What the Heck is Digital Writing and Why Should I Think it’s Important?




Part I:

What is Digital Writing?

The development of modern technology has challenged educators to rethink what good academic writing is to consist of. As digital environments become more omnipresent in our modern society, the line between traditional academic writing and multi-modal digital writing will continue to blur. While professors of older generations remain bound by the belief that academic writing and writing in digital environments are entirely different entities, the fact remains that the implementation of digital writing in academic curriculums will benefit students living in this modern world.

The multimodality of digital writing makes it inherently difficult to pinpoint a singular definition of this rhetoric that challenges the norms of traditional academic writing. In her article, “Keeping Up With Digital Writing in the College Classroom”, Andrea Baer defines digital writing as “writing that is composed-and most often read-through digital environments and tools” (Baer 2013). However, it is clear that digital writing encompasses far more than this simple definition. Baer goes on to discuss how digital writing is wholly multimodal, and how the incorporation of images, video, and audio not only supplements the author’s text, but also “interact with one another to create new meanings and multiple potential interpretations” (Baer 2013).

The definition of digital writing can be expanded further. In her article, “Consider the Audience” Jen Rajchel explores the different ways in which writers can manipulate a digital platform to best suit their needs. Rajchel explains digital writing on two levels: “at one level, web writing is about writing on the web: the flexibility as a multimodal piece, the ability to nimbly circulate, and the capacity to create a network of texts. At another level, the practice is about writing for the web and situating ourselves as readers and writers within its evolving architecture” (Rajchel 2014). Rajchel’s piece not only focuses on defining the multimodality of digital writing, but also stresses the importance of online writers to utilize this multimodality to add a critical lens to their arguments and engage an online audience.

Ultimately, the multimodality of digital writing can lead to an incredibly vague definition for what it actually encompasses. In his article “Digital Rhetoric”, James Zappen states that digital writing is “an amalgam of more-or-less discrete components rather than a complete and integrated theory in its own right” (Zappen 2005). Zappen explains that the development of digital writing is challenging how traditional writing is composed. In particular, he notes that digital writing is transforming traditional notions of rhetoric as a mode of persuasion into a mode of “testing one’s own ideas, a contesting of others’ ideas, and a collaborative creating of ideas” (Zappen 2005).

Why is Digital Writing Important?

It is clear that digital writing has become incredibly important to the academic experience of this generation, and will continue to be for generations to come. Across the country, professors are modifying their curriculum to prepare students for life after academia. Leigh Wright’s “Tweet Me A Story” shows how using the social media application Twitter to supplement traditional learning methods in her journalism class can teach students to quickly and concisely compose their thoughts in order to become part of a social media conversation. In addition to teaching students how to compose thoughts quickly and concisely, Wright utilized Twitter as a way to teach students teach how to develop their voice online for the purpose of writing leads and live tweeting events.

The idea of addressing a particular audience is an important part of how digital writing helps students shape their voice online and develop writing styles that best suit their academic needs. Rajchel stresses the importance of teaching students how to address their online audience and how to determine the appropriate platform to address this audience. She says that students must “be prompted to become critical users who delineate the context, content, and circulation for each platform” (Rajchel 2014), and that it is important to develop an understanding of how to make their writing appealing to their target audience.


In addition to teaching students to create voices and writing styles that best suit the platform they are using to create digital writing, digital writing encourages participation, collaboration, and community building that can extend beyond the classroom. Zappen discusses these ideas in the section of his article regarding the formation of identities and communities, stating that digital communication and writing is not only used to persuade a reader, but also to foster “self-expression for the purpose of exploring individual and group identities and participation and collaboration for the purpose of building communities and shared interests” (Zappen 2005).

Rajchel also discusses how participation and collaboration through digital writing are an important part of the modern academic experience. She compares the skills gained from implementing digital writing into academic curriculum to skills learned in seminar style courses: “reading across disciplines, developing expertise, and delving into discussions. Students learn to challenge each other, but more importantly, themselves” (Rajchel 2014). Online, students learn to compose writing that encourages thoughtful discussion and collaboration of ideas in order to develop their ideas and share them with a given audience.

Leigh Wright’s use of Twitter as part of her class’ curriculum fostered this participation, collaboration, and community building as well. While her live tweeting exercise was designed to develop quick and concise thought by her students, the exercise also allowed students and other members of the Twittersphere to engage in discussion on the event they were covering. This open discussion in turn developed the open lines of communication between other Twitter users and students, and provide a key example of how digital writing can enhance the academic experience of students.

