TEXT AND WRITING
is a Text?
"TO" in TITO -
The Writing Process
purpose of this guide is to make you aware of some fundamental notions
and principles related to reading, interpreting and producing texts. Specific
strategies will be introduced in class, in the context of various reading
and writing activities.
TEXT IN - TEXT OUT:
THE TITO PRINCIPLE
Texts, texts, texts everywhere...
We spend our lives surrounded by texts that we must
learn how to read in order to function adequately. Texts come in a great
variety of forms, dozens of which we face every day—even if our
lives are not particularly text-oriented. There are of course "obvious"
texts in the newspaper we read in the morning and in the books that we
typically use in college. There are also myriad texts that we go through
without even realizing that we are, in fact, reading—that is, processing
with skills and strategies that we have learned.
are absolutely unnatural: human artifacts, constructed with codes that
are not found in nature or built in our genetic make-up. Indeed, human
evolution has been possible only because, somehow, we have managed to
transcend our natural, very limited abilities to communicate by natural
means (that is, orally) through a series of breakthrough inventions, including
several writing systems: cuneiform script, hieroglyphics, ideograms and
various types of alphabets.
should come as no surprise, then, that education is greatly
concerned with texts, and that much of what gets done in schools
and universities belongs to what we might call the TITO
(Text In - Text Out)
principle. According to TITO, students are taught increasingly
complex skills and strategies to handle increasingly complex
texts, first as simple readers ("decoders"), then
as expert readers ("interpreters"), and, eventually,
Quite often, however, the exact relationship between
the In" part and the "out" part remains unclear.
In many instances, students are required to read a large number
of texts of a particular type (such as novels), but rarely to
produce them; on the other hand, they may have to produce many
texts of a kind to which they have not been extensively exposed
as readers, such as a analytical or critical essays.
Exploring the relationship between reading texts and
producing them is a crucial, but commonly overlooked, pedagogical
WHAT IS A TEXT?
There is a good reason to reflect first upon texts rather
than "language" or "writing," since, in our experience,
we always read before we write (one being an indispensable condition for
the other), and since there is no such thing as simply "reading":
whenever we read, the primary level of coding that we encounter is textual
form. The meaning that we ascribe to words and sentences greatly depends
on text type, text function and genre as we perceive them.
Moreover, a great number of texts are not primarily linguistic
in nature, even when they do involve some language (films, paintings,
buildings, comics, songs) In fact, a text can be broadly defined as anything
designed to be decyphered and understood in a predictable way (i.e.: to
be "read"), and which stands on its own because it has a coherent
and complete structure. A text is not just a random assemblage
of elements: usually, we identify it as a text because its form
is rather specific (and, usually, somewhat familiar), without being absolutely
unique: as a representative of a type to which a number
of individual texts belong.
Perhaps the best way to understand this principle is
to think of the relationship between a house and a stack of timber. Althouth
the house is made from the timbers, there is no mistaking one for the
other, and not simply because their appearances are quite dissimilar—appearances
can be deceitful. The real difference lies first in the fact that a pile
is, by definition, a non-specific assemblage of items: it has no definite
structure and no definite function (or
else it would not merely be a stack). One can move the timbers around,
add or take away a few of them without altering its nature as a stack.
house, on the other hand, has a definite function and a definite
structure that reflects this function. Of course, multiple variations
are possible in the outward appeareance of the house and in its layout,
independently of its structure. The structure itself may vary considerably
depending on the area where the house is erected. The nature of the terrain,
the climate—but also the cultural habits of its dwellers—dictate
choices in design and building materials. A house that is poorly insulated,
poorly laid out, or that collapses is a "bad" house in the sense
that it does not perform well the function for which it was created; however,
it is still a house, not a stack of timber.
