First, A Narrative about Mediated Practice
Here’s a common writing situation: A graduate student is tasked with writing a seminar paper. She starts with the literature review. She checks out books from the library, which she can’t write in, so on the way home she picks up a set of Post-it notes and flags. She then reads, attaching Post-it flags to pages, using a color scheme to mark the most important points and references she’d like to further explore. Later, she’ll type the flagged passages and store them in a note-taking application. A couple of frequently cited books spark her interest, and they’re related to a possible dissertation idea, so she orders them. When they arrive, she reads them carefully, underlining important passages and making marginal notes. She also works with PDFs and other digital texts, which she highlights using annotation software on her tablet computer. While doing all of this, she keeps track of her thoughts in a Moleskine notebook, developing the first threads of a paper topic. Soon she realizes it’s time to start writing, so she arranges her notes in piles, makes a few different document files—one titled “Draft,” one titled “Outline,” and one titled “References”—and gets to work.
As teachers of graduate students (and, of course, once being graduate students ourselves), we’ve seen many variations of this approach to writing. The above-mentioned student will find an ad hoc and idiosyncratic way to complete her project based on a mix of prior experience, personal needs, the technologies at hand, affective preferences, and the artifact to be delivered (among many other factors). And the student will draw on this practice for the next seminar paper, the next writing task, and so on—creating a routine, a personal and habitual approach to writing technologies and writing tasks.
Research in the field of Writing Studies1 has excelled at capturing these many idiosyncratic approaches to writing. For example, in “On Multimodal Composing,” Sara Alvarez and her colleagues (2017) ask “What does computing look like in and across digital, networked spaces and the physical spaces our bodies inhabit as we compose?” (“Composing”). The videos in “On Multimodal Composing” show a breadth of approaches to writing, with writers moving across technologies and through physical spaces. In her video for “On Multimodal Composing,” Layne M. P. Gordon describes a writing process that is “highly multimodal and embodied,” that relies on “digital notes, handwritten notes, color, and visuals, as well as the inanimate objects that [she] surrounds herself with during a writing session” (“A Writing Session”). Layne’s video shows her working with Google Docs, Evernote, Apple’s Pages, and tablets of graph paper as she drafts. In another video in the online article, Michael Baumann documents the process of writing a slam poem, a collaborative process that begins with a “huge messy crude constellations of ideas” written by hand and that moves into typewritten documents by “outlining, cutting and pasting, opening new documents to work on a section in isolation before inserting that section back into the main file. Adding line and stanza breaks. Working on different sections—intro, middle, and conclusion in queered chronology” (“Creating a Slam Poem”).
Similarly, in Expanding Literate Landscapes, Kevin Roozen and Joe Erickson (2017) look at the composing processes of Lindsey Rachels, an undergraduate student whose writing process draws on her experience with art and design. Lindsey describes the process through which she wrote a literary analysis paper: spreading pages of notes across the floor, organizing them by topic, and then arranging them in groups on her desk. Her process, she says, “had a hands-on patchwork feel that I associate with the crafting of a piece of artwork” (“Arranging American Literature").
Although much existing research has pointed to the specifics of writing processes and literate activity, the narratives of mediated writing processes are often presented as highly individual and idiosyncratic. The move to document those practices underscores the importance of individual approaches and the idea that mediated writing processes are personal, contextual, and bound up in experience, preference, and affect. The focus on the individual practice is also an echo of the process movement, which today resists the idea of one singular process being best, ideal, or universal. Yet, this approach hasn't pushed us—as writers ourselves or as members of a discipline dedicated to the study of writing—to understand why these individual and highly situated practices work well. It's easy to shrug and think "That works for them, but I'd never do it that way" and never give it another thought. Stated simply, we don’t regard our personal mediated preferences and practices as a shareable form of knowledge beyond the individual narrative. This book instead suggests that the workflow offers a way to understand writing processes as tool-mediated and shareable.
