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Writing Matters: Back To The Future With Rhetoric, by Anthony Paré

ANTHONY PARÉ is a professor in the Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University, editor of the McGill Journal of Education, and Director of the Centre for the Study and Teaching of Writing. His research examines academic and non-academic writing, workplace learning, school-to-work transitions, and the development of professional literacies.




The past four decades have seen dramatic developments in the study and teaching of writing.


Language: an always-evolving agreement among people over time and space about what particular spoken or written symbols will mean and how we’ll use them to make meaning together.


…we are, first and foremost, rhetorical beings; we know what language is, because we know what language does.


contemporary rhetoric and literacy scholars would say that all language seeks to persuade or influence or affect. We want our words to have an impact, to make a difference, to do something. Moreover, this impulse to persuade, and its infinite manifestations, is a fundamental and defining human trait.


We can do things with language well before we have actual words or grammar.


We learn first, and very early, that language has consequences, that language makes things happen.


In this way, then, language is a technology: it can be used to do things; but it is no simple or single-purpose tool. It is the ultimate Swiss Army knife, with a different implement for every use or purpose we can dream up. In our daily lives we use language to ask, amuse, inform, tell, demand, propose, and on and on through an endless list of routine rhetorical tasks. At a more sophisticated level, and in complex collaboration with others, we use this basic

quality of language to shape specific results: we design and regulate language practices in law to produce justice, in governance to produce policy, in education to produce learning, in business to produce profits, and in science to produce new knowledge. Different rhetorics create different knowledges.


First, like language generally, writing does more than express meaning or knowledge; it makes meaning and knowledge. Despite common injunctions – “Think before you speak” or “Choose your words carefully” – we rarely assemble language in our heads before we speak or write.


…for writing to achieve its heuristic potential, it helps to allow for chance-taking, which usually means writing that isn’t graded. In school, writing is too often treated as the end of the thinking process – the result of teaching and learning – and the written artifact becomes the object of assessment.


Writing is social action. We don’t write writing, we write something – a proposal, an argument, a description, a judgement, a directive – something that we hope will have an effect, produce results, change minds, spur to action, create solidarity, seed doubt. Moreover, writing is always part of some larger project or activity.


These five things we know about writing can have an effect across the curriculum and the grade levels:

  • writing is heuristic;
  • the written text is improved by a well-supported writing process;
  • the finished product is structured in particular ways to have certain types of effect;
  • texts have consequences, they make things happen; and
  • texts (process and product) reflect their contexts.

We want our students to grasp the best of what is known in our subject areas, but we also want them to take part in the practices and proce-dures that make disciplinary knowledge. Writing is central to that process.

Published inLiterature ReviewPhDThoughts

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