In a similar fashion, texts are not images or sounds
or words or sentences thrown together haphazardly: texts have a specific
form that reflects a specific function
and, to some extent, characteristics that reflect cultural traditions
and expectations from the indented audience. Sometimes, efficacy dominates
(such as in instructions manuals for mechanical or electrical equipment);
sometimes, cultural factors are dominant: how can one assess the "efficacy"
of a musical composition or a poem, for instance, other than by the emotional
impact it can have on its listeners or readers? And, certainly, listeners
from different cultural backgrounds will favor different scales, keys,
tempos, sound and rythm patterns, etc. In this sense, musical forms like
the symphony, the sonata, the étude can definitely be
construed as text types: even though music is supposed to be "the
universal language," and though any human being may derive some pleasure
from listening to them, it does take formal knowledge to understand them,
their nuances and the differences between them. In other words, to "read"
them with expertise.
"TI" IN TITO
As soon as you wake up and have breakfast in
the morning, you start dealing with texts: the front of the cereal
box, or the side panel with the nutrition information chart; the
label on the jar of jam, on the milk bottle. Turn on the TV, or
the radio; glance at a newspaper or magazine, and many more texts
and text types present themselves. Some are very short (the label
on the jar), some very long (a multi-page "special report"
in the paper); some include non-linguistic images (the cereal
box, a TV program), others appear to be "purely linguisitic"—although
in fact they are not. Take for instance a news broadcast on the
radio: although it mostly consists of language (people talking),
the way in which it is organized and structured is not linguistic:
musical jingles, for instance, act as markers to let the listener
know that the program (or a portion thereof) is starting or ending,
much like tabulations, white space on the page, lines and other
visual organizers of a newspaper article.
Because there exists hundreds of text types, we tend
to group them in categories and sub-categories, with common characteristics
and rules for reading and production. For instance, in Western
cultures, we tend to organize visual texts along a left-to-right
axis because our languages are written and read this way. For
text types whose main purpose is to provide information, strict
organization is favored (from the general to the specific, or
vice-versa). In some cases, such as the nutrition information
chart on the side panel of the cereal box, it is acceptable to
do away with complete sentences, and even syntax: "The serving
size for this ceral is one cup, which equals fifty-five grams"
becomes "Serving size: 1 Cup (55g)" without real semantic
loss and greater efficiency in the sense that it takes up less
space and is read faster than a full sentence. In this text type,
a combination of horizontal and vertical lines provides adequate
structure, in conjunction with font variations (size, plain or
boldface, etc.) and other visual markers.
A magazine article discussing the health benefits
of cereals, however, could not dispense with syntax. Readers would
expect full sentences at the very least; depending on the magazine,
they might also expect a certain level of complexity in the syntax
and vocabulary, and perhaps even a certain "style" (through
the use of a certain register—colloquial, standard or formal—of
technical vocabulary, of rhetorical effects towards drama or humor,
etc.). This simple observation cues us to some fundamental aspects
of text: reader expectations and functional
All texts are constructed for a purpose: to
inform, to convince, to discuss, to entertain, to give directions,
to describe, to analyze, etc. Text types are defined by the dominance
of one such function (very few texts have a single function).
The particular characteristics of a given text type are primarily
driven by efficacy: apparently, it has been determined
that a chart format is the most efficient way to provide nutrition
information on the label of a food product, probably because full
sentences would require more space than is available, or a font
so small as to be illegible, but mostly because presumptive
readers (here, consumers who are interested in purchasing
or eating said products) do not expect full sentences, and, in
fact, prefer to have a chart form so that they may quickly check
for specific bits of innformation. Presumably, very few people
will actually read through a whole food information label from
beginning to end, whereas most readers of a novel will presumably
do just that.
In an article discussing the health benefits
of cereals, a series of full sentences alone would not make the
piece optimally efficatious. They have to be arranged in a particular
way; there has to be an "introduction" to let readers
know what the article is about, and a "conclusion" to
bring some sort of closure. The information communicated in these
sentences has to be arranged in a coherent manner. In some publications,
it might be acceptable, or even advisable for the author to provide
this information with some sort of framing: for
instance, include some narrative elements involving cerals, such
as testimonials or humorous anecdotes. In a scientific publication,
the necessary inclusion of non-linguistic data (such as figures,
percentages, mathematical formulas, molecular diagrams, etc.)
does not affect the importance of textual features: the data have
to be expressed and communicated clearly; and the author(s) usually
have to present them so as to highlight their significance and
Thus a text is characterized by a particular form and purpose,
and its purpose is driven by the quest for efficacy, which depends
mostly on the main functions (inform, tell a
story, entertain, describe, etc.) for which the text was created,
and its intended effect on presumptive readers.
