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Review of  The Sociolinguistics of Writing

Reviewer: James Corcoran
Book Title: The Sociolinguistics of Writing
Book Author: Theresa Lillis
Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 25.1202

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An examination of a variety of contemporary sociolinguistic handbooks and prominent texts hints at the timely nature of “The Sociolinguistics of Writing” (2013), in which Theresa Lillis describes the oft-overlooked place of writing within the field (Coulmas, 1998; Wodak, Johnstone and Kerswell, 2010; Mesthrie, 2011; Bayley, Cameron and Lucas, 2013). In this, her most recent book, Lillis forcefully argues for a greater focus on writing as opposed to the traditional sociolinguistic focus on speaking, including writing across domains, both formal and informal. Through a detailed description of writing modes, materials, technologies, and ways of understanding and researching writing, the author challenges the reader to (re)conceptualize his/her understanding of what writing is, what writing means and what writing does.

Chapter 1 provides an overview of the field of sociolinguistics, including its predominant emphasis on spoken language. Lillis highlights core principles of sociolinguistics (e.g. attention to the context, users, and functions of (everyday) language use) and makes an argument for writing to be considered, alongside speaking, as a legitimate focus of study within the field. The chapter concludes with a description of the author’s theoretical frame for understanding writing as a social, everyday practice within the broader frame of the field of sociolinguistics. She states, “writing cannot and should not be viewed as separate from contexts of use and users”; “texts, uses and users need to be the subjects of empirical research rather than being driven by apriori assumptions and value positions”; and “issues of power, identity, participation and access are central to writing practices and need to be taken account of in exploring what writing is and does” (p. 16).,

Chapter 2 investigates how writing might be understood and defined through a sociolinguistic lens by exploring the form and function of different modes of writing: writing as inscription, writing as verbal, writing as material, writing as technologies, writing as visual, and writing as spatial. This chapter’s description of writing as complex, dynamic, and multimodal, lays the groundwork for the author’s argument that writing should be understood as fundamentally a social practice.

Chapter 3 focuses on the “verbal” dimension of writing and provides an overview of common ways of analyzing texts (i.e. content, form, and function). The author also examines multi-disciplinary traditions and analytical tools frequently employed in the analysis of written texts across disciplines, such as discourse analysis, stylistics, rhetoric, and contrastive rhetoric. Lillis then moves into a discussion of categorization (what she refers to as ‘typification’) in writing research, including the oft-used and problematic notion of “genre”.

Chapter 4 shifts from an emphasis on written texts to a description of what counts as writing and literacy, with numerous examples of writing as an everyday, social practice, including examples of traditional (e.g. letters, reports) and more emergent writing (e.g. political blogs, YouTube postings). The author proceeds to describe methodological and theoretical tools that she and other researchers have developed (Barton and Hamilton, 2000; Lillis and Rai, 2012; Street, 2003) for exploring and analyzing writing as an everyday practice. The chapter concludes with the author’s contention that writing is not an open resource but rather a resource that is “differentially available and differentially evaluated...” (p. 98). This assertion is pivotal to the author’s examination of writing as a social practice in the remainder of the book.

Chapter 5 incorporates a broad sociolinguistic approach to understanding the dynamic nature of writing in terms of resources needed for writing, both materials and people, and the connection of these resources to existing communities (i.e. discourse communities), practices, and values. Drawing largely on Bloomaert (2005, 2006, 2008) as well as her own research into academic writing for publication, Lillis emphasizes the inherently normative nature of academic writing produced for/by/at institutions such as universities. However, the most important and provocative theme introduced in this chapter may be that of “text trajectories” (i.e. the different changes or phases a text goes through – often involving feedback from multiple stakeholders – during production en route to publication) as a lens for understanding the complex, dynamic, and social construction of written texts.

Chapter 6 examines both meaning-making and the inscription of the self in the construction of texts. Here, the author provides a detailed overview of identity studies in writing research, from Giddens (1979) to Fairclough (1992) to Gee (2007). Lillis reviews how writing resources are inscribed with certain identities and how these identities are taken up through identity work, defined as “a general way to encompass the range of traditions signaling the active nature of being, doing, and construing identity” (p. 125).. The author then outlines the ways in which writing practices are (either heavily or only somewhat) regulated in different spaces. Particularly interesting is the discussion of ways in which writers challenge dominant practices, both through traditional writing spaces and (ever more frequently) in emerging semiotic spaces afforded by new/changing technologies (e.g. social media websites).

Chapter 7 begins with an overview of multiple approaches to theorizing writers and writing as well as the corresponding ways in which language is conceptualized within these differing approaches (a valuable summary table is provided on p. 160). The author hails the merits of using a range of approaches when exploring writing and warns writing researchers against conflating the writing activity being observed and the frame or lens through which the observation is being made. The chapter also includes a description of Lillis’ own research -- into both workplace writing and academic writing for publication -- which clearly illustrates the author’s understanding of writing as both a social semiotic and everyday practice.