Writing Workflows: Key Terms
This book introduces the concepts of workflow and workflow thinking as ways to describe, analyze, and share mediated approaches to writing and knowledge work. "Workflow," in casual use, is an amorphous term. An IT department might refer to their workflow for distributing new software to faculty computers. A software developer might refer to an “Agile Scrum” workflow for producing the next version of an application. Or, perhaps more commonly, "workflow" might stand in as a general synonym for "process" or "procedure." In all its variations, "workflow" invokes a connotation of systemization and structure, a lineage that traces back to industrial capitalism and manufacturing. A workflow structures business activity, ensuring that each business task moves through a routinized and manageable process in a search for (and in service of) efficiency.
Those are not the workflows that this book will explore.
Instead, we turn to an affinity space (Gee 2004, 2005) that has adopted the concept of workflow as a personal and creative way of approaching writing tasks and knowledge work. The affinity space is comprised of a network of blogs and podcasts, and the major figures in this space are evangelists of software and creativity. They encourage their audience to try new apps, to explore new approaches to work, and to relentlessly tinker. In doing so, they talk about an ever evolving litany of software (Ulysses, MindNode, OmniOutliner, Todoist), hardware (mechanical keyboards, lap desks, styluses, tablets), and analog artifacts (fountain pens and notebooks by small companies like Field Notes and Baron Fig). They constantly rotate through writing tools, asking how a particular technology might shift their process and then sharing the pros and cons of those decisions with their audience. They are also—most importantly for this project—examining tools and approaches to writing that simply aren’t part of the conversation in Rhetoric and Composition.
From examining this workflows affinity space and the writers in it, we have derived four concepts, which we explore in this book:
A writing workflow describes a process for completing a literate activity and the tools used in that process.
Workflows, when documented and shared, become more than idiosyncratic narratives. Instead, by naming and describing the workflow, a writer can look at their broader process and analyze the connections, intersections, and fissures within the component parts of their work. A workflow might describe how a writer annotates texts, converts those annotations to notes, arranges the notes, and then moves them into a literature review document. The workflow centers on a modular approach to a task, where the writer can rotate tools in and out or where the available affordances of new tools can reframe or shift the broader approach to a task. Reading about others' workflows, writers may appropriate them in full or in part. For example, a workflow that depicts text moving through three different applications may inspire a writer to use those same apps together but for another task.
- Workflow thinking
Workflow thinking is the act of reading knowledge work as modular and intertwined with technologies.
Through workflow thinking, writers break any particular task into a series of smaller steps and search for writing technologies and practices that might improve, challenge, or alter their work. Workflow thinking encourages the writer to ask questions about each component part of the workflow: “Through which technologies will I accomplish this task? Why? What does a change in practices offer here?” In offering the concept of workflow thinking, we diverge from the business- and systems-focused concept of the workflow (one that is often used by our participants) in suggesting that workflow thinking need not privilege efficiency above all else. Just as there are compelling outcomes to automating a mundane computing task via a program or script, there are also compelling outcomes to purposefully introducing constraints to a modular workflow component—for example, writing a draft in crayon (Wysocki et al. 2004)—and purposefully introducing friction into process.
Friction is a moment when the writer wants to accomplish a particular task with a particular method but the chosen tool obstructs that process.
A classic example of friction is the AutoFormatting in Microsoft Word, when the program mistakenly interprets user actions—for example, formatting a paragraph as an ordered list when that wasn’t what the writer intended. In our study of workflows, we identified several ways that writers identified friction: saying or acknowledging that there is a better way to accomplish a task, acknowledging that there are unnecessary steps in a process, or referring to software as “getting in the way.” In this regard, friction is often a workflow’s exigence—the moment when a writer develops a personal procedure for removing a perceived pain point. However, we also see friction as generative and creative, and a writer might purposefully and productively introduce friction into her process.
- Workflow mapping
Workflow mapping is a way to visually and spatially examine the tools and technologies within a writer’s process.
Workflow maps facilitate workflow thinking, and mapping helps the writer consider how she develops and iterates on a writing process through writing environments and technologies. Workflow maps aren't simple graphic representations; instead, we think of them as palimpsests, where past practices are layered beneath newer ones. Although workflow mapping could be a heuristic for literacy researchers or teachers, we explore its possibilities as a personal, metacognitive practice. Where workflow thinking looks ahead, asking what a new tool or approach might offer, workflow mapping visualizes the past, present, and possible future as a series of layers—asking how practices have been shaped across time.
