Reading and Writing in An Electronic Age

What happens when writing enters the electronic age? We turn to that question, and turn into a critical exploration of the problem as raised by Sven Birkerts and a range of other critical writers/thinkers we will be exploring over the remaining weeks of the term. Do we lose something that writing, particularly literary writing, has or should represent? Do we gain something in the process?

In her book Writing Machines, the critic Katherine Hayles, a scholar who studies writing and new forms of media, argues for something she calls “media specific analysis.”  She emphasizes a simple point: the medium matters in whatever text we are reading–and so recognizing and understanding the differences among media should matter as well. A book is not a film is not a website–though these days, all three may interact in significant ways, as we will see exploring examples of “hypertext” literature. You might look (if you haven’t already) at The Medium is the Massage, the text we will turn to shortly. Hayles writes of “material metaphors,” symbolic moments in a text when the image or idea in the text (in verbal or visual form) reflects something of the material basis of the text. In other words, the medium. In other words, the subject of our reading or viewing turns into the object of our reading/viewing as well.

This critical focus on thinking critically about a medium–be it writing, film, computer, etc–owes something to a well-known media theorist from the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan. For some useful background on McLuhan and one of his signature concepts, “the medium is the message,” browse this wikipedia entry. [by the way, as you may or may not realize, Wikipedia is a digital remediation of the print encyclopedia].

As an example of McLuhan’s assertion that the content of every medium is the medium itself–i.e., the real message lies in how any message is conveyed (its mediation) not what the content or message is–we could take this Wikipedia entry. MM would argue that the real effect on those who read this entry comes through the way the ideas (in this case, some background, initial description of ideas, further links and resources) are conveyed and not the ideas by themselves. There is no idea apart from its medium for MM. And so the nature of a wiki–its ways of conveying content, of linking, of the kinds of writing and reading experiences it emphasizes and enforces, is the message.

He also distinguishes two types of experiences we can have with a communication medium: hot (or high definition) such as film–where our attention needs to be focused, absorbed; and cool (or low definition) where the active participation of the viewer/participant is more crucial to the experience, such as with a book (turning the page, re-reading, etc).

The phrase ‘remediation’ comes from the authors Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin who build upon McLuhan to argue, further, that every new medium builds upon, repurposes and remediates an earlier and existing medium. Thus the medium is the message also implies that there is no new media apart from ‘old’ media. Bolter and Grusin take this even further (which is to say, take our new media all the way back to MM’s older view) in suggesting that the content of every new medium is the act of remediation itself: how the new medium relates to and reuses the old.

So film reinvents (or remediates) the writing of a book. But a book also reinvents the presentation of a film. When we will read (browse, play, view?) some literary texts developed for electronic environments, we will encounter both, and more. But the problem, the question we will continue to explore, is the one we forward from Birkerts: when books and reading enter into the electronic age, do we lose something in the process?


Pathos of Editing: stitching a more fluid essay Frankenstein (1910 film)

Image via Wikipedia

In addition to being a poor reader and reviser, Victor Frankenstein, Shelley’s stand-in for the creative artist, the writer, the one who toils in the workshop of filthy creation, appears to be a bad editor. Think of it: if he had taken a bit more time to consider the presentation of his creation, the work that he had stitched together from parts (as any creative work is), might he have saved himself some heartache?

This editing workshop focuses on how we control and create the fluidity (often called ‘flow’ by you) of an essay that is not naturally or originally there. It is made, not born. And one key place we control and create this fluidity is through control of our sentences.

