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Lauer and Brumberger. Workplace Writing as Multimodal Editing. CCC, June 2019. Posted 07/30/2019.

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Lauer, Claire, and Eva Brumberger. “Redefining Writing for the Responsive Workplace.” College Composition and Communication 70.4 (2019): 634-63. Print.

Claire Lauer and Eva Brumberger received a grant from the Conference on College Composition and Communication to study workplace writing. They recruited nine professional writers and shadowed them in the workplace for twelve hours each for a total of more than a hundred hours (642). The study included pre- and post-observation interviews that the authors believed not only allowed them a nuanced view of the writers’ work experiences but also afforded a glimpse into features of current workplace writing that the writers themselves may not have recognized (643).

Participants included content and media strategists, technical writers and editors, communications directors, and “UX” or user-experience analysts (642).

The authors describe the current state of professional workplace writing as characterized by ongoing, often rapid and unpredictable change (638). They cite past studies that found that the ability to collaborate with team members and experts, to innovate and adapt to evolving contexts and audiences, to use a range of developing technologies across platforms, and to produce multiple genres were widely valued by employers (638-39). While “writing” continued to be a much-sought-after capability, studies of job descriptions found that new positions such as “content developer” or “social media writer” increasingly appeared. Desirable traits included time management, critical thinking, and “detail orientation” (639).

The authors argue that traditional understandings not only of “writing” but also of “editing” no longer align with what students can expect to find in the workplace. The model of writing taught in classrooms, proceeding from invention of original material through drafting and revision, they contend, is “isolated and siloed” in comparison to what will actually be required (639, 647). Lauer and Brumberger find that in the current workplace, a writer’s job shifts from classical invention and production to finding the best use of information to further an employer’s goals within time and budget limitations (644).

To describe this shift, the authors argue that “editing” can on longer be considered a “review” process separate from writing and intended to improve clarity or correctness or to ensure quality (640-41). Rather, they claim that workplace writing now is “writing-as-multimodal-editing,” in which writers “work with myriad modes of content—often encountered in medias res after the content has been originated by coworkers or consultants” (637).

Multimodal editors are responsible for modifying, adapting, designing, editing, selecting and constructing content in ways that are dispersed, nonlinear, collaborative, and responsive. (637)

To show writers “Working with Existing Content,” they depict “Tom” “extract[ing]” multiple genres from a press release received overnight (645) and “Connie” working with a video provided by a client (646). Though the writers characterized their work as “writing,” the authors contend that “writing-as-editing” more accurately captured their activities (647).

The importance of “Specific Constraints” is depicted by the need to produce video segments with a demarcated time frame and to meet exact requirements for original words in “site content” in order to improve search-engine optimization (648-49). The authors illustrate “Versioned Communication” via Tom’s need to convert press releases and technical documents to forms accessible to “your regular person” and suitable for social media, as well as for audiences in the organization’s “internal education, sales, and management teams” (649-50).

The use of press releases also serves as a demonstration of the “Hybridization of Genre Conventions” (650). Lauer and Brumberger’s observations note how such conventions may be tweaked, as when a printed manual that has been converted to a tablet app for technicians is structured with chapters to more nearly fit what the users found familiar (651). The authors also contend that genre rules may be “ignored” if necessary to meet the required purpose in the given context (653). For example, Madison, a communications director for a small nonprofit, no longer issues conventional press releases because reporters resisted such extensive documents. Instead, she communicates in smaller chunks like emails and on the phone (651-52).

Moreover, when Madison writes press-release language, she now produces it with a more informal tone that can be reused as a blog post, saving herself time and effort (652). The authors write that Madison’s decision to downplay the traditional press release illustrates the ways in which “editing” often involves choices about what “not” to write before any material is produced at all (653; emphasis original).

Participants also perform “Analytic Optimization,” which the authors describe as micro-level analysis of user responses to seemingly minor decisions via analytical software (653). Conducting “A/B testing of a live website” using two versions of a single menu falls under Ryan’s job responsibilities, while Madison assesses the “various click-through rates of email campaigns and messages,” a task that requires her to stay up-to-date with Facebook algorithms (654). The authors note that these tasks must adhere to budgetary limitations so that the writers must prioritize strategically when choosing among the many small changes that may affect audience responses. They argue that “writers (not developers) have the rhetorical training” for these decisions and can highlight the value of their rhetorical skill in their workplaces (655).

Participants also undertook “Image Considerations,” for example, deciding about the rhetorical effects of using emojis and animations to convey tone, capture attention, and follow changing communication conventions even in official texts (655-57). The need for this rhetorical awareness, in the authors’ view, should encourage writing programs to introduce students to “the rhetoric of a range of modes” (657).

Among suggestions for preparing students for these tasks are methods of acquiring content for manipulation from businesses and organizations and the creation of “sprint assignments” that help students recognize the importance of working within time and length constraints (657-58). Assignments that focus on “repurpos[ing] content” for a variety of contexts, genres, and audiences can encourage an awareness of the rhetorical possibilities and decisions inherent in the original text (659). The authors contend that this focus on multimodal editing privileges revision in ways that more traditional composition instruction may not (658).

The authors write that students learn the rhetorical skills required by workplace writing in composition classrooms, but could also benefit from recognizing the value of multimodal editing skills they already practice on their own. They could be better encouraged to see their knowledge and learning as assets in future professional writing contexts (660).

We need to rethink our notions of authorship, reconsider our assumptions about the traditional writing/editing process, and modify the ways in which we prepare our students for this kind of professional work. (657)

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

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