Review: Applied Linguistics; Sociolinguistics: Lillis (2013)

AUTHOR: Theresa  Lillis
TITLE: The Sociolinguistics of Writing
SERIES TITLE: Edinburgh Sociolinguistics
PUBLISHER: Edinburgh University Press
YEAR: 2013

REVIEWER: James Corcoran, University of Toronto


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

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

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:

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

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

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

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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