Workflow Thinking, Workflow Mapping
Through the concepts of workflow thinking and workflow mapping, we hope to help readers better see and ask questions about often invisible tools and practices. Given the importance of workflow thinking to this project, we want to clearly introduce the concept before moving further into the book.
Workflow thinking is a personal practice that emerges from viewing knowledge work as modular and mediated. It helps a writer ask "What is possible here?" or "What might a new approach offer?" and it foregrounds the creative and generative potential of tools. This might be best illustrated by a specific case.
We both teach in programs that offer a PhD degree, and all of our doctoral students have to pass an exam after they complete their coursework. In preparing for the exam, a student has to read many books and articles, understand the key findings of each, and contextualize those key findings within both their field and their personal research interests. From an institutional perspective, the process is orderly: spend six months reading and taking notes, write an essay in response to faculty questions about the reading list, and then orally defend that essay. But at the level of day-to-day specifics, this process is quite complex and is mediated by many possible technologies. Should the student print out the essays and use a pen to annotate the pages? Should they keep the printed pages in hanging files or manila folders? Should they keep their long-form notes in a separate notebook? Or should they instead work with PDFs on a tablet or computer? How should they name and organize those PDFs? If they use a PDF highlighter tool, should they use just one color or should they try to use multiple colors for multiple purposes (say, red for important points and green for interesting references)? How should they keep a log of their thoughts? How do they ensure that the material will be accessible in five or ten years so that it's usable both for the written exam but also for future work? We could fill a chapter with these questions and their possible variations.
In our experience, these practices aren't the subject of inquiry and they aren't often taught. The graduate student's advisor might offer some organizational advice based on their own experience and preferences (which was likely learned in school or adopted from a mentor), or the graduate student might get recommendations from students who recently completed the exam or might simply draw on the practices developed across years of schooling, which were likely learned long ago and evolved as they proceeded through school.
Workflow thinking allows the student to pull apart this process and focus on its mediational specifics. It asks them to consider how they're approaching this task, how different tools and practices might shape their work, how new tools or approaches might change it, and how they might view their personal workflow as shareable knowledge. Through workflow thinking they can ask questions of and imagine possibilities for the often invisible mediational means that shape writing.
Workflow thinking is a forward-facing disposition. It asks the writer to imagine how a new tool or practice might change their writing activity. But all writing activity is bound up in a mess of context—historical, cultural, and affective. Workflow mapping, which we discuss in chapter 6, is a retrospective concept. It examines how writing practices accrete over time, and it depicts those learned practices as a kind of palimpsest where past approaches to work shape and influence new ones. We have developed workflow mapping within a narrative frame, and mapping begins with narrated memories of composing technologies—thinking about past experiences and writing descriptions of them. From those particular descriptions, the writer would draw a series of sketches (using pieces of tracing paper, for example) that begin to layer those practices onto each other. These maps act as reflective tools through which a writer asks how their preferences have emerged and what they can learn from the ways that practices accrete over time.
In preparing for her exam, our hypothetical doctoral student will likely draw on previous preferences and learned practices. Perhaps a teacher once taught her to place a Post-it note on the insider cover of a book and to record the locations of important passages on it. But in preparing for the exam, she wants to move to a digital system in which she can search for particular phrases and page numbers. So instead of sticking with the Post-it method, she now reads with a Google Document open and records interesting passages and page numbers in the onscreen document. In the process of workflow mapping, she might see a link between these—noting how this approach to work has unfolded across time.
Workflow mapping facilitates workflow thinking. It asks the writer to consider how these are learned practices and how ways of working build up and inform one another over time. Through mapping we can better see mediating technologies and preferences, imagine how new technologies might fit in, and situate those within histories and contexts.
We've built the concepts of workflow thinking and mapping from our analyses of the case studies in chapters 3, 4, and 5. We see this as an initial exploration of the concepts, however, and there's much work to be done. The field needs more research like this—more studies of more writers in more contexts—and we hope that other researchers can help us build and extend these theories. We see these concepts as important but initial moves in a larger research agenda that focuses on the personal and affective work of writing with technologies.
