"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

Habit or Skill?

October 20th, 2015 by

I have often heard writing referred to as a skill.

This seems so straightforward and natural that it’s not worth mentioning. But what we call something has consequences for how we think about it.

A skill is learned through continued practice, most of this “hands on,” so to speak. In this sense, writing is seen to be like driving a car, cooking, piloting a plane, fixing a computer, or working with electricity. It is not thought of in the way we think about, say history or philosophy, which at the university are usually referred to as content courses.

Certainly, writing is perhaps not diminished when compared to these other activities. We might think of it as just another technical ability and not lose any sleep over it. The problem comes when we take this no farther. When we decide that this is a mechanical, even mindless skill that can be randomly applied to any situation, like driving a car, we don’t think of it as requiring knowledge. Universities often designate writing as a skill, an important one, but not one that requires any knowledge.

This is where there might be trouble in our terms. If our terms lead us to think of writing in this way, we might think of it as nothing more than penmanship, grammar, and a few lessons in organization and paragraphing. Writing well, however, is a much more nuanced and rich activity. The trouble comes when we try then to rename it, say, call it an art. If we do this, then we become sentimental about it or mystical. In either case, we don’t believe it can be taught.

Our semantics with writing leaves us a little short. I’d like to suggest a bit of an etymological reflection. The word we get our English word “technique” from is a Greek word, techne, which refers both to skill and to art, but not the kind of art we think of today, where moody painters we consider geniuses cut their ears off and send them to unsuspecting women of their acquaintance. It refers to something practical but not mechanical, something developed from a habit of mind and even heart. In Aristotle’s time, it could refer to an ability, after much informed practice and knowledge gained about both a subject and about humans and culture, to perforn an art/skill.

I suppose that there are skilled practitioners of cooking, of piloting planes, and driving cars. But as for writing, we might consider that in addition to learning how to paragraph an essay, more is required, including a knowledge of the world, of people, and what is possible and probable.

Posted in Uncategorized| 3 Comments


Comment by Emily Griesinger on October 20, 2015 at 7:30 pm

So very true. Amen.

Comment by Jane Tawel on October 23, 2015 at 8:47 am

Yes, indeed. Good food for thought here. Love the last — “knowledge of the world, of people and what is possible and probable”. Like the Aristotle refinement in semantics.

Comment by Tom on October 23, 2015 at 8:53 am

THanks, Jane. Aristotle is exactly the writer I had in mind.

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