Forget Defining Literacies. What’s ‘Writing’?

I’d like to talk to you about the 468th episode of This American Life. Specifically, I want to hone in to 23 and 1/2 minutes that makes up Act Two: Forgive Us Our Press Passes. I don’t recommend many things, as a habit, but this is worth your time.

In producer Sarah Koenig’s story about a company called Journatic, which outsources local newspaper stories, be whisked away into deep contemplation about what constitutes journalism, authorship and attribution, news, consumerism, the local/the global, human rights, and the list goes on.

Screen shot of Journatic’s homepage.

As I understand it, Journatic focuses on amassing large amounts of data from small towns across the United States—birth and death records, budgets, police blotters—and then outsources the writing of articles based on this data to people in other places—according to this story, a few in the US, and many in other countries such as the Philippines. Journatic sells these stories to newspaper outlets across the US and the stories are often printed with fake bylines or none at all. (Makes you take a second look at Jenny Smith’s article on last week’s town budget meeting. Do you know Jenny Smith?)

For this post, I am only going to focus on one aspect touched on in this episode, but it is the combination of these topics in one story that makes this worth a listen. So, even though this post will be focused on ‘writing,’ I am more than happy to discuss any and all of these other aspects in the comments below.

Let’s get to it. I encourage you to listen before reading on. In the embedded sound file below, Act Two begins at exactly 26 minutes. Here is a link to the episode on the This American Life website in case you want to go to the source for a listen.

(This American Life has posted two articles from that have more detail and an update after the airing of this episode.)  

What’s ‘Writing’?

A few weeks ago, after another fascinating #literacies chat on Twitter, I posed a follow-up tweet about the use of the word “literacy.” Kevin Hodgson (or @dogtrax on Twitter) posted a reply that I couldn’t get out of my head while I listened to this episode. Here’s our exchange:

We continued to exchange tweets, and in doing so took this idea forward, considering terms like composing and designing to capture the multiple modes with which we find ourselves composing in a digital age. In this episode of This American Life, however, I found myself thinking backward, reductionist, in fact. What can we strip away and still call the act writing?

In the following section of the episode, Sarah Koenig had interviewed the Brad Moore of The Chicago Sun-Times who had hired Journatic to fill the local sections of their papers with local news, and Brian Timpone who was a champion of Journatic as a company. Each of these gentlemen claimed that all local news stories—though they were not written locally—were ‘at least’ written in the United States. Sarah Koenig was pushing to find out what exactly was outsourced, specifically to the Philippines. (All added emphasis is mine.)

Brad Moore: Just to be clear, all of the writing and editing of everything that Journatic is doing is happening by professional journalists here in the US.

Sarah Koenig: I went around and around about this with both Brad Moore and Brian Timpone who insisted that Filipinos were not writing stories. They were more like typing information, assembling it in paragraph form, which sounds to me a lot like writing. Brian Timpone told me this was a semantic confusion I was having.

Brian TimponeReally what they’re doing is assembling and copy editing a bunch of facts, right? So they write the lead. If there’s a paragraph about a person, the paragraph is technically written by someone in the Philippines, but not written. It’s like they have to type out who the person is, right? So they have to know how to write to send it over. I mean but to say oh, it’s written in the Philippines– I mean there might be a paragraph of it that the first draft is written in the Phillipines.

Sarah Koenig: Timpone declined to put me in touch with any of his Filipino employees. But I reached out to half a dozen of them on my own.

Sarah Koenig: You yourself are writing those stories, right? You’re not just gathering the information and sending it along to an American writer or editor. You yourself are writing those.

Man: Yeah.

Sarah Koenig: That one word is all you’re going to hear from this particular worker at his request. He’s got a full time professional job. But he told me his Journatic work pays better. And he needs the money to help pay his family’s expenses. Plus he likes the work. Back in April when the Tribune announced that Journatic would be providing stories for TribLocal, some readers and media watchers instantly began to grumble about the job losses but also about the product. It was canned, they said, barely rewritten press releases and daily stories under the news section about top DVD rentals in town or where to find the cheapest gas according to No context, no analysis.  © 2012 Chicago Public Media & Ira Glass

As I write this blog post, I keep questioning: Am I writing? typing? copying and pasting? assembling? copy editing? drafting? developing context? adding analysis? I’d love to chat about these and other questions I am left pondering:

  • As we now have more user-friendly ways to remix media and content, are we ‘writing’ less often and ‘assembling and copy editing’ more often?
  • What does ‘context and analysis’ look like in a product that is not all words, but mostly image, sound, and quoted text?
  • When does ‘typing out’ something end and ‘writing’ begin?

Please add your thoughts in the comments below!

18 thoughts on “Forget Defining Literacies. What’s ‘Writing’?

