Writing as a social practice

Writing is a task that is usually thought of as a solitary practice. One need only go to a coffee shop in a university town to see individuals hunched over laptops reading and writing to observe some of the work that goes into completion of the numerous term papers, theses and dissertations completed each year at colleges and universities all over the world. Yet, researchers who teach writing remind us that writing is a social practice. What do they mean by this?

Claire Aitchison and Alison Lee (Aitchison & Lee, 2006, p. 271) assert that academic writing involves a “network of social, institutional and peer relations—of readers, reviewers, teachers, examiners, editors, publishers”. So while one might think that writing is an individual act over which one has control, this omits the numerous people involved in the process of writing. Let’s look at others involve in more detail.

Readers. Academic writing requires that we think beyond the sentences we formulate to an imagined audience. How do we locate that audience? A good place to begin is to look at the “aim and scope” statements of the journals that we read. These statements tell us about the audience who reads the journal and give us some idea of how we should imagine our audiences. Why is this important? To share the findings of our research studies or methodological explorations we need to answer the question of “So what?” That is, what is important that we hope to convey to others? Why should others read this? How might they use this information? For what purpose?

Reviewers. Once we complete manuscripts, we must submit these to journal editors or editors at publishing houses for review. Of course, there is always the risk of rejection. Put another way, the scholarly peer review process entails the gift of feedback on what we do, and, hopefully, ideas for how we can revise our writing to make more robust arguments to present our ideas in ways that are understandable to and useful for others. If you are new to the peer review process, you will find more information here:

A beginner’s guide to peer review

AAUP’s Best Practices for peer review

Teachers. Outside our family members, teachers are likely the people who have most access to what we have written from an early age. From teachers we may have received encouragement for our (good) writing, and requests and red annotations on our (poor) writing. Our first teachers’ feedback on our writing may well have had profound influences on how we think about writing and what we do in the present. It is useful to remember, then, that not all teachers’ advice on how to improve our writing is necessarily good advice. Yet, if we want to improve our writing, we might want to heed others’ advice. If you are not comfortable in seeking your teachers’ advice on writing, or you feel that the advice lacks specificity and concrete suggestions for how to improve, there are numerous sources that you might consult. For example, you might look to the literature for teachers, many of whom provide the kindness, encouragement, and support that will support your writing practice and help you to thrive as a writer. Numerous novelists have written texts on writing – Stephen King (2000), Ursula LeGuin (1998), and Annie Dillard (1989) are just three. Then there are texts that assist writers with getting going (Elbow, 1998; Goldberg, 1986, 1990), or specific tasks, such as writing a literature review (Poulson & Wallace, 2004; Wallace & Wray, 2011), an article or a dissertation (Becker, 1986).

Examiners. Examiners are similar to reviewers, in that they assess the quality of a written piece of work and make decisions about whether it meets standards of quality for a particular community of practice. In the case of reviewers, recommendations are made with a view to publication (e.g., accept, revise and resubmit, or reject). Sometimes decisions to “reject” are made not based on the quality of the writing, but on the “fit” for the journal. That is, a very good study that is well-written may be rejected because it does not fit the aim and scope of a journal. Examiners, on the other hand, are called upon to assess candidates in academic programs. In countries such as Australia and New Zealand, external examiners are invited to assess the quality of doctoral theses and provide anonymous reports to a candidate’s advisors as to whether a thesis should be accepted, revised, or deemed not to meet the institutional standards for the award of a degree. In the United States, examiners of theses and dissertations are usually known to the candidate, since they serve as members of thesis and dissertation advisory committees. In their roles as committee members and advisors, they assess whether a thesis or dissertation meets the institutional standards for the awarding of a degree.

Editors. Editors work in gate-keeping capacities for journals and publishing houses. Editors also recruit writers to write about particular topics and serve as a bridge between authors and reviewers. Editors select manuscripts to be sent to external reviewers, as well as selecting reviewers whose expertise matches the topic and/or methods discussed in a manuscript.

For novice researchers who have yet to be published, sorting out how to navigate publishing the findings of a research study can initially be a process fraught with mystery. It need not be. Publishing houses and journals frequently provide lots of information for how to do things. If you look at the links to “publishers” at the top of QualPage, you will be able to locate information for potential authors on publishers’ websites.

To return to my original point: writing is a social practice. It involves many others… You too can become part of a writing community as writer, reviewer, teacher, editor and examiner.


Aitchison, C., & Lee, A. (2006). Research writing: Problems and pedagogies. Teaching in Higher Education, 11(3), 265-278.

Becker, H. S. (1986). Writing for social scientists: How to start and finish your thesis, book, or article. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago.

Dillard, A. (1989). The writing life. New York: Harper & Row.

Elbow, P. (1998). Writing with power: Techniques for mastering the writing process (2nd ed.). New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goldberg, N. (1986). Writing down the bones: Freeing the writer within. Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Goldberg, N. (1990). Wild mind: Living the writer’s life. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

King, S. (2000). On writing: A memoir of the craft. New York: Scribner.

LeGuin, U. K. (1998). Steering the craft: Exercises and discussions on story writing for the lone navigator or the mutinous crew. Portland OR: The Eighth Mountain Press.

Poulson, L., & Wallace, M. (Eds.). (2004). Learning to read critically in teaching & learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Wallace, M., & Wray, A. (2011). Critical reading and writing for postgraduates (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Sage.

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