Myths of Writing
Frank Smith, 1983, Myths of Writing
In: Essays Into Literacy
Exeter, NH: Heinemann Educational Books: 81-88
- Writing is for the transmission of
Reality: While in the end the
writing may convey information, it’s major
function is to explore ideas. The danger of
the information-transmission myth is that it
focuses on how texts are presented from the
point of view of the reader rather than on what
the act of writing can accomplish for the developing
thought of the writer. The writer is overlooked.
- Writing is for communication.
Reality: The writer is always
the FIRST reader and may often be the only reader.
- Writing involves transferring thoughts
from the mind to paper.
Reality: Thoughts are created
in the act of writing, which changes the writer
and changes the emerging text.
- Writing is permanent.
Reality: Speech, once uttered,
can rarely be revised; writing can be reflected
upon, altered, and even erased at will.
- Writing is a linear process.
Reality: Writing can be done
in several places and directions concurrently
and is as easily manipulated in space as it
is in time. Texts can be constructed from writing
done on separate pieces of paper; words, sentences,
paragraphs, whole sections can be shuffled into
different sequences. Writing is recursive.
- Writing is speech plus spelling and
Reality: Every kind of writing
has its own conventions of form and expression
quite different from speech. Spelling, punctuation,
capitalization, paragraphing, indentation, word-dividing,
layout, and so forth, are necessary aspects
of transcription necessary to make written language
readable for readers. For all writers, undue
concern with transcription can interfere with
the exploratory aspects of writing.
- You must have something to say in order
Reality: We need to write in
order to have anything to say! Thought comes
with writing, and writing may never come if
it is postponed until we are satisfied we have
something to say. Write first, see what you
had to say later.
- Writing should be easy.
Reality: Writing is often hard
work—it requires concentration, physical
effort, and a tolerance for frustration and
- Writing should be right the first time.
Reality: Writing generally
requires many drafts and revisions to get ideas
into a form that satisfies the writer. A separate
editorial polishing is required to make any
text appropriate for another reader.
- Writing should be unambiguous.
Reality: There is no way writing
can be unambiguous. “The” meaning
of a text is not embedded in the words on the
page but constructed by readers. The sense a
reader constructs depends on what the reader
knows and brings to the text. There is no way
for any writer to know exactly what any reader
brings to a text.
- Writing can be done to order.
Reality: Writing is most often
reluctant to come when it is most urgently required,
yet quite likely to begin to flow at inconvenient
or impossible times.
- A fixed period of “prewriting” should
Reality: Writing involves a lifetime
of preparation—of experience, reading, reflecting
and arguing. It is only from a transcription point
of view that an author can say that work began on
a particular text at a particular time. In fact,
writing itself can be prewriting. As we draft one
part of a text, we reflect on what we might write
next or on what we have written already.
- Writing is a solitary activity.
Reality: Writing often requires
other people to stimulate discussion, to listen
to choice phrases, to provide feedback of various
- Writing is a tidy activity.
Reality: Writing is messy,
it spreads itself all over the writing surface,
in many different files.
- Writing should be the same for everyone.
Reality: Each of us develops
an idiosyncratic set of strategies we’re
comfortable with and that work for us.