What is writing?

What is writing?

by Dr Jeremy Koay

A limited view

When I was teaching academic writing at university level, I often asked my students about their learning goals. In every semester, almost all my international students would say they need to improve their grammar. Some would say they need to improve their vocabulary.

Are grammar and vocabulary the most important aspects of writing? If not, why do learners think so? Where did they get this idea from? Is that what their teachers told them? While grammar and vocabulary are important aspects of writing, they should not be the primary foci of writing in my view.

A holistic view

Writing is more than putting grammatical sentences on paper. I always stress among my students that writing is about thinking. Clear thinking and clear writing go hand-in-hand. I find writing to be an excellent platform for promoting creative and critical thinking skills.

Effective writing is about communicating one’s idea or argument as clearly and coherently as possible. For this to happen, it is crucial for both teachers and learners to focus on ideas and organisation of ideas (Grabe & Kaplan, 2014).

For example, when writing a factual essay, we should be asking the following questions:

  1. What are my main ideas?
  2. Is the main idea in each body paragraph clearly presented?
  3. Do I explain my main ideas clearly?
  4. Are my examples convincing?
Theory and practice

Our worldview and value system influence how we respond to a particular situation. Similarly, in a language classroom, a sound and holistic understanding of writing influences our teaching practice (Lee, 2003).

If we think writing is primarily about putting grammatical sentences on paper, we will be spending time correcting grammatical errors in students’ essays. However, if we value coherence and ideas in a piece of writing, our feedback will respond mainly to ideas and organisation of ideas.

Start with the four questions in your feedback today!


Grabe, W., & Kaplan, R. B. (2014). Theory and practice of writing: An applied linguistic perspective. Routledge.

Lee, I. (2003). L2 writing teachers’ perspectives, practices and problems regarding error feedback. Assessing Writing, 8(3), 216-237.

Dr Jeremy Koay is a New Zealand-based independent researcher and an education consultant at EduMaxi. He obtained his PhD in Applied Linguistics from Victoria University of Wellington in 2015. His research interests include Discourse Analysis, Genre Analysis and TESOL.

Image source: shutterstock.com/Tortoon

  • Matthew Ooi
    Posted at 17:37h, 19 January

    Great writing, Dr Jeremy! Now that’s what I call writing 🙂