The Participants and Affinity Space
This book began as a study of authors who we saw as “teachers” of the Markdown writing syntax2. Markdown is a "plain text" writing syntax that uses common typographic symbols to indicate text styling. For example, bold text in Markdown is represented by **double asterisks** around the phrase to appear in bold type. In 2004 John Gruber, the inventor of Markdown, pitched it as a simpler way of writing for the web; an author would write in the Markdown shorthand and then use a computer script to turn that Markdown text into HTML. In the years since, Markdown support has been added to a number of writing applications. If you’ve used an app like Evernote, Scrivener, Ulysses, or Bear, you’ve likely bumped into Markdown. In many web writing contexts, it’s a popular and easy-to-learn writing technology.
At the 2013 Computers and Writing Conference, we (Derek and Tim) started talking about the broad Markdown affinity space: podcasts, blogs, self-published books, and social media conversations. We were particularly interested in the absence of these conversations within our field. How could a nearly ten-year-old writing technology continue to grow in professional and enthusiast spaces but also be largely absent among those who teach and research writing?
To answer this question, we designed a study in which we would interview several of these influential Markdown “teachers.” We mapped the Markdown affinity space, prioritizing those who had a significant audience that spanned multiple platforms, including blogs, podcasts, books, and Twitter feeds. In particular, we were interested in writers within the Markdown affinity space who published texts written in Markdown, taught users how to use Markdown, and made recommendations about Markdown-focused software.
The affinity space we identified, which is also covered in Van Ittersum and Ching (2013), is a group of Mac users who write, podcast, and chat about Apple-related technologies. This group has a strong affective connection to the Mac platform based on its large community of independent software developers, its malleability (through tools like Automator and Applescript), and Apple’s aesthetic decisions, which often align with the tastes of those in this affinity space. We reached out to a member of the space, conducted an interview, and followed up with subsequent interviews via a snowball sample method.
When we started to analyze our data, however, we realized that this wasn’t a project about Markdown. Instead, we saw that the interviews offered insights about broader writing practices and software preferences. These writers were interested in and talked in detail about software-mediated approaches to writing practices—what they called “workflows.” We began to identify and trace a practice that we saw as “workflow thinking,” which we introduce in this book. To build and contextualize our macro concept of workflow thinking, we offer the cases of three writers:
David Sparks is a lawyer, blogger, and podcaster. Sparks cohosts two podcasts: Mac Power Users (about Apple technologies) and Focused (about mindful focus and productivity). Mac Power Users is quite popular and is almost always ranked in the top seventy-five podcasts in Apple’s “Technology” podcast charts. Sparks has written traditional print books, including iPad at Work (2011) and Mac at Work (2010), but more recently he’s turned to his own self-published series of ebooks under the moniker of “MacSparky Field Guides,” which are highly mediated books about topics such as photos, presentations, paperless approaches to work, and the Markdown writing syntax. Sparks has also collaborated with software developers, producing video tutorials and walkthroughs for new software releases.
Brett Terpstra is a software developer, blogger, and podcaster. Terpstra is most widely known for his two writing applications: nvALT, a simple but popular note-taking application for the Mac, and Marked, a Mac app that offers a simple means of previewing and exporting Markdown documents into a variety of other formats. Terpstra also hosts the Systematic and Overtired podcasts. He is a writer for MacStories, he has published a video series on the Markdown syntax (with Pearson’s Peachpit imprint), and he has coauthored two self-published digital books with David Sparks: 60 Mac Tips, Volumes 1 & 2. Terpstra has been a guest on the Mac Power Users podcast six times.
Federico Viticci runs the popular MacStories website and hosts or cohosts many podcasts: Adapt (about using the iPad), Dialog (about creativity and technology), Canvas (about mobile productivity), AppStories (about mobile apps), Connected (about Apple and technology), and Remaster (about video games). Viticci was an early believer in the iPad’s potential as a platform for creative work, and he now has tremendous influence in that space—collaborating with developers, directing his readers and listeners toward specific applications, and writing custom scripts and workflows for those who subscribe to the MacStories newsletter. Each year, Viticci writes a long-form (50,000+ words) review of Apple’s iOS platform, which he self-publishes as a digital book. Viticci has been a guest on the Mac Power Users podcast four times.
