We finally posted our “finished,” or not so finished, pieces to CommentPress. Because our site is not open for public view quite yet, I’d like to share my piece–my subchapter–titled “The Unfinished Text: Writing Digitally” here.
I hope you enjoy it and, please, let me know your thoughts!
The Unfinished Text: Writing Digitally
Scholars will increasingly be able to build on existing electronic texts, restructuring or adding to them, or recombining them with new content to produce new texts. In a radical extension of earlier forms of textuality, the possibility that an electronic text will continue to morph, be reproduced, and live on in ways quite unforeseen by its producers makes it ‘done’ to an extent always provisional. -Susan Brown et al. “Published Yet Never Done: The Tension Between Projection and Completion in Digital Humanities research”
However formal or informal the location of the writing may appear to us in comparison with the properly MLA-formatted research paper, the act of communicating on an ongoing basis with a broader audience—practicing over and over the art of staking out a position, presenting evidence, engaging with counter-arguments – or frankly, even just the art of being interesting and amusing—can only help produce better writers, and clearer thinkers, in any venue. – Kathleen Fitzpatrick, “Networking the Field”
The Digital Age is creating a new kind of text: the unfinished text. The unfinished text is specifically a digital text—a book or essay on CommentPress, like this one, a website, a blog, or a similar medium—that allows the author and the readers to continually participate in the text. As Kathleen Fitzpatrick states in Planned Obsolescence, the reader’s ability to comment and include links in her comments as well as the author’s “versioning,” or revising, the text are characteristics commonly associated with the digital text (Fitzpatrick 24). The digital text’s finality is continually deferred because the author can continually revisit, revise, and “update” her text and because the reader can contribute to the text through her comments and hyperlinks to other texts. Therefore, the digital text is unfinished by nature; it is never a closed “book,” but a text that can continually be updated.
Because the digital text is always unfinished, the unfinished text results in “lifelong learning” for the reader and the author. Their knowledge, like the text, can always be “updated.” In “Pillars of Institutional Pedagogy: Ten Principles for the Future of Learning,” Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg name “lifelong learning” as a principle of learning in the digital age. Put simply, “Learning is lifelong” (Davidson 33 italics not mine). Learning is lifelong in the digital age because it is participatory. They state, “It has become obvious that from the point of view of participatory learning there is no finality” (Davidson 33). In the digital age, one learns in a participatory and collaborative manner. Likewise, the digital text is participatory; the author and readers can participate in the text and with each other. Therefore, the author and the readers not only add to the unfinished text, but they add to their opportunity for lifelong learning. Like the text, learning never stops. Notably, the unfinished text can also be called the “lifelong text.”
Importantly, the unfinished digital text is distinguished from a published, printed work. While the author can make changes to the work, her changes are not immediately seen by her audience. Several steps must be taken before her changes are publicized. Changes in a printed text need approval from the editor and publisher and, once approved, exist in new editions. When that occurs, the public must wait a certain amount of time before they can read the revised text. Importantly, to keep up with the changes in the text, the audience must continually buy the text’s new editions. Because a published, printed work cannot be easy revisited and revised by the author with the audience’s knowledge, the work seems “final” or “finished.” The reader assumes that when she picks up a book at the library or buys a book from a bookstore that the text “is present in its entirety and will be consistent from copy to copy” (Fitzpatrick 24). She believes that it is in print because the author, her editor, and her publisher believe that it is ready to be seen, that it is “perfected.” On the other hand, “rather than assuming the text is fixed, complete, and stable, the reader of a digital text may well assume otherwise” (Fitzpatrick 24). The reader of a digital text knows that the digital text is unfinished because the digital text can be indefinitely revised by the author and by the reader. The unfinished text is changeable so it is “imperfect.” The unfinished digital text is “perfectly imperfect” because it can be continually revised.
In order to analyze the unfinished text, one must turn to the origins of the digital text. While creating this CommentPress book, my Digital Humanities class expressed concerns over the public drafting of our essays. We were afraid that someone would look at our very rough drafts and confuse them for our final drafts, a final expression of our thoughts and research on a particular subject. Some began their drafts with disclaimers saying, “This is only a draft!” or “I am still working on this piece, it is not finished.” Others “concluded” their drafts with promises for additional information. I also found myself embarrassed and feared that I would be judged simply because I did not notice that in my first posting I accidentally wrote an “is” instead of an “in,” changing the meaning of the sentence. Our concerns stem from our beliefs that our writing needs to be finished, or as close to finished as possible, in order to make it public. However, we did not take into consideration the accepting nature of the unfinished digital text. Because a digital text is unfinished, it accepts and welcomes revision. In other words, like the Digital Humanities has always embraced failure, the digital text accepts and welcomes failure.
