Defining Digital Writing (A Modest Proposal)

Digital Writing, in the margins

It’s quite possible this is impossible. I am trying to narrow in on the affordances of what we mean by the phrase “Digital Writing.” I may even veer way off track here, and perhaps it is best for all of us just to drop the “digital” once and for all, and just call it .. writing. Although, I, for one, still prefer the word “composing.”

Still … I am on this merry path of thinking because I am giving an ending Keynote to the (free!) 4T Virtual Conference on Digital Writing, which takes place on Sundays in October and because I have been engaged in an intriguing margin annotation activity with my CLMOOC friend, Karen LaBonte, who wrote a “field report” blog post that shared some critique of the phrase “Digital Writing” by close family members.

That had me thinking: OK, so WHAT do we mean? What affordances does the digital bring to writing? How is it different from what we think of as (regular) writing (ie, paper, pen/cil, etc.) And, why do we need to differentiate?

Here is a rough list of affordances, in my view, of how Digital Writing is different from, eh, Analog Writing. (Boy, that phrase looks odd, right?)

Digital Writing …

  • is more than just words typed on a screen. A simple blog post is not really digital writing;
  • potentially crosses mediums, so that words might mix with sound might mix with video might mix with other media;
  • narrows the gap between writer and reader by giving more agency to the reader than traditional relationships, and so, the writer must plan for that changed relationship;
  • can have deeper associative properties, particularly when thinking of how hyperlinks embedded within the text might connect one text to another, providing options and trails that move away from the main text itself;
  • may or may not harness the possibilities of the underlying yet mostly hidden “writing” — the computer code of the page that we read that has been represented as text but is actually not text;
  • provides for possible collaborations beyond the writer, and sometimes without their permission or notice, such as the margin annotations on a website page or a remix of media.

The criticism, including my own, may be be that most of what I just wrote in this list is not necessarily “writing.” It is more technology — tinkering with the way we represent writing in the larger world. But I still think if “composing” is the word we use when it comes to “digital writing,” we are more apt to be open to the use of various media, of hyperlinks like paths on a literacy map, of reader involvement in the original text, of the sort of planning that “digital writer” has to do to create a “digital text.” It is all composition.

DIGITAL the poem

I don’t think we are at a point where all writing is digital writing, and therefore, we don’t need a separate designation on it. I don’t know if digital writing is the right term, though. But it does seem to me that we need some way to show that technology is changes the way we compose our texts in the world, if only so we can talk about it (and maybe debate it).

What do you think?

Peace (write it into the world),

  1. When one of my students said to an author, “We don’t really write. We type.” I had some of these same thoughts. How is writing on a blog while tapping keys on the keyboard different from a journal entry or writing an essay?
    Maybe the interaction possibilities are the key. I must be aware of audience in the digital world. Perhaps it’s that immediate audience that makes it digital. Good questions and thoughts here. And I love how you created an acrostic. Digital gives us so many more options for presentation.

  2. When I record assignment directions, I have often stopped myself when the directions are to “write” when I really mean “type” or “compose.” Even here, instead of “write,” in the first sentence, I chose “record.” Because the digital assignment directions are recorded in a document for reference. I’ve also used the word “compose” with students. Looking at the dictionary definitions of compose and write, a crossover exists in there use, but compose includes the words create, invent, produce, orchestrate. I find that more inclusive to my definition of digital writing. And as Margaret mentions, the focus on the audience is critical. I disagree with you on blog posts however; the blog post could be the central focus of a presentation, linking to images, resources, and videos that extend and enhance the author’s message. It requires much more thought and creation than simply writing an essay. Design is a word I use most often with my students: I want them to consider the reader, the information, their purpose and message, and the presentation — how will they best explain and argue their ideas using text, image, video, interactive media, etc.? It is the digital that allows all of us to design the presentation of our discoveries so others understand how we make sense of the world of information around us, and how we invite others into our journey of understanding. Thank you for always presenting the questions that focus and clarify our work as learners.

  3. [I’m marking paragraphs with # because I don’t think the comments format will allow them here.)

    #I tried to comment on my phone several days ago and the response disappeared, so it looks like I’m late to this commenting game, but I’ve been thinking about it. Thanks for the brain puzzle, Kevin.

    #Like you and Sheri, I appreciate the flexibility and breadth of the term “composing”. It’s becoming my go-to phrase for activities that call for creation beyond words-on-paper (or screen), although it’s apt for those activities as well.

    #I wonder if what we are grappling with are some fundamental difficulties of language in this new era. How do we “language” processes that are emerging and evolving with new media?

    #Even with the term “new media”, I am struck by how many of the processes we consider as “digital writing” actually call on the affordances of the Web. I think of the various tools so many K-12 educators use, from the Google suite to thinks like VoiceThread, Glogster, For me, Web-involvement seems central to our discussion.

    # Which raises another challenge: “digital” encompasses much more than Web-based composing. You don’t need the Web to have kids work on digital storytelling or make a digital magazine or newspaper. And then, in cases where that kind of composing is done in concert with the Web, the Web becomes the means of distribution. But then, is it simply distribution?

    #I’d argue that the moment we bring the Web into any act of composing, we are introducing shifts that involve the amount and kind of expectations of the composers. Yes, this relates to audience, but I see it as significantly different. Yes, it is also related to the way writing for an audience makes the act of composing “real” or authentic. But the immediacy of publication on and distribution via the Web adds a new dimension (dimensions?). That seems, to me, to have to do with expectations.

    #For example, I’ve witnessed nervousness in my grad students even before they create a blog or click on the first “publish” button. Their nerves are an aspect of their expectation that their work, and therefore *they*, will be seen, heard. For these smart, talented pre-professionals– or, in some cases, practicing professionals– there is a new vulnerability in putting their thoughts “out there”, wherever that may be. Isn’t the amorphous nature part of the Web experience? They, we, cannot even imagine where “out there” is. So, then, how does one compose for that audience? How does one construct voice or tone, decide on language use, topic, message, etc.? Dang Web, going and complicating everything we thought we knew.

    I am continuing to think of other things. Probably will blog about this. Fun stuff!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *