient Greece

By Aristotle's time, political orators, including Demosthenes, were publishing written, polished versions of speeches they had earlier delivered. Though writing had been introduced into Greece in the ninth century [BC], 'publication' long remained a matter of oral presentation. The period from the middle of the fifth to the middle of the fourth centuries B.C. has been called the time of a 'literate revolution' in Greece, comparable to the changes brought in the fifteenth century by the introduction of printing and in the twentieth century by the computer, for reliance on writing greatly increased in this period and affected the perception of texts; see Havelock 1982 and Ong 1982. . . . Rhetoric gave increased attention to the study of written composition. The radical effects of greater reliance on writing can, however, be exaggerated; ancient society remained oral to a much greater degree than modern society, and the primary goal of the teaching of rhetoric was consistently an ability to speak in public. (George A. Kennedy, Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. Oxford University Press, 1991)

Plato on the Strange Quality of Writing

Thamus replied [to Theuth], 'Now you, who are the father of letters, have been led by your affection to ascribe to them a power the opposite of that which they really possess. For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. . . . You offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant.'
Writing, Phaedrus, has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing. And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself."
(Socrates in Plato's Phaedrus, translated by H. N. Fowler)

Further Reflections on Writing

  • "Writing is like a drug, too often employed by quacks who don't know what is true and what is false. Like a drug, writing is both a poison and a medicine, but only a real doctor knows its nature and the proper disposition of its power."
    (Denis Donoghue, Ferocious Alphabets. Columbia University Press, 1981)
  • "Writing is not a game played according to rules. Writing is a compulsive, and delectable thing. Writing is its own reward."
    (Henry Miller, Henry Miller on Writing. New Directions, 1964)
  • "Writing is really a way of thinking--not just feeling but thinking about things that are disparate, unresolved, mysterious, problematic or just sweet."
    (Toni Morrison, quoted by Sybil Steinberg in Writing for Your Life. Pushcart, 1992)
  • "Writing is more than anything a compulsion, like some people wash their hands thirty times a day for fear of awful consequences if they do not. It pays a whole lot better than this type of compulsion, but it is no more heroic."
    (Julie Burchill, Sex and Sensibility, 1992)
  • "It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? for the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows; he catches the changes of his mind on the hop."
    (Vita Sackville-West, Twelve Days, 1928)
  • "You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there's no free lunch. Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you're on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine."
    (Margaret Atwood, "Rules for Writers." The Guardian, February 22, 2010)
  • "Why one writes is a question I can answer easily, having so often asked it myself. I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live. I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me--the world of my parents, the world of war, the world of politics. I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere where I could breathe, reign, and recreate myself when destroyed by living. That, I believe, is the reason for every work of art. We also write to heighten our awareness of life. We write to lure, enchant, and to console others. We write to serenade. We write to taste life twice, once in the moment and once in retrospection. We write to be able to transcend our life, to reach beyond it. We write to teach ourselves to speak to others, to record the journey into the labyrinth. We write to expand our world when we feel strangled or restricted or lonely."
    (Anaïs Nin, "The New Woman." In Favor of the Sensitive Man and Other Essays. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976)

The Lighter Side of Writing

  • "Writing is like the world's oldest profession. First, you do it for your own enjoyment. Then you do it for a few friends. Eventually, you figure, what the hell, I might as well get paid for it."
    (Television scriptwriter Irma Kalish)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Definition, Examples, and Observations on Writing." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Definition, Examples, and Observations on Writing. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition, Examples, and Observations on Writing." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).