For an upcoming episode of the LD Podcast, I got to talk to Dr. Steve Graham of Vanderbilt University, one of the leading authorities on the development of writing skills and teaching writing to students in the country.  In the course of our conversation, we spoke about the importance of writing in the thought process.

Basically, and at the most elementary level, writing involves getting an idea, translating that idea into words or pictures, and transcribing it in some form, typing, handwriting a note, drawing, painting, etc. into another format.   I added the pictorial forms to Dr. Graham’s thoughts, because while it is not strictly writing- taking pictures or painting, drawing cartoons or storyboards are equally valid ways of expressing an idea so others can interact with it.

I asked him whether the very process of writing the words made the thoughts more real and concrete, and if this is what made critique of our work so much harder to take sometimes- you have taken the personal and private and made it public.  He thought that was probably very true, and I think it would be fascinating, now that technology has come so far, to do functional MRI’s of people during the creative process, and see how much of the sensory and emotional centers of the brain are activated.

Writing here on the blog, or even emails to people I care about, make me express feelings and ideas in a more concrete way.  It makes me take the idea or feeling, play with it, and figure out the best way to convey the feeling or message to another, hoping they receive it in the manner in which I intended it.  It makes this stuff personal and often more thoughtful and meaningful than just talking.

I think this is also why we feel plagiarism and hijacking the ideas of others without credit as such an affront.  Ideas are cheap until they are executed on, and are just thoughts, but once they are expressed and shared with others, they are yours and you have some ownership of them.  When you take someone’s idea and change it, elaborate on it, take it a step further- you then make it your own.  When you outline an idea to a friend, the last thing you want to see is a friend taking your ideas and passing them off as their own.  You might not have had a chance to execute on it, it might be a great idea, but you own it, at least as far as those you have communicated it to directly.  If someone else has a similar idea, but you haven’t talked with them about it first, then there’s no issue.  If you have spoken with them about it, and they take your thoughts and words and present it to others as their latest and greatest thing, then that’s dishonest.

Writing is something that’s a craft, and we each have our own style and ways of expressing ourselves.  Riffing on the ideas of others is great, but I think even on the big web, we should credit when we can, where the ideas start, because that is simple honesty.

The web in a small community.  It’s an insular community.  And even if you think all ideas are up for grabs, you better be cautious from whom you borrow, because it may come to haunt you in the future.