However, despite the fact that digital writing should be a part of the modern academic experience, there are academics that believe that traditional writing and digital writing cannot coincide within the academic arena. In “Set in Stone or Set in Motion?”, authors Hudley and Holbrook give examples of teachers and students who believe that academic writing and writing online are entirely separate, and that the latter should not be a part of a student’s academic experience. In turn, these individuals fail to recognize digital writing as a development of academic writing. The article points out that the inclusion of digital writing in their curriculum merely supplements these traditional learning methods, and that there is no “either/or” dividing the two; traditional academic writing and digital writing should be taught side-by-side (Hundley & Holbrook, 2013).

The goal of these educators (Rajchel, Wright) is still the same of traditional academics: to teach students how to become better writers. While traditional academic writing skills will always be key to academic development of students, the study discussed in Hundley and Holbrook’s article states that teachers like Jen Rajchel and Leigh Wright should recognize the importance of finding ways to utilize digital mediums to make their courses relevant to students of a modern generation. If educators “can embrace the twist of technology while giving students the tools to develop their voice, tone, and unique writing style” (Wright 2013), students will better develop the digital writing skills needed in the modern world.

Part II:

As a college student living in a world of rapid technological advances, the importance of courses focused on writing in digital mediums has grown exponentially since my arrival on campus. iPads and digital writing platforms have become widely implemented in curriculums across the academic spectrum, and the ability for students to utilize them as an academic tool has become an important part of our learning experience at Dickinson.

As a Policy Management major, a major that focuses on the creation of organizational policies and initiatives, I believe that the college’s decision to implement this technology into students’ learning experiences will be beneficial to the academic experience of students now and in the future. While almost everyone who attends Dickinson has a smart phone or some form of modern technology, the classes that teach students how to manipulate this technology in order to use it productively in an academic setting will provide students more than just a basic understanding of this technology. I see our class as a great example of this. Everyone in our class had a basic understanding of the iPad technology prior to taking this course. However, after learning how to utilize apps like Feedly and WordPress to create and analyze writing in digital environments, students have gained the understanding of how to compose the multimodal literature using the technology that has become commonplace in our modern society. While this class has not necessarily promoted the ideas of quick, concise thought found in “Tweet Me A Story”, this class does encourage students to project a voice that is in accordance with the subject matter discussed in our blogs found in “Consider the Audience”.

I have seen the use of digital writing employed in courses prior to this course. In my freshman year Civil War History course, our teacher assigned weekly 500 word blog posts designed to have students summarize and analyze each week’s readings. While these blog posts were only a supplement to assignments for this course, it still provided me early exposure to digital writing that has helped me throughout my academic career at Dickinson. This experience taught me how to express my ideas and thoughts in a concise manner. In a world where technology has forced us to be straightforward with our ideas (since there is so much information readily available to us), this class taught me how to formulate ideas in a way that allowed the reader to quickly understand the points I was trying to make.

As students like me graduate from college and enter the work force, companies are searching for students that have adapted to and mastered the use of the digital mediums these companies expect employees to use. Companies are rapidly adding divisions within their organizations to focus solely on their social media content and digital marketing strategies, and students with a background in digital writing will be much more appealing to these companies. Students who have had exposure to academic environments of both Rajchel and Wright, who sought to create through their use of Twitter as a means to teach quick though, concise writing, and collaboration, will be far better off than a student who has been subjected to the linear approach of traditional academic writing.


Works Cited

Jen Rajchel, “Consider the Audience,” in 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), http://epress.trincoll.edu/webwriting/chapter/rajchel.

Zappen, James P. “Digital Rhetoric: Toward An Integrated Theory.” Technical Communication Quarterly: 319-25. Web. 21 Oct. 2015. http://homepages.rpi.edu/~zappenj/Vita/DigitalRhetoric2005.pdf

Wright, Leigh. “Tweet Me A Story.” Web Writing: Why and How for Liberal Arts Teaching and Learning. University of Michigan Press at Michigan Publishing. 2013. Web. 21 Oct. 2015. http://webwriting2013.trincoll.edu/engagement/wright-2013/

Baer, Andrea. “Keeping Up With… Digital Writing in the College Classroom.” 2013. Web. 21 Oct. 2015. http://www.ala.org/acrl/publications/keeping_up_with/digital_writing.

Hundley, M, & Holbrook, T 2013, ‘Set in Stone or Set in Motion?: Multimodal and Digital Writing With Preservice English Teachers’, Journal Of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56, 6, pp. 500-509, Education Research Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 28 October 2015. http://eds.b.ebscohost.com/eds/detail/detail?vid=1&sid=8cf26b30-8c76-4cf0-95c0-47de6914a2fc%40sessionmgr120&hid=111&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmU%3d#AN=85862587&db=ehh

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