Writing is a trial and error process, especially when it comes to writing a digital text. We must accept that our first draft, just like our last draft, should not be perfect. The process of revision is a process that rebuilds, revamps, and redoes what has been done before. It understands that what has been done before might have been incomplete in some way, however slight. Similarly, what is revised or corrected may be revised or built upon later. Thus, should we be hesitant to submit our very (very) rough drafts for public view? Our fragile egos and self esteems would tell us yes, but the Digital Humanities would tell us no. In Planned Obsolescence, Kathleen Fitzpatrick encourages herself and other writers of the digital text to “expose some of our processes in public, to allow our readers—and our colleagues—to see some of the bumps and false starts along the way” (Fitzpatrick 24). We are taught that when we write anything, our first draft should not be perfect. The same criteria apply when writing a digital text. Drafting is part of the writing process and we cannot be ashamed of it. If the digital text is accepting of our revisions, and consequently our failures, then we must be accepting of our own as well.
Just as one needs to ask oneself about the “right” time to publish one’s work, one also needs to ask oneself if there is right time to stop writing and revising. If the text is unfinished, does that mean the author can never be finished writing, never be finished with the text? If this is the case, does the author’s continual relationship with her unfinished text hinder her from writing other texts?
Just as there is never a perfect time to publish one’s first draft, there can never be a perfect time to finish one’s last draft. After all, “Everything published on the web exists, in some sense, in a perpetual draft state, open to future change” (Fitzpatrick 24). If a digital text can never be finished, can the author be finished with it? Many would balk at the idea of spending a lifetime on a work that can never be finished. However, according to Kathleen Fitzpatrick in Planned Obsolescence, the writer must grow with the unfinished work. She states,
If our texts are going to continue to grow even as they’re published online, we’re going to need to be present in those texts in order to shepherd that growth—perhaps not forever, but certainly for longer than we have been with traditional print publishing (Fitzpatrick 24).
If the author wants her work to be the best possible, then she needs to grow with her text once it is “published online.” Fitzpatrick acknowledges that the growth might not last forever, but should last longer than one’s connection with a print text. However, Fitzpatrick wonders if it would be a “bad thing” if authors of digital texts worked on them “forever” (Fitzpatrick 24). Perhaps if authors grow with their digital texts, they can be influenced to create other digital texts, opening more windows of opportunity for themselves and their readers. Whether or not the author stays with her digital text “forever,” there is always potential for its revision. There is always potential for the author to revise and for the reader to comment and share. The author’s decision to continue the text and fulfill its potential is “continually negotiated” (Brown “Published”) and depends on the author and her work. That being said, I will continue to “update” my unfinished digital text for the indefinite future.
The author’s continuous revisions are helpful, and add to her writing and learning. CommentPress uses WordPress’ blogging engine (Fitzpatrick 34) and both systems give the author the ability to track the changes she has made to her work by day and time. The author can compare any two revisions to see where she added or deleted information. The engine highlights the author’s changes, making them easy to pinpoint. If the author wishes, she can restore a previous revision, making a previous draft visible to the public once again.
In the above example, the print highlighted in pink (on the left) was drafted before the pink highlighted in green (on the right). If one zooms in on the picture, one will see that certain words are in a darker pink (on the left) and other words are in a darker green (on the right). The words that are darkened mark the changes that were made to those words during a revision. For example, in the previous (pink) draft I wrote “the digital text is accepting of revision” and “the digital text is accepting of failure.” In the later (green) draft I changed the phrases to: “the digital text accepts revision” and “the digital text accepts failure.” I deleted the extraneous words from those sentences in order to highlight the digital text’s accepting nature. Significantly, I did so after exchanging comments with a classmate on the importance of the digital text’s acceptance of failure.
I discovered CommentPress’ and WordPress’ ability to browse changes by circumstance. While writing our subchapters, the authors of this chapter—“E-volving Publications”—met quite a few times to share ideas, express concerns, and ask for advice. In one of those meetings, I was updating the group on my research when one of my peers asked if I had “browsed my revisions” on CommentPress and suggested that doing so would be relevant for my subchapter. I had not, but decided to try it. When I finally did browse my revisions, I discovered that my classmate was right, it was useful.
