By Joseph Franklin, New York City College of Technology
I am writing this at a bamboo table and simple folding chair combo. I am using Microsoft Word on a Mac laptop mounted on a Roost laptop stand and using a Logitech ERGO K860 keyboard that supports my wrists. I am playing instrumental music by Grandbrothers through Sennheiser PXC 550 noise canceling headphones, and I have notifications turned off on all devices. These tools (and others) have been curated to suit my preferences, my body, my budget, and my writing life. It took time to find them: time which I wish I’d dedicated earlier.
How much better does your text become if you have the right chair to work in? A desk at the right height? Good noise canceling headphones and the right study playlist? Citation management software like Zotero or a tab manager like Toby? If you color code your notes or use the right layout on a physical planner? If you commence or quit caffeine? If you have green space you can visit or functioning air conditioning? If your pet is there with you? The impact on a text of these various tools is not known but it is also not nothing, nor is it insignificant. But are we talking about these tools enough in our writing center work?
By making space to talk about tools with writers in our work, we’re giving voice to embodied and material forms of knowledge in a meaningful way. In the last thirty years or so, the emergence of digital writing shaped conversations around equitable access to literacies and tools (King; Shipka; Zeni). More recently, the pandemic has writing center folks deeply re-examining the tools we use to facilitate our interactions with writers (Mayo). Not talking about tools in our work with writers means that there is much less of a detailed trail weaving back from a strong final draft to the actual places where we start.
My usage of the term “workflow” in conversations about academic writing comes from Tim Lockridge and Derek Van Ittersum’s 2020 book Writing Workflows: Beyond Word Processing. This book encourages us to dig deeper into articulating the “often omitted tools, material conditions, and activities of writing.” Their claim is that while the shift from focusing on writing products to writing processes has given more awareness toward individualized composing, “we don’t regard our personal mediated preferences and practices as a shareable form of knowledge beyond the individual narrative.” What that means is that we’re not talking enough, or in enough detail, about what we actually do when we write—perhaps because we assume it is only useful to us. In our classrooms and writing centers, we’re leaving out much information about the devices and spaces that collaborate in our writing. Those are the often omitted tools.
There are usages of the term “workflow” that are entwined with discourses on productivity, efficiency, and marketing new products. Such a sense of workflow as something to be mastered, fixed, and commodified is not the discourse in which Lockridge and Van Ittersum locate their work. Instead, they highlight workflow as a path for exploration. By taking on “workflow thinking” and breaking “any particular task into a series of smaller steps,” writers can then search for the tools and practices that might improve their work rather than stick with ones that hinder them. I think it is this sense of critical exploration that should inform how we bring workflows into the writing center; first in tutor training, then in sessions with writers, and lastly in our materials.
Bringing Workflows to the Center
To bring workflows to the writing center, let’s begin in the beginning: tutor training. And what better way than to make some stuff? I encourage writing centers to ask tutors to compose a multimodal workflow map. According to Lockridge and Van Ittersum, a “workflow map” is basically a series of audio/visual depictions of what one uses to do work. This map can include images (for example, of a planner or the PDF with highlights or a (humble) screen recording like I made below that depicts reading and taking notes on an important article):
Or we could look at another example out in the wild by Hardy. This is a narrative loaded with different tools depicting the workflow that has been whittled from years of professional practice. It’s an example not only of something intended to be actionable but also a conversation to be extended.
This workflow map lets us take a step back from what we’re doing, to reflect on whether there are any places where things aren’t working well. Lockridge and Van Ittersum refer to these as “pain points” or sources of “friction,” which create pathways to better ways to complete a task or better tools. If using Word to create a text with images makes us rage-quit because of the godawful formatting that appears un-fixable, then maybe it’s time to invest the time and energy to find a better piece of software to handle that task. Importantly, friction isn’t something to fear; it’s not something to try and eradicate forever; it is an ongoing exigence to adapt and adjust one’s processes. As a follow-up to the workflow map, ask tutors to troubleshoot one aspect of their workflow by finding a better tool to address a particular pain point.