There are other participants in this affinity space, but these three individuals provide a specific and intertwined set of connections. For example, Brett Terpstra is a contributing writer to Federico Viticci’s website, MacStories, and MacStories has linked to or mentioned blog posts by David Sparks more than thirty times. Both Terpstra and Viticci have appeared on the Mac Power Users podcast (cohosted by Sparks) several times, and both Sparks and Viticci have appeared on Terpstra’s Systematic podcast. Sparks and Terpstra have coauthored two books, and Sparks’s Markdown book includes interviews with Terpstra and Viticci. These three authors exist in a textual circle.
But the connections between these three also extend beyond references and podcast appearances. They are all enmeshed in a software economy comprised of writing and productivity apps. To encounter their work is to hear references to a realm of software—TextExpander, OmniFocus, PDF Pen, Drafts—produced by small developer teams. Sparks, Terpstra, and Viticci each have multiple roles in relation to these technologies: Sparks might produce a series of video tutorials for TextExpander, Terpstra might write a series of homemade computer scripts to expand TextExpander’s functionality, and Viticci might beta test a new version of the app and introduce it to his MacStories readership. They all have a complex and intertwined relationship with these small Mac software developers, and they each occupy multiple roles: part hobbyist, part advocate, part advertiser, part consultant, and part enthusiastic fan. Those roles, however, have also allowed them to develop a language of the workflow—one in which they constantly audition, evaluate, and adopt writing technologies.
Workflows: Not Power Users but Empowered Users
While writing this book, we have avoided labeling or lauding people as "power users," despite the term's prominence in computer-related discourses. If you browse the computer and technology books at your local library, you'll probably see a number of titles detailing the pathway to power user: Mac OS for Power Users or The Microsoft Power User Cookbook or Synthesizers: From Presets to Power User. Books like these offer a binary in which a normal user simply uses software as is, while a power user clicks through all the menus, turns on the advanced features, and expertly customizes the app to their liking.
The concept of the power user poses two major problems. First, because it reifies the binary between the power user and the normal user, it creates a model of functional expertise and then differentiates the experts from everyone else. Second, the binary also exempts the so-called normal users from learning about or tinkering with technologies. It creates a context in which many users don't have a community or support system for imagining the creative possibilities of their tools. And at its worst, the power user binary enforces stereotypes about computer users—stereotypes that privilege some and exclude others.
In doing the research for this book, however, we've seen a different dynamic in play. Although David Sparks's cohosted podcast is called Mac Power Users (MPU), the discussions often focus on empowering users. This is doubly true for the MPU discussion forum, where listeners discuss technologies and share their personal workflows. MPU discussion threads might range from questions about how to digitize business cards, to recommendations for apps that count calories, to pictures of home offices. The discussion board—much like the podcast—doesn't promise a continuum that moves users from newbie to expert; rather, it offers a space and support for experimenting with tools and talking about knowledge work.
In pointing to empowered users rather than power users, we want to move away from the notion that tinkering with tools or software is something that happens in a closed-off club for those with knowledge of programming or access to particular gadgets. Instead, we offer an approach to the mediated work of writing—an approach we call workflow thinking—that is abstracted from the above-mentioned affinity space but that can be helpful for all writers, regardless of their preferred writing technologies. As we discuss in chapter 2, we are dedicated to inclusive work and pedagogies, and we hope that all writers can feel comfortable with and find community in the creative use of and experimentation with a broad range of writing tools. While there are many ways to develop and express workflow thinking, we introduce workflow mapping in chapter 6 as a narrative, sketch-based model. Workflow mapping provides a space for writers to think explicitly about their workflows outside of engaging in them, and we think it can be useful for all writers—regardless of their familiarity with the computer scripts and gadgets that our participants prefer.
As such, we don’t argue that readers should simply pick up David Sparks’s specific mediated practices and follow them step-by-step, and we don’t want to present Sparks as an exemplar of digital writing. Instead, drawing on interviews and the texts produced within this affinity space, we’ve tried to identify the broader approach to evaluating and adopting writing technologies that is so common in this affinity space. Why, for example, is David Sparks so willing to try out a new writing technology? Why does he seem to constantly rotate software in and out of his workflow? And what might this teach writing instructors, who are often faced with institutionally sanctioned software defaults or rigid IT policies?
The latter question is a particularly vexing concern for teachers of writing, one of this book's primary audiences. They, like many employees in large organizations, have to work within the parameters set by IT departments, and those policies often direct users toward a few sanctioned and supported tools (such as Microsoft Office or Blackboard). Sparks, Terpstra, and Viticci are all self-employed, and they don't have the same institutional limits, making it easy for them to model an empowered approach to computing. Those in education or industry might face a different—and disempowering—set of forces.
An example might help here. Libby Anthony, an assistant professor of English at the University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College, found friction when using Blackboard, her campus’s Learning Management System. She often had problems when writing assignments or announcements inside Blackboard, and because she had to write in a web browser, she worried about losing her work. She asked colleagues for suggestions. Were there better ways to work with Blackboard? One colleague recommended that she try Bear, a note-taking application that synced across the phone and her computer and that could export notes to a format that Blackboard recognized. Libby searched the Mac App Store, installed Bear, and found that it wouldn’t work on her office computer. She then called IT, who told her that the syncing system that Bear uses (Apple’s iCloud service) is deactivated on faculty computers. Their suggestion was instead to use IT-sanctioned tools (specifically, MS Word and Box.com) or just write in Blackboard’s built-in composing space.
Libby’s experience underscores an exigence for this book: for many academic contexts, writing technologies are often seen as transparent and interchangeable. The above IT response implies that Word, Box, and Bear are interchangeable technologies, offering a parallel set of affordances. In working with Blackboard, however, Libby identified a moment of friction that came from her frustrations with Blackboard’s text-styling feature and she sought an application that would fit into her work and resolve that friction. She engaged in workflow thinking, and her campus IT department wasn’t prepared for that. However, if we can adopt workflow thinking more broadly, and if we can encourage a wide range of writers to think about the creative possibilities of writing technologies, we can push against the assumption that writing tools are simply interchangeable. And when more of us adopt an empowered approach to our writing technologies, we make more room for many different ways of doing knowledge work.
Workflow-centered approaches, of course, aren't just about institutions or classrooms. Workflow thinking can be helpful in any number of contexts: creating an Instagram story, taking notes in a Moleskine notebook, or marking a book with Post-it flags. We see workflow thinking as a productive lens for many writers, including those who write exclusively as solo authors, those who collaborate, and those who must interface with sometimes stodgy campus IT departments. This book isn’t arguing that we should adopt the specific practices of any case or affinity space. Rather, we’re arguing that we can better learn about, mindfully adopt, and advocate for a broader range of writing technologies if we better understand how mediation functions within process. Workflow thinking helps us get there.
In this book we draw on sociocultural theories of process (Prior 1998; Prior & Shipka 2003; Shipka 2011; Roozen & Erickson 2017; Haas 1996) to situate the work and practices of writers in the workflow affinity space. Sociocultural approaches help us better understand how people, tools, discourses, and practices develop over time. Software adoption and use, for example, is wrapped up in affective orientations, motivations, histories, and more. Although the choosing of one tool over another might seem like a simple or inconsequential act, this book considers how that practice is the product of many intersecting factors. And by drawing attention to more complete pictures of processes and mediation, this book considers how writers might use a strategy such as workflow thinking to find new and creative approaches to their writing tools, tasks, and environments.
