Handbook of Writing Research

By Charles A. MacArthur; Steve Graham et al. | Go to book overview

Introduction

Charles A. MacArthur, Steve Graham, and Jill Fitzgerald

The power of writing is richly captured in the famous quote: "The pen is mightier than the sword." Although most people recognize that writing is important, they are sometimes confused about the source of its power. With the coming of the atomic age, the quote acquired a new meaning for at least one young writer. He told his teacher that we now know what this saying actually means, that "the period about to end this sentence for just one thing has zillions of unexploded atoms."

Although writing is not really this explosive, it is one of humankind's most powerful tools. It lets us communicate with others who are removed by distance or time, allowing us to maintain personal links with family, friends, and colleagues. Writing connects more than just our immediate circle of associates and loved ones, however. It can foster and preserve a sense of heritage and purpose among larger groups of people. For instance, the Haida Indians in Canada recently transcribed their oral traditions in order to preserve their history, and books such as Uncle Tom's Cabin provided a catalyst for antislavery beliefs in 19th-century America (Swedlow, 1999). Writing also provides a flexible tool for persuading others. The first Athenian schools were founded in the fifth century B.C. to teach Writing as a rhetorical tool for use in the public forum and law courts (Havelock, 1982). The persuasive power of Writing is further demonstrated by pamphlets such as Common Sense by Thomas Paine or Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, which influenced the course of history.

Writing's power further resides in its ability to convey knowledge and ideas (Graham, in press). Writing makes it possible to gather, preserve, and transmit information widely, with great detail and accuracy. As a result, Writing is integrated into virtually all aspects of our society. Order is maintained through a series of written and codified laws. The administration of most social and political organizations depends upon memos, emails, written bylaws, and so forth. Job seekers must complete one or more written applications and are likely to use manuals and other print material to learn new occupational skills. Scientists and other academics share their findings and ideas in journals and on the web. Even everyday tasks such as cooking a microwave dinner or paying a bill involve following written directions.

Finally, Writing provides an important means for personal self-expression. People use Writing to explore who they are, to combat loneliness, to chronicle their experiences, and to create alternative realities. The power of Writing is so strong that Writing about one's feelings and experiences can be beneficial psychologically and physiologically, because it can reduce depression, lower blood pressure, and boost the immune system (Swedlow, 1999; Smyth, 1998).

Despite its importance, there is considerable concern about the Writing capabilities of

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