16 August 2016

Constructing Writing: Skills or Practices?

In Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing, my colleagues Liane Robertson and Kara Taczak and I reported on a study demonstrating that a given curriculum, what we call the Teaching for Transfer curriculum, does a better job of supporting students' transfer of writing knowledge and practice than other writing curricula.

In Writing across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing, my colleagues Liane Robertson and Kara Taczak and I reported on a study demonstrating that a given curriculum, what we call the Teaching for Transfer curriculum, does a better job of supporting students' transfer of writing knowledge and practice than other writing curricula. In choosing to talk about writing practices—rather than writing skills, which is the way writing is often characterized—we made a deliberate decision, and it's worth considering what we lose and gain in thinking about writing as a skill and writing as a practice.

On the one hand, the term skills brings with it several advantages. For one, it's certainly the case that society values skills: we all prefer the pilots of planes we are flying and the doctors assisting us—and even the teachers instructing us—to be skilled. Better yet: highly skilled! For another, when we add writing to skills, we tap into an historical usage; it's easier to trace how we understand writing skills and the ways we prioritize and teach them, and how those have changed, when we keep terminology consistent.

On the other hand, the term skills brings with it several disadvantages. The rhetorician Mikhail Bakhtin makes the point that every word is inhabited by its multiple prior meanings, and that's certainly the case with the word skills. In addition to describing the work of those engaged in prestigious occupations, skills also refers to what are often understood as rudimentary actions, and this is often the case with writing. Worse, as a quick Google search of the expression writing skills demonstrates, the expression frequently refers to surface-level issues—like capitalization and punctuation—thereby suggesting that writing itself is simply a low-level exercise. Likewise, again as a Google search shows, the expression rarely points to polished or even competent writing skills but rather to weak skills or simply mistakes.

It's in part because of this latter set of references that Liane, Kara, and I think and write about writing practices. People don't think of practices in the context of simple gestures or obvious mistakes. More important, the word practices moves us into another set of usages, among them a community of practice (CoP). Developed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in 1991, a community of practice refers to a group of people who participate in a common set of activities, be it parenting or redesigning an engineering problem—or writing. As Wenger and his colleagues suggest, participants in a CoP "develop a unique perspective on their topic as well as a body of common knowledge, practices, and approaches. They also develop personal relationships and established ways of interacting. They may even develop a common sense of identity. They become a community of practice" (Wenger et al. 2002, 5). Such development, of course, is what we see in writers, even emerging writers: they engage in a set of practices common to the group, practices and conventions distinguishing the group and supporting them as they make knowledge. Describing writing as a practice, we think, comes much closer to the mark in describing the nature of writing—as a practice that readers and writers share, and as a practice contributing to the making of knowledge.


Kathleen Blake Yancey, Kellogg W. Hunt Professor of English and Distinguished Research Professor at Florida State University, has authored, edited, or coedited twelve scholarly books and more than ninety articles and book chapters. Her latest book, A Rhetoric of Reflection, is available now.


Work Cited