A food information label, a novel, a poem, a drug prescription,
a maganize article, a photo caption are all texts, but they all
require very different forms to be efficacious.
In theory, education, and especially higher education,
should expose students to a great variety of texts, and train them to
become expert readers, or at least competent readers
of complex texts. What does this mean?
To think of a painting, of a building or a city, of
a film as texts, and to endeavor to read them as text means first and
foremost to recognize that 1) they were created and structured so as to
be legible by a certain presumptive audience, in a certain context, and
that 2) they are intended to produce certain effects on this audience.
Each actual reader in his/her time and place, may of course be affected
in a way quite different from what was originally intended: s/he may appreciate
a text for other reasons than those intended—or not appreciate it
at all. In fact, s/he may even find it illegible, i.e. not understand
The "expert" reader, however, should not stop at first
impressions, such as liking the text or fidfing it immediately legible;
the expert must be able to reconstruct the process through which a text
was conceived, crafted, physically produced, disseminated, read and appreciated
in a definite context—time, place, cultural setting,
circumstances (social, political, institutional, religious) in which author(s)
and audience found themselves—and a definitecotext—other
similar or comparable texts produced and/or read in the same context.
In reality, the general tendency in education
has been to focus on developing students' emotional relationship to texts,
on the premise that this was the only way to make science, history, literature,
art, film, what have you, interesting and relevant to young people. Unfortunately,
this attempt to spark or nurture interest has led to the belief that paying
close attention to form is inevitably dry and boring, and that rigorous,
analytical or critical reading is always a chore. As a result, expert
reading has been construed as antithetical to developing an emotional
rapport to a text.
Now, a vast majority of professors believe that genuine
appreciation of the text(s) being studied is the ultimate goal of education;
good professors know that appreciation and expertise in reading are complementary,
and that one should not be sacrificed to the other because ultimately,
one depends on the other.
One of the main purposes of the "Gateway sequence"
in French studies at GU is to make sure that all of our students are exposed
to a variety of texts, and that they are given a palette of strategies
to approach these texts as expert readers.
By texts we mean novels, newspaper articles, short stories,
scholarly papers, poems, plays, but also films, comics, maps, posters,
photographs, paintings, buildings... Beyond their extreme diversity, all
these materials can be studied in a systematic manner, which essentially
sets apart "common" reading and the expert reading of a scholarly
approach. You'll notice that some of these materials belong to what is
often refered to as "popular culture": one of the principles
behind a scholarly approach is that complexity is in the eye of the beholder:
it can be found in virtually any text type, no matter how "simple"
or "lowbrow" it may seem. The ordinary reader thinks that the
stuff found on a cereal box or a detective story is self-evident and simple,
whereas a 1000-page novel by Proust, an philosophical essay by Derrida
or a Renaissance sonnet are complex. The expert reader, while remaining
aware of the differences between these various texts, knows that all
of them are, in their own way, complex; s/he also knows why they are complex,
and why some are more interesting, or valuable, or esthetically superior
This isn't to say that for each text, or type of text,
there is one, authorized reading method that we are trying
to teach you. In fact, you will probably see differences among faculty
members in the way they deal with various texts. What truly matters is
that you learn the fundamental principles through which you should approach
Another aspect of the Gateway sequence is the acquisition
of fundamental principles of composing a text of your own. In most college
curricula, this is known as "writing" or "advanced writing"—but
in fact there is no such thing as "writing" or "better
writing" in the abstract: there is only writing a certain type of
text, and "improving" means making your text more efficatious
in fulfilling whatever function(s) are ascribed to the text type at hand.
great variety of texts to which we are exposed should not induce us
to believe that reading each one requires completely different skills
and strategies (in fact, we need to be cautious of any approach that
works particularly well with one particular text type, but not so well,
or not at all, with others). What matters is that we ask ourselves the
"right" questions, those that allow us to go beyond "naive"
reading and superficial impressions.
