Why Digital Writing Technologies (and Scholarship) Matter to Me

MindManager-Zotero-Integration_680Working on my dissertation this morning, I realized just how odd and idiosyncratic some of my writing practices are. But shouldn’t they be? Isn’t that sort of a best-case scenario for everyone? Let me explain. I’ve always had an incredibly difficult time with the invention part of the writing process. Even since I was an undergraduate at North Dakota State, I’ve spent so much time with my fingers on the keyboard or wrapped around a pen resting impatiently on the ruled page. I’ve always had sooooo many ideas, all competing for my attention at once. Not that I would get distracted. I could sit like that for hours as I plowed through one assignment after another. What I’m getting at is that the writing has never come easy. And I think that good, quality writing probably doesn’t come easy for anyone. Or at least it didn’t always.

So we cope. If we want quality writing we work hard at it. (I know you do! So stop with the posturing, eh?) My guess is that the best writers have (and still do) spend a lot of time reflecting on their own practices. What’s difficult for them. What seems to come naturally. When and where and why and about what they seem to be good writers. And then they experiment. With content. With timing. With routine, risk, place, comfort, audience, etc.

But one thing I don’t hear writers talk much about, at least not explicitly, is about their own experimentation with different writing technologies. Maybe the suspect that people aren’t interested. Maybe they don’t see “technology” as part of the writing process. But most people, even if they don’t realize it, DO think that technology plays a significant role in the types/sorts/qualities of work they produce. For instance, ask anyone who writes even semi-regularly (this would include all of your students, colleagues, classmates) if they prefer to work with pen-and-paper or on a computer. Most of them will have a strong preference. Most of the people I know prefer hand-writing in some situations for some purposes, and a computer for others. Some love to write on their phones. Some people have found that they’re reading more on their Kindle or Nook. This is not a difficult case to make.

What I’d really like to get people paying attention to, however, is what’s going on within the confines of their screens. If I were to tell you that I do most of my writing on my computer, you’d likely assume (probably whether your realize it or not) that I do the bulk of my work with a word processor. Or maybe even savvy enough to think that I also compose plenty of my work within an e-mail program. And 10 years ago this is what I would have thought, as well. But then I started experimenting with different writing technologies and various software packages. I don’t exactly remember when I started paying attention, but most likely it had to do with me thinking through whether I wanted to use Microsoft Word or WordPerfect, or even WordPad. I can remember sitting there at my computer thinking about just how different NotePad was from Microsoft Word. The auto formatting. The page margins. Numbered or bulleted lists.

But then,when I wanted to write a poem or a letter, I would bust out my writing journal or some half decent stationary. These are the sorts of issues that compel me to shop around for a good quality, rollerball pen. Writing with my hand, on good quality paper, with a solid pen was the worlds different than typing something up and printing it out. It affected my mood. It affected my composing strategies. I had to construct a full sentence in my head before I committed it to paper.

These are the sorts of thoughts and investigation that got me thinking about software alternatives to traditional word processors. Thinking in this manner about technology and writing quickly led me to readings about the relationship between writing and cognition, and by extension, technology and cognition. In other words, changing your technology changes your writing which changes your thinking. And of course it’s not linear like that either. It’s recursive.

So I started thinking about my writing processes on the computer and off the computer. Or, digital and analog processes. I remembered writing papers as an undergraduate. Sometimes I would gather quotations, organize them sequentially, and write my way through them. Other times, as I was beginning to get used to the idea of digitally editing my papers, I would type up my first draft, print it out, cut it into little sections or paragraphs, and then reorganize them by hand. Eventually, I was able to make the transition to this sort of strategy entirely using the cut-and-paste function in my word processor. But this still gave me plenty of problems. The more I thought about it, the more I realized I was an overwhelmingly visual thinker. I thought of essays as related ideas organized into a specific understanding of the larger idea. I did not understand essays as linear progressions from one idea to the next toward a convincing conclusion. To a large extent I still don’t.

This realization led me to begin experimenting with mind mapping software. I was finally able to put my ideas together spatially, rather than progressively. Not only that, but the thought-maps I was generating were internally expandable and compressible. And the reason I now use MindManager as my software package of choice is that I can write full paragraphs within each of the thought bubbles.

but these were just the beginnings of my thoughts. Once I realized the variety of available writing technologies, as well as the power of idiosyncratic writing strategies, I began to see almost limitless potential for affecting the ways people write, think, learn, remember, and generally communicate. And now, as user-generated content becomes ubiquitous on the web, a thoughtful awareness of writing technologies is as important as it has ever been.

Blogs, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, wikis, e-mail, discussion boards, blackboard, YouTube, Skype, and GoogleWave. there is plenty about writing that is changing. And of course there is plenty that is staying the same. Which is why in my next post, I’ll offer a brief comments and explanation on to technologies that I think are incredibly powerful for writing scholarship. Zotero. MindManager.

Not only am I going to talk about these two writing technologies, I’m going to employ four others to circulate the ideas. I will be using Camptasia (a screen capture software package) to visually represent what I’m talking about. I’ll be using a video camera to record my introduction. I will be using a microphone to record the audio portion of the screen capture. I’ll be using video editing software to combine these elements into a single text. And, of course, I will be using my blog to circulate the text. (I will also provide a list of the hard ware and software I used to produce the text.)

Look for it on my next entry.