Millions of working adults now spend four hours or more each day (sometimes, a lot more) with their hands on keyboards and their minds on audiences—writing so much, in fact, that they have little time or appetite for reading. In the so-called information economy, writing has become a dominant form of labor and production. As a result, writing is eclipsing reading as the literate experience of consequence. Spurred on especially by digital technologies, writing is crowding out reading and subordinating reading to its needs. The rise of writing over reading represents a new chapter—and a new challenge—in the history of mass literacy, a challenge especially for the school, which from its founding has been much more organized around a reading literacy, around a presumption that readers would be many and writers would be few.
But now writers are becoming many. What are some of the changes that we need to pay attention to? Increasingly, people read from inside acts of writing, as they respond to others; research, edit, or review other people’s writing; or search for styles or approaches to use in their own writing. Increasingly, how and why and whether we write is conditioning how and why and whether we read.
Further, in an information society, writing is consequential. The kind of writing done by everyday people turns the wheels of finance, law, health care, government, commerce. As the power and consequence of writing courses through the consciousness of everyday people, their acts of writing are often sites of intellectual, moral, and civic reflection—but not necessarily in the same ways as acts of reading. Reading is an internalizing process. That is why the effects of literacy have been sought mostly on the inside, in the formation of character or the quality of inner life or intellectual growth. But writing is a relentlessly externalizing process. Because writing unleashes language into the world, it engages people’s sense of power and responsibility. It can be expected to bring more wear and tear, potentially more trouble. Writing risks social exposure, blame, even, in some cases, retaliation.
We are at a critical crossroad in the history of mass literacy, where writing is overtaking reading as the skill of critical consequence. It brings into prominence a cultural history, a set of cognitive dispositions, and a developmental arc that stand in contrast to reading. As an educational community, we have been slow to incorporate these shifting relationships into the questions we ask and the perspectives that we take. That writing remains so under-studied and under-articulated in comparison to reading is perhaps our greatest challenge.
Deborah Brandt is professor emerita of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author, most recently, of The Rise of Writing: Redefining Mass Literacy (Cambridge University Press, 2015). She is the author of “Remembering Writing, Remembering Reading.” College Composition and Communication 45.4 (1994): 459–79.