On Writing

If I may borrow a phrase from Aristotle (On Rhetoric) and Cicero (On Oratory). I thought I’d include a little entry of my thoughts on the nature of writing. Based on eleven years of professional (business and academic) writing and ten years teaching the subject (I won’t count the, largely, crap writing I produced as an undergrad), I’ve come to a few conclusions, which are still evolving.

The first is that writing is one part science and one part art. There are certain codifiable things about writing which can be taught scientifically. For instance, the spelling, grammar, and punctuation that make a language work and facilitate communication between two people. Beyond those, though, there are other scientific elements. To look at one of these, I turn back to Aristotle. These are techniques that all writers use, whether consciously or not. Conscious use, of course, allows for greater control, which is why we have them classed and taught. The important ones are: logos (appeals to logic and reasoning), ethos (appeals to the positive character of the speaker/writer or negative character of the opposition), and pathos (appeals to emotion).

On the other hand, there are parts of writing that are an art form. Quite possibly the most important of these is style. There are scores of different writing styles, if not more, throughout the world. Learning them, even only one or two, is not something that can be done just by hearing about them. They must be practiced, revised, tested, and ultimately mastered. Which, I suppose, is a scientific process to some extent . . . depending on how systematically the writer approaches it.

The other thing that comes to mind is the importance of audience. Whether a person is writing fiction or non-fiction, for business or pleasure, audience is highly important. The classic examples I often use in my composition classes are:

1) The student talking about the party (s)he went to over the weekend. Talking to his/her parents, certain things come up and others are hidden, certain language is used while other language is avoided. Talking his/her friends, the important events and the language used changes. For instance, most kids (of any age) won’t “curse” around their parents, even when every third phrase they use among their friends is “f*** this” or “f*** that.”

2) Writing or talking about a subject, say media violence, to a group of college professors versus writing or talking about the same subject to a group of first graders. Obviously the language, terminology, delivery, and tone are very different. One shouldn’t expect the first graders to have a solid grasp of developmental psychology, for example, while the chances are good that the college profs in attendance probably do.

But, the same goes for fiction. To see this, we need only look at the evolution of the Harry Potter series (to return to this example). The tone of the books, their style, and the language Rowling uses evolves over the course of the series as her primary target audience ages and, therefore, changes. Obviously this series also appeals to adults, but the primary target is late elementary to middle and high school kids (ages 11-17 for the whole series). In book six, targeting a late middle school to mid-high school audience (10th grade and beyond), she can’t treat the reader/audience the same way she did the target audience of the first book (roughly 6th grade).


3 comments on “On Writing

  1. indytony says:

    I’ve been reflecting on “The Poetics of Aristotle” in my blog recently and have found it very refreshing to review some timeless basics.

    Thanks for the post.


    • lordtaltos says:

      I like to start of every Composition class with a discussion of ethos-logos-pathos just to give them an analytical method (however basic) to work with. Plus, it helps me review things. 🙂


  2. calmgrove says:

    Good to be reminded of that blend of science, art and appropriate audience when involved in any writing. Unconsciously, but rather consciously now, I’ve been using the same principles when writing reviews so it’s useful to have it spelt out, as you have done.


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