Even though he wrote it in 1964, Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that “the medium is the message” has resonated with me since I first encountered it in Understanding Media. As a literary scholar, my concern was rarely about medium and always about the content. In the 1990s, when I spent most of my student days in graduate school, the Internet was a nascent realm full of possibilities if not of content. Our devices were still beige boxes on desks and cell phones were just starting to gain popularity. While I sometimes concerned myself with genre, most of my time was spent concentrating on the content of study, not its container. The digital slowly changed all of that.
Only when I began teaching new media did I start to consider another level of significance. McLuhan’s proclamation made me slowly realize that the container shapes our relationship to that which it contains, and it’s this relationship that shapes our reality more than the ideas it contains. Whoa, that’s quite the revelation for the newly-minted Ph.D. in literature. It’s almost a heresy.
Our evolving relationship with the media of the digital world make McLuhan’s observation even more relevant today than it was when he wrote it. While I still approach literary studies and literary criticism in traditional analytical and interpretative ways, I am now aware of the importance of considering medium as an equal layer of significance that is deserving of our critical attention.
A question, then, that has preoccupied me in another facet of my professional life is: how does medium affect written communication? As a corollary, do we experience text the same way on a screen as we do on paper? If not, we should consider — as writers in digital media — just what the most effective ways of writing are when it’s meant to be read on the screen. That’s what Writing.Digital is all about: starting with a specific medium and addressing the best strategies for writing in that medium.
Each chapter will begin with some general guidelines about writing for the screen. These concepts will be followed by some practical applications — rules to write by, if you will. Finally, a specific platform will be used to illustrate the concepts, initially Wikipedia.
This book grew out of my need to teach online sections of two similar courses: Writing for Digital Media and Writing and Publishing in Digital Environments. While there are strong texts available that address general concepts and writing strategies for the screen, none was ever specific enough for my use. I wanted a text that could address specific concepts in particular environments to learn strong writing geared toward the needs of a particular platform. In my case, I was teaching using Wikipedia; I needed a higher-ed text that addressed the particulars of that platform, but none is available. Until now.
Chapter one, Essentials, will break students of their bad habits they learned from us by writing on paper. This is a crucial step to writing for the screen. As I’ve stated before, college writing curricula is stuck in the age of paper. We often require students to write for minimums—a ten-page research paper or a 1000-word essay—that only encourages them to, let’s face it, bullshit. Their paragraphs become page-long fun-house rides from a local fair: twisting, dark, amateurish, and anything but interesting. Why do we do that to them? Why do we do it to ourselves?
Chapter one, then, outlines and illustrates the skills they need to know up-front—ones they can develop throughout the course.
Chapter two, Strategies, will begin to nuance those initial skills from chapter one and add others that aren’t as necessary to know up-front. Think of them as advanced essentials.
Usability focuses on audience, or users, needs and expectations for screen documents. It will consider styles sheets, organization, design, and platform-specific conventions of writing digital.
Credibility emphasizes ethos, or developing the digital writer’s character. Concerns like tone, awareness, and support are major focuses of chapter four.
Finally, Precision, will look at editing techniques and discuss the importance of every little detail in writing for the screen. Advanced formatting, including some HTML and CSS, typography, and other style considerations are addressed in chapter five.
Citations & Notes
- McLuhan 2003, p. 203.
- I think, too, that this approach could be gradually expanded to include other platforms, like Wordpress, “blogging,” or some other platform that has yet to be developed. I think the approach will allow for collaboration and scalability.
Purchases made through the links below go to support this work. I appreciate your support.
- Applen, J. D. (2013). Writing for the Web: Composing, Coding, and Constructing Web Sites. New York: Routledge. p. 188.
- Barr, Chris (2010). The Yahoo! Style Guide. New York: St. Martin's Griffin.
- Carroll, Brian (2017). Writing and Editing for Digital Media. New York: Routledge.
- McLuhan, Marshall (2003) . "The Medium Is the Message". In Wardrip-Fruin, Noah; Montfort, Nick. The New Media Reader. Cambridge: The MIT Press. pp. 203–209.
- Nielson, Jakob (October 1, 1997). "How Users Read on the Web". Nielson Norman Group. Retrieved 2018-12-26.
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