Contingency: How We Situate Writing to Create Meaning
by Anne Canavan
The title of this text asks you to consider the question of whose job it is to make “good” writing. For native English speakers, this may seem like an easy question to answer; it’s the writer’s job, of course! Take a moment to think about the last time you had trouble understanding the content in a textbook or article. Did you think to yourself that if the author had written the text in a different/better/more interesting/clearer way that you might have understood it better? If so, you probably come from a language background (such as English) that we call “writer-responsible” (Hinds).
Since the writer is the one creating the text, English speakers/readers often assume that all of the responsibility for creating an engaging, well-argued, and properly cited text falls on the writer. English readers often think of themselves as just being along for the ride. This approach to reading means that if a reader fails to understand a text, it is generally assumed to be the fault of the writer for being unclear, neglecting to provide enough background material or transitions, or simply for being “boring.” However, this isn’t the only way to approach a text.
In reader-responsible writing (such as we see in many Asian languages), it is the job of the reader to determine what the argument of the paper is, to make connections between the ideas, and to acquire fundamental background knowledge before reading. In other words, if a reader does not understand the writing that is presented to them, it is assumed to be the fault of the reader. In reader-responsible writing, it is the author’s job to present information, not to guide the reader to any particular understanding. Often this type of writing is less direct and may not directly state a thesis or argument.
As you might have guessed, there is no clear answer to this question. Each style of writing has its own benefits and drawbacks. What is important, however, is being aware of your audience’s background and your own purpose in writing. Even for native English speakers, there are different expectations for writing depending on the purpose. For example, in an e-mail or text to a close friend, most people don’t explain nearly as much as they would if writing to a boss or teacher, and their reader is more likely to be able to “fill in the blanks” if something is unclear. This is partly because of the close relationship between the writer and the reader, and partly because of other factors such as the length of the text and a shared context. However, since you are reading this essay for an academic class, and the expectations of academic writing tend to be less familiar to student writers, let’s focus on that for the next examples.
When you are completing writing for your English composition classes or drafting a report for your American employer, you can be confident that your audiences come from a writer-responsible language. Therefore, they expect you do a lot of the work for them in terms of developing a controlling thesis, crafting introductions and conclusions that give a general picture of the topic you have chosen, and using transitions to lead them from one idea to another.
The idea of writer-responsible languages also explains why we need to cite sources in a particular way. When using writer-responsible languages, writers clearly cite their sources both within the paper and at the end because their readers expect to be able to find these sources with minimal guesswork. When we cite sources within a paper, it tells the reader where to look at the end to find out more about the source. When we cite the source completely at the end of the paper, we are telling the reader exactly where to go to find the same information that we shared with them.
One of the most important ways that writer-responsible languages differ from reader-responsible ones is how they think about shared knowledge between the reader and writer (Qi and Liu). Writer-responsible languages tend to work from the idea that the reader and writer share very little knowledge of the topic, and therefore the writer needs to devote their efforts to explaining the background of the subject before they get to the new idea that they are advancing. For instance, if you were writing a paper on climate change for your science class, English readers would expect you to explain exactly what climate change is and some of the history of the subject, and maybe reference a major author or two before you start making your point. However, if you were writing for a Chinese or Japanese audience, they would find it strange that you went to all that work to explain these ideas, and might even feel a bit insulted that you thought they had so little knowledge of the subject!
Hinds, John. “Reader versus writer responsibility: A new typology.” Landmark Essays on ESL Writing, vol. 17, 2001, pp. 63-74.
Qi, Xiukun, and Lida Liu. “Differences between reader/writer responsible languages reflected in EFL learners’ writing.” Intercultural Communication Studies, vol. 16, no. 1, 2007, pp. 148-159.