The safest way to proceed is to observe three separate stages:
describe, analyze, interpret
(to which we may add a fourth stage: evaluate). Although,
initially, this order needs to be respected, the process will eventually
involve going back and forth between these various operations. Any hypothesis
on meaning (interpretation) requires to be supported by precise factual
observations on the text itself (description), and on the way the text
is supposed to function in actual reading (analysis), that is, in a
precise context (time, place, readership).
means formulating factual observations on the text,
so as to obtain a solid basis for analysis and interpretation. Some
questions need to be asked, even if no definitive answers can be found
Are we dealing with a complete text? A portion or excerpt? If it is
an excerpt or a portion, who decided on it? The author? (chapters,
for instance, are usually attributale to the author) Someone else?
(an editor) Accidental circumstances
What are the non-linguistic characteristics of this text? From what
elements is it composed (visual, concrete, sounds)?
To what text type does it belong? How can one tell? What type characteristics
seem particularly obvious? Does it belong to a known genre?
What seem to be the primary functions of this text? express an opinion
or feeling, entertain, move, provoke, shock, inform, present, support
or contradict a thesis, amuse?
Is there an explicit narrator, or other device that embodies a point
of view within the text? If there is a narrator, is it omniscient?
Internal or external to the story being told? From what point of view
is this text constructed? Who created it? Who is the intended receptor
Are there any characters? Are they human? Anthropomorphic? (an animal,
an object, a city, nature can be characters) Is the readers' attention
drawn to a specific character, a "hero" (who may have positive
or negative traits)?
What are the most obvious linguistic characteristics of this text?
Isolated words, full sentences, groups of words or sentences? Is the
language used closer to oral or written speech? What register(s) is/are
used (formal/standard/colloquial)? Is the vocabulary abstract or concrete?
Is there any technical or regional vocabulary? Any slang? How can
the style be described? Are there any prominent rhetorical effects?
2) Analysis means showing how the text works—much
like one takes apart a watch to study the clockwork. How does it manage
to reach its goals, to fulfill its function(s), to have an effect
upon the presumptive reader?
What effect(s) is/are predictably indiced by the features we identified
in the descriptive stage? Is the reader "brough into" the
text? If so, how? Does the author play with (or toy with) the reader?
Does the author seek to deliberately mislead the reader, in order
to create surprise? To influence the reader or manipulate him/her?
How is suspense generated and maintained? Is the reader required to
draw his/her own conclusions? To make inferences? Is the author seeking
to preserve some ambiguity? Is he being didactic?
If the text is fiction, is there a "reality effect" whereby
the reader is induced to forget that s/he is dealing with a work of
fiction (for instance through the accumulation of verisimilar technical
details: names, places, dates, etc.)
Explaining how a text works may be facilitated by a contrario reasoning,
or by considering alternatives: it is easier to understand how a feature
of the text produces a certain effect if one envisions what might
have occured if another solution had been chosen. This is a good way
to test whether a given feature of the text holds particular significance
at a deep level of meaning.
Beware of explaining how a text works simply by assuming "intentions"
from the author, as if s/he was in full control. It often happens
that authors unwillingly and unwittingly reveal themselves through
their work, or provoke reactions from readers that they had not anticipated
(especially when there is sizable distance—chronological, geographical,
cultural—between the author and the eventual audience).
3) Interpretation means eventually proposing hypotheses
on possible meanings of the text. When the descriptive and analytical
work has be done carefully, it becomes obvious that the meaning of
a text, although it can never be established definitively (because
various readers will ascribe different meanings), can be framed according
to certain objective parameters; in other words, it is not purely
a matter of opinion.
