In one of his few typewritten letters, Nietzsche commented on his use of the typewriter, claiming that “our writing tools are also working on our thoughts” (quoted in Kittler, 1999, p. 200). What these discussions of distraction-free writing environments and Markdown reveal is just how invested writers can become in actively shaping their writing processes through the selection and structuring of their tools. Of course, many of the writers represented in this webtext are exceptional in the extent to which they attend to their tools, but we do not believe they are the only people for whom tools matter. Instead, one important lesson we take from these enthusiasts is the fact that the tools we use to write have potentially far-reaching consequences for motivation and affect that lie at the very heart of the experience of composing. They can focus attention to particular aspects of writing, or they can create an immersive, interactive experience that motivates writers. They can bracket and privilege textual production over other concerns, such as page layout or design. In other words, tools are anything but neutral.
However, it is also important to recognize that tools help writers exercise agency in shaping their own writing processes. They give writers ways, as Prior and Shipka (2003) put it, “to tune consciousness, environment, and task” (p. 53). In this webtext, we have described writers who tinker extensively with the tools they use to write, some of them by changing settings in mainstream word processing software, but others by developing and using alternative methods of producing text. In some cases, we also glimpse ways in which writers change their processes over time, never settling on one definitive procedure for composing. What we suggest, then, is that the “writing process” is not so much a static cognitive structure as it is a set of complex interactions among writers, their tools, and their objectives. It is, in other words, a system of activity that is made and re-made every time a writer writes.
Reflection and Metacognition
Continued work in this area may lead to pedagogical interventions that ask writing students to experiment with various interfaces and environment-selecting and -structuring practices. In turn, such experimentation–and subsequent reflection on these mediating tools–might help those students not only to develop environments and procedures that work best for them, but also to consider how these environments and procedures might be shaping their understandings of writing and productivity.
Such reflective work aligns with existing scholarship on reflection and metacognition. Kristine Johnson (2013) has recently shown that Writing Studies has typically treated reflection as a “habit of mind,” one which has recently been codified in the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing as metacognition (p. 525). As Kathleen Blake Yancey (1998) defines it, “reflection entails a looking forward to goals we might attain, as well as a casting backward to see where we have been” (p. 6). Framed in this way, reflection on the affordances of new mediational means encourages writers to think about the “imbalances” (Wertsch, 1998, p. 43) brought about by new writing tools or new ways of structuring their writing environments and to envision the new goals that might be achieved with them. We believe that such work in the classroom aligns with the suggestion, in the aforementioned Framework (2011), that metacognition can be fostered by having students “examine processes they use to think and write in a variety of disciplines and contexts” (p. 5).
Reflecting in this way may even be enhanced through assignments that ask students to share their reflections with each other. Lennie Irvin (2004) argued that “for the full benefit of reflection’s transformative power, students need to reflect with and to others” (n.p.) and that the electronic writing classroom offers many affordances for such social interaction. In asking students to share with each other “Process Journals” that call “on them to writing about their writing,” Irvin claims that students engage in the process of “refraction,” which “heightens and deepens the learning gained from reflection” (n.p.). Efforts to precipitate students’ experiments with digital “environment-selecting and -structuring practices” (Prior & Shipka, 2003) might follow a similar model, asking students to write reflections on their practices and share them. In a sense, this process would mimic what the Markdown bloggers have already been doing in posting their accounts of their writing practices on their blogs.
Next steps and challenges
Our aim in this webtext has been to demonstrate the necessity of continued investigation into the ways modern writing tools and interfaces mediate literate activity. In particular, we suggest that Computers and Writing scholars consider how writers working in digital environments adopt or create rhetorical or imaginative ways of “tuning” themselves to their writing practices. We think that our field has only begun to scratch the surface on the range of “environment-selecting and -structuring practices” with which writers engage. Future research should continue to explore ways of documenting writers’ digital ESSPs. Through researching writers’ “textual coordination,” Shaun Slattery (2005, 2007) has demonstrated the value of recording writers’ screens along with more conventional video recording of their workstations. Slattery’s analysis of this data reveals the thoroughly hypermediated digital and physical workspaces of technical writers. Further, his data visualizations depicting a writer’s selection and use of a variety of screen and physical texts over the course of 6 minutes offers one possible model for representing the ways writers work within and are continually reshaping their digital environments (2007, p. 320). Stacey Pigg (forthcoming) has similarly created data visualizations to track writers’ shifts in attention from various texts to social media to cups of coffee.
When researchers are not able to personally observe writers’ ESSPs (such as the Markdown bloggers, a geographically dispersed sample), it is not as clear what kinds of additional data might be collected or how to analyze the writers’ self-sponsored accounts. Reflective writers may be curious enough about their processes to participate in studies by videotaping and screen-capturing several work sessions and sharing the data with researchers. Or screen sharing interviews would give writers the opportunity to demonstrate their digital writing practices at a distance for researchers through Web conferencing software. Ultimately, we believe that by collecting several streams of data, including video recorded first-hand by researchers and self-sponsored accounts written by writers, we can continue to develop more complex and complete pictures of writers’ composing processes.