A writer can browse revisions on CommentPress or WordPress by finding the tab on the upper right corner of the editing page. The tab displays how many revisions the creator has made and next to that number is a link to browse the revisions.
The ability to browse revisions in CommentPress relates to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s explanation of versioning in Planned Obsolescence. Fitzpatrick states,
Versioning preserves the history of the text, allowing it to live and breathe while maintaining snapshots of the text at key moments, as well as the ability to compare those snapshots, permitting readers to approach a text not just in a finished state, but throughout its process of development (Fitzpatrick 24).
Versioning occurs in a digital text when the author revises her work in the public eye. Versioning allows the reader to see the writing as a process instead of a product. Likewise, when the author reads and “browses” her revisions on CommentPress, she approaches her writing like a reader. She becomes aware and conscious of the writing and drafting process. When she writes, she does not merely save the most recent version of her writing, forgetting about the previous version. Instead, the engine saves each version the author creates, allowing the author restore or analyze previous drafts, see where she revised the most, and correct changes she should not have made.
The question remains: What does the ability to browse revisions on WordPress engines mean for the unfinished digital text? If the system behind CommentPress saves the author’s revisions, then the digital text is more than what is published or posted. The digital text also consists of the drafts and revisions the author makes while writing.
Not only is the unfinished text defined by its ability to be continually revised, it is also defined by its readers’ participation. As Kathleen Fitzpatrick in “Networking the Field” states, when one writes online, one’s words are “subject not just to the scrutiny of a single evaluator, but to that of a broader group of readers engaged in thinking about the same questions” (Fitzpatrick “Networking”). When one writes online, whether for work or pleasure, one does not write for one pair of eyes only. Rather, one’s work becomes available to a vast group of readers who are motivated to participate in the digital text. Notably, reader ability to participate in a text is not a new idea. For example, in a print text, the reader can make marginal notes and comments, and “dog-ear” important pages. When the reader remarks on what is important in the text, the reader participates in the text. However, the reader’s comments and notes are only available to a small audience—the reader and with whom the reader decides to share them. Therefore, when the reader participates in a printed text, she adds to her knowledge and a select few’s knowledge of the particular text and its ideas. On the other hand, when participating in a digital text, the reader makes her “notes” available to the author and, potentially, a vast online audience. In her comments, the reader can ask the author questions and write suggestions, observations, or thoughts. She also has the opportunity to “share” the piece on social media or on her blog, opening up the text to a bigger audience. The author also has the opportunity to connect with the reader through comments. The reader’s comments might influence the author to view her piece in a different way or to make changes or additions to her piece. With digital texts, the reader and the author are connected in such a way that their conversation continually adds to and revises the work. Additionally, their conversation adds another way of reading the text because a third party—another reader—can participate in it, too. The potential for conversations about the text makes the digital text unfinished and creates potential for additional ways of looking at the text.
The unfinished text, specifically digital texts within CommentPress, allows reader participation. In Planned Obsolescence, Kathleen Fitzpatrick discusses how CommentPress encourages reader participation. One of the unique features of CommentPress is the reader’s ability to comment on the text “at various levels of granularity, ranging from the document as a whole, to the page, all the way down to the paragraph” (Fitzpatrick 34). When commenting on a CommentPress text, the reader can comment on a single paragraph, a page, or the whole work. Therefore, the reader can point directly to the text in her comment. Likewise, the author’s attention is drawn to a specific page or paragraph where she needs to make revisions. In the same book, Fitzpatrick also discusses the way in which the digital text and the author’s text are placed “side-by-side” (Fitzpatrick 34). The author and the reader can benefit from this placement; they can reference the text without having to open a separate tab. Thus, reader participation is not only essential to the unfinished text, but is also welcomed in CommentPress’ digital text.
Reader participation and comments were essential to this unfinished text—my unfinished text. Kathleen Fitzpatrick believes that collaboration, while writing the digital text, creates “better work, and a more enjoyable work process” (Fitzpatrick 25 italics not mine). Likewise, my experience with reader participation and comments influenced my work and made it enjoyable. Specifically, quite a few my professor’s comments encouraged me to rethink the term “unfinished.” In her comments, my professor noted that “unfinished” has negative connotations and she asked me to try to make sense of them in my piece.
