Digital Assigments & The New Curriculum

Writing In Digital Media

by Michael Rectenwald


Writing as Design

A consideration of visuality in writing should convince us of the importance of rethinking writing in terms of design. As subjects of print culture, we have been indocrintated into a belief that alphanumeric marks are only important carriers of signification in writing. Studies in the semiotics of design and the rhetoric of visuality should disabuse us of these ideas.

The bias of print media has too often led writers to ignore page design. This design blindness has been partly due to the division of labor that obtained in print culture, such that writers were told not to concern themselves with anything but writing itself, conceived of as typing words onto a page. Writers were advised to leave design concerns to type-setters and designers. In digital media, all writers are type-setters and designers. Writing is more than typing text onto a page. Writing is design.

Under the print notion of writing, only verbal information has any value. Yet non-verbal information is conveyed in print culture in any case. Visual cues inform our perceptions of all printed texts, especially noticed when we come across books that are ill-designed, or not designed (consciously) at all.

The blindness to the visual components of textuality also distorts our understanding of earlier writing forms that obtained prior to print, which in turn reinforces the bias. The assumption that only verbal markers communicate meaning is a product of the ideal unitary, identical text, itself a myth.

The importance of visual elements has been a mainstay of poetic meaning, where stanzaic schemes, line-breaks, spatial positioning and other visual cues have been carriers of signifcation for centuries.

Unlike print culture, digital media pays more attention to visual elements. While in print visual elements -- including spacing, paragraphing, textual styles, etc. -- are less noticed, in digital media visual devices are a necessity.

Numerous features are available in digital media that were impossible within print culture. They include the following:

  • Animated Text
    • "Branded," by Kate Pullinger and Talan Memmot: Moving text on the screen one line at a time, delivering the poem at a rate determined by the authors.
    • "Vniverse," by Stephanie Strickland: Poetry and constellation appear against a starry sky as readers manipulate a mouse. (Requires Adobe Shockwave, free download.)

  • StretchText
  • Dispersed Text:
    • Texts in digital and in particular hypermedia environments like the Web associate with other texts to which they can be associated. As such, the borders of texts become permeable and texts can no longer be considered as discrete objects. An individual lexia lose their physical and intellectual separation from other texts when electonically linked to them, they are also dspersed into other texts. This phenomenon has been known in poststructuralist theory as intertextuality. In hypertext, such notions as intertextuality become reified in practice.

File Hiearchies

File hierachies in hypertextual digital media are not only useful for organizing virtual files for websites, they also can help teachers and their students to visualize the relationships between items and broader categories. They show superordination and subordination visually, which aids cognition and learning. Superordination and subordination allow students to see how subtopics of an essay they are writing fit under a broader topical umbrella, or how types of artworks, literary texts, or philosophical theories can be seen as subtypes of larger categories.

Consider the following file hierarchies as presented by the site manager tool within Dreamweaver CS4. The site represents the material used for a course entitled "Science and Literature," which I taught at Carnegie Mellon University. The first file organization shows minimal subcateorgization. (Click on thumbnails for larger images.)

file_hiearchy_minimal_subordinationWhile all of the readings are in one readings file, the organization says nothing about the relationship between readings. "Harding.pdf," for exsample, represents a contemporary feminist critique of science. It follows alphabetically under "Godwin1.pdf.," a facsimile of the first edition of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, the epochal late 18th-century text.


By contrast, the second file organization has divided the readings into primary and secondary readings. Further, the primary readings are subdivided into "Literature," "Science," and "Socio_Political " C.P. Snow's famous essay, The Two Cultures, a text that liminally stands between primary and secondary material, is renamed "Snow_Two_Cultures.pdf" and placed in the Secondary readings folder, while retaining its previous name of "cultures.pdf" and taking its place among the "Socio_Political" readings with "Godwin1.pdf."


Like file hierarchies, links are not merely a technical feature of digital, hypertextual media. As George Landow points out in Hypertext, Hypertext 2.0, and Hypertext 3.0, links help to redefine textuality itself, providing for hypermedia spaces of intertexuality. Intertextuality in hypermedia challenges the borders of individual texts or lexia, disrupting the usual separations between discrete textual objects. Links reify the intertexuality pointed to in post-structuralisst textual theories.

Numerous kinds of links are possible in digital hypertext, including unidirectional one-to-one page links, bidirectional one-to-one links, string- or phrase-to-page links, one-to-many page links, many-to-one page string-to-string links, and many-to-one-page-to-string links. All of these forms of linking, described by Landow in Hypertext 3.0, as linked here (see pages 14-19), are by now familiar to most users of the web. The implications for academic work are less well-known, however. As Landow points out, links affect many aspects of scholarship, including 10:

  • Annotation: In challenging the borders between texts, links make references and allusions immediate and much more gratifying and reader-friendly than do footnotes or bibliographies in print culture. Further, the notion of a single scholarly edition is challenged, as numerous editors are theoretically able to add additional links and references through commentary and meta-commentary.
  • Authorship: linking changes the readers' and authors' relationships with texts, as well as the relationship between authors and readers. Reifying the possible challenges to traditional notions of authorship suggested by Foucault in "What is an Author," readers become, more so than in print culture, collaborators in the construction of texts simply given their abilities to navigate texts in ways not pre-determined by authors. Morever, as hypertextuality lends itself to reader participation and response, challenging the role of authors as the sole originators and final word in textual spaces.
  • Argumentation, Organization, and Rhetoric: Links change the rhetorical basis of texts, as arguments go from being linearly controlled by authors and texts become navigable in numerous ways. The multiple pathways at readers' discretion, the ability to annotate and provide commentary to texts (esp. in blogs), and the breaking down of the borders of texts changes argument drastically, to the detriment of traditional cultural authority. Readers are relatively empowered and authors are relatively disempowered.
  • Editing: Our intellectual history has been formed under cultural assumptions that derive in large part from print culture's creation of multiple copies of the same text. This ideal of a single, fixed, unitary text, naturalized by print culture, is made problematic in digital hypertext, where editing is so much easier and immediate, and where no text, given the variations in delivery based on differing hardware and software, is identical. The ideal of the multiple, exact copy of indentical texts is, as historians suggest, probably a myth. Nevertheless, our conception of the book has been deeply informed by it. Digital media works to disabuse us of such notions of fixity and identity.