Writers, does this ever happen to you?

You hit a major road block in your current project. You’ve been staring at the computer screen for what surely must be hours to no avail. Finally, exasperated, you decide to copy edit what you’ve got, so you print out your work and break out the red pen. Only—halfway through your edit, something inside you clicks, and you suddenly know what the project needs. You scribble all over your pages and rush back to the computer, relieved that this particular writing hurdle has at last been cleared.

I would say this sort of thing happens to me all the time, but it doesn’t—at least, not any more. It’s not that I don’t struggle with writing; oh, there’s plenty of struggle, let me tell you. But this particular kind of struggle has happened to me enough times that I’ve figured out the trick for breaking through, and I use the trick whenever I get stuck.

The trick? The “one weird trick” that helps me break through my writing blocks?

Printing.

I can hear you gasping. In the twenty-first century?! In this, the digital age?!

Actually, yes. And this strategy is backed by decades’ worth of research. Some of my own research, in fact. And in today’s post, I’m going to tell you a little bit more about it.

A Little Thought Experiment

First, though, we’re going to do a little thought experiment. I want you to think back to your most recent big writing project. This can be something you recently finished, it can be something you’re currently in the middle of—it can even be something you’re just getting started… or maybe should be starting. And it should be something kind of big, so, depending on the type of writer you are, it might be a book chapter, a grant proposal, a major project report. Something with some substance to it. Now, I just want you to think about the shape of that project, both literally and metaphorically. How does your argument proceed from beginning to end? What details about that project can you bring to mind? I want you to dwell on it for the next few seconds and then try and then try to sketch it out on some scrap paper. I’ll wait.

*cue Jeopardy music*

Okay, now, switch gears for a second. Flip that paper over and do a quick inventory of all of the writing technologies you have used or are using to work on this project. Just jot down a quick list of all the tech you’re using to write. I’ll be here when you’re done.

Okay. Now, flip your paper back over and consider the shape of your writing project for a moment. Did you struggle to create this drawing? To get the shape of your project down on paper? Did you struggle because the “shape of your project” Isn’t something you’ve thought about before? That’s fair. Or did you struggle because you maybe don’t quite actually have a strong sense of the shape of their project yet? Now think about that inventory of writing technologies. What kinds of tech did you put on there? Computer Tablet? Smartphone? Did you include a printer?

 A Writer’s Sixth Sense

Now about that “one weird tip” for breaking through writing blocks. When I get stuck in a project, I print the project out and mark it up by hand before typing up my revisions. I also often start projects on notebook paper rather than have that blasted blinking cursor mocking me with every blink. This strategy is actually backed up by research.

Back in the 70s and 80s, when computers were first becoming a thing in workplaces, researcher Christina Haas conducted a series of studies about writing on the computer. She talks to people about how they do their writing, and she keeps hearing over and over again, “I do all my writing on the computer. All of it.” Now, the researcher pushes these writers a bit, and eventually they confess that they don’t do all their writing on the computer. When they move from drafting to revising, they say, “Well, when I want to revise, I have to print it out, read through it and mark it up before revising. Otherwise, I can’t really get a sense of what I’m writing.”

That sense of the text is what this post is all about. In her 1996 book on these studies, Haas writes about text sense, later called an embodied sense of the text—a sort of internal feeling that writers have about their writing projects. This text sense is what I was trying to have you sketch out earlier. I used a metaphor of “shape” because I was having you sort of translate this text sense into a different medium. But calling it a “shape” isn’t all that metaphorical because writing itself has shapes. Writing, by its very nature, has a physical, material presence, and that’s part of where this embodied sense of text comes from. David Olson writes about this material nature of writing in his aptly titled 1994 book The World on Paper. One of the differences between writing and speech, he writes, is this material nature. For writing to be writing, it has to have a physical, material presence. Lines across a page. Researchers Thierry Olive and Jean-Michel Passerault (2002) call this the “visuo-spatial trace” of writing.

This materiality of writing may be why Haas’ writers were struggling to get this sense of their texts before they printed them out on physical paper. The physical display of their texts on the computer screen could only get them so far in terms of their embodied sense of that text. Printing their papers created a different physical presence than the computer screen. The computer screen gives a 2D presence of the text that can be scrolled through, yes, but only a 2D snapshot at a time. Whereas a physical printout gives writers a 3D picture of the text. The writers in Haas’ needed this fuller picture of the text in order to develop their embodied sense of that text.

Illustration comparing the 2-dimensional presence of written text on a screen to the 3-dimensional presence of printed text
Writing in 2D versus Writing in 3D. Image by Ashley Clayson.

