Table of Contents

Writing Workflows / 3: Cooking Ideas

Pre-peer review draft. Publication pending.

Chapter 3: Cooking Ideas

"Yeah, I'm a nerd, so I'm always looking for something more effective." —David Sparks

Writing with Computers

In his remarks at a Computers & Writing Town Hall session in 2001, Barry Maid articulates a fairly settled tension in writing instruction that we seek to reopen in this chapter, and in the book overall: "My job, first and foremost, has always been to teach writing—not computers or software" (n.p.). While Maid goes on to articulate a nuanced and useful argument about how writers can best relate to new writing technologies, we can imagine others who might voice this claim as suggesting that technologies are trivial or extraneous to the "real" concerns of writers. More than simply a pedagogical maxim, such a position sees writing as an idealized set of activities (invention, composing, engagement with readers) that transcend the medium through which they occur. From this perspective, we don't need to teach software or computers because those objects don't actually figure importantly into the activity of writing.

Maid, on the other hand, presents this claim in the context of teaching technical communication and feeling pressured to teach "the industry standard tool" by the many stakeholders involved. Teaching students to become experts in the advanced features of these standard tools (e.g., Word or RoboHelp) ultimately seems like folly to Maid because of the likelihood that students' expertise in the various advanced features of these programs "would be outmoded in three months" (n.p.) after new versions of the software were inevitably released. Rather than focusing on the "standard" software of any given year, Maid describes classroom activities where students experiment with new kinds of software towards the goal of learning "how to 'figure out' a piece of software" (n.p.). Maid boils down his goals for students with respect to writing technologies to:

Students need to have enough information about the task and the potential tools to choose the tool right for the task. Then, they need to have enough information to figure out how to make the tool do what they need it to do. I accomplish this by talking with my students about what tasks different kinds of software do best. (n.p.)

While Maid was able to frame this more nuanced set of goals as synonymous with the claim that his "foremost" job was to "teach writing—not computers or software" (n.p.), we see little evidence in contemporary Composition scholarship or practice that others agree. As described in chapter 1, few teachers or students in Composition are deliberately "choosing" writing software (beyond perhaps multimedia authoring tools) at all, instead defaulting to Word or Google Docs. What are they missing out on? What might expertise in knowing "what tasks different kinds of software do best" look like in practice?

This chapter opens our examination of writing workflows with a case study of a writer who demonstrates that expertise. He works by day as a lawyer and has a significant side gig as a blogger and podcaster focused on software and hardware in the Apple ecosystem. Through this case study, we investigate the ways writing is mediated by tools and demonstrate how experimenting with and adopting various software tools and practices can still be understood as maintaining a focus on writing. The constraints Maid described nearly 20 years ago persist today: there are many software applications, advanced features, and workflows that knit them all together, yet writers (students or not) are better off aiming to "produce good writing" more than "becoming experts in a piece of software that would be outmoded in three months" (n.p.). Through this case study, we suggest a path around these constraints. We argue here that experiments with various software tools and practices can be done in the service of composing practices and goals when writers deliberately alternate their focus between experimenting and composing, through focusing on writing workflows.

We argue in this chapter that one key benefit of attending to writing workflows is that writers can explore different mind states supported by the mediating influence of tools and practices, yet resist the seduction of learning tools for their own sake (e.g., to use Maid's example, learning RoboHelp's features on their own terms rather than learning to use RoboHelp in the service of clear writing objectives). A workflow is crafted around an end the writer has developed that is separate from the UI or UX of any individual app.1 By always aiming toward their writing objectives, rather than toward the objective of simply learning X or Y application, writers who attend to their workflows can navigate between the rock and the hard place of learning tools on the tool's own terms and remaining attached to a single application (e.g., Microsoft Word) while ignoring the affordances of other tools.

Sparks' Workflow

David Sparks is an attorney and self-professed geek who has been blogging since 2007 and podcasting since 2009. He is also the author of technical guides on using Macs and iPads as well as many self-published guides on technical topics such as email, presentations, and going paperless. In these guides, his blog MacSparky, and on the podcast he co-hosts, Mac Power Users, Sparks frequently talks about tools and practices for writing.

Mac Power Users podcast homepage
The Mac Power Users podcast began in 2009 and consists of discussion between the two hosts (David Sparks and Katie Floyd) on Apple-related technology topics, as well as "workflow" interviews with guests.