Chapter 8, the final chapter, summarizes some of the author’s key arguments: writing is a legitimate focus for research in sociolinguistics; writing is a social, everyday practice; there are multiple approaches to understanding what writing is and does; writing resources are differentially available/evaluated and socio-culturally/socio-historically situated; writing is a dynamic phenomenon; and, finally, understandings of what writing is and what writing does are shaped by the particular theoretical framework(s) and methodologies used by researchers. The chapter concludes with a call for future research into multimodal dimensions of writing and some worthwhile questions all writing scholars should ask themselves before, during, and after carrying out writing research.


Lillis has provided a useful overview of writing from a sociolinguistic perspective. She challenges the status quo in sociolinguistics by clearly and succinctly arguing for the study of writing as a central focus in the field. The author’s lucid, engaging text provides a welcome perspective on writing as a dynamic, multimodal, social practice occurring everyday in not only traditional but also emergent domains. The book also provides a straightforward yet complex look at cross- and inter-disciplinary theoretical frameworks and approaches to understanding writing.

The most vital messages in this book -- that writing is socio-culturally and socio-historically situated and that, accordingly, writing is differentially accessible and differently evaluated -- raise significant points for consideration by both writers and writing researchers. Further, Lillis convincingly makes the case that academic writing, in particular, trends toward more rigid adherence to normative practices when associated with institutions such as universities. For those engaged with researching or teaching academic writing, particularly from an equity perspective, these points are key to understanding writing practice, pedagogy, and evaluation, especially as the populations and practices of these institutions become increasingly interdisciplinary, socio-culturally diverse, and technologically advanced.

As a researcher investigating academic writing for publication, I found Chapters 4 (Writing as everyday practice) and 5 (Resources, networks, and trajectories) particularly poignant; both chapters deal with power and equity issues surrounding academic writing. With much of the global academic community turning to English as the principal language of academic communication, it is essential that any study of academic writing (especially the study of writing by multilingual or non-native English-speaking authors) take into account the specific historical/geo-political contexts, notions of authority/legitimacy, and relations of power connected to text production. Lillis draws attention to these issues throughout the book and her contention that writing practices cannot be understood separately from issues of power, identity, and equity is, in my view, both commendable and pertinent given the increasing hegemony of the Anglosphere in global knowledge production. While Lillis’ book would be an interesting and engaging read for those involved in all domains of writing, I highly recommend this book to graduate students and faculty carrying out writing research and/or those engaged in the production or instruction of academic writing (see also Lillis and Curry, 2010 and Curry and Lillis, 2013).


Bayley, R., Cameron, R., & Lucas, C. (Eds.). (2013). “The Oxford Handbook of Sociolinguistics”. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Barton, D., & Hamilton, M. (2000). Literacy practices. “Situated literacies: Reading and writing in context”, 7, 15.

Bloomaert, J. (2005). “Discourse: A Critical Introduction”. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bloomaert, J. (2006). Ethnography as counter-hegemony: remarks on epistemology and method. “Working Papers in Urban Language and Literacies”, 34. London: Institute of Education.

Bloomaert, J. (2008). “Grassroots Literacy”. London: Routledge.

Coulmas, F. (Ed.). (1998). “The Handbook of Sociolinguistics”. Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Curry, M. J. and Lillis, T. (2013). “A Scholar's Guide to Getting Published in English: Critical Choices and Practical Strategies”. Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Fairclough, N. (1992). “Discourse and Social Change”. Oxford: Blackwell.

Gee, J. P. (2007). “Social linguistics and literacies”. London: Taylor and Francis.

Giddens, A. (1979). “Central problems in social theory: action, structure and contradictions in social analysis” (Vol. 241). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Lillis, T., & Curry, M. J. (2010). “Academic writing in a global context: The politics and practices of publishing in English”. London, UK: Routledge.

Mesthrie, R. (Ed.). (2011). “The Cambridge handbook of sociolinguistics”. Cambridge; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Rai, L., & Lillis, T. (2011). A case study of a research-based collaboration around writing in social work. “Across the disciplines”, 8(3).

Street, B. V. (1984). “Literacy in theory and practice”. Vol. 9. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Street, B. (2003). What’s “new” in New Literacy Studies? Critical approaches to literacy in theory and practice. “Current issues in comparative education”, 5(2), 77-91.

Wodak, R., Johnstone, R.B., & Kerswill, P. (Eds.). (2011). “The SAGE handbook of sociolinguistics”. Los Angeles : SAGE.
James Corcoran is a doctoral student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education - University of Toronto. His research interests include critical language teacher education, the political economy of (English) language teaching, English as a global lingua franca, code-meshing/trans-languaging, L2 academic writing, and academic writing for publication. James' current research is investigating Spanish L1 scientists' academic writing for publication in international English-medium journals.

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