Holding and expressing an opinion is a priviledge of every citizen
in a free society. Opinion does not have to be justified; it can be
totally unsupported and arbitrary, and therefore it carries no particular
authority or scientific value. Interpretation, however, has to be
justified and supported: even when it is tentative, inconclusive or
debatable, it cannot be arbitrary or incoherent.
When reaching the stage of interpretation, it is always useful to
get back to one's initial impressions: are they confirmed? Modified?
Radically altered? Why? Such verifications often help bring to light
devices and strategies in the text that had gone unoticed at first.
4) A final possible stage is evaluation, which may
or may not match individual appreciation. An expert reader must be
able to recognize and explain the value of a text independently from
his/her own opinion or preference. This may be defined in terms of
practical, informative, emotional, esthetic value that a text has
(or may have) for certain readers, but it can also be expressed as
a relative value: why is a text better than another? One easy way
out is to adopt a relativistic stance: value is subjective and no
text is demonstrably better than another in all circumstances, and
for every reader. True as this may be from a strictly philosophical
point of view, the fact is that human beings do approach texts with
a normative bias rooted in a particular context; a reader's task is,
first, to establish why a given text was valued in a certain way (positive
or negative) in a given context, and, possibly, decide on the relevance
of this valuation in other contexts. A second task is to provide a
different valuation—with its own justifications and criteria—for
a different context.
interpretation and evaluation may remain "open"—that is,
formulated as a series of supported hypotheses rather than as definitive
conclusions—they can never be arbitrary or purely subjective, nor
can they be reduced to a "message" that the author wishes to
transmit to readers. As reader, you are allowed to form an opinion, to
find a text limpid or obscure, rich or superficial, captivating or boring,
pleasant or unpleasant; but as expert reader, you are expected to be able
to complement this opinion with an interpretation and an evaluation based
on systematic description and analysis, and on factual knowledge about
the conception, the crafting, the physical production, dissemination,
and reception of a text in a given context and cotext.
THE "TO" IN
From the point of view of production, you are mostly
asked to produce linguistic texts: narratives, essays, commentaries,
summaries, dissertations, exposés, reviews.
"Writing" only means "writing texts"
and therefore "writing better" means "writing better
texts"—"better" meaning "more efficacious,"
even when efficacy depends on esthetic qualities. However, it is possible
to formulate the generic qualities of a "good" text from three
A. The text qua text
a text that is at least comprehensible
to an "unsympathetic reader"—i.e., someone who
does not have infinite patience, nor a level of proficiency that
enables him/her to decipher obscure passages. Text type (essay,
summary, letter, recipe, tale) and functions (descriptive, narrative,
expressive, argumentative, injunctive, etc.) should appear obvious
to the reader. (When writing a text in a foreign language, comprehensibility
at this elementary level can be a major hurdle.)
a text that is efficacious according to
whatever criteria apply for a given text type,
which means that it is structured appropriately, uses an adequate
register (formal, standard or familiar language, technical terms)
and certain other linguistic features (direct or indirect speech,
rhetorical devices, etc.) expected in that particular type.
a text that is æsthetically pleasing,
according to an accepted standard, or with a style of its own.
quality of discourse (linguistic material) used in
the text. A generic description would go as follows:
text is organized according to a structure that is
clear and coherent; this structure is adequately manifested in layout
(titles, paragraphs, tabs) and discourse markers, esp. to materialize
transitions (adverbs and adverbial phrases, for instance).
3. syntax (sentence construction) makes use of various
formal ressources: independent clauses, subordinate clauses, relative
clauses, gerund and infinitive clauses, etc. Unless a very peculiar
stylistic effect is attempted, accumulation of simple sentences (single-clause
sentences) should be avoided.
4. The full range of punctuation devices should be
used judiciously, not by default or at random: very specific rules
govern the use of commas, colons and semicolons, em-dashes, quotation
marks and parentheses.
