Why Digital Composition?

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The Rhetorical Situation: choice and meaning

When students write in a digital space, they must become much more conscious of the rhetorical situation. As digital composers, the choices that they make have real consequence for the text. The digital composer’s choices have real meaning for the text. Choosing to change the size or color of a font or bringing the reader’s focus to an enlarged image changes the meaning of the piece.

Screen Shot 2016-12-06 at 1.52.07 PMThey recognize that the audience has moved beyond you as a teacher and toward a wider public audience. A public audiences has greater consequences for student writers.


Students also extend their understanding of the purpose of the assignments as completing it for reasons other than getting a grade–they are essentially becoming published writers of their work. Context also comes into play because the composition must exist in a space outside of the classroom–context must be established for an uninformed reader.


For example, the student writer in the hyperlinked video chose to use visual images to represent the different sections of her piece since part of her purpose was to question the subject’s image. 

Layout and Structure

Since the digital essay does not have to exist in a flat, linear, or one dimensional space, the decisions surrounding organization and structure become paramount. There is no specific beginning nor ending point, so the the text should make sense no matter where a reader begins the piece. Also, the structure and organization itself can be representative of the piece.

Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 3.34.13 PM.pngFor example, in the digital essay on the right, it is structured as squares in squares to represent record album covers since the piece is exploring the rhetorical theories of a musician.

And since there is no set structure or expected format in a digital composition, students are given the authority to choose HOW the lay out their piece to best present their ideas and writing.

“All these texts are the interminable preface to another text that one day I would like to have the force to write or the epigraph of one I would never have the audacity to write…”   –Jacques Derrida

Multimedia, Multimodality, and Intertextuality

Although the textual aspect of a digital essay often remains the most important aspect, the digital world offers a wide variety of media to enhance the text. Writers and composers must make careful decisions when searching for and selecting the “right” media to best enhance their argument or to further illustrate an idea. By representing an idea using various media, the author can give a more realistic and holistic representation of how he is thinking about the subject. 

Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 3.13.30 PMThis use of multimedia also plays into digital composition’s tendency toward multimodality. If multimodality “describes how we combine multiple different ways of communicating in everyday life,” (Arola, Ball, and Shepherd in Writer/Designer) then digital composition creates multimodality as soon as the text meets the screen.


A digital writer is able to appeal to a reader’s main modes of communication: visual, aural, gestural, spatial, and linguistic. Rather than simply talking about something, the writer is often able to show the reader what he is trying to say.  Similar to how a newspaper uses pictorials, photos, and graphics to enhance the paper’s text, the inclusion of these elements in a digital essay will bring richer meaning to the text itself.

Since digital composition is MULTIMODAL and therefore MULTI-LAYERED, students also invest more time and more of themselves into digital pieces. They develop a connection with and an authority over their work because they have produced the text to such a deep and individualized extent.  Screen Shot 2018-10-31 at 3.13.42 PM

Making Connections, HyperLinking, and Reflection

One of the most important (and yet often overlooked) aspects of the digital essay is the ability to use hyperlinks within the text itself. Hyperlinks offer the reader a more holistic understanding of what the writer was thinking when she composed the piece. We think in messy, complicated, and connected ways, and by hyperlinking her text, the writer is able to show those connected ways of knowing to her reader. It is a great tool to enforce student reflection on her own writing and progress as a writer.

These links can lead the reader to other websites, pages within the digital composition, or even to openable documents. It is also important to note that the composer can hyperlink images, graphics, and buttons as well.

Hyperlinks can be used to provide further information, to give a specific example, to show a concept’s transferability, and to let the reader see what the writer is thinking. For example, asI am writing this section, I cannot help but think of all that hyper– means to me. I think about Hypercolor shirts from the 80s, about going into hyperdrive, and about creating Hypercard presentations on my family’s Apple II…if I wanted my audience to know my train of thought, then I could simply set up a hyperlink to take them to that moment in my thought process. It provides a more holistic context for your readers and mimics how writing is read and linked online.

 I have also used hyperlinking to deal with issues of plagiarism and lack of online image source information. Students are asked to hyperlink to original sources of images in order to avoid copyright issues when they can’t find original creator, title, or source.

Writing in Public Spaces

In my class syllabus, I make my students aware of the public nature of the writing in our class. I explain: “Much of the work in this class will be public—whether it be on Moodle, in peer writing groups, on a public website, or on your e-portfolio. Please make sure that you are comfortable with others being able to access your final works and your work in process AND that you are comfortable with others commenting on and/or evaluating your work.”

After ensuring their level of ease with the presence of the work online, we discuss WHY we work with our writing in public spaces.

Writing in public spaces for a classroom also allows the student to practice their methods of public writing. 21st century writers tend to do most of their writing in public or online spaces such as social media, gaming communities, and email communication. By practicing how to effectively and critically compose texts online while in a classroom environment, students learn how to be responsible composers of online text.

Student writing often operates in a vaccuum where students write a piece, turn it in to the teacher, get the piece back, and repeat that process with the next piece. The writing never leaves the classroom space and the student rarely connects with the piece on an accountability level because the writing is only accountable in that space. However by opening up the audience from one person to many, it creates a greater SENSE OF AUTHORITY and ownership for student writers because they are ACCOUNTABLE for what they write to a greater number of people.

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