  • Sentence Variation:
    1. look at your sentence length: hit return at the end of each sentence in one or more paragraphs: turn your prose into poetry; the point is to bring out the buried voiced (the origins of poetry, of writing) of your sentences.
    2. we are after variation: not all long/complex; not all short and sharp–a fluid movement between the two.
      1. think both Hypotaxis and Parataxis.
      • Close-Up
        • Experiment with using the power of shifting to a short, sharply focused sentence as a way to highlight your thesis statement. It is like moving in for a dramatic close-up on your critical vision. It can tell your read: pay attention to these keywords and ideas throughout the essay–a way to provide the thread the reader takes with them.
      • Sentence Combining: fluidity and variety in sentence style derives from a more specific grasp of the kinds of sentences and sentence parts we have at hand. You can combine shorter, simpler sentences in several ways, including compounding and subordinating. For more practice, visit the Sentence-Combining page of Guide to Grammar and Writing.
  • Transitions
    • between sentences within a paragraph (the point from above), and between paragraphs. Look at the transition sentence (the first sentence of the next paragraph). Work on weaving the reader’s path (or the thread of your thesis) into the next paragraph.
      • use transition signals (think of the way we need to do this with a speech or public presentation): “Yet another example of this irony of dark creation is evident in the creation scene.” Or by contrast: “Unlike the darkness of creation we see with Victor, the creature presents a vision of light…”
  • Weave your quotationinto the paragraph: quotations need to be effective, not just accurate.
    • remember to provide context/introduce the quotation (don’t throw quotations at the reader)
    • leave the page number for the parenthetical citation; don’t introduce the quotation with the page number.
  • Meta-Commentary.
    • We will be returning to this in later workshops. For now, think about places where you can add in a sentence that will help clarify things for your reader by letting the reader know what you are thinking.
      • “in other words”; “By irony of dark creation I mean…”; “Let me reiterate the point made earlier:….”; “What do I mean by …?”
      • also think of transition words: however, although, despite, that or this [point, idea]
  • Specificity.
    • Edit out phrases that leave things the argument or idea or specific reference vague. Sometimes this is a matter of selecting stronger verbs and more complex nouns; sometimes, this is a matter of substituting for some of the pronouns we use too frequently (it, he, she) or too loosely (this, without a reference to what this is: this idea of creation…). It is also a matter of editing for more specific verbs. Consider, as one tool for getting a better grasp on the implications of words (as well as relations, synonyms), using Wordnik.
    • For a good poetic example of specificity that matters for an argument, read Robert Pinsky’s “Shirt.”

Reverse Outlining: Three-Act Thesis Template

English 101 | Professor Meehan

Three-Act Thesis: Revision Strategy | Writing Project #2

Read and respond to the draft by filling in the structure below with specific information from the essay.

Act 1: Introduction/Set UP


Critical Problem:



Act 2: Complications/Examples/Evidence for your thesis [for this size essay, around 2-4, also known as supporting paragraphs]

Complication #1:

[Passage that is forwarded]


Keywords/ideas that relate back to the thesis [how the writer is extending the passage and argument]:



Complication #2:

[Passage that is forwarded]


Keywords/ideas that relate back to the thesis [how the writer is extending the passage and argument]:




Complication #3:

[Passage that is forwarded]


Keywords/ideas that relate back to the thesis [how the writer is extending the passage and argument]:



Complication #4:

[Passage that is forwarded]


Keywords/ideas that relate back to the thesis [how the writer is extending the passage and argument]:





Act 3: Conclusion

Climax: final answer to question/solving of problem—where writer reinforces the thesis:




Resolution: What’s next—where this argument leaves the reader; larger implications reader might take from this argument and apply elsewhere.




Revision Workshop: Development and Arrangement

Our focus in the second project is on close/slow reading: reading for the implications in a text–and effectively getting implications into our own writing–thereby enhancing the pathos of our argument. The texts we read are more complicated than we might think; we want our own texts, our writing and response to those complicated texts, to reflect that level of complication. Our first step in workshop will be to do close reading to work on the development of the argument–and then using that development to refine and revise the thesis. As an analogy for what slow reading means, how it emerges through rereading and revision, consider two film moments: the shower scene from “Psycho”; the scene in Blade Runner when Deckard closely reads and analyzes the photograph. This is where we look closely, and look again, for what’s working in a passage as well as for what else we might see/argue (which is also to say, what else we are not seeing or thinking).

The second step in revision will be to make sure that our more developed thesis is effectively threaded through the essay–an aspect of the arrangement of the essay.

Students often say they need to work on their organization. It is, however, not always clear to them what organization means–or more to the point, how it is stitched and structured into an essay. I emphasize organization as a matter of revision and, in many cases, of some simple stylistic choices that “thread” an argument: keywords (beginning with a title), basic transition words that signal continuation while also emphasizing–this idea, this passage, but, however. A critical essay, we know, needs a thesis; an effectively organized essay often just needs more conscious attention to its transitions and keywords–to the ways the writer can move the reader through the essay. For an example, consider this review in NYTimes Book Review of Edward Hirsch poetry by Peter Campion. Here are the first few paragraphs:

Between Ordinary and Ecstatic

Contemporary American poetry is sometimes panned for being mundane. With all the splendor and terror in the world, why should we care about some guy’s memories of high school, or the quality time he spends with his cat? Glancing over it, you might suspect that Edward Hirsch’s poetry would lend evidence to this view. Hirsch will begin a poem with a line like “Today I am pulling on a green wool sweater” or “Traffic was heavy coming off the bridge.” Neither opening seems to burn with that hard, gemlike flame.

