Understanding Writing Situations

Reading and Writing as Social Acts

Writing is hard work, and it's usually done in a quiet place, away from others. It might seem odd to hear it called a "social act." However, most experienced writers and writing teachers call it just that.

If you think about it carefully, you'll realize that, with a few exceptions (diaries, travel journals, and grocery lists among them), most writing activities are intensely social. Even relatively simple writing activities, such as taking a telephone message, sending email, or writing a personal letter, involve conveying a message to another person as clearly as possible. The writer of a two-word telephone message, for instance, ought to consider whether the person reading the message will understand that "call Gail" means call Gail Garcia and not Gail Evans or Gail Chen.

More complex writing activities, such as writing a business proposal or a progress report, require writers to think much more carefully about how their readers will react to what they've written. A memo to a manager outlining reasons why a promotion and a raise are good ideas is clearly shaped by a writer's concerns about his or her readers. Even decisions made by writers of poems, short stories, novels, and plays are affected by what readers know and how they are likely to react.

In much the same way, readers are engaged in a social act. Knowing that you wrote a particular phone message, they will contemplate what you most likely meant by the words "call Gail." A manager, reading a memo requesting a promotion and a raise, will take into account his or her perceptions of the writer and what the writer most likely meant by a phrase such as "or else." Similarly, readers of documents ranging from marketing plans to lyric poems to personal letters will read between the lines of those documents based on their knowledge (or the lack thereof) of the writer. Their interpretation of a document, as a result, will be based at least to some degree on something other than the words themselves.

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Introduction