I sometimes say to my students you can’t write chat; you have to write writing.

What does it mean to “write writing”?

Maybe I could make an analogy to “public speaking.” When we think of that phrase, we don’t think of just anything uttered in public; we think vaguely of a kind of speaking, a skilled kind, a desired kind, a kind that works for and is respected/applauded by its audience.

So when I say “write writing,” I don’t mean just any words on paper, I mean a certain kind of use of language which is not the same as spontaneous speech and which has desirable features which are different in that way.

What is different about this “written writing”?

It is made much more of complete sentences, complete thoughts, complete utterances. Not that everything has to be explicit, God forbid, but things are not left hanging, dangling, tossed off with a “you know.” Your sentences get completed, and they often involve a great deal more syntactic complexity (subordination) than spoken sentences. In that sense, they are more explicit; they represent the movement of thought in complex sentences with exact relationships between the clauses. All that needs to be said is said. That doesn’t mean you hit the reader over the head or drive your point all the way into the floor, but you don’t leave things unsaid without meaning to. This written writing is mentally rehearsed, thought out, reread, rewritten. The words, the sentences, the paragraphs in this writing are placed where they belong — not where they happened to occur to you. You don’t say, “Wait a minute, a couple of pages ago I forgot to mention . . . ”

The complexity that mustn’t be forgotten is that although this written writing is deliberate, it may sound completely spontaneous. And it is not a matter of following rules. That is far too narrow a conception. This “written” quality does not automatically entail formality. Written writing can have an exquisitely relaxed, intimate, informal tone.

When a person “writes writing,” just as when a person does public speaking, it is a performance for an audience that has certain expectations, and the writer takes some pains to meet those expectations. They may be met in surprising ways that the audience could not have anticipated, but they are not ignored.
You could try to correlate this “written” quality with audience. It seems pretty clear that “written writing” is the necessary way of addressing an unknown general audience (just as “public speaking” is, when that audience is in front of you listening). It also seems clear that you don’t have to “write writing” to yourself, or your best friend, and probably not even to unknown members of your peer group if the situation is sufficiently undemanding. But complexly enough, you could “write writing” to yourself or your best friend, just because you and your friend like writing, and it would not seem weirdly inappropriate (the way it would if you adopted a “public speaking” stance while conversing one-on-one).

If writing is a second language, where is this second language used? In books. You can’t learn it well without lots of reading, just like you can’t learn French well without going where people speak it.

You can download this as a Word document here: Writing as a Second Language