But in Hirsch’s work, things are not always what they seem. Certainly, his poems work to dignify the everyday. But they do more than that. What makes Hirsch so singular in American poetry is the balance he strikes between the quotidian and something completely other — an irrational counterforce, the “living fire” that gives its name to his new selected poems.

That phrase appears in “Wild Gratitude,” the title poem of Hirsch’s 1986 volume. On its surface, the poem seems to be about, well, a guy spending time with his cat. But as he listens to her “solemn little squeals of delight,” he begins to remember the 18th-century English visionary and madman Christopher Smart, who in his most famous poem, “Jubilate Agno,” venerated his own cat, Jeoffry. The memory leads to a chain of associations, and the poem ends in a nearly epiphanic moment:

And only then did I understand
It is Jeoffry — and every creature like him —
Who can teach us how to praise — purring
In their own language,
Wreathing themselves in the living fire.

This passage could stand as an emblem for all of Hirsch’s poetry. Literary and allusive, but also domestic and intimate, as it rises toward praise, Hirsch’s voice resounds with both force and subtlety.

One of the pleasures of reading the new selected poems is the chance to see that voice develop and then range freely and surprisingly. Most poets are hot one minute and cold the next, depending almost on the day of the week. But Hirsch is worth reading chronologically. He not only gets better with each new book; he also provides a kind of model for the growth of poetic intelligence…[goes on in the next paragraphs to review briefly those books included in the selected poems.]

One strategy to test for this thread: use the highlighting tool. Highlight in yellow the words/phrases of your thesis (somewhere from your introductory section). Then read through the draft and highlight in green wherever key statements/reiterations (in other words, threads) of that thesis show up in the body of the essay and in the concluding section. Next, using yellow, highlight parts of the body and/or conclusion where the thesis/argument is being extended: that is, keywords of the thesis are not being repeated, but the argument is being developed, elaborated. Finally, go back and highlight in red any phrases and passages in the draft that seem to wander from the focus, that seem to be a different or new argument–not a reiteration or extension of the original argument.

Another practice technique to make the signals and structure of your argument more transparent to the reader, consult this discussion from Harvard’s expository writing program on Topic Sentences and Signposts.

Close Reading Template: How to Slow Down

We have talked about close reading as a crucial component of the ways we strengthen several rhetorical elements of our compositions that we will focus on for the second writing project: Development and Coherence. Joseph Harris can guide us as well with his conception of “forwarding” a text. Here is a template you can use to think about forwarding as a process for annotating a text as well as a structure to build upon in developing your evidence across the body of your essay, a structure that is dynamic, not static, moving us (to use Harris’s terms) from illustrating to authorizing to borrowing to extending.

  1. Set-up [illustrating]: Introduce the quotation briefly with basic summary or paraphrase: what’s the context; who is speaking and from where? Don’t throw the quotation at the reader. You can also begin to integrate/anticipate the interpretation you will be getting into after the quotation. Examples: While traversing the Alps Victor echoes the words of the poem “Mutability” in saying, “…”;  or even better: Victor’s fear of change is particularly evident when he echoes the lines from Mutability, “…”
  2. Close-up [authorizing/borrowing]: The quotation. Choose a portion from the text that is not just relevant but rich, worth focusing on for your interpretation. In other words, your quoting should reflect the selective reading you are doing, moving your reading to the interpretation and development of your argument. You don’t quote to prove that you have read; you quote to read (with your reader) what you are proving regarding your argument.
  3. Follow-up [extending]: Put the quotation to work and explain/elaborate how it speaks to and supports and develops your critical vision (thesis). Extend from the quotation. Highlight key words, phrases, images. Don’t assume the quotation speaks for itself. Make it speak to your vision and how you want your reader to see it. Use suggestive imperatives: Notice that Victor (or Shelley or Walton) uses the word….  This is the place for interpretation, not summary. Slow the scene down and look at a specific frame. Think 3-5 sentences or more of good follow-up to the quotation.

