Why writing is so difficult – understanding the role of topic knowledge, purpose and audience

Why writing is so difficult – understanding the role of topic knowledge, purpose and audience

Of all literacy skills, writing is probably the most difficult for many students (and adults). This is because writing is not one skill but many. Writers need to know what they are writing about. You can’t write what you can’t say, say what you can’t think and think what you don’t know. Knowledge of the topic is the starting point for writing. If writing an information text, then the writer must know about the topic. For example, if you have no knowledge of plate tectonics, then it’s going to be difficult to write about this topic. This might sound obvious yet, we often don’t think enough about this before we begin writing. When I think back to my schooling and the many essays I wrote (that was all we were required to do back then!), I would spend the most amount of time reading about the topic before I planned my response. Topic knowledge comes from reading and lived experience. Children, generally, are lacking in lived experience – they are too young – so must rely on what they learn from reading. This is one of the links between reading and writing and why they can’t be thought of as separate agendas. 

Given the critical role that the key element of knowledge of the subject matter plays in writing success, ensure that students ‘know their stuff’. They can either write about familiar subject matter or acquire mastery of content prior to writing. Mastery can be achieved through reading (as mentioned), teacher talk, images, key terms, experience or research. However, given the limitations of working memory teacher talk has limited value in providing enough background knowledge unless it is accompanied by some of the other ways of learning about the topic.

Topic knowledge is critical, so too are an understanding of the purpose of writing and the audience for whom the writing is intended. The main purposes for writing include to inform, to entertain and to persuade and these determine the types of text and language features used. Audience determines the acceptable degree of formality or informality needed as it is shaped by the relationship between the reader and writer.

So, when teaching writing start the process by ensuring that students have topic knowledge and a clear understanding of purpose and audience.