Penmanship with the Keyboard: Audience, Rhetoric, and Skill

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What comes to mind when we hear the word penmanship? Does our mind jump to a  scene from a documentary where puffy-collared writers show their expertise with quill and ink? Or perhaps we imagine the skill of writing neat cursive letters. Both mental tangents retain an important part of the truth. Penmanship is the art or skill of writing by hand. But in an age where more and more people are typing their words rather than applying pen to paper, does penmanship still matter? I argue it does, so long as the word penmanship can be alternatively understood as the ability to [write and] produce compositions with skill and versatility.

I’m confident in saying that, on a daily basis, my number of words typed far exceeds the number written. A debate among many modern authors and writers world-wide, as writing and reading evolve past ink and paper, how can a new generation of penmen show their skills in a fresh form and without discarding the classic one? Digital writing is new, yes. But is it so new that the ability to simply write well will not withstand a wave of multimodal visuals and organic forums that keep conversations open? I, and likely most of my classmates, don’t think so. Because when you learn about what digital writing is, you also learn about how it really works; it’s fluidity, and how its organic form and speedy circuitry make it accessible to all writers, whether you are a wordsmith or a novice, natural-born writer or toilsome worker.

Talking and Talking back

To better understand how digital writing can be taught or learned, let us look at Shelbie Witte’s article, “That’s online writing, not boring school writing”. In this piece Witte explains The Talkback Project: an activity created by Witte when she was a middle school teacher working as a liason for the NWP (National Writing Program). What the Talkback Project did was it took young writers into the digital framework of blogging in order to help them understand the usefulness of digital literacy and connecting with the world via internet. It gave them a voice, but did so in a way that selected peers (called preservice teachers) [and Witte] could provide critical feedback.

“The preservice teachers worked hard to develop questions that allowed middle school students to make text-to-text, text-to-world, and text-to-self connections” (Witte, 94)

Witte wanted this project to “serve as an example of how schools can shrink the technology gap and better prepare students to become citizens of a global society.” (96) by relying on blogs, rather than only a traditional education system. As I have learned in my digital writing class, educating someone about online writing is the best way to improve their skill with it.

A project like the one Witte conducted is usually interactive and engaging enough to have more than one aim, and certainly a couple advantages to it. By web-publishing their writing, Witte’s students began a conversation, firstly with their preservice teachers, and secondly with the world. It is important to know your audience at all points during your writing. As a writer, things like tone, diction, rhetoric, and format are chosen and dictated by a key factor, your audience. Whether you are writing for your personal blog, making a caption on Instagram, or finishing an autobiography, considering who will read the work is going steer they way you create and package it.

In order to understand how to consider our audience(s), let us first learn about why we must do so. There are several ways to look at why you might want to consider your readers before your fingers mire the keyboard. To make my case, I looked at Jen Rajchel’s article, “Consider the Audience”, as well as a TED Talk called “Where Good Ideas Come From”. In Rajchel’s article, she conveys her own thoughts on how to approach/ get engaged in digital writing, articulating the differences between writing for and on the web, and what they entail. Like many of us, Rajchel was unsure how to approach web writing at first. Technology is constantly growing, like a bottomless tool belt being fed newer and more complex instruments by the human hand. For the most part these tools (i.e. word processors, forms of social media, or ) are designed and updated to expand the opportunities and capabilities of all who surf the net looking to make dialogue, pen in one hand, bottled message in the other. But so much innovation that’s being constantly updated can seem intimidating to anyone. A major thing to consider, as our author points out, is knowing your audience.

“Audience is perhaps the most difficult negotiation of web writing, especially as we manage the circulation through various social platforms and code-switch for several interested parties. Audience is also the most exciting.” (Rajchel)

Another example of how knowing your audience positively contributes to your work can be found in the video, “Where Good Ideas Come From. Speaker Steven Johnson explains to the crowd that doing something well without taking into account who you’re doing it for can sometimes prove futile. People working within a aid-project called Design That Matters made incubators out of car parts and sent them to less developed countries with the idea that if the incubators were to break, they could be fixed by the locals themselves, as car parts and mechanical know-how were more easily accessible than expertise or spare parts for advanced electronics. This type of innovative and adaptive thinking shows taking your audience into consideration will make your end-work that much more meaningful.

And what else…?

Skilled writers know more than just how to appeal to their audience, however. When writing or creating dialogue, we employ what are called rhetorical strategies to convey certain stances or viewpoints. Digital rhetoric works on the same principles, but may be applied in new ways. James Zappen, in his piece Digital Rhetoric: Toward an Integrated Theory, attempts to carve out the separate issues pertaining to digital rhetoric such as identity, affordances & constraints, and self-expression. Rhetoric in itself is both critical and eloquent, meaning that in our multimodal, digital age it has various approaches and applications, as well as susceptibilities to personal ethical issues that stem from an individual’s sense of identity/community. The way around these issues can be understood by structurally formulating ideas and joining an awareness of audience with the awareness of self (expressed through rhetorical technique). The structure I argue is most effective is seen here in Simon Sinek’s talk on great leader and inspiration. He calls it the Golden Circle. Why we write something, online or on paper, is more important than what or how we write it.

Good Writers and Skilled Writing

Now writing is an essential skill in just about every discipline. And although the penmanship accredited to a biology student differs greatly from that of an english major, the bottom line will be that writing well is essential for most people who take the path from higher education into the world. The ability to write well generally coincides with being well-read and well-spoken. A student like myself, aiming towards a degree in East Asian Studies and hoping to go to Taiwan to find work in urban ecology, has to be proficient in reading and writing. But is that why I write; why I was excited to start my own blog project? I am no expert in any area of writing, be it historical, political, or the like. What I am, though, is a person with a voice and with ideas and need to be heard. These things are criteria enough to pick up a pen and make my mark. And how fortunate an age I live in, a digital one, in which the simply wanting to join conversation online is all one needs to make it happen.

Nevertheless, it would be unjust to remove my academics from the entire context of penmanship. I may not have to come to college with a burning desire to better my writing, but being a part of this kind of liberal arts education has certainly changed my communication skills for the better. Through this essay, I want to get on the point of what skill in writing means today, and how one might go about improving it. So what does it mean to be skilled at something, and where does it come from? Skill is either innate, requiring little-to-no refinement whatsoever, or it is the product of hard work. I would like to use one of my favorite accounts what hard work leads to, in order to give my readers a bit of context for what I’m trying to get at:

The gist of the clip is that hard work and discipline will result in some sort of skill. It is my belief that these factors, when combined with an awareness of your audience, good rhetorical strategy and an understanding of why you do what you do (such as write online) result in the modern, technology-infused, definition of good penmanship.

Works Cited

James P. Zappen, “Digital Rhetoric: Toward an Integrated Theory”. Technical Communication Quarterly; Summer 2005, Vol. 14 Issue 3, p319-325, 7p.

Jen Rajchel, “Consider the Audience”, Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning, ed. Jack Dougherty and Tennyson O’Donnell (University of Michigan Press/Trinity College ePress edition, 2014).

Rob Minkoff, The Forbidden Kingdom, downloaded. Starring Jackie Chan and Jet Li, (2008, Lion’s Gate Entertainment). Youtube.

Shelbie Witte, “That’s Online Writing, Not Boring School Writing”: Writing with Blogs and the Talkback Project. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. Vol. 51, No. 2 (Oct., 2007), pp. 92-96.

Simon Sinek, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”, TED Talk. Sep, 2009. language=en#t-994912

Steven Johnson, “Where Good Ideas Come From”, TED Talk. Jul, 2010. language=en

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