My professor’s comments had two very significant affects on the outcome of my paper:
- I needed to question the use of my title and key phrase, “unfinished text.” Did this title accurately describe the digital text, or would some other phrase, like the “lifelong” text, be better?
- I realized that my paper needed to discuss the way the Digital Humanities asks its writers and readers to rethink terms such as “unfinished.” Why is the “unfinished” digital text a good thing? Similarly, why should the unfinished text be a good thing?
My professor’s comments encouraged me to think about the phrase, “the unfinished text” not only in my title, but throughout my subchapter. As a result, I began to examine not only the digital text, but the phrase I was using to describe it. What does unfinished mean for the digital text versus the print text? Why is it important that the digital text is described as “unfinished?” What does “unfinished” mean in regards to the Digital Humanities?
According in David Sewell in “It’s for Sale, So It Must Be Finished: Digital Projects in the Scholarly Publishing World,” the words “unfinished” and “done” (or finished) are contradictory when used to describe a printed text. A work that is unfinished is demonized, while a work that is finished is valorized. Similarly, a work that is unfinished is open and a work that is finished is closed (Sewell “It’s For Sale”). For example, when a print text is unfinished, its incompleteness is implied. One assumes that when a work is unfinished, there are key elements missing that, if included, would make it complete. There is also an assumption that completeness and doneness are the end goals of a project. On the other hand, the word “finished” has positive connotations. A work that is finished, or “done,” is “past, irrevocable, requiring nothing more and indeed immune from further action” (Brown “Published”). One assumes that if a work is finished, then it is a unified whole.
Notably, the dichotomy between “unfinished” and “finished” only exists in a print work. In “It’s For Sale, So It Must Be Finished,” David Sewell asks, “Is it [the digital text] by definition unfinished, or is the opposition ‘finished/unfinished’ just plain inapplicable to open-ended texts?” (Sewell “It’s For Sale”). By nature, the digital text is an open-ended, unfinished work. However, the opposition of “finished/unfinished” has different meanings when they are used to describe a digital text. Specifically, a digital text is truly “digital” when its finality is permanently deferred. If one were to claim that a digital text, like this one, were finished then the correct response would be: Are you sure? Or, as David Sewell asks, “What do you mean, your Web-thing is finished?” (Sewell “It’s For Sale”). In other words, a finished digital text should be met with apprehension and suspicion. What makes a digital text finished? Nothing. On the other hand, audience participation, hyperlinking in comments, author revisions, and the like make the digital text unfinished. A digital text is unfinished because it can be repurposed and reused. Specifically, Susan Brown et al. in “Published Yet Never Done” note that “doneness” in a digital text, specifically a digital publication, is “fragile” (Brown “Published”). A digital text cannot be finished “because of the nature of electronic textuality” (Brown “Published”). Repurposing happens much more in a digital text than in a print work. A digital text can be reproduced, hyperlinked, and morphed into another digital text in various ways. Therefore, a digital text’s “finality”—if it has one at all—is “always provisional” (Brown “Published”). In other words, a digital text is never truly “done.” Importantly, its unfinished nature is productive; when a text is unfinished the reader and the author reap vast benefits. The unfinished text opens up conversation which leads to more learning. When a digital text is finished, conversation is closed and so is learning. Thus, in the Digital Humanities, the dichotomy is reversed; “unfinished” has positive connotations whereas “finished” or “done” has negative ones. Specifically, the Digital Humanities are changing the way scholars, students, and the average technology user think about words like ”unfinished” and “finished.”
Nevertheless, I still needed to decide if “unfinished” was a better adjective to describe the digital text than “lifelong.” I considered naming the digital text the “lifelong text” because of its connection to “lifelong learning,” as described by Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg in “Pillars of Institutional Pedagogy: Ten Principles for the Future of Learning” (33). Although one can learn from the digital text throughout one’s life, a text must be unfinished before one can learn from it. One must know the ways the digital text is unfinished before one can be able to learn from it. For example, if the author knows how to browse her revisions, then she will be able to learn from her changes. If the reader knows how to hyperlink in her comments, then others will be able to benefit from the connection that the reader has created between texts. For these reasons, I decided to keep the original phrase—the unfinished text—and use it in my title.
Notably, one of my readers—a fellow classmate and creator of “E-volving Publications”— also influenced my decision to keep the phrase “the unfinished text.”
