Motivation and Composing Tools

After reading Derek Ittersum and Kory Ching’s webtext, Composing Text / Shaping Process: How Digital Environments Mediate Writing Activity, and Paul Prior and Jody Shipka’s article, Chronotopic Lamination: Tracing the Contours of Literate Activity, I became interested in the different accounts of motivation in regards to writing or process. From what I gathered from the texts, there are several primary categories of motivation: distraction-free environments, games and playfulness, negative reinforcement, and collaboration/community. Because I have used a composing tool that practices positive reinforcement (Written? Kitten!), I will also add this motivation to the list of categories and elaborate on this in a moment.

Motivation – Distraction Free

Ittersum and Ching address David Allen’s notion of “distraction free;” Allen states that “stress-free productivity” has two components:

  1. It has a method for capturing and organizing any information competing for one’s attention, with the goal of removing distractions that hinder productivity.
  2. The second part is identifying, and then either doing, delegating, or deferring the very next action that needs to be taken on any given project.

He continues defining “distraction free” by arguing that, “The distraction-free writing tool not only removes obvious distractors, like system trays and browser windows, but also somehow removes the distracting temptation to revise and edit on-the-fly”. This makes programs like Word Processor seem like the ultimate distraction filled tool – allowing writers to jump into the editing or formatting phase before having a fairly solid draft.

Some of the composing tools highlighted by Ittersum and Ching include Writeroom and OmmWriter. Writeroom utilizes “old-school” features like a “green-on-black aesthetic and limited view, [which] signals to potential users a promise to reconfigure writing activity so that there is less distraction.” Ommwriter attempts to create a relaxing minimalist environment with “audio-visual features that contribute to an immersive and motivating experience for some users.” In both programs, the writer is focused on just getting words on the page, rather than tasks like editing and formatting that would distract the writer from “higher-order concerns” or initial critical drafting stages.

The lack of distractions within the writing environment act as a motivation to start and continue the writing process.

Motivation – game

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Screenshot of Write or Die

Another motivation noted by Ittersum and Ching is the element of “play” and the feeling that writing is more of a “game.” They suggest that writing with composing tools such as OmmWriter is “not just writing; it is also a game, or an immersive experience that potentially motivates a writer in unexpected ways.” I think tools with game-like features motivate the writer through their process by making their experiences more enjoyable – I know I would much rather play a game like Alien Isolation or Dead Space than work on my essays for class. However, if my writing process consisted of game-like elements, I can weave these actions together, making the experience much more interesting and potentially fun. For the “Composing Tool Reflection” assignment, I initially wanted to use Write or Die because I could see the game-like appeal. It provides objectives, consequences, and rewards throughout the writing process using the tool – similar to the games that I play in my free time. I think there could be an interesting relationship between writing and games that result in a weird but positive genre collision.

Motivation – Negative Reinforcement

Ittersum and Ching discuss Write or Die further in regards to its use of negative reinforcement. The notes that, “On its surface, it might seem like the polar opposite of an application like OmmWriter. It, too, is billed as a distraction-free writing tool, but […] Write or Die employs a graduated system of potential negative reinforcement to prevent users from not writing.” I think this is an interesting motivation, but I have some tension when it comes to employing writing tools that provide negative reinforcements. This is mostly attributed by my experiences tutoring for Fullerton College – one of the things we did in the writing center when we didn’t have an appointment was create “how to” worksheets and templates for students. I remember making a template once that attempted to explain how to create creative titles. I wrote a couple “don’t do x,y,z” statements down, and an instructor was pissed, saying that it’s better to note “to do’s” and “you’ll get an A if’s” than providing examples that hinted at wrong-doings and elements of negative reinforcement.

After that experience, among others, I have a hard time applying negative reinforcement to writing tasks. Oddly enough, when it comes up in conversation, more often than not, students use negative reinforcement to get them through their tasks or obligations – “I need to do this. If I don’t I’ll get an F and have to take the class over;” “I should keep drafting so I don’t get behind.” If negative reinforcement is so negative in an academic setting or for academic tasks, then why the hell do students feel so much more comfortable using it, including myself? Weird.

Motivation – Positive Reinforcement

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Screenshot of Written? Kitten!

