One of my earliest and richest professional development activities was with the National Writing Project. As a newly certified English teacher, the NWP’s process approach to writing seemed a whirlwind: how could I help my students to see the possibilities within all the stages of pre-writing, organizing, drafting, and revision? Slowly, I came to understand the process approach to writing and became a particular fan of Donald Murray, who made visible the struggles of writers and the joy of discovery through the written word.
Now, with nearly 20 years of middle and high school teaching behind me, I still respect the writing process approach and its benefits. I also recognize that the nature of writing has changed tremendously over those two decades due to the significant influence of digital tools and sources. Of course, today’s composers still must meet the commonly accepted conventions of the genre in which they are engaged, but our visual digital culture creates different demands than did the primarily print text-based world.
Digital environments mediate the navigation, length, and complexity of texts, requiring composers to adapt to audience, tone, and purpose in ways that previous generations were never required. Digital environments have disrupted the writing process as we once knew it due to an interwoven combination of traditional narrative sequencing, hyperlinks to other digital sources, infusions of multimedia texts like videos and podcasts, and interactive response fields.
A new Digital Writing Process SOARS!
- Survey: Have students surf the web and a large body of texts as a way of frontloading concepts and language. One way to ensure that students’ research meets your institution’s guidelines for social appropriateness and keen content connections is to curate a collection of digital models through which students can surf. (Here’s a sample curation from a sports and popular culture course I teach.) A curation helps to illuminate what works among digital design, multimedia choices, and narrative structure. And, so they learn to embed a pattern of attribution, it’s probably best for students to grab short phrases of direct excerpts from the sources they find, using quotation marks. Otherwise, students might find themselves part of a plagiarism controversy.
- Organize: Students need to sort through the chaos of all the fabulous texts and direct excerpts they’ve gathered from the web. Have students group their direct excerpts according to commonalities, and then have them narrow those commonalities into hierarchies. Students will also benefit from exposure to different methods to code evidence, such as color coordinating, charting, doing in-document keyword searches, or categorizing. Eventually, move students from an integration of patterns into a systematic, theoretically embedded explanation.
- Address: One of the truly marvelous benefits of surfing the web is the capacity to see how other composers design their ideas and formats. Commonly called conventions of the genre, these expected ways of adhering to a particular type of compositional style take a bit of scrutiny. Have students analyze a variety of texts within a particular genre and identify certain predictable characteristics. As students move into drafting their own compositions, they should practice different approaches to establishing mood and tone through deliberate word choices. And, because their digital design should be visually appealing to appeal to a targeted audience, they should recognize and incorporate pointed design techniques, a clear message, and a professional look.
- Revise: Believe it or not, the revision stage of the digital writing process is the most time-consuming. That’s because a first full draft of a composition, in all likelihood, lacks depth of ideas, language cohesion, and/or an interrelated design structure. Moreover, when one aspect of the digital composition is changed, the other areas are immediately affected. Guide students through a series of directed steps to consider how each part of the digital design process interacts with others. Provide opportunities for 1-to-1 teacher: student conferencing, small group collaboration, and focus group feedback so that students have a balance of ample creative time and constructive responses.
- Survey again: Often, a full and revised draft of a composition still isn’t polished enough. That’s why the digital writing process requires composers to return to the web and to continue to survey mentor models of published digital compositions. This final step is often lacking in classrooms, although new digital technologies and pedagogical tools have emerged to help teachers in the teaching of revision. Students need to revisit the digital sources that originally inspired them, study them with a newly formed composer’s point of view, and decide what additional strategies they can adopt to infuse more nuance, voice, and authenticity to their own original compositions.
Many teachers now incorporate multimodal texts into their instruction as ways of making meaning. Because digital realms mediate content and meaning, curricula must also change to address new possible digital composing pathways. Teachers in a PEW Research Center study report that their students have a broad audience for written material due to pervasive social media production opportunities. It’s time for teachers and cultural workers across disciplines to embrace a new Digital Writing Process as a necessary way to help guide our students to their highest levels of digital compositional excellence.
Carolyn Fortuna, Ph.D. is the recipient of the International Literacy Association’s 2015 Grand Prize Award for Technology and Reading. She teaches high school English and is an adjunct faculty member at Rhode Island College. If you’d like information for your school or non-profit organization about workshops in digital and media literacy and learning, contact Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.