Writing PenWriting in English is an activity by which others often judge our overall abilities. While this evaluation is rarely accurate, it is the conclusion to which many people jump. It is a language skill closely linked to reading. While reading is a common form of linguistic input, its corresponding output or mode of production is writing. The only way for people to process the written word is to read it. Many exams require that we record our responses by writing regardless of the stated purpose of the test.

Proficiency in writing is a requirement when a language learner is planning to pursue higher education. The difficulties associated with devising and administering a oral evaluation are enormous. With the exception of the single oral section of the iBT (even this section permits the taking of notes), the TOEFL exam is a written exam. Any profession that relies on correspondence and reports and deals with the public is dependant on writing skills. Documents used in these professions are intended to be objective and impersonal. These written records are often preserved and their accuracy can be examined years after their creation. A significant feature of writing is its permanence. Another important characteristic of writing is that we do not know who will be reading what we've written.

Of course, there is an exception to this caveat. Certain modes of writing are intended to be personal (and private) in nature. Personal letters and e-mails may be intended for specific individuals alone and as such can employ a much more personal and subjective tone. It is important in these cases that the writer observe pragmatic customs for their chosen form of communication. When a writer departs from the objectivity expected in public documents and inserts his or her personality into the writing, pragmatics are required. In order to express personal feelings or successfully persuade or make a personal request of the recipient, the writer must be aware of and respect common standards. Oftentimes words alone can't articulate one's feelings. For more information on the topic of Pragmatics, click here.

Permanence is an element of written output that distinguishes it from spoken language. The fact that history is recorded on tablets, parchment and ancient texts attests to the reliance we place on the written word over time. The works of many of the world's greatest artists, its poets, authors and playwrights, are preserved because they chose to write their words. Because what is written can be preserved and verified, the accuracy of what we write can be critical. Rules and conventions have been adopted to help ensure that the meaning the writer intends to share is what is actually communicated.

We can be thankful that, absent time constraints, writing can proceed at one's own pace. Unlike speaking, writing does not take place with the immediacy of a conversation. It can be done in private and the results verified before anyone else sees what we've produced. Not only must the facts be accurate but even the appearance of the text is subject to the scrutiny of others. Punctuation and spelling therefore, must at least appear to be error-free.

Punctuation includes all the formal conventions that we associate with the written word. Capitalization, periods, commas and apostrophes are just a few elements of punctuation that we expect and require in written work. Punctuation exists so that the presentation of what is put on the page can approximate an oral presentation. A comma signifies a pause (for a breath?). A period stands for a full stop at the end of a sentence (or thought). Even spaces between words can be considered punctuation. Without punctuation the page would contain an unintelligible collection of letters and/or numerals. Punctuation has evolved to become much more complicated and (supposedly) precise and because of this, it presents a greater challenge to modern writers.

Spelling in English is notoriously difficult. Not only language learners but native writers struggle all their lives trying to spell correctly. There are some who would prefer that we do away with supposedly incomprehensible spelling and the rules that govern it. Why not spell 'through' and 'threw' phonetically as 'thru'? These well-intentioned advocates disregard the fact that English contains a collection of words from many different languages and times. Spelling conveys clues to word origins and a richness that would be lost with 'simplified' spelling. Ukulele, chaos, throughout and read all contain a lexical pedigree imbedded in their unique spelling.

Regardless of where you stand on this debate, conventional spelling is expected when we write. While computerized spell-checkers sometimes seem to be a blessing, their results can be misleading. There and their are both spelled correctly and are phonetically identical but they are not interchangeable. They are different words. If these words are included in the final text improperly it may indicate that the writer put too much reliance on the spell-checker alone. Those results can be interpreted as the product of laziness and sloppy work.

Any negative perception of the written product may reflect poorly on the writer. Regardless of the appropriateness of this reaction, why give someone an opportunity to affix personality onto what would otherwise be an impersonal document?

It is especially important that we check our output before we submit it for others to read. Checking our written work prior to submission is called proofreading and, while it is a necessary practice, it is too often neglected. Before submitting a written sample that may be read and examined by anyone in the future, all writing samples must be proofread for appropriate use of punctuation, spelling and grammar. It is important to remember that the time spent proofreading is always well spent and when we disregard this practice we are committing a major mistake. We often find and correct errors in our work by proofreading. When no errors are found, we know that we've done our best.


Last Updated: November 15, 2016