Following Lockridge and Van Ittersum’s critique of productivity and marketing promotion inherent in a lot of talk about tools and workflows, I think it’s valuable to also show tutors/writers materials that can broaden the discourse a bit. One example is Nahre Sol’s experiment with Erik Satie’s satirical workflow that flips our sense of productivity in favor of creativity. Another is this video from the Cajun Koi YouTube channel that describes how to organize one’s time around focus and adapt to very busy schedules. These workflow texts offer a kind of guidance or expertise that can not only allow us all to reflect on what we take or don’t take from them but also how we see our role as tutors if we are positioned to give advice. These videos raise discussion questions such as: How can we locate our own sense of agency and productivity? How much do we value absence or boredom or creativity in our schedules? What role does privilege play in how we value time and who can try what workflow?
In my experience, making room for workflow in one-on-one sessions with writers means asking more deliberate questions. As part of tutor training, writing centers can come up with their rhetorical strategies for the questions that might best serve their writers. When looking at a paragraph with a quotation in it, I might ask: “How did you get this quote from the text? Did you copy and paste it or transcribe it in a notebook or something else?” “What browser do you use and do you get a lot of ads?” There’s a chance this unearths a pain point or at the very least opens up a broader world of what tools are out there. If I ask a common opening question about how the draft came to be, I can sneak in follow-up questions such as, “Did you write different parts in different places?” “Is one of them better than another?” “Did you ever have any ideas that you jotted down randomly?” “Where did you put them?” These and many other questions are quick, and they can potentially make space to reflect on small changes that can add focus and vitality to the work.
I also think there’s a place for tutors to cultivate a tool-based literacy and experience they can share with writers. If student writers are using something, then we should probably be conversant in it. Do we have a position on the usefulness of Grammarly? A lot of students are using it. Do we know how to give advice on the most useful note-taking or distraction-limiting or reminder or meditation or e-reading or any of the other apps that might help writers? Do we like Scrivener or Hemingway or Notability or or or. How about the best laptop stands or keyboards or headphones or study playlists or campus workspaces or planners or pens? Do we like Pomodoro or Flowtime or any of the other work-rest systems? Do we know what it’s actually like to use the e-readers some students rely on? The Internet’s cup runneth over with products and videos and posts extolling the virtues of any number of systems to optimize our focus or our schedule or our creativity. Our writers are engaging with these, and we probably should too.
The tools we use have an impact on the quality of what we create. But articulating workflow offers other values besides “improving” our texts. I have seen it shift conversations from “here is the thing about me that makes me struggle” to “here are the cool things I know how to do with these different tools,” which is a powerful move, especially for writers who have felt marginalized or that they need extra help to cover a “deficit.” In this sense, making space for these conversations promotes equity in ways that I find super valuable. It promotes a sense of the material ways in which we create but makes that materiality accessible and operable in a tutoring session. But is there also a role for promoting an understanding of these tools?
It is worth considering how writing centers should describe their views on tools across the various tasks of writing. Perhaps there is a review section on a writing center website that can help students discover and navigate the options that are out there for them. Maybe as part of their bios tutors can share their workflow maps, and this will allow writers to explore this aspect of their potential tutor’s fit for them. Or there may be even better, newer ways to get at these ideas still to be created in our centers.
We do live in a prolific era of writing and thinking tools that are trying to help us do things differently and maybe better, whether we intentionally navigate these or not. For me, a discourse about workflows is itself another tool to shift toward talking about good writing as less about what we know and more about what we do. Why don’t we make a space to speak about it and see where that conversation can take us?
Feel free to join the conversation below in the comments: what are the most crucial or surprising tools in your writing workflow? (My most crucial are probably: laptop, sleep, and the right playlist.) What tools should more writers be using or avoiding?
Ching, Kory Lawson. “Tools Matter: Mediated Writing Activity in Alternative Digital Environments.” Written Communication, vol. 35, no. 3, 2018, pp. 344–75.
Lockridge, Tim and Derek Van Ittersum. Writing Workflows: Beyond Word Processing. University of Michigan Press, 2020.
Mayo, Russell, et al. “Navigating and Adapting Writing Centers through a Pandemic: Justifying Our Work in New Contexts.” The Peer Review, Vol. 5, Issue 2, 2021.
Shipka, Jody. “A Multimodal Task-Based Framework for Composing.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 57, no. 2, 2005, pp. 277–306.
Zeni, Jane. (1990). WritingLands: Composing with old and new writing tools. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
Joseph Franklin is a newly appointed Assistant Professor of English and Writing Center Director at the New York City College of Technology. His primary research looks at the global turn for writing studies, of which writing centers play a very large part.