How is Digital Writing Different from Traditional Writing? And Why Do We Care?

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Writing has always been the most important and prevalent way in which we communicate our most complex ideas, but digital writing has taken it to a whole new level. Digital writing is distinct from traditional writing not only in terms of the way ideas are presented but how those ideas are born. Digital spaces allow for ideas to develop naturally, for the writer to receive feedback more frequently, and allow multiple forms of media to be integrated into the writing seamlessly. These developments are important not only because they change the way in which we think, but because we do it on a daily basis.

What is Digital Writing?

In order to understand what digital writing is, we must first differentiate it from conventional writing. Most authors seemed to agree that traditional forms of writing are static in comparison to digital writing. Once it is published, it is no longer being developed. Digital writing, however, can easily be manipulated in many different ways, and at any point in time. This makes it much more dynamic and gives writing a sense of life. Pete Rorabaugh demonstrates this with his class and, as he calls it, the organic nature of his student’s writing. “Instead of generating multiple static drafts, we share dynamic versions of the piece as it develops. Here we see the organic and digital nature of the composition project simultaneously. With specific commenting assignments, writers get feedback on their drafting as it unfolds” (Rorabaugh). Not only are they able to edit the work at any stage of writing, the students can edit each other’s work in real time, as it is being written. This allows the writer to think critically more frequently and to constantly consider ideas from different perspectives.

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Digital networks also encourage the most important aspects of writing. “Digital environments maximize the potential for organic writing in three distinct ways: they rebuild “audience,” expose the organic layers of a composition, and invite outside participation in key stages along the way” (Rorabaugh). Rethinking the way in which we approach audience allows the writing we produce to reach not only a wider readership but one that is more likely to be engaged in the writing as well. Being able to cultivate thoughts as they happen allows for more fluid and well-developed insights. Receiving feedback at multiple steps in the process also helps the writer to understand how their ideas are being perceived by the reader, whether or not their ideas are coming across effectively, and sometimes inspires new thoughts.

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Not only is the process of writing digital different from traditional writing in terms of how it is created, it also differs in structure as a result. Being able to connect to other pieces of writing via links or to show images or insert audio allows for writing to engage the senses in a way that was never possible before. This allows a writer to convey much more information in ways that can sometimes be more effective. For instance, even the most detailed description of a sound pales in comparison to being able to hear it directly. “Digital technologies have made it easy to “write” in all sorts of new ways. We can use more modes and resources, such as image, sound, and video. We can remix the work of others — with and without permission — and share what we create more easily than ever before. And people do, all the time, and for all sorts of compelling reasons” (Grabill). It has become easy for people to create, and thus writing has become both more plentiful and creative.

Digital writing is also written for a different audience than traditional writing is. “Academic writing, intellectual writing — this writing right here — cannot know how it will be excerpted, repurposed, discovered, reimagined, plagiarized, undone. Undone by human author or by computer. Discovered through random Google search, corrupted by code, made poetic by an accident of electronic interference” (Morris). Therefore, when writing, one must consider the fact that just because the piece is finalized for the author, it is not done being written. The ideas within the writing will be broken down and used for different kinds of people, so they must speak in a way that will appeal to multiple types of readers (if they want it to be read by a wide audience). If an author wants the work to speak to a more specific type of reader, then they must use a voice that will attract that kind of audience, knowing that the work will be shared among readers with similar taste.

Writing is also often formatted differently in terms of length and style. As Dan Cohen says in his work called Blessay, pieces of writing that are somewhere between a blog post and an academic article now quite commonplace. They tend to be as long as they need to be, informed but not too fact-based, and voiced for both experts and a general audience (Cohen). They are not concerned with the more formal rules of writing that they would be confined to if they were to be written for a traditional media source. Digital not only provides the space to write freely, it makes it incredibly easy to do so.

Why is it important?