  1. It’s all writing. The DJ who remixes beats is making music, even if they are someone else’s beats. Likewise, when we use other people’s words, we are also writing (given that we are “remixing” them and not just copying them verbatim from beginning to end).

  2. Thanks for starting off our conversation, Tim.

    So, let me see if I can see the implied boundaries: copying verbatim (typing out) is not writing, and at another edge remixing beats is not writing. Would you agree? Any other boundary markers for you?

    Also, would you say that remixing quotes is synonymous with ‘writing’ or that writing entails that type of activity?

    1. No, I would say any kind of “remixing” is writing.

      Writing is a creative process, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t take existing elements and “create” something with them.

  3. The definition of writing must be malleable so that it can shape itself to fit with current theories of writing pedagogy, various disciplinary needs for writing, and necessities for writing. In my FYC classes, I consciously use the words “composing” and “composition” as opposed to “writing” and “essays” to impress upon my students the creative and constructive qualities of writing. I suppose it is these qualities, along with those of thought, perspective, and interpretation, that provide the definition of writing with its ambiguity, or rather its possibilities. Your question (“What’s writing?”) complements a question I’ve asked myself recently as a new blogger: is blogging a genre of writing, a medium for various types of writing, or both? I Hope I didn’t take this conversation off-topic, but I find the connection between our questions intriguing.

    1. I am glad you saw a connection with the questions that have been plaguing you. I think initially I saw blogging as a genre, but as composition on the Internet has become fluid, mobile, interactive, etc., the speed at which new genres form, reconfigure and morph, may require a new concept to capture what platforms such as WordPress and Blogger afford…and constrain.

      1. Based on your observations, blogging does seem to be more of a medium than a genre: blog as site rather than a strict form of text. The fact that academic/scholarly blogging is viewed less and less as an oxymoron strengthens this perspective for me.

  4. Great discussion! This has been on my mind as well for the last several years. In an attempt to try to simplify a lot of theory and my own subsequent confusion, it seems that writing is a process or activity that involves interactions between the intentions of the author(s) and the use of certain tools and structures that are situated within particular cultural systems and practices.

    When we write, we carry certain intentions or goals when we participate in these spaces. These intentions involve imagining a very specific audience as well as certain texts (i.e. intertextuality). For example, I am replying to this thread because I have been studying digital media, learning and literacy and feel great joy when I may be able to participate and “geek out” with other people also grappling with these questions. Yet, my intentions are not enough to be able to “write.” I must be able to use the tools needed to properly compose the message. Like Melissa suggested, it seems to be about genre in that a genre signals cultural norms, cues, structures and tools that are appropriate for the intended audience. When writing this reply I am using the tools and structures of blogging that carry certain restrictions or constraints (e.g. only can compose using alphabetic text) as well as opportunities or affordances (e.g. collaborative discussion, ability to archive and reference comments that are frozen in time within a shared social space). When I’m composing this reply, I’m taking all these factors into account.

    Where I’m getting tripped up in my own research is trying to figure out who is the writer/ author or authors of the message? What happens to the individual and issues of ownership (e.g. remixing)? How are the boundaries of the text defined? Just like if this blog thread is an example of a composed text… Aren’t we all authors of the text? Even my own reply is not “mine,” yet, am I considered the author?

      1. This issue of authorship was related to how collaborative writing in online discussion threads make visible the fact that everything that is written (e.g. verbally, in print, visually, etc.) represents multiple voices and that no one really owns these ideas (see Bakhtin’s stuff). Someone may copy and paste one of these sentences from this post verbatim into a new website or term paper, and the ideas will be “remixed” because they will be applied within a new context and moment in time. This is an essential digital literacy (see Dan Perkel’s paper). As mentioned in an earlier post, DJ culture and hip-hop culture embrace this same concept when a beat, or a lyric can be appropriated and applied to create a new text without having to pay royalties to the original artists that created the beat. What matters is whether the track moves the crowd. When I participate in blogs, my intention is to be inspired, and to inspire others to move and make ideas a reality.

        In terms of Creative Commons, this was not on my mind at the time but it is a very fascinating issue to bring up in relation to writing, authorship and ownership. In an attempt to have a civilized Internet and some would argue society, it is necessary to have these restrictions so that I or someone else cannot go and start a blog called “” and copy/ paste ideas posted, claim them as my own, and try to make money and a name for myself. However, people do this all the time. Check out the battle between The Oatmeal website and this other website (see: Note that the Oatmeal didn’t sue Funny Junk, but rather started mocking and ostracizing the website. I’m not sure how Creative Commons gets enforced legally.

    1. What a thoughtful comment, Kim! I’m especially struck by your last paragraph, as it speaks to the reader’s active role in one’s own text making. I’m reminded of Umberto Eco’s comment that authors “should die” after writing a text because their existence “trouble[s] the path of the text.” I think he’s the one who also said that writers create readers. If I’m right, Eco presents an intriguing creation/destruction relationship between author and reader. I don’t subscribe to the “death of the author” theory, but such a potentially destructive relationship between author and audience is fascinating to ponder. We tell our students to anticipate the questions their readers will ask in order to achieve fully developed and logical ideas, so such a relationship is very close no matter the genre, situation, or purpose.