To consider one example, Denise, a student from the course several years ago, writes about Frankenstein’s  intertextual link with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Here is a specific paragraph that is effective in its close and slow reading–notice how she notices the particular word ‘serpent’ and puts that to work.

The plots, themselves, are inherently similar: an older man tells a younger man about something tragic that has occurred in his life in a first person, story frame format. The stronger tie, however, is the distinct air of warning that pervades both tales. In anticipation of his narrative, Frankenstein says, “I had determined, at one time, that the memory of these evils should die with me; but you have won me to alter my determination. You seek for knowledge and wisdom, as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been” (18-19). Frankenstein has been stung by a metaphorical snake in his past – and not just any metaphorical snake, but a metaphorical serpent. The connotation of the word “serpent” calls to mind certain evil; this word choice was very deliberate.  The ominous, cautionary nature of these words immediately strikes both Walton and the reader. This nature primes Frankenstein’s audience to listen carefully to his tale and take what moral each can. The Ancient Mariner, too, stops the wedding guest of his tale to relate his own morbid experiences, in the hopes that the guest will, like Walton, become wiser.  Both stories are told to impart a specific message to both their internal and external audiences. The Mariner warns that one should love everything that exists, something that clearly does not happen in Frankenstein. This negligence allows horrible events to occur in both stories; thus, Frankenstein echoes the Mariner’s warning. Likewise, one of the messages of Frankenstein seems to be on the dangers of knowledge, both in general and in its misuse. Like Frankenstein, the Ancient Mariner abuses knowledge by using it to kill an albatross and is then punished for it. 

For these reasons, I suggest a better term for close reading is slow reading. It is also, as you can see, a form of re-reading. And finally, it is a form of composition, in that it is a way to develop an argument, add to its complexity and coherence. Remember: just before that dreary day in November, Victor Frankenstein is building an “argument” for a way to rethink the act of human creation. He, like us, is developing his evidence and reasons across the body of his work. He does so, initially, carefully–and then inexplicably, gives that up in the name of “speed.” In his haste, Victor was not a good close reader.

Frankenstein: Intertextuality

A working definition of the literary concept of intertextuality, forwarded from the Bedford edition of Frankenstein (ed. Johanna M. Smith, 2000):

The condition of interconnectedness among texts, or the concept that any text is an amalgam of others, either because it exhibits signs of influence or because its language inevitably contains common points of reference with other texts through such things as allusion, quotation, genre, stylistic features, and even revisions (455).

We have seen that the complications–the layerings, or amalgamations–of meaning in Frankenstein begin even before you finish the title: the subtitle “The Modern Prometheus.” This is where the intertextuality of the novel begins. (And it continues, as you know, with the epigraph taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Intertextuality can be defined as the presence in a literary text (in our case, the novel Frankenstein) of elements from other texts. That presence can be a direct or indirect quotation, an allusion, an implication, an echo–in some way, a previous text or story is forwarded into the text you are reading. In contemporary music terms, intertextuality is sampling. In  digital parlance, it might be viewed as the mashup.

For further reading on Prometheus:

“Hesiod and Plato on Prometheus.” An overview of the myth of Prometheus as evident in the classical sources of Hesiod and Plato, by the writer/blogger Neal Burton. Note that this extends the myth of Prometheus to the invention of the arts, most particularly the arts of discourse and reason, in Greek known by the word “logos.”

Plato’s Prometheus. Summary of Promethus myth, with links to Plato’s use of the myth in dialogues, including Plato’s “Protagoras.”

Another intertextual complication in the novel:

Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey”

Other possible places to go with the idea of intertextuality (that is, dealing with the amalgam-like quality of the novel, the recognition that there are multiple layers in the novel): Dante, the author’s introduction, Paradise Lost, “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” medieval science. Lots of places.

In the second project, you are pursuing a close (slow) reading of key parts of the novel; but you will still be making an argument–there is a problem of some sort that you are exploring and (in your thesis) attempt to respond to and resolve. You can think of the problem/response in this way:

Many people tend to think of Frankenstein in simple terms, as a story about ______; however, there is a more complex story suggested by the intertext–a complexity that I read as important in the larger significance of Frankenstein as a novel about _______.

A link to the full poem of “Mutability.” And another, different poem also titled “Mutability” by the same poet.

Some ‘machines’ you might find useful in your intertextual reading of Frankenstein:

Electronic Paradise Lost (Milton, 1667).

Electronic Bible (from UVA’s Electronic Text Center)

Electronic Frankenstein.

