A Digital Writing “Aha!” Moment

Yesterday was the fourth and final day of the 4TDW digital writing conference, culminating in Kevin Hodgson’s keynote, “A Day in the Life of a Digital Writer”. Kevin blogged about his experience here. As with all the conference sessions, a recording of the session, as well as slides and notes will be available shortly on the 4TDW home page. These are all well worth exploring.

I left a long comment on Kevin’s post then realized it was more blog post than comment. Here’s an expansion of my comment.

Kevin’s talk was ambitious. He shared his daily composing routine, some of his own individual work, and some of the (very cool) collaborations that have emerged from the 2016 #clmooc experience. Then he introduced the extended conversation about what digital writing is that took place this summer among me, Kevin, Sheri Edwards, Terry Elliott (see his comments on the hypothes.is edition of my blog post), Margaret Simon (see her comments on the blog posts mentioned). His intention had been to sparquestion markk a conversation about digital writing, but his composing process and compositions were compelling and time just ran out.

The chat that occurred as Kevin talked was also compelling. “Why ‘digital’?” Terry asked. “Why not just ‘writing’?” Troy Hicks responded. That’s where my Aha moment happened.

Troy shared his fear that letting go of the “digital” in “digital writing” would let it fade into the general pool of “teaching writing”. That’s already so fraught with challenges that digital writing would likely disappear completely.

It was easy to flesh out Troy’s comment. Historically, teachers have found teaching writing to be daunting. Old-fashioned ideas of the “right”– i.e., prescriptive, rule-heavy– ways to teach writing hang on despite decades of research that show these ideas don’t work. And, today’s testing-inspired “argumentative” writing has unnerved many teachers to the point they abandon what’s known about best practices in favor of the safer, so-called “way it’s always been”. The result? Say hello to the resurgence of advanced forms of the five paragraph essay. In short, much writing instruction isn’t so great these days. Without the distinction of digital writing, the old adage out of sight out of mind becomes the operating principle. Why wade into the digital world when the required world is already so hard?

So many teachers don’t explore the digital world. So many teachers actively resist it. Troy and others have written passionately about this. (See below for some references.) So where does that leave the discussion about whether digital writing exists?

I’m thinking that the discussion isn’t relevant for people just dipping a toe into the digital waters. Those of us who write and play in the new digital landscape have had more time– and experience– to think about nuances of writing/digital writing. Just as experienced writers draw on their expertise to coach other writers without sharing everything up front, experienced players in the digital fields probably would do well to learn from that.

Our experiences have brought us to a place where we’ve been comfortable exploring what the term “means”; that experience has helped us tolerate the uncertainties of the questions we’re exploring. So, while our questioning can push our thinking about some of rationales and methods we use to support novices to enter this new world, I’m thinking I’ll embrace the term digital writing, warts and all.





Further reading:

Hicks, T. (2009). The digital writing workshop. Portsmouth  NH: Heinemann.
Hicks, T. (2013). Crafting digital writing: Composing texts across media and genres. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Hicks, T., & Turner, K. H. (2013). No longer a luxury: Digital literacy can’t wait. English Journal, 102(6), 58–65.
Hicks, T., Young, C. A., Kajder, S., & Hunt, B. (2012). Same as it ever was: Enacting the promise of teaching, writing, and new media. English Journal, 101(3), 68–74.

Images:  CC0 Public Domain via pixabay.com

8 responses to “A Digital Writing “Aha!” Moment”

  1. Sarah Honeychurch says:

    I still don’t have a good working definition of what digital writing is, despite facilitating #DigiWriMo last year. But this, and your other post have got me wondering whether it might be better to think of it as participatory writing – HOMAGO as Jenkins et al say – or HOMAGOSO as Terry said (where the last SO are for Sharing Out). Or potentially participatory writing. Maybe.

    • Karen says:

      I like that you pull in the participatory aspect of writing in online spaces. I do think the “digital” aspect is significant, however. These new forms of representation involve texts that are digitally encoded, whether they involve written language or not. I think of images made with a digital camera, for example. The image is a text that’s been digitally encoded. Ergo, digital composing— or, digital writing, in my new way of thinking. Although I suppose that in a venue where we’d be calling it digital writing, there would probably be some alphabetic text involved too. (Forgive the heavy Kress influence if it’s not your thing.) I wonder if part of the difficulty is that whatever this composing process is, it is multi-dimensional enough to evade the linear constraints of language…? So many layers, so simplistic our available tools….