      Yes, we are all authors of the text (this comment thread); it’s very much a collaborative text.

      Has anyone else ever written a phrase or statement and then thought, “I don’t think I came up with this. I think I heard or read it somewhere”? Such a frustrating experience!

  5. ‘What is writing’ has recently become such a situated question. I find myself saying, as the timfrederick does, “that’s all writing too!” But then there’s a step to far in another conversation and I pull back, saying, but it that is writing, then the concept of writing loses some vital analytic force.

    Several people have mentioned this same This American Life segment — thanks for bringing it again to my attention so that I am resolved to go listen. Digital Is folks would find this question interesting too. Thanks for your previous cross-posts; we welcome your always thoughtful perspectives.

  6. Don’t hate on me, but I just went to Wikipedia to look up ‘writing.’ I did this, because I agree with y’all. The definition of writing needs to be malleable, and at the same time, if anything and everything can be considered ‘writing’ (like anything that can be ‘read’ is a ‘text’) some ‘analytic force’ is lost. So, I wondered what an everyday definition of writing entailed. (That’s my excuse for Wikipedia. I hope it satisfies you.) The result is interesting to play with. Here is the link:

    “Writing is the representation of language in a textual medium through the use of a set of signs or symbols (known as a writing system).[1] It is distinguished from illustration…and non-symbolic preservation of language via non-textual media…”

    Could a baseline for ‘writing’ be inscription and meaning-making involving ‘language’? In this sense, other terms such as “composition” and “design” could be used when referring to other symbol systems or the combination of varied communicative modes?

    The next part also pushed my thinking:
    “Writing most likely began as a consequence of political expansion in ancient cultures, which needed reliable means for transmitting information, maintaining financial accounts, keeping historical records, and similar activities.” This got me thinking about the blog post I did after traveling to Peru and learning about their non-linguistic communication system:

  7. Ok, I’m coming into this conversation later (I’ve just discovered your blog!) and I wonder how the definitions that thoughtfully discussed have changed or haven’t changed in the last two years.

    I like the definition Anna listed from Wikipedia about writing being defined as a set of signs or symbols use to make communication. I’m not a huge lover of Wikipedia, but it has value because it does reflect understanding from the general population. Just out of curiosity, I clicked on the link and found that the definition of writing has indeed evolved from two years ago:
    “Writing is a medium of communication that represents language through the inscription of signs and symbols. In most languages, writing is a complement to speech or spoken language. Writing is not a language but a form of technology. Within a language system, writing relies on many of the same structures as speech, such as vocabulary, grammar and semantics, with the added dependency of a system of signs or symbols, usually in the form of a formal alphabet. The result of writing is generally called text, and the recipient of text is called a reader. Motivations for writing include publication, storytelling, correspondence and diary. Writing has been instrumental in keeping history, dissemination of knowledge through the media and the formation of legal systems.”

    It caught my eye that two years ago, the distinction was made between writing and illustration non-symbol writing. However, today writing is defined as not a language but a form of technology! So Anna, to answer your earlier question, I do think that writing would include design. The design of various forms of writing (I’m speaking digitally) is still a way to communicate and at the core, I think that writing is communication. Whether it be through words, symbols or design, it’s still a way to convey something we create.

    I teach 7th grade English and it’s interesting how some old-school types only want to view writing as words on paper. It’s not fair to limit our students that way when they are surrounded by all sorts of texts that communicate in many different ways. As teachers, one of the best things we can do to prepare students for the globally-minded future is to give our students the tools to write is as many venues and methods as they can.

  8. Anna, I am not a wiki-hater…I am actually a huge fan of definitions:) They can give a starting point to discussions just like this one!

    So much of writing is communication and what is communicated can be writing. But not all communication IS writing. Writing begins and typing ends when ideas are gathered and shared in an original way, giving credit to ideas not your own, using language. Many times a thought comes to me in which I wonder, is this thought my own? Being cognizant of when that happens and sharing a source when possible is important and necessary, but having and sharing ideas, thoughts and information through the written word, whether it is typing, handwriting, blogging, tweeting, texting, etc. is where writing begins. Whether you are assembling, or coming up with an original text, the thoughts put together by the author are writing.

  9. While listening to this episode, I was totally caught off guard I had no idea there was outsourcing in journalism. It was very disheartening to hear. I teach Kindergarten and I am trying to create young writers, to know that there may not be jobs here is very sad. I feel that creativity and imagination is being taken away from my students, that we are creating “test taking robots”. Writing is one form of creativity that they have. But it sounds like even that can be taken away.

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