5 Ways to Fearlessly Start Writing New Media

By Amy J. Riordan, Assistant Professor of Communication at Bethany College

I grew up during a time when floppy disks were floppy (and big!) and computer screens were green. For much of my life, writing meant putting words on a page, often with a pencil. But in a strange twist of fate, I’m now considered a new media writing instructor in my department.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

Although I love words, many times they just aren’t enough. I remember feeling dissatisfied with words for the first time when writing a seminar paper for a global media course at the University of Texas at Arlington. Instinctively, I knew the addition of photographs from my trip to Ethiopia didn’t just provide visual interest. The words and pictures were more when together, not less. Nonetheless, composing with pictures still felt dishonest or unlike graduate-level work.

When I arrived at TCU, I’d already explored some of the ways in which compositional modes (like sound, music, color, design, image, etc.) make meaning in the courses I’d taken and taught, but I still considered it supplemental to the important work of words. I soon changed my mind.

During the first semester as a graduate instructor, everyone teaches from a common syllabus. At that time, Charlotte Hogg was the Director of Composition. Although the primary focus of ENGL 10803 Introductory Composition: Writing as Inquiry was the academic essay, Charlotte pushed the traditional boundaries of writing in the last assignment, which asked students to remediate one of their essays into a visual medium. This project was the first time I’d asked students to create with modes other than words. And was it ever terrifying—and spectacular! In this assignment, I recognized the power of all modes to support arguments, emotionally move audiences, and communicate complex ideas.

TCU provided several opportunities to explore new media in the courses I taught; however, I soon learned meaning making with multiple compositional modes (or multimodal composing) is really not “new” at all. In courses such as Karen Steele’s 20th century Irish Writers: The Poetics of the Irish News, Theresa Gaul’s American Stagings: Culture, Theatre, Performance, Ann George’s Seminar in Kenneth Burke, and Joddy Murray’s Image Studies & Multimodal Rhetoric, I discovered communication is multimodal (for instance, check out this masthead or Burke’s flowerishes).

Composing new media and multimodal texts can appear daunting, especially if you don’t think of yourself as being particularly tech savvy. Most consider new media writing synonymous with technology mastery—navigating Photoshop, tiptoeing through computer code, or talking in hertz or pixels (I can’t do any of these things, by the way)—but new media and multimodal writing actually only require a playful sense of problem solving and the confidence to not have all the answers. Blurred Computer Code _ Iwan Gabovitch _ Flickr

If you are interested in composing with multiple modes but don’t know how to start, here are some suggestions pulled from my own experience as a graduate student at TCU and as an instructor of new media writing.

Attend Workshops

To build your confidence, attend as many workshops, special speakers, and courses as you can, even if you don’t have time to immediately put your newfound skills or knowledge to work. Not only will you gain theoretical and compositional knowledge, but you’ll oftentimes have a chance to practice unfamiliar technology and software in the presence of those who can answer your questions.

Dare Not to Know the Answer

Not having all of the answers can be intimidating, but this state of unease is important for both students and teachers. As a student, I composed using completely unfamiliar technology and software. Although I imagined the final draft, I rarely knew how I’d get there but finding my way was integral to learning. Instructors often think they must be the expert, but I assign projects that require software or equipment of which I only have a cursory understanding. Students and I learn together, and my apprehension at saying, “I don’t know,” reminds me of the anxiety students may feel when faced with something brand new. 

Solve Problems Playfully

Approach learning new modes and technology playfully. Play requires time—not a cheap commodity, but a necessary one—and involves suspending your desire for instant results as well as your desire for immediate answers. What you gain from playful problem solving is a deeper understanding of the technology, software, or mode than you’d have if you didn’t take time to play and discover.

Remember the Glue Stick

New media can be multimodal but multimodal doesn’t have to be new media. By that I mean, writing with diverse compositional modes doesn’t necessarily mean you need a computer. If learning new technology and software is too much out of your comfort zone, go “old school.” Consider how you can remix images and texts from magazines and newspapers with textiles to compose physical genres like posters, brochures, and booklets.

But if a new media project is your goal, remember, your first endeavor doesn’t need to use unfamiliar software or technology. Incorporating images into a traditional essay or combining image, sound, and words within a PowerPoint slideshow are both examples of new media writing that can be very effective. As you become more comfortable, branch out and try new genres and tools.

Harness the Beauty of Free

Few institutions have the budget or personnel for a center devoted to new media (like the incredibly awesome NMWS), but there is quite a lot you can do using freeware, creative commons images and sounds, free apps, and smart phones.

Amy J. Riordan is a PhD candidate in Rhetoric & Composition at TCU as well as a professor teaching courses in new media, rhetoric, writing, and speech. For help getting started composing with multiple modes, email the Studio at newmedia@tcu.edu or schedule an individual consultation by clicking here.