What is “Writing”?

One of my newer tutoring pupils asked during his first session, “What is writing? Isn’t it just, well—writing? Isn’t it simply putting words on paper?

Well . . . no, I answered, stalling to collect some thoughts. What about words that are published online, I asked, words that are posted on the Internet, which we see on a monitor?

I had stalled as long as I could, and he didn’t see that point, anyway. So I started from a different angle. I pointed out that the original “photocopiers” were highly skilled calligraphers who, basically, put words on paper. They would have been writers, according to the youngster’s definition. But, I continued, many of them could not read what they were writing—they were artists, trained to copy what they saw. Should we really call them writers?

His puzzled look encouraged me to continue. Writing is learned; it is not a skill we are born with, I said. We struggle to learn . . . to form letters . . . to combine those letters into words . . . to make those words into sentences—sentences that convey a message. I wrote these words on the board: writing learned not skill born with. Is that writing? I asked.

The puzzled look was now joined by a wrinkled brow and a confused stare. I confessed that I did consider the words to be writing because the words did convey a message, they did have meaning—I could deduce what the writer was trying to say.

A thought leaked from the silent student: “But, it doesn’t make sense!”

True, I admitted—it is not good writing. In that case, I directed his original question back to him: What is writing?

“Words that we can see that make sense,” was the answer I got. I agreed, then repeated his thought with embellishment and emphasis: So, I would say that writing is publishing meaningful words in a meaningful way.

Which leads into what we are going to be studying, I began to conclude. Good, meaningful writing, by my definition, requires learning the elements of basic writing, which I spoke of earlier, plus grammar plus structure (or rhetoric) plus style. Fortunately for both of us, those were studies for another day . . .