The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

First Commentary: ‘Writing’ Defined

 ‘Writing’ Defined

Ashley S. Jones

ETEC 540



Searching the term writing in the Oxford English Dictionary Online (1989), came up with numerous definitions, of which I have chosen three:

  1. The action of one who writes, in various senses; the penning or forming of letters or words; the using of written characters for purposes of record, transmission of ideas, etc.
  2. Style, form, or method of fashioning letters or other conventional signs (esp. in handwriting or penmanship); the ‘hand’ of a particular person.
  3. Wording or lettering scored, engraved, or impressed on a surface; an inscription.

When first reading these definitions, they seem to convey what is typically thought of when defining the term writing.  However, with more reflection, it becomes clear that each is in some way limited, either in its description of what writing may have been for a society thousands of years ago, how writing is currently being done, or how we may write in the future.

Thousands of years ago, humans were using various methods to satisfy their “fundamental need to store information in order to communicate, whether to themselves or to others, at a distance in time or space”(Ong, 1982, p.11). To achieve this storage of information, some of the oldest and most common methods used were knot records, notches and tallies. Knot records, in particular those used by the Inca of Peru, were complex and elaborate methods of recording transactions and payments. These systems of adding and removing strings, allowed for categorical variety and a high level of complexity while recording numbers and prompting memory. Pictography was also widely used many thousands of years ago as a way of conveying even larger varieties of information and more complicated messages. All of these methods were used to transmit and communicate ideas and information to others beyond the immediate present.

These, and many others, have been used for years to aid memory, store information and convey human thought and/or speech over distances, thus contributing towards the “repertoire of resources that would eventually yield complete writing.” (Fischer, 2001). The three definitions of writing previously mentioned do not encompass these methods, however, I believe that we must not view these developments as ‘limited’ writing, but as a usable form of writing and communication for the society in which they were developed.

Gaur eloquently puts it as this:

If all writing is information storage, then all writing is of equal value. Each society stores the information essential to its survival, the information which enables it to function effectively. There is in fact no essential difference between prehistoric rock paintings, memory aids (mnemonic devices),winter counts, tallies, knotted cords, pictographic, syllabic and consonantal scripts, or the alphabet. There are no primitive scripts, no forerunners of writing, no transitional scripts as such (terms frequently used in books dealing with the history of writing), but only societies at a particular level of economic and social development using certain forms of information storage. If a form of information storage fulfills its purpose as far as a particular society is concerned, then it is (for this particular society) ‘proper’ writing. (Gaur, 1992, p. 14)

Fischer’s (2001) criteria of “complete writing” is that its purpose is communication, it consists of artificial graphic marks on a durable surface, and it uses marks that relate to articulate speech in order to achieve communication. His definition does not include those so-called ‘primitive’ methods, although he does state that, “writing is and will always be so many different things to so many different peoples in so many different ages.” (Fischer, 2001, p.12)

The way we store and communicate information has developed, progressed and drastically changed over the years. For hundreds of years writing was as typically defined: the forming of written characters on a durable surface. However, we are now living in a digital and technological age, where more and more writing is done on the computer, and in many cases stored on the Internet. It is evident that we must rethink our traditional definitions of writing, in particular that it must produce marks on a durable surface. Wiki pages are now a main means of retrieving and storing information. Anyone, from anywhere in the world, can contribute, edit and access the information stored on these Internet pages. Since this community page allows such open access, we are effectively choosing as a society what we feel is the important knowledge to store and share.

The way a society currently communicates and stores information, be it on rock, on paper or in a computer, is a reflection of what has been created and what is available at that present time. As technology, and the availability of technology, changes, so will the method of writing. Chandler (1994) lists various characteristics and features of the written word, including (but not limited to) the following: visual, external, fixed, ordered, objective, quantifying, abstract, detached, individual. These terms help to describe a more flexible definition of writing.

In conclusion, a more encompassing definition of writing could be: “The communication and storage of information for the purpose of access, by oneself or others, immediately or at a later time, in a form that is useful and purposeful for the current society”.


Chandler, D. (1994). Biases of the ear and eye: “Great Divide” Theories,   Phonocentrism, Graphocentrism & Logocentrism [Online]. Retrieved 25 September, 2009 from:

Fischer, Steven Roger. (2001). A history of writing. London: Reaktion Books.

Gaur, Albertine. (1992). A history of writing (revised edition). London: Cross River Press.

Ong, Walter (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Writing. (1989). Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved on September 25, 2009 from:

* Image by Sidhartha retrieved from


1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.28.09 at 6:31 pm }

I ejoyed your commentary and especially your definition.

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