I’m really interested in this “sixth of writing,” this text sense, and I’m particularly interested in the relationship between this sense and writing technologies. In Haas’ study, this sense (or lack thereof) was intimately connected to the technologies writers were using. Their embodied senses of text weren’t fully developed just from the computer screens—they had to use the printer to print out their work. To be fair, the screens these writers were working with may have been quite a bit smaller than the ones we use today.

So, then, what about today? Do bigger screens mean writers have a better sense of their texts? Not necessarily. Writers today use all sorts of technologies to do their writing—computers, yes, but also tablets and even mobile phones! Writers today are working with technologies that have what feels like massively different physical presences, and yet some writers, myself included, still print their drafts out to get a better sense of them. Additionally, some writers don’t revise using paper printouts. They really do do all of their work on the computer.

What I’m interested in as a researcher is how these different practices with different technologies shape and influence our internal senses of our work. This is a question for which I don’t have an answer but in which I am exceedingly interested, and it’s something I hope to begin investigating soon: How do different writing technologies impact embodied senses of text?

Who Cares?

I want to pause for a moment and ask a question that many of you may be asking yourselves at this moment: “Why does this matter?” What does it matter what our internal senses of our texts are, so long as we get our words out on the page or on the screen? I’m going to answer that question with two more studies, both of which are a bit more recent. Fast forward to 2013, and this idea of an embodied text sense starts popping up in research in a slightly different way, this time, in studies of collaborative writing. In these studies, the researchers (full disclosure, one of whom is me) are looking at the gestures collaborative writers make, and we’re starting to see these embodied senses of text pop up again. In these studies, writers are working together to plan documents, and in these groups, the writers make gestures about the future document that represent the future text that will be written, which doesn’t actually exist yet. Their gestures reflect an embodied sense of their future texts.

In one of these studies, an associate professor is talking to a graduate student about a review they’re going to write for a journal. The associate professor says that they’ll want to “foreground” certain ideas, and she makes a gesture like she’s bracketing a paragraph or a section of a paper. It actually looks similar to a gesture made by the student earlier in the session where he actually was bracketing a section of text on the computer screen. This bracketing appears to reflect the shape of text. The shape of this “foreground” gesture is in some ways reflective of the text they’re planning to write—perhaps indicative of a paragraph or a section, as you’ll see in the next study.

Similarly, in the other study, a group of writers at a nonprofit association are planning their annual report. Now, this group is a mix of full-time staff members, some of whom have been with the nonprofit for a while, some of whom have not, and student members of the association, who serve one-year terms, and have never written the annual report before. So, in this example, you have one writer, the director, who has had the most experience writing this document in previous years, and on several occasions, he makes gestures that physically represent their future text. He talks about “sections” of text and makes that same bracketing gesture, and he mentions “putting at least a sentence in there,” and makes a pinching gesture to represent a sentence.

In both of these studies, these writers are communicating something about their embodied sense of the future document via gesture to the other members of their writing groups. And to me, this says that text sense is not just something that writers deal with when they are revising their projects, as Haas found back in the 80s, but even when they are just sitting down and planning their texts—doing that brainstorming or planning work. And this points to one reason I think that this idea of an embodied sense of texts is important. In both of these studies, seasoned writers—who might be called experts—were demonstrating their internal text sense to novice writers who had no or very little experience writing those particular genres. The novice writers were, in some sense, both planning these documents AND learning how to write them at the same time.

Now, let’s face it, writing in general is hard, especially for big, complex projects. Getting thoughts from your brain down onto paper is hard. And learning to write a new kind of text or a new genre is really hard. And one thing that seemed to be important to these expert writers in planning their documents with novices was communicating an embodied sense of their future text—perhaps an embodied sense of that genre in general. So, again, it seems like this embodied sense of text may be something that writers use not just in revision, as with Haas’ writers, but in planning as well.

One thing that I hope to investigate in my future work is how this text sense develops throughout a given writing project, and in particular, as I mentioned before, how it impacts and is impacted by the writing technologies used in a given writing project. I think that understanding more about embodied senses of texts and their relationships with technologies will help us better understand some of the difficulties of writing— one reason why it’s just so hard sometimes to get something from your head onto a page or screen.

So the next time you face a writing block, maybe try thinking more directly about your embodied sense of your texts. Try drawing it out or explaining your project to someone in speech and gesture. Or go a little old school—try printing out your work to see if you can activate that writer’s sixth sense.

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