I didn’t see anything on positive reinforcement in the texts, but I have experienced using a composing tool that utilizes this as motivation to write. For the “Composing Tool Reflection,” I used a site called Written? Kitten! – for every X amount of words you write, a picture of a kitten pops up to keep you going. I set the word count to 100 words. For every 100 words written, a new kitten popped up on the right hand side. For me, a self-identified cat-lady, this was incredibly effective. I wanted to write more and more for the sake of seeing another kitten (and finishing the writing task, of course…but mostly kittens). I can see game-like elements in here as well.

I wonder what other composing tools use positive reinforcement as the main motivation.

Motivation – Collaboration/Community

Prior and Shipka discussed the use of social networking and collaboration as a main motivation for writing. In their article, they observed that:

Neuman sought out friends who would not only help her to generate a diverse list of values, but who would also help sustain her motivation. When her classmates told her the word jumble was inefficient and would not be graded well, she sought out friends from home, other voices, who would shore up her courage. Her account then displays intentional structuring of the social as well as the physical and symbolic environment. Seeking out particular social interactions was, in fact, a common feature for all four writers.

I think this is an important motivation that most (from what I’ve observed) writers practice. In our classrooms, peer review and writing workshops are frequent practices. However, after reading this article, I now look at these class activities or practices as more than just ways for students to get constructive feedback. Collaboration and exercises that highlight community do more than provide students with revision suggestions, they encourage students on a more personal level by evoking feelings of support, camaraderie, empathy, and inspiration.

Given this list of different motivations, I wonder what other ones there might be that haven’t been discussed in the readings. I would be interesting in discovering and exploring more motivations and how they contribute to the writing process or other composing tools.


Can we take a moment to feel how real this shit is; the experience of receiving “paralyzing” feedback and somehow making it work:

Taken from Prior and Shipka’s article:

Narrating the process drawing, Kazmer described completing the first draft, getting written responses from her advisor, and then a scene so traumatic she had not even drawn it.

I finally did get something that looked more like a workable draft— something on the order of thirty pages, I sent that to her [Kazmer’s advisor] and she came back with a page of comments guiding me about what I should do next … and this cost me—when I first read it I was really,really happy. I was like, “Oh great! She read it, she understands where I’m trying to go, she’s giving me specific things that I need to do to fix it. I know exactly what I need to do.” When I sat down to try to implement this into this text, I actually wound up here again [Kazmer points to the image she drew of her sitting, not writing, in her apartment], but it was so much more traumatic that it’s not even in the picture. This was me writing and this is me with all these bazillion drafts. And I just really—totally left this part out. Because this had me absolutely paralyzed for about two weeks. I mean, paralyzed. I sat in front of the computer and would cry. [Shipka: “the fact that you couldn’t incorporate”] Yeah. [Shipka: “what she had sent.”] I couldn’t figure out how to incorporate and she’s really busy and, and I had met with her once about it, face to face and I was just like, I was just like, “I can’t do this. I can’t go and talk to her again and I can’t write this!” And I tried. I mean, I wrote all over this stuff! I wrote here what her notes are. She had notes in the document. I went back in and, and interpolated my own notes in the document, trying to figure out how to do all these things to this. It never, it never happened!

She went on then to describe how she got past this serious block.

When I finally got started working again, it was not with this… It started out with this draft actually. But, not these comments… So, this is when I wound up splitting the thing into the multiple files and, and really sitting there and just trying to hash out—I mean I, I had all these techniques for getting yourself un-panicked and, and one of the things that worked was that this is me breaking up into the three files and the time with each one and the, and the continuing things and what really helped me was, um, just focusing on, like, a little tiny thing. like, okay, one thing I know I have to do with this is I have to go through it paragraph by paragraph and make it less chatty. Okay. I can do that. I can turn something that sounds chatty into something that sounds academic.

Interestingly, Kazmer found that changing the tone of the language revealed content issues she had not recognized.

But what happened from there was that I started realizing whether there was content missing. Because when I flopped it from a chatty style where you can get away with saying things like bleah-bleah-blah blah blah and you try to turn it into very specific academic type writing you start to notice content missing. Well, that’s okay. I can fill in missing content! OOH! And then, it’s, then it started to go together!

Sorry for the long post: