Organic Writing and Digital Media: Introduction

Process-oriented composition instruction works better than instruction focused on products. Most composition teachers agree on this. Given that writing is a complex cognitive activity that involves a number of linked academic skills — reading, interpretation, argument, research, organization, and vocabulary to name a few — the best writing instruction isolates these skills and teaches writing as a method of engaging academic material rather than simply an activity that results in an essay. Writing is a kind of thinking, and process-oriented composition courses are places where students should be able to a) see this kind of thinking modeled and b) practice the method.

Organic writing is my phrase for writing that develops in non-linear clusters. Usually we learn essay-writing in the opposite fashion: we write the first word of the essay first, then the second word, and we are off. It’s a logical approach to a linear problem; it just does not respect how our thinking develops as we compose. It would be like trying on clothes while growing out of them at the same time. Organic writing begins with a seed — an idea — and grows in expected ways related to it’s resources. We become like word gardeners. None of this is new, but I was first introduced to the concept as a grad student when I read Writing Without Teachers by Peter Elbow.

Digital environments maximize the potential for organic writing in three distinct ways: they rebuild “audience,” expose the organic layers, and invite outside participation in key stages along the way. As with anything organic, there is not one “right way” to grow. Here, however, is a pattern I’ve found useful. In subsequent posts, I will describe the concept, structural, and mechanic phases or organic writing and organize them within a digital landscape.

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2 thoughts on “Organic Writing and Digital Media: Introduction

  1. For me, a non-comp scholar, the project looks and feels exciting. It promises to isolate the specific writing skills gained in digital environments while providing a theoretical orientation about why addressing writing in digital environments can be so productive. As you know, most teachers think of technology as a tool to do other things rather than an end in itself.

    Things I want to know:
    — What are the specific skills that can be gained?
    — When you say writing needs to better address “academic material,” do you mean novels, poetry, etc., or critical essays, or all of it?
    — Lastly, and maybe the most important one for me, why is the project of promoting digital environments to rebuild “audience,” expose layers of writing, and promote collaborative writing intrinsically good? In other words, why would a writing teacher who has achieved what they consider good results want to think about incorporating writing in digital environments.

    Perhaps what the last question is address is the identity of the project. Do you want to write a “howto” manual on teaching digitally? Or, do you want to be a provocateur and ruffle the features of the conventional approaches to writing?

    • I think the last questions posed by Nirmal are good ones. There is something provocative here, especially in paragraph two. I feel like composition pedagogues have drank the Kool-Aid, so to speak, on process-based writing instruction. (It’s still worth saying again, though.) Your notion of “organic” writing really adds something. It adds something new, not because it’s new, but because of where you’ve placed it here, between paragraphs 1 and 3, which might not otherwise fit together. I think you’re being a provocateur here, more than writing a how-to, but I’d say push yourself even further out on that ledge. It’s the analogies that will get you there, I think. The sentence that sticks with me most here is the one about trying on clothes as you grow out of them at the same time. I don’t quite understand, but I find it forcing me to rethink the sentences that surround it.

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