Some thoughts on writing

Language is fundamental to the human condition.  It provides a way to transform experience into something meaningful and then to share it with others. Language can be about something – like the news, for example – or it can be the experience itself, as it is in poetry, cinematic dialogue, confession, accusation, decree, etc. Language describes and it performs and in doing so creates relations, perceptions and sensibilities.

We take for granted much of what happens when we write because using language is something we do everyday. Our familiarity obscures some of the complexity of the tasks that we are engaged in — for example, when we use language to render something meaningful to someone else, we accept and then use idioms from cultural and political contexts; we arrange sensibilities that are understandable only from within specific social perspectives; we make undeclared assumptions about social reality and relationships of power; we forge relationships with listeners and readers; we declare to the world how we want to be perceived.

One way to approach the possibilities of language is through the notions of identity/performance, power and craft.

Academic writing often asks us to conceal who we are and to adopt assumptions about readerships. This is a stylistic choice – a professional tool and convention — that often masks assumptions about social identities and power that are as necessary for understanding as the meanings of the words.

The goal in this course is to reclaim some of this critical self-awareness in how we approach both our own writing and the writing of others.  New media cultures have introduced an expanded landscape of opportunities for cultural participation.  The importance of the visual dimensions of these popular cultures is undeniable, but writing continues to play a central role in communication. Blogs, email, news stories, film scripts, synopses, magazines, reports, reviews, twitter are all rooted in the written word.

This course will use the blog-post format to explore writing through the notions of identity, performance and power in the creation of written texts.  We will seek to encounter written language with a heightened awareness of the social hierarchies and relationships forged in our choices of expression, and through our technical choices about structure, genre, metaphor, deeper meanings, and style.

Language can do more than simply describe concepts. It can bring readers into new worlds of sensibility and meaning.  It can introduce readers to new perspectives and new experiences.  A reader’s boredom in this sense is as counterproductive as misunderstanding.  A writer who wants their work to have cultural resonance must cultivate sensitivity to the rhythms and musicality of words, phrasing and sentences – even of ideas. And a writer must cultivate a sense of what will make a reader pay attention — that is, what a reader needs whether they know it or not.

Through writing, we have the opportunity to create our own subjectivities, to reorganize and reconceptualize relationships of power, to forge new social relationships, and perhaps most importantly to share experiences. Language is one of the most powerful tools we have for communicating.  Understanding how we are engaged in this often underestimated (in new media contexts) endeavor is an important part of coming to terms with who we are and who we want to be in a highly mediated society of spectacle.


About Michael Lithgow, PhD

Course Instructor, Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication
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