Thus, my readers’ comments influenced the creation of my text in a positive way. My professor’s comments forced me to pose and answer questions about the unfinished text. Her comments also influenced my ideas about the Digital Humanities’ vocabulary. My classmate’s comments supported my beliefs about the unfinished text and made me think more about the relationship between the digital text and lifelong learning. My experience with reader comments and participation connects to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s thoughts regarding reader participation. She asks her reader to imagine a world where everyone everywhere has their own online platform, a place where they can express and form ideas. She asks,
What if you were able to subscribe to a particular scholar, following her work over time and engaging with her as it comes into being? What if she followed your work as well, and the conversations you had around your shared work were able to produce more new collaborative projects? What if others were able to follow those conversations in process, providing additional input as you worked?…What if communities of scholars like this were able to say to one another the academic equivalent of hey, I’ve got a trunk of costumes, and we can use my uncle’s barn: let’s put on a show!? What kinds of performances might we develop on such flexible, dynamic communication platform? (Fitzpatrick “Networking”).
The kind of Digital Humanist universe that Fitzpatrick describes is being created in today’s technological world. One has the opportunity to create a “platform” on social media, WordPress, CommentPress, and the like. Fitzpatrick reminds her reader that the texts one writes on online platforms are open to public view. If they are accessible, why not make them interesting, too? Why not make them collaborative? My professor and classmates did exactly what Fitzpatrick describes; they followed my progress, making comments and suggestions that affected the way in which my subchapter was written. In this way, my subchapter—and the unfinished text in general—are collaborative. Fitzpatrick’s last question becomes extremely important: if people can collaborate and communicate while creating the digital text, then what kind of text might they develop? Part of the answer is certain: if the digital text is collaborative, then it will produce better “performances” than a text that is not.
When a reader comments on a digital text, she can also hyperlink to other websites, articles, blogs that she feels may be of interest to the author or other readers. Specifically, the digital text becomes the unfinished text because it is participatory. Readers add to the text when they hyperlink other texts in their comments. By hyperlinking in their comments, readers give the author another opportunity to revise her text and give their fellow readers an additional way of reading the text. For example, readers can use the hyperlinks to compare or contrast other digital texts to the one on which they comment.
Take the following comment from my professor as an example:
My professor made the above comment on one of my drafts. Specifically, she commented on a paragraph about the ability to track changes on CommentPress. She recommended that I look at Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s chapter on CommentPress in her digital book Planned Obsolescence.
Other examples are comments I made on my classmate’s drafts for their CommentPress subchapters. For example, on Nicole’s subchapter, “Digital Redefinition: Are Books Dying or Being Reborn,” I commented, including hyperlinks to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Anxiety of Obsolescence and an article by Yung-Hsing Wu about Amazon’s Kindle in hopes the sources would help her write her piece.
My classmates also commented on each other’s pieces, including links to articles that might be of interest to the author. For example, in Nicole’s same piece, “Digital Redefinition,” another classmate commented, linking her to another piece by Kathleen Fitzpatrick.
Why is it important for the reader to include hyperlinks in her comments? By hyperlinking other articles, readers literally link one article to another. When readers read a digital text and hyperlink it to another, they publicly interpret the text. By interpreting, the reader allows her fellow readers and the author to participate in the hyperlinked text. In essence, the unfinished digital text is characterized by the author’s work, the reader’s comments, the hyperlinked texts, and the conversations between them.
In “Networking the Field,” Kathleen Fitzpatrick states, “The work we do gets better with practice, as more regular informal communication with one another leads to more meaningful formal communication, and a wider audience leads to broader engagements and better feedback” (Fitzpatrick “Networking”). One’s work becomes better with “practice”—revision—and “communication”—reader participation. The same can be said for the unfinished digital text. The unfinished digital text is made by “practice” and after that, grows because of more practice. The unfinished text is forever practicing; it can never be perfect. If the digital text were perfect, it would not be digital or unfinished. When considering the characteristics of the unfinished text, as Humanities scholars, Digital Humanities scholars, and readers, we need to ask ourselves a particular question regarding the “E-volution” of English Studies. The question is not, “Is the digital text ever truly finished?” After all, no text—digital, printed, or otherwise—is ever finished. Rather, we need to ask ourselves: Do we want the text to be finished? I hope, after reading this unfinished digital text, the answer is the same for you as it is for me.
Davidson, Cathy N., and David Theo Goldberg. “Pillars of Institutional Pedagogy: Ten Principles for the Future of Learning.” The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age. Cambridge: MIT, 2009. 26-35. Print.