Now that we know what digital writing is, we can discuss why it is so important. There are many reasons, the most obvious being because we do it all the time. Whether it is through email, social media, instant messaging, or a blog, writing has become a constant in many of our lives. As noted in Because Digital Writing Matters, a video created by Kansas State University anthropologist Michael Wesch and his students documents how young people engage with digital media. “In a cultural climate in which some are quick to claim that students don’t write or read, this video cites examples that show the opposite, such as that 200 students made more than 360 edits to one online document, and that a student who will write 42 pages for her college classes in one semester will also compose over 500 pages of e-mail in that same time frame. In both of these cases- as well as many, many more that are happening in classrooms around the world- students and teachers are documenting the social changes they are experiencing and noting the ways in which technology is influencing how we compose messages for increasingly broader audiences” (DeVoss). Not everything we write is critically analyzed and well-thought through, but it is a necessary skill to develop. Writing this frequently allows us to develop certain skills such as how to convey tone effectively and helps us to develop a voice.

While writing is certainly important for our daily lives, it is also an important tool for our academic ones. “Writing is still an important act and an essential tool for learning and social participation. Skill in writing is still crucial inside and outside of our schools” (DeVoss). Writing helps synthesize and develop ideas, and by reading a student’s writing, a teacher can better understand what a student has learned and where their weaknesses lie. “In school, writing is a key language skill (if not a subject) and also supports learning in other content areas. In a knowledge society, written expression shapes success for individuals and groups. Because of computer networks, youth now in school will write more than any prior generation in human history” (Grabill).

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Digital writing is able to engage the student through their daily lives as well as many new resources that have been developed. “We have been inventing technologies like this out of our own teaching, such as Eli, a service that supports peer learning in writing. Increasingly, there are other services available that extend the ability of computer networks to be tools for learning in writing (see, for example, Crocodoc). We need many more efforts to support and share the innovations of teachers wrestling with how to teach digital writing in their schools” (Grabill). Services such as these are formatted to help streamline the digital writing process by making it easier to comment on and receive feedback on writing in a more academic sense. They help to attract the kind of community that wants to help and be helped with writing and facilitate the exchange of ideas.

Why is important to me?

As a student myself, digital writing is an extremely important aspect of my academic career. Being able to organically develop ideas as they come to me gives me the freedom to write about whatever idea is most fully developed in my head. I can jump from one paragraph to another and back again, thinking of new ways to convey a certain message or to add something I hadn’t thought of earlier. Whenever I get stuck, I can easily access more information to further inform my ideas, and incorporate them into my writing. I can bounce ideas off of things that other people have written about the topic, repurposing their writing to facilitate my own need to express a thought. Conversely, this means that my writing is going to be accessed by others in a similar fashion, which means I must be sure to convey my message clearly and be sure that what I write can stand up under scrutiny. This holds me to a higher standard than if just my professor was going to be the one reading my writing. Yet, at the same time, I feel less pressured when writing for a wider audience. This may seem counter-intuitive, but I think because I tend to imagine the audience as my peers, I don’t feel like I’m trying to appeal to a professor who has had a more extensive education and is more practiced at writing than I am.

As an East Asian Studies major, it can sometimes be difficult to find information on topics that I am researching. Dickinson has accumulated an impressive collection of books and materials on the region, but it can still be somewhat limited when discussing contemporary issues. For example, my senior thesis discusses how the internet has influenced feminist thought in Japan. Few of our resources discuss the internet at length as it is a relatively new phenomenon, and what we do have is often in Japanese, which I am not proficient enough at to be able to read very quickly. Having access to information from libraries across the country via the internet and writing produced digitally across the globe has enabled me to explore a topic I otherwise would likely not be able to. This also exposes me to topics I know nothing about and allows me to familiarize myself and engage with them.

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Works Cited

Cohen, Dan. “The Blessay.” Dan Cohen. 24 May 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.

DeVoss, Dànielle Nicole., Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, and Troy Hicks. “Why Digital Writing Matters.” Introduction. Because Digital Writing Matters: Improving Student

Writing in Online and Multimedia Environments. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 148-303. E-book.

Grabill, Jeff. “Why Digital Writing Matters in Education.” RSS. 11 June 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.

Morris, Sean Michael. “Digital Writing Uprising: Third-order Thinking in the Digital Humanities – Hybrid Pedagogy.” Hybrid Pedagogy. 08 Oct. 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.

Rorabaugh, Pete. “Organic Writing and Digital Media: Seeds and Organs – Hybrid Pedagogy.” Hybrid Pedagogy. 21 June 2012. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.