5. vocabulary must be both varied and precise. There
should be no unnecessary reiterations and repetitions. Words must
be used in their strict definition, not in the loose usage of everyday
5. If at all possible, deliberate use of stylistic devices in the
choice of words, in the use of discursive (rhetorical) figures, in
the achievement of a particular rythm in the text.
6. morphology (gender/number agreement, verb endings,
prepositional constructions, contractions...) is flawless, except
perhaps in the deliberate recourse to colloquial speech for effect.
Spelling is also flawless.
that, for the most part, this description is based on the positive qualities
of a text, not on the absence of errors or flaws—except for morphology
and spelling, where there are usually no alternatives (in these categories
a form is either correct or faulty, and none is "better" or
"worse" than another). In all other categories, however, the
absence of errors or flaws is not per se a positive quality: a text
with perfect spelling, morphology, syntax, vocabulary and even some
stylistic effects is not necessarily good as a text, if it does not
possess specific qualities of structure, organization and efficacy.
It may just be a string of perfectly crafted sentences, just as a heap
of very fine, flawless timber does not a house make.
THE WRITING PROCESS
Thus the writing process can be broken down into at
least two components. One is obtaining raw materials of good quality (words,
sentences)—what we might call the "mechanics" of writing.
Systematic and judicious use of a monolingual dictionary and grammar reference
book will help you achieve this without too much difficulty. Such tools,
effective as they may be when used correctly, are not sufficient, however,
because they often do not indicate precisely whether a sentence you have
created, while "correct," is actually sanctionned in usage.
Only discourse samples (from published texts, for instance) will provide
you with reliable confirmation. A second component is exploiting these
materials towards the construction of a good text. Here again, learning
the rules for each text type is a good place to begin, but it will not
As a result, we need to go back to the TITO principle:
your writing will improve significantly, beyond elimination of errors,
only to the extent that you read a substantial amount of texts that can
serve as models, and that provide materials that you can recycle. This
is not plagiarism: it is the best way to learn how to write, in your own
language or in a foreign language.
Finally, a reality that we must all face is the nature
of writing as a process. While it is possible to produce an adequate text
on a first draft, it is not very common to obtain a very good one, even
for experienced writers. With few exceptions, writing means drafting,
self-evaluating, recasting, rewriting, seeking outside evaluation, rewriting,
etc.. An excellent text usually results from a certain amount of labor.
When writing in a foreign language, it is tempting to
try and skip ahead by crafting a text in one's native language—with
a certain confidence that it is at least adequate, perhaps even good—and
then attempt to transpose it to the other language. This is by far the
absolutely worst way to proceed for a variety of reasons:
first because text rules vary from a language to another, from a culture
to another, and you cannot expect that the right formula for composing
any given type of text will be the same. It almost never is. Second, because
translation—real translation—requires native or near-native
command of both languages involved. If your knowledge of one of the languages
is limited, as it is in your case, the most likely result will be confusion
and frustration for your reader. Every semester, such attempts at translation
provide a great deal of entertainment to professors faced with nonsensical
prose that sometimes happens to be amusing. But unless you are
trying for absurd comedy or surrealistic poetry, it is not advisable to
write this way!
now you undoubtedly realize that a text cannot simply be judged "good"
or "bad," and that a one-dimensional scale such as the standard
A-to-F grade scheme cannot adequately reflect the various dimensions and
levels of quality that should be assessed. Your professor may therefore
use an evaluation matrix, rather than a linear scale, in which several
domains are rated. Here is an example that we use for the study-abroad
evaluation of writing ability:
STRUCTURE MARKERS use
of titles, paragraphs, tabs, and adverbs or adverbial phrases to
agreement, verb endings, prepositional constructions, contractions
- VARIETY & COMPLEXITY
RANGES: 50-41: A / 40-31: B / 30-21: C / 20-11: D / 10: F
this way allows your instructor to give you a single numerical or letter
grade while taking into account the specific strengths and weaknesses
of your text; it also allows you to realize your strengths and weaknesses
and therefore to focus more efficiently on areas where improvement is