English, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in: FUNCTIONAL APPROACHES TO WRITING: RESEARCH PERSPECTIVES, Ed. B. Couture (London: Frances Pinter, 1986), pp. 69-92. Copyright © 1986 Barbara Couture.


As scholars and writers, we no doubt have more than once uttered 'I tried to write that piece today, but I didn't have any good ideas.' And oddly enough that lament often follows tireless sessions when we have generated lots and lots of ideas on paper, but none we regard as 'good.' Though the problem of distinguishing a 'good' idea in writing has plagued generations of writers and many more readers, scholars have not yet produced a FUNCTIONAL DESCRIPTION of the written communication of a valued idea.

In my view, a functional description of effective ideation in written text should balance expectations for completeness and utility. A COMPLETE description would reflect all the kinds of semantic choice realized in any kind of actual written discourse that conveys ideas effectively in any kind of situation. (We are a long way from a 'complete' description of this kind; nevertheless, scholars of written discourse in a variety of settings have identified several features that support and clarify the communication of ideas.) A USEFUL description would have heuristic value for writers, aiding their efforts to generate ideas that communicate effectively for themselves and to their readers. They can appeal to many handbooks advising how to organize literary and expository texts and ensure audience appeal, but none that I have seen provide a comprehensive, manageable heuristic for effective ideation.

In this chapter, I define effective textual ideation and propose a functional scale of linguistic features that promote it. My scale describes effective ideation as a function of linguistic choice, ranging from more elliptical to more explicit expression. In developing this scale, I begin from the premise that an effective idea in text conveys a message about a topic with clarity and exigence for both the writer and reader in a given context. Textual scholarship in several disciplines suggests that clarity and exigence are addressed through two kinds of meaning systems: TEXTUAL LOGIC and SEMIOTIC CONVENTION. These two systems are realized in written text through a range of grammatical and lexical features that make more or less explicit reference to their underlying structures. Experimental modeling suggests that we can explain effective textual ideation by analyzing on an 'explicitness' scale those linguistic choices that convey conceptual logic and contextualize the discourse. As my analysis of a sample written text shows, a network describing effective ideation must account for both kinds of semantic systems in order to accurately explain ideation in written text and to have heuristic utility for writers.