And a final reminder, a resource useful for close reading, and for thinking more critically about keywords and terms in the reading–as well as in our writing–is the OED. It focuses on the inherent intertextuality in our language by highlighting the etymology and evolution of our words.

The Argument of Frankenstein: Lessons in Slow Reading

Mary Shelley

In our reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we will focus on the concept that Joseph Harris calls “forwarding.” This is the ways that we use the ideas and texts of others in our writing, not merely to quote those sources or provide evidence, but to develop our own argument in response to what comes before it. We write and argue by means of rewriting.

This rhetorical conception of how we get others to read and sympathize and relate to our ideas–by effectively amalgamating those ideas with others, particularly other ideas and texts already established–can be aligned with pathos. This is our focal point for the second writing project. And it is also, it seems to me, a focal point in Shelley’s novel. Shelley, as we know from the title page, is engaged in forwarding and rewriting other established texts and ideas about creation. To that extent, I would argue that her novel presents an argument: it seeks, in its forwarding of various texts and amalgamation of a story out of those texts, to persuade us, to have us listen and read closely, carefully. What is her argument? I will ask the question now, and return to it once we have finished reading.

On the way to getting there, we can do some close reading, or as I prefer, slow reading, to give more attention–as I think Shelley is asking us to do–to the complications inherent to the project of rewriting an argument/narrative from her materials. (You can return to her “Introduction” for more on how she views her novel as an invention that rewrites). Here is a passage where slow reading, it seems to me, is necessary for readers. What makes it necessary is the fact that Victor, our creator and “author,” presents his creation and invention in rather rhetorical terms that we might recognize from our discussions of effective writing. [This passage comes from chapter 6 of our edition; there is no difference between the 1818 and 1831 editions in the case of this paragraph; forwarded from the Electronic Frankenstein.]

When I found so astonishing a power placed within my hands, I hesitated a long time concerning the manner in which I should employ it. Although I possessed the capacity of bestowing animation, yet to prepare a frame for the reception of it, with all its intricacies of fibres, muscles, and veins, still remained a work of inconceivable difficulty and labour. I doubted at first whether I should attempt the creation of a being like myself or one of simpler organization; but my imagination was too much exalted by my first success to permit me to doubt of my ability to give life to an animal as complex and wonderful as man. The materials at present within my command hardly appeared adequate to so arduous an undertaking; but I doubted not that I should ultimately succeed. I prepared myself for a multitude of reverses; my operations might be incessantly baffled, and at last my work be imperfect: yet, when I considered the improvement which every day takes place in science and mechanics, I was encouraged to hope my present attempts would at least lay the foundations of future success. Nor could I consider the magnitude and complexity of my plan as any argument of its impracticability. It was with these feelings that I began the creation of a human being. As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature; that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large. After having formed this determination, and having spent some months in successfully collecting and arranging my materials, I began.

As I slowly read–which for me includes rereading this passage more than once, returning to it–I notice this time the language of argument. Victor is making an argument for his creation; what’s more, he is thinking about his creation as a kind of argument, as something to be received by an audience, a way to publish the discoveries of his research to the world. Victor begins to consider carefully the argument that he should think through the implications of this discovery, a discovery that proposes to rethink creation. Victor thinks about the complexity and clarity and coherence of what he has in mind, and its importance to his intentions, to how his invention (i.e., his argument) would be received by his readers, his audience: the practicality of his “argument” and the proportionality of the creation, making it something that people could understand. He even considers what I read as a counterargument: “I prepared myself for a multitude of reverses.” And then, inexplicably, Victor, to this point a good, slow reader of his work, taking care to focus on the rhetorical effects of his argument and consider its implications–inexplicably, Victor gives it up in an insight and works against these “intentions,” doing so in the name of “speed.” Slow reading and careful, rhetorical thinking are tossed aside for creating something faster and bigger.

Why, suddenly, the need for speed? And why should this negatively affect his judgment, his interpretation, his argument?

My own rewriting of Shelley’s novel, the way I want to read it, sees in Victor’s quick decision to opt for speed over clarity and complexity a cautionary tale that resonates to this day. I recognize this resonance in the fast company of technological invention, where we seem to have little time to think through what “multitude of reverses” might follow. And I think of its potential in any argument we might make, or not make, in response.

Victor, on my reading, is a writer and rhetorician. And he is, alas, not a terribly effective one. What does that make his creation, his creature?