      • Sarah Honeychurch says:

        Yup, yup – I should have said digital participatory writing – it’s the potential remix that I think makes this stand out (at least for me, today).

        A question that I keep mulling over, and that you raise, is whether a piece of digital writing has to contain text. I’m not sure. But if it doesn’t, then what makes an image digital writing, rather than it just being a photo? I dunno.

        Your last part makes me think of Wittgenstein (well, I am often thinking about him):

        “The results of philosophy are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and of bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language. These bumps make us see the value of the discovery.”

        Often words don’t suffice – we need to look, to show, rather than to say.

        • Karen says:

          Egads, you are sending me back to read Kress. Maybe we can puzzle out this image/writing mystery together.

          I think it’s fun that remix continues to be a theme in CLMOOC discussions on many web venues.

          I don’t know Wittgenstein (more reading? No No No). Love the quote you shared. Myself, I’m more of a Foucault kind of girl, and he totally thought language fails.


          • Sarah Honeychurch says:

            I don’t know Kress – will look.

            Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations is one of my favourite books. I don’t recommend trying to read it from beginning to end, but it has some wonderful aphorisms. It got me through a summer working in a tea packing factory – I’d choose an aphorism in the morning and think about it through the monotony of being on a production line. I do love Foucault as well – and Deleuze. I just don’t even try to understand any of it.

            • Karen says:

              I can’t claim an expert’s understanding of Foucault, but I did live within many of his works for a big stretch of dissertation time & feel so lucky to have done that.

              If you are going to look at Kress, his most recent book– 2013?– is probably the most approachable.

              I think I may have added Wittgenstein to my TBR pile….

  2. Karen,

    The phrase “warts and all” resonates with me. I’m an old school person because I am old, not because I embrace the old ways. I also do not teach writing, but have helped students and others edit their work.

    Digital tools entered my own life in the 1970s and it transformed my writing. Typing student guides, etc. with a typewriter had always stretched my abilities. I typed slowly, and once a draft was on paper, or worse, a spirit master, that was it. My drawing skills were and remain not good. The typing was, at least, more legible than my print.

    Word processing, by itself, may no longer qualify as ‘digital’ writing. I’ve been only nibbling at the edges of what digital writing is these days. I did not actively participate in the digital conference. Shame on me. For me, reacting to posts like this is more a continuation of CLMOOC connections, but it might develop further on its own, I suppose.

    Nonetheless, I’m writing regularly with a keyboard and publish routinely with a blog and develop web pages combining text and images. I am immensely aided in doing images by the software which compensates for my shaky hands and lets me build an image from component parts. My work isn’t really for an audience. It is for myself, satisfying an urge to learn new tricks and to create stuff. The writing and web site pages are chock full of “warts”. They are my warts. I’m not going to apologize for them.

    There is one element of today’s “digital” writing which differs from my typewritten and my word processed creativity. I had a captive audience of students who read or skimmed my work. My current writing has no students. I’m retired with no captive audience, but my tweets, posts, comments on posts and web pages might just get read by someone way beyond my district. Though I write for myself, the writing might reach someone else who will pick out a half-formed idea from my stuff and make it into something great. Sharing. That’s what “digital writing” means to me.


    • Karen says:

      OMG, a spirit master. Is that the same thing as a ditto master? I remember the smell of those…. I’m not thinking that there’s any correlation between chronological age and the use of digital tools to produce stuff. Ditto machine, word processor, internet– writing is always changed by tools. I think about how the printing press forever changed the lives of those monks who used to slave away, copying their bibles. (When I went to see the Book of Kells, I learned that the monks used to complain in the margins of their work about how bored they were.)

      That you write and publish routinely with your blog and develop web pages and share these in the loose communities of the interwebz make you a digital writer in my eyes. I, too, see that all of these factors go into this “digital writing” thing. I appreciate that our paths crossed in CLMOOC. And, I deeply believe that writing for oneself is composing/creating for an audience. There’s no better purpose for creating than for one’s own curiosity and pleasure, whether there are warts or not.

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