How do writers compose in the digital age?

How do writers compose in the digital age?

In our study, we learned the digital age offers more available, accessible, and universal ways of communicating to reach audiences in purposeful ways.

Case Study

Writing in the digital age is—as it has always been—about making choices: What tools are available? What will be most effective with this audience? Consider Kaitlin, a student featured in Chapter 8.

When she starts her gateway portfolio, she builds a website that is identical in form to print, but that is distributed electronically. Author Naomi writes:

In appearance, Kaitlin’s Gateway eportfolio is very similar to Madeleine’s Capstone eportfolio - text-only on an unobtrusive background. In a short paragraph on the home page, preceding the description of the artifacts I quoted above, she explains this look, writing, ‘Welcome to my electronic writing portfolio! (see figure 8.3). Despite its format, this is not a blog. Rather, it is the paperless, online equivalent of a printed portfolio that gives you samples of my writing from my different academic concentrations.’ Here Kaitlin seems to be offering a precise definition—and celebration—of [a] ‘print uploaded’ digital portfolio, ‘a version of portfolio that is identical in form to the print but that is distributed electronically.’


Kaitlin eventually learns digital writing skills and develops rhetorical awareness (an awareness of the relationship between what she’s writing, for whom, and how she’s writing it). In explaining differences between her traditional writing and multimodal composition she talks about what multimodality enables her to do, including developing a new vision of her audience and what they’d like to see:

Comparing traditional writing and new media writing is to me the difference between a printed set of papers and a piece that lives on the web. What made me start to accept new media was its gift of using hyperlinks to forever banish the bibliography to the seventh circle of literary hell. Even better, hyperlinks give you the power to seamlessly provide research and evidence for a point with nothing more than the click of a mouse. With new media you also suddenly have the ability to illustrate writing with pictures and graphics that there previously was never room for. And with new media, pieces truly do live. On the web, you don’t just publish something; rather you have the capability to keep going back and editing what you’ve already put out there


Kaitlin’s capstone portfolio looks very different from her gateway one. She explains the visual difference and how digital tools and the capacity of the portfolio to live online influences how she thinks about what it should look like:

I hated my gateway portfolio. It was just bland and boring. I was very nervous to put anything personal on it. It was not visual. It was just a bunch of text that really wasn’t broken up by anything. It wasn’t really multimedia. I mean, there were links, but just in the text, like here’s a blue word here and there….I had this idea that it really needs to look like a resume, but just like a normal paper thing but online so you don’t actually have to have paper….Whereas, with the capstone portfolio, I was challenging myself not to take paper and put it online, but something that was created online and lives online. The content was made for that form. I think that was the biggest difference in my mind.


Kaitlin recognizes that print and digital are different spaces that require different ways to present her material. She makes choices that attend to her audience and purpose in the digital space, and she explains her selections. Her ability to do make and explain her choices indicates that she is developing as a writer.

FOR INSTRUCTORS: teaching multimodal writing

Kaitlin describes the role of considering the relationship between content and form in a way that was different from what she had learned in her other classes:

Mostly because when I start writing, I usually want to write for pages and pages and pages. The challenge was how can I achieve the same effect but in a visual format or in a format that is something besides a printed 8 x 11 piece of paper? … I would start writing for paragraphs, like for each bullet point. I said, ‘Okay, how can I figure out how to make it academic but at the same time not go on for pages?’


Students and writers frequently compose digitally in non-academic spaces, but they need more guidance in academic spaces to develop rhetorical awareness. Strategy 3 on this website shows ways rhetorical instruction (versus just technical instruction) on a digital platform can be taught.

To see more eportfolios, check out the screencasted eports of the following 9 students who gave permissions to share their student eportfolios. They are linked via their pseudonyms, but you’ll see their given names on their eportfolios.

And here for their sitesucked (web stable) eports

Writing multimodally and becoming “a writer”

When writers are able to make choices in what they say and how they say it, they start to see themselves as developing writers. In Chapter 8, Silver explains:

In brief, in this analysis, writerly self-identity is found to comprise a new factor in how multimodal writing development becomes observable, such that the most robust development is characterized not only by a composer’s expanded conception of writing, but also their expanded self-perception as a writer. In this broader frame, writers view substance and style as integrally linked, and also view themselves as composers in any mode or medium that enables them best to enact an argument within a given rhetorical situation. However, an additional finding is that development via reflection during eportfolio construction does not necessarily lead to development in multimodal composition—the two seem to proceed independently.


One caveat: even if students could talk about their choices, they weren’t necessarily reflected in their portfolios and vice versa. Development is uneven.

Writing in the digital age uses all available means—text, image, video, sound, and digital tools—to communicate more effectively and purposefully than “words on a page” alone. The thoughtful selection of multimodal elements can enhance the effectiveness of a message to an audience