This line of inquiry intersects with other lenses and projects in the field. For example, the conversations in the workflow affinity space share some commonality with what Jentery Sayers (2011) calls a “tinker-centric pedagogy,” which privileges hands-on experimentation and collaborative work. Similarly, blogs like ProfHacker have highlighted the possibilities of software that’s popular in the workflow affinity space (see, for example, posts about apps like Scrivener, Ulysses, Write, and Evernote, and about automation with Zapier and MacOS scripts). Profhacker has also posted about the work of Brett Terpstra (his Markdownifier script and his nvALT app), David Sparks (his Markdown book and his screencast series), and Federico Viticci (his app reviews and his workflows). The Kairos PraxisWiki and the Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative (DRC) Wiki have also devoted space to software evaluation and adoption.
Finally, we would point to Aimee Morrison’s work on the Hook and Eye blog as a helpful extension of workflow thinking and a way to push the concept beyond the sometimes efficiency-centric approaches of Sparks, Terpstra, and Viticci. Writing about her paper-based workflow, Morrison (2018) describes her affective preference for paper: “I love paper. I love paper journals and notepads, I love printouts, I love paper books. I love pens and highlighters and pencils and erasers and tape-flags and Post-Its” (para. 1). She then connects her preferred workflow to neurodiversity and ways of being and working in the field:
I’m learning a lot about myself since my ADHD and autism diagnoses. One of the things I’m learning is that a lot of my ways of working are actually disability hacks: as it turns out a LOT of my people are very visual and a LOT of my people have poor working memory. Instead of trying to change myself to fit the ways of working I think I should have, because other people, I should maybe instead celebrate that I have, by trial and error and very little help or encouragement from anyone, kluged my way into some best practices for my particular career and set of challenges. I should congratulate myself on the self-knowledge that got me to a place that I’ve devised a whole workflow that minimizes the disabling effects of my particular forms of neurodivergence and allows me to shine. (para. 5)
Morrison’s post suggests that workflows can be an inclusive and productive concept—that we have much to gain by considering how we work, what tools we work with, and how those preferences can help us think beyond a set of default, invisible, or unstated norms. Furthermore, she points explicitly to the lack of support writers have for developing, revising, and experimenting with diverse workflows. The genre of the blog post has been an important and productive space for conversations like these, but with this book we hope to bring these conversations to a more central place in the field—offering the workflow as a way to better understand how we approach writing tasks. We find the Terpstra-Sparks-Viticci circle helpful because of the way they’ve drawn an audience that’s interested in talking about and sharing mediated approaches to knowledge work. However, we think Compositionists are well poised to move such a conversation beyond talk of efficiency or productivity, instead considering questions of access, affect, and agency. We offer future directions for this work in the book’s final chapter.
Summary of Chapters
In chapter 1 we introduce and define the concepts of workflow and workflow thinking. We provide a narrative example of the concepts, and we contextualize them within early questions about writing process, which are concepts from which our participants seem to draw. We then connect workflows and process to early research in the area of computers and writing. In the 1980s and ‘90s, research published in journals such as Computers and Composition asked questions about how the computer affected alphabetic reading and writing practices. Although the field now asks those questions of multimedia and networked software, we argue that the workflow affinity space today pursues similar questions about computational alphabetic composing spaces. Ultimately, we argue that a workflow-focused approach to writing offers a pathway to agency, creativity, and confidence with computing—a spirit that is very much in line with the lineage of digital and multimodal work in Composition Studies.
In chapter 2 we describe our methods and methodology. Drawing from theories that depict activity as distributed and mediated (activity theory, actor-network theory, distributed cognition), we attend to disruptions in activity (what our participants call “friction”) to trace the various actors and histories that are woven into people’s literate activity. Further, we argue that few contemporary studies of writing have fully considered diverse software applications as mediational means, instead concentrating on one particular application or on “the computer” as a whole. Through a focus on workflows, our case studies demonstrate the varying ways different applications mediate writing through their interfaces, data formats, affordances, and the trade-offs they require. Finally, in this chapter we introduce several key limitations of this project, primarily participant demographics. All of our participants are white males. We contextualize this problem within the broader space of computing, and we suggest how the disciplinary area of Computers and Writing—a technologically focused pedagogical community formed and grounded in feminist practices—might provide avenues for diversifying interest in and teaching about writing workflows.
