Digital Prewriting

As part of DigiWriMo, most of my stuff has been school related. I’m using the month to help develop some discipline and encourage me to write something somewhat academic/serious every day. I need to get into better writing habits. In fact, I started this blog back in August with that goal in mind too. So far I’ve been pleased with the results. I’ve posted about once a week, really branched out, and done some good networking.

But sometimes, coming up with things to write about is hard. I don’t always want to post all of my grad school assignments and ranting book reviews. They’re not always of good enough quality and a lot of times I don’t see it as appropriate. So when I am swamped with grading, reading, and pithy book reviews, what do I share? I asked this question on Twitter, and got some neat ideas and feedback.

Jeff Bracket asked me what I’m passionate about:

Carrie Padian asked me what I have been writing and suggested I break out of the mold.

These suggestions coupled with the lack of an obvious love letter recipient got me thinking. First, I wondered who to write to and whether it should be a traditional love letter to a person or to an idea or object of passion.

Carrie suggested prewriting my ideas. I asked Carrie if she thought prewriting was actually writing in and of itself. Does it count for DigiWriMo? Pete chimed in with a great philosophical answer to our conversation and inspired what follows.

I agree with him. Prewriting is important. And, because I am taking a class on autobiography and memoir, the last of his Tweet really struck me. I’ve read several theorist and literary critics this semester who talk about the idea of “living autobiographically” and how we are constantly reviewing, revising, organizing, and making sense of our lives. This process is usually mental, but the idea of writing it down is what’s fun about “life-writing” in general (the discussion of genre is vicious so I’m going to call it life writing). Of course, we rarely see the prewriting in the final products of life-writing. But the idea of prewriting as being the act of living seems to be quite true. I would argue prewriting is not only how we dream, it is how we learn, it’s how discover who we are, what we know. It’s how we connect and make sense of things.

I’ll admit I don’t do as much prewriting as I should. A lot of times I just start writing and then I get on a roll and let it flow out. I’m doing that right now in this blog-essay. It works for some of us and feels natural.  With my more “serious” or “academic” writing that I am turning in for grades or publishing, I spend a lot more time planning and am less likely to break grammatical rules. To be sure, I do that with most of my other blog posts. I collect links, outline ideas, etc. But that’s not always the case. I recognize that my biases and definitions of publishing, and academic are problematic in my previous sentence, particularly for an aspiring digital humanist. That’s why I am here, learning, exchanging, collaborating, discussing with #DigiWriMo, #DigPed, etc.

Thinking of prewriting in the digital world is important both because of those sort of structural and power dynamics as well as the plain and simple format of it. What does digital prewriting look like? How is it better/worse? Does it have benefits? I don’t have answers to these questions but I think they are worth asking, especially as more of our students become so computer and digital dependent. There are now special note taking programs, I have a digital version of sticky notes on my Mac. During MOOCMOOC and DigiWriMo I’ve noticed lots of people using Storify and Scoop-it to collect tweets, links, and other sources for later use. I suppose that is all part of prewriting?

Personally, I’ve always done it differently. While I am not one of the old school notecard people who rearranges them in stacks and lays them out to construct their paper/book, I do keep a stack of loose-leafy paper on my desk. I scribble on it frequently. I always feel so much more free with a pen and paper than a blank screen and blinking cursor. I’m a web drawer and outliner. There are often criss-crossing lines between ideas and themes. I love to do this after I read a book when I am preparing to write a review. My scribbles usually make little sense to anyone else. Hell, sometimes I can’t even read any of my own writing. But it’s still freeing and helps me reflect and visualize on what I’ve read/learned.

Writing on paper helps add some order to the craziness in my head without forcing me to conform to certain formatting procedures. There is a certain amount of anxiety with the word processor. The page numbers, the word count, the squiggly red and green lines under your every typo — they’re constant reminders and judgments of your productivity. Paper is judgement free. You can’t get upset and delete paper. The piles of wadded up paper on the floor remain and can be unraveled to reveal the half-truths of your previous errors. The blank page also doesn’t mind the careless errors that come with the bursts of energy accompanying new ideas as you race your short term memory to save them.

I’m not sure if I could do digital prewriting.  I think its deeply personal but we can learn from others. In many ways this is already a hybrid activity for me. I like to have my paper notes and scribble. I tend to prefer paper articles and books too. But my drafts and final products always end up digital. I also have started book marking and saving links of sources. Sometimes I test my ideas on Twitter and then later string them together in a blog post. I’ve seen a lot of sports journalists do this last thing — particularly during March Madness. It’s a great way to put ideas down as they occur and them come back to them. To allow our writing to live autobiographically, in real time, as it begins to take shape.

This post is a casualty to my own lack of prewriting. There is no real cohesive point here. Instead it’s both a portrait and a lesson in prewriting and how topics/ideas are formed. I went from uninspired, searching for a topic several hours ago to reflecting, pondering, and connecting ideas together — with the help of collaboration — creating a 1200+ word post. I do think we need to have more conversations about the collaboration and hybridity of prewriting. How does our increasing digital culture affect it? What are the best practices, tools, and methods? And so on.

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About Andrew McGregor

former runner and coach, American history Ph.D. student at Purdue, sports enthusiast, public historian and digital humanist wannabe
This entry was posted in digital humanities, DigiWriMo, pedagogy, reflection and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Digital Prewriting

  1. Pingback: Digital Prewriting | #digiwrimo: Digital Writing Month | Scoop.it

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