Writing about Writing
Throughout my study I’ve been looking for answers to three questions that I first raised in my introduction: what effect do these technologies have on the way we write, how we think when we write, and how do we think about our writing as we write? As I said before when I first raised these questions, these are not easy questions to answer, and that this section is for findings and suggestion for further discussion.
At least some of the answers to these questions can be found using Keller’s heuristic. This is the brilliance of his system; even though it was originally intended to look at multitasking and reading practices, it can easily be used to taker a closer look at composition practices instead. So let’s use Keller’s heuristic to analyze Mike and Sarah’s processes. And, while we’re at it, let’s look at the effect these technologies have on the way we write—don’t worry what kind of technologies just yet, because that kind of specificity is exactly what Keller’s heuristic was built for.
Both Sarah and Mike were performing basically the same task—composing a formal piece of writing for school. Although we can and should be more specific than this, when trying to find larger patterns this level of broadness is necessary. But when it comes to tactic, text, technology, and training, things start to get interesting. In my observations I found a fairly consistent correlation between these four categories. Tactic is dependent on both text and technology (what compositional strategy you use is necessarily limited by what you’re working on and what you’re using to work on it). When it comes to producing or composing with digital tools, all three of these are severely limited by one’s training. So this is why I found, suprisingly, that Sarah and Mike (and I would assume this to be true for most people in similiar conditions) both were fairly risk-averse when using digital technologies in their compositions. Sarah, for instance, still begins an essay with the introduction, even though two Word documents open in split screen are more than capable of allowing for the kind of easy text manipulation that would allow her to begin anywhere in her essay, like Mike does. Even though there are myriad tools out there for writers, people are likely to stick to what they know. Mike has been using the same mindmapping technology for years: the whiteboard. Even though he must go through the awkward extra step of taking a picture of the whiteboard so he can look at his mindmap later while he’s writing at his desktop, and even though he could just as easily use mindmapping software on the computer and save himself the extra time and trip, he doesn’t have the proper training with that technology so he doesn’t use it. I have to admit that this kind of risk-aversion and conservatism was not what I was looking for going into this, but it seems that to a degree, given limitations in training, certain programs may actually limit our writing, or at least prevent us from taking risks.
The converse of this, of course, is that, given we have the proper training, these very same technologies make us more productive. And this is certainly what I saw as I watched my participants complete complex tasks in short amounts of time. But as Keller’s work shows us, we must not look solely at the quantity but also the quality of multitasking. Given our reliance on technology and the risk-aversion that dependency creates, isn’t it possible that we’ve grown so accustomed to our workflows that we know no better way than what we already do, day after day? I’m simply not convinced that productivity or the ability to multitask creates a substantially better product. That is why I’m more interested in the second and third questions, the more meta-cognitive ones, because these questions ask us to turn inward on our own practices and thoughts about our work.
Thinking about and with Writing
To my mind, the questions, “how we think when we write, and how do we think about our writing as we write,” are the most difficult, and rewarding, of the three. I think there is room for them to intersect and still be discrete questions. One pattern that I saw show up consistently might provide an answer to both of them.
Blocks All the way Down
I was struck by what Mike told me at the end of our second session together. For me, this little admission from him, that he has to justify the margins of all his Word docs, which he thinks is merely a quirk of his OCD, is a big find. For me, this little quirk of his is a real instance of digital technology affecting the way he composes. His need to justify the margins is one thing, and could be an artifact of his print-based literacy, but the schema, the framework this gives him to view the text, that's something that's unique to a word processor. He sees the word processor’s aesthetic possibilities as clearly as he does its computational possibilities, and by doing so, adapts certain codes and methods of composition. Like Mike, I began to see shapes in the white expanses of the empty word doc. At first, I only saw the square blockiness inherent in justified margins, but then I started to see blocks all the way down. The paragraph, sentence, and word can be contained in blocks. The individual character can, too. The block functions at every level in a word processor, and is the primary method with which the user interfaces with the text. But it’s more than just a metaphorical shape. This blockiness is also what allows for other moves to be made: everything from copy and paste, drag and drop, highlighting, etc., is made possible because of the varying levels of blocks in a word doc. This in turn leads allows for nonlinear modes of composition. In Deborah Brandt's Deep Writing she says claims, "Writing has never been a linear thinking process, according to empirical findings...(18), but which she means that all parts of writing, and not just pre-writing, can be nonlinear, and this makes sense a lot of sense if you consider the logic by which the word processor functions. Now, this seems to give a tentative answer to the third question but only implications for the second. My hypothesis, which I would have tested had I more time, is that the visual-spatial constructs that are at play in the word processor necessarily affect our thinking, too. It changes the very content of what we're writing, not just how we're writing. This kind of speculation leads me away from what I can say with confidence to a larger discussion about further questions and research.
As I pointed out in the methodology, this study is supposed to be generative, exploratory, and not empirical. Because of that, I think it may be one of those rare cases where it's' ok to be left with new questions rather than answering to the fullest extent the ones I've already posed myself.
I know that composing with the aid of a word processor leads to more recursion and nonlinear modes of composition, but I'm not sure how that affects thought. Ideally, I would look at the history of composition with various tools and look for patterns, but that was unfortunately not something I had time for.
As I think about the work I've done for this project and for this class, I'm thinking about the various tools I've used for composition and how they've affected me. Overall, technology this quarter has about putting out one fire after another. But that's the risk that comes along with the kind of power that technology provides. As always, asking these questions of other people has made me ask them of myself, and I'm watching more closely the ways in which action affects thought and thought, action.