Relating to “A Cyberwriter’s Tale”

In “Why technology matters to writing: A cyberwriter’s tale,” Jim Porter makes the case of how technology impacts and benefits writing through his personal narrative. He details how technology impacts writing based on the applications of the technology and the disposition of the writer. Each technology has a different purpose, and through his story of developing as a writer, he tracks his development through different composing tools (handwriting, typewriting, and cyberwriting). Porter’s story demonstrates how each composing tool not only influences writer’s practices but congeals to the writer. He asserts that composing tools work with the writer in unison, and therefore he suggests theorist and researchers need to celebrate the “variations of form and the complexity and fluidity of identity” that is being a digital writer (388). His examination ends by pressing readers to shift from a humanist viewpoint of “whether technology is good or bad, useful or not, humanizing or not” to the posthumanist viewpoint of “how we can shape technologies to improve human life” (388).

Porter discusses his early experience with writing teachers and learning” good penmanship (that is, readability) mattered” (377). Albeit my experience was different than his, but I could relate to his “hours and hours of disciplined handwriting practice” (377). I moved regularly as a child, and because of that I never learned how to write in cursive. By the time I reached high school, most of my teachers wrote in cursive on the board or in my feedback and I could barely decipher what they wrote. I spent hours and hours teaching myself to write and read cursive as a teenager so that I could read my others penmanship. Now I look at technology and I work with my old high school teachers who have started doing everything on PowerPoint, and I realize that cursive is becoming less and less a requirement “in terms of the credibility and character of the writer” (377).

Porter also discusses his experience learning to type. He recalls his learning how type on a typewriter, and “typing and retyping the same lines over and over” (378). Although I did not learn to type using a typewriter, my early education placed extreme importance on learning to type. From first to eighth grade I was also forced to retype the same lines over and over again, but I did not get the same experience of “examin[ing], reread[ing], contemplat[ing], and refin[ing] my style” (378) because I was simply reproducing in my typing classes. This made me think how valuable it would have been to practice my own writing in typing courses instead of reproducing sentences like ‘The dog ran up the hill.’ I have also regularly thought about how writing and engaging with process by retyping has dramatically changed in the era of the word processor. I very rarely use things like my spell or grammar check first when reviewing an essay on my word processor because I feel like that distracts from my own reflection and refinement of a text.

While word processor programs make completing writing tasks highly “efficient,” I cannot help but feel like I am missing out on some sort of deeper writing process by always having to engage with my computer. When I was younger, I could not go into a bookstore without buying a journal. I have started countless journals where I have written daily in the first 15-20 pages and then slowly stopped and forgotten about the journal in favor of consuming my time with technology. But each time I return to a bookstore and head for the check out I cannot help but pick up a new journal thinking that somehow, some way putting pen to paper will make me a better or more active writer. It took me years to realize that I was already writing and journaling by emailing, using social media, and keeping up with my school and work assignments. I was already improving my process by using technology despite how the transaction of typing versus writing may make me feel. Composing tools may vary and be ever evolving, but they all improve process if one is still participating in the transaction of creating text.

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3 comments on “Relating to “A Cyberwriter’s Tale”

  1. Your brief discussion on cursive font and hand-writing versus computer typing makes me wonder about the cognitive science behind writing. When I’m working on a large writing assignment, I *cannot* write the entire thing by typing. I can only work on the computer for so long before my brain begins to glaze over and my mind runs into an intense writer’s block. At that point, I put the laptop away, take out a pen and a sheet of binder paper, and start to scribble out my thoughts, after which I go back to the computer and input my new ideas. Only in this way can I finish a larger assignment. Is it because hand-writing is inherently better for invention in the writing process? Or is it simply because I – after many years of schoolwork – have been conditioned to write more by hand and less by type? I have no clue. All of my writing up until the 8th grade was written by hand. And yet, I consistently use typing for small writing projects like this (a comment on a blog, or a short assignment). I’d be really interested in seeing a study that explored the cognitive relationship between writing by hand versus writing by typing. (On a side note, I share your experience with journaling – it takes a surprising amount of persistence and commitment to keep it up!)

    • Gabi, I have a similar writing process. Almost always, I start a major project by hand, then I move to the computer for a second draft. Sometimes, depending on my deadline, length and complexity of the project, I can just finish the remaining drafts, editing and revisions -even major ones- digitally. But there comes a time that, like you, I just can’t keep looking and working on the screen. Conditioning and habit are surely contributing factors to my composing process; Also, I think different parts of the brain are being used on the screen, v. the page. I have read plenty of studies of music and the brain, how manipulating a musical instrument over time changes the brain (some scientists even claim that it “grows”), so I’d love to see writing-technologies and the brain articles, too. I suppose if I had been born into a web 2.0 culture, things may be different for me. However, there’s also the enjoyment and pleasure factor. Some people really like to type, love the feel of the keys clicking under their finger tips. Some others, like me, love the feel of the grip of a pen or pencil and the movement of marks and strokes being etch onto a fibrous platform. Personally, I feel more “in control” with a pencil and a notebook when I’m in composing mode though, ironically, the truth is markedly the opposite – I exert greater control over my writing with the computer (backspace, save, send, cut and paste, print, post, add clipart without cutting out magazines, etc). The beauty of it all — at least for now — is that we don’t have to decide; we can always use both technologies as we wish and as they are available to us.

  2. I enjoyed reading this, particularly the connection between cursive, or more generally, penmanship, and readability. To some extent, although that is a different conversation, I find that surface issues such as (schoolmarm) grammar/mechanics/punctuation/style/etc. have remained an important part of writing instruction because they relate to issues of readability, even though they have little effect on the content that writers are attempting to convey.

    I also liked your point about how we simply don’t consider certain forms of writing, writing. Have you read the article by Grabill, et al (http://www2.matrix.msu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/WIDE_writinglives_whitepaper.pdf)? It is a well-known article that touches on the relationship between the materiality of a text and the values young people ascribe to them. Scroll down to “Section 2” in particular, which has a fancy little chart cataloguing student attitudes toward it.

    I, for one, use different writing tools based on the genre and purpose of that which I am writing. If I write poetry, I typically use a Rhodia or Mnemosyne notebook and write in pencil or of course, fountain pen. Personal letters for special occasions, I will write in pen, always, and on my pretty stationery paper. For most everyday communication, I use digitally-mediated platforms such as my phone or computer.

    Because I am a one-drafter, I spend a lot of time “writing” in my head, outlining, planning, working on sentences and phrases — mentally. Then I sit down and write out an outline (on one of my notepads) and start typing up something on the computer screen. I am still more comfortable using Microsoft Word for “serious” assignments — the distraction-free writing atmospheres are nice alternatives for me to actually focus my mind and write poetry when I don’t have my usual “tools of habit,” but that’s something I’ll explore in my reflection later!

    Thanks again for another engaging, multimodal post.

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