Dog-Eared Corner 0.2 - The Eleven Types of Writing
What is writing?
I’m not trying to be philosophical here. I mean, actually. What is it? How do we define it? Obviously it’s a form of communication. VISUAL SIGNIFIERS express meaning, either by representing sounds that combine into words, or in characterizing the words (or even meanings) all by themselves.
pictures and symbols translate into thoughts.
But this basic definition opens us to another question:
What CAN writing communicate?
Not everything. You can’t feel a punch to the nose by reading a magazine. Words in a book can’t be so loud they make your ears ring. A poem won’t tell your brain a drop of rain has fallen on your skin, or cause you to suddenly lose balance. Writing has limits.
I love limits. In limits we find definitions. Today we’re going to examine what types of writing exist.
Common wisdom gives us FOUR categories of writing: expository, descriptive, persuasive and narrative. I know this because I Googled it. These were the types that appeared over and again. I believe there are more.
Having thought a great deal about it (and conversed with some smart people I know), I’ve come up with ELEVEN categories into which all writing falls.
(NOTE: As far as I can tell, this is true for English. In other languages, the number may be different. I don’t have enough knowledge of these to say one way or another.)
The Eleven Types of Writing
Narrative writing conveys occurrences and events.
An occurrence is simply anything that happens or has happened (e.g. a bird flies past your window). An event means there is a change. We begin an event in one state of existence (e.g. up/angry/alive), and end it in another (e.g. down/happy/dead). The mechanism for this change, any opposing forces, and every interaction between forces, all count as elements of narrative writing.
Descriptive writing expresses the sensorial/emotional natures of whatever’s being written about. This can be done with simple descriptive words or by utilizing words and phrases that evoke an impression of sense or feeling in the reader.
Where descriptive writing instills a sense of how something would look, smell, sound (etc.), or how a person would feel in a given situation, poetic writing actually draws feeling or emotion by its own characteristics alone. It does not necessarily rely on reader-attachment to characters, or involvement in a plot. Instead it combines the innate impact of its words with layered and interwoven meanings, to build experiences.
Like the previous category, with no more than word-choice, aesthetic writing draws feeling from the reader. Unlike poetic writing however, it isn’t concerned with meaning or subtext. Its effects come from how the actual sounds interact in the ear of a listener, or virtual-ear of a reader (E.g. “cellar door” is famously considered to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing word combinations in the English language). A text’s rhythm is also a function of aesthetic writing.
Writing can even have visual aesthetic value in how it appears on the page.
Contemplative writing ponders abstract concepts. It examines ideas and weighs them against each other. It speculates. It questions. Sometimes it even answers.
Explanatory writing communicates information about a subject within the work. It does not concern itself with a sense of what anything is like, nor with how it impacts the reader. It exists to ensure the reader knows what they need to.
Rhetorical writing speaks directly to the reader with the aim of communicating a perceived truth. This truth can be emotional (“I love you” / “I hate you”), or it can be an idea or a course of action, to which the reader is persuaded. Whatever the nature of the message, it is a message, in the most literal sense.
Instructive writing tells the reader how to carry out a task. Such writing can be found in things like manuals, GPS directions and treasure maps. (Though any of these may also include a good amount of explanatory writing.)
Directive writing supplies the reader with a task or group of tasks to carry out. Commands. Suggestions. Memos. What-have-you.
Interrogative writing asks the reader specific questions to which an answer is expected. These include forms, surveys, polls, and many communicative messages (emails, texts, etc.).
Categorical writing is lists. I don’t mean listicles. Listicles almost always involve multiple types of writing. Categorical writing is just the list part. Like a shopping list. Or a to-do list. Or a list of 11 different types of writing (sans explanations).
Wait. What the fuck, Wing? You just said listicles contain multiple types of writing. And you said the same thing about manuals, directions, treasure maps, etc. If you think about it, doesn’t almost EVERYTHING use multiple types of writing?!
Yes, insightful reader! This is 100% true! While each of the 11 types is qualitatively distinct from the others, of course they are constantly combined. They can co-exist within the same work, same paragraph, same sentence, even the same word.
A text message reading, “Mom had a bad fall,” is both narrative and descriptive. One that says, “Did you put in the new shower mat like I asked? Mom fell and shattered her left hip,” is now narrative, descriptive, explanatory, rhetorical and interrogative. All in a 18 word text!
In addition to combining different types, we can also layer them inside each other.
A series of purely narrative sentences can, in combination, form a beautifully descriptive paragraph.
The right questions, asked in the right order, can form a strong rhetorical statement.
I’ve even read a book (They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib) which consists of essays about race, culture and music, whose meanings and themes combine into what I can only describe as a long-form work of deep poetry.
These writing categories are not defined by things like style, technique or word-choice; they’re defined by what they do, and what they’re for. And so as you zoom out, you can watch writing change from one type to another, to another, to another still, as larger and larger pieces combine into a whole.
Regardless of how you combine them though, no matter how you arrange or layer them, when you boil writing down, these are the eleven categories. Use this knowledge wisely.