Chapter 3 introduces the case of David Sparks and his practice of “cooking ideas.” Through our analysis of the various tools and means that Sparks has employed in this practice over the years, we examine how tools shape practices, how people shape practices, how practices shape people, and how tools shape people—all in one interpenetrated whole. Many of our participants wrestle with similar problems faced by writing teachers: how to balance between focusing on writing production and experimenting with new tools and practices. Through our analysis of Sparks's case we argue that "workflow thinking"—that is, breaking up writing tasks modularly and experimenting with different tools and practices for each component—allows writers to discover creative alternatives and engage with their tools in more complex ways over time and not become overly distracted from the work they need to accomplish. Drawing from Prior and Shipka's (2003) concept of "environment-selecting and -structuring practices" (219), we illustrate the ways Sparks's workflow constructs, shapes, and channels his attention and mental states in ways he finds useful for engaging in his work.
Chapter 4 argues that one benefit of a digital workflow is automation–using computers to efficiently and reliably execute a series of steps. While “automation” for writing scholars might call to mind machine grading or plagiarism detection software, we argue that our research participants demonstrate how automation can embody the values of flexibility and metacognition, values promoted by key documents in our field (such as the "Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing" statement). From this perspective, automation is a strategy for designing a writing process within specific situations in response to particular constraints. In this chapter we argue that automation is a productive art—a practice that results in a composed object (the script or program) that functions as a new actor mediating writing activity. Using the case of a script named SearchLink, created by one of our research participants, we examine the ways an automated writing workflow shapes this writer’s activity and experience and describe the functional literacies and expertise necessary to create and refine such a script. Often, “scripting” (or writing the computer code that executes a series of steps) is described as more accessible and more easily learned than full-fledged computer-programming, and we seek in this chapter to illustrate how scripting can serve as a means of tying together the literacies of writing and coding.
Chapter 5 introduces the case of Federico Viticci and examines workflows that explore the limits of what is possible on various computing platforms, arguing that "workflow thinking" can lead to experimentation and the development of new kinds of practices, texts, and goals. The chapter focuses primarily on how Viticci weaves together applications and scripts on his iPad and iPhone and often bumps against the limitations of these devices and their operating systems. A key argument among many interested in the future of computing has centered on whether mobile devices can support “real work” or whether they are merely convenient for “consumption” of media. Viticci argues that such devices not only support writing activity but that they can also support some kinds of writing practices better than conventional computers. This chapter argues that Writing Studies scholars need to better understand mobile computing platforms due to their increased prevalence (especially as the primary computing devices of minority and underprivileged students) and the ways they privilege different workflows.
Chapter 6 centers on workflow mapping, which is a visual and spatial way of exploring how writing workflows accrete over time. We outline the practice of mapping and then apply it to our own processes, using videos and illustrations to examine how our workflows have grown and shifted in response to environments, genres, work, preferences, and more. In doing so, we model workflow mapping as a metacognitive practice—a way of seeing and thinking through the arrangements of tools, affect, practices, and/or spaces. We then close by pointing to two genres—the software review and the workflow narrative—that can help to position workflow-related practices more centrally in the field.
Disciplinary names are a tricky thing, especially for researchers of writing. In this book we use the term "Writing Studies" to refer to fields that study writing, which might include Rhetoric and Writing, Technical Writing, Computers and Writing, Business Writing, First-Year Writing, and more. We do, however, occasionally use different and more specific disciplinary names (such as "the multimodal turn in Rhetoric and Composition") when speaking of a particular moment in a discipline's history or of a text that addressed a specific disciplinary audience. Like Barry Maid (2018), we think that "Writing Studies" describes "who we are and what we study. It is also a term that is readily understandable to non-academics" (52). For more on this, see Bazerman's (2002) "The Case for Writing Studies as a Major Discipline," Heilker & Vandenberg's (2015) Keywords in Writing Studies, and Malenczyk, Miller-Cochran, Wardle & Yancey's (2018) Composition, Rhetoric, and Disciplinarity.
We refer to digital writing syntaxes throughout this book. These syntaxes are ways of encoding a digital document for a specific use. For example, a document for the web is typically written in the HTML syntax, which has particular rules and requirements. We describe the HTML syntax and Markdown shorthand in chapter 3.