One of the central techniques Sparks discusses is what he calls "cooking ideas." In our interview with Sparks, he jumped right into describing this practice when we asked him to walk us through a recent writing project. On "bigger projects [...] I start mindmapping them or outlining them first before I actually get to the text part". This process starts "weeks in advance where I will open an outline or a mindmap and then I will go spend little spurts of time in there over the next couple weeks, even though I know I'm not gonna start writing for two weeks, the map will begin quite early." This planning process is the "cooking" part:

It's just been my belief that my subconscious mind does a better job of kind of sorting out how I want to put it all together. And so with a limited amount of active time on it every day, but probably the thing kind of percolating in the back of my head all day, I usually come up with a pretty thorough outline by the time I'm going to start writing the text. And once I get to that point I export the mindmap or the outline just as simple text into a text file.

I'm very systematic about it. Like right now at any one point in this MindNode [mindmapping] application I've got seven or eight different things cooking in there. I've got my day job, I'm a lawyer, I've got a big motion I'm going to be writing that's due on April 3rd. And so a few days ago I opened up a mindmap on it and I've got some concepts in there already and it'll start growing. And, you know, about a week and a half from now, I'll have a nice full kind of mindmap of it, and then I can start dropping it into text and then I can start, you know, putting words in there.

Screenshot of MindNode mindmap
David Sparks shared this screenshot of MindNode in a 2013 blog post reviewing a new version of MindNode.

After mindmapping, Sparks describes converting the resulting mindmap to an outline and then opening the outline in a writing application like Ulysses or Scrivener. Rather than displaying text in a file as part of a single, scrolling document (as with Microsoft Word or Google Docs), these applications display an outline in a sidebar. The outline, however, is more than a visual representation of document headings; instead, each outline entry is a discrete unit—called a “sheet” (in Ulysses) or a “section” (in Scrivener). Sheets and sections can be rearranged, merged, or separated during the writing process, and the user can click on a sheet or section to focus on that particular part of the text. With Scrivener, users can split the screen into two window panes, displaying different sections of the outline/text at the same time.

Screenshot of Scrivener interface
The interface of the writing application Scrivener, showing the section outline on the left and multiple writing panes on the right.

At this stage of his writing process (and Sparks explicitly describes it in stages, where he never goes back to mindmapping or outlining after he begins writing the text itself), Sparks offers a straightforward description of his writing activity: "And then I just start, you know, putting meat on the bones, for lack of a better word [...] my only job at that point is the words."

Sparks asserts that this straightforward composing process is enabled by the lengthy mindmapping planning phase:

And frankly the way I do things, because I spend so much time outlining and planning, I don't find myself hitting writer's block. I mean, maybe it's because I don't write fiction, maybe that's a different thing, but I just don't—to me, it's like I'm kind of a lunchpail writer, it's like, "ok, I'm going to sit down and I'm going to write this article for Macworld or write this legal brief or whatever" and I just start doing it. But I have put in a lot of thought ahead of time for anything of consequence as to how it's going to be structured and even sometimes I'll have even analogies and things I want to include are part of that mindmap.

This workflow involves many digital tools, but Sparks notes that he has been doing some version of it for years:

You know it just kind of developed organically over the years. Even before I was using the text file stuff, I was doing the planning stuff since I was a kid. I've always realized that I'm not one of those guys that's smart enough to sit down and start, you know, pooping out a bunch of words. I gotta really think about it. So that one has been around for a long time. In terms of the tech stuff, probably I would say I've probably been doing that now about seven/eight years.

While it may be possible to dismiss this example as describing a pre-writing practice common to many writers using a variety of specific tools and implementation details, we argue in this chapter that our field could learn much more about these practices and the tools that are used. We see Sparks' practices, his tool selection, and his adoption of tool features and constraints as useful in pointing to the benefits of thinking about workflows directly and constructing them deliberately.

This video demonstrates David Sparks' Cooking Ideas workflow.

Tool Selection

The literate activity around incubation and composing described in the previous section illustrates the modular aspect of workflows that we introduced in Chapter 1. First, we can consider the "cooking ideas" workflow, or the whole umbrella process of storing and manipulating ideas in mindmaps, exporting to outlines, and composing in chunks/sections. This workflow contains several modular pieces that can be swapped out without generally changing the overarching workflow; namely, different mindmapping or composing applications can be used. Other aspects of the workflow are crucial. The Markdown writing syntax, for example, facilitates the transfer of structured and styled text from one app to another (a process that is often mangled by conventional word processors and other applications that use "rich" instead of "plain" text). Sparks' writing practices are crucial as well, because if he writes less detailed outlines, he will be unable to compose as straightforwardly, without writers' block. And as described in a subsequent section, if he cannot easily capture ideas at any time and insert them into his mindmap (using the affordances of a mindmapping app on his phone), he is less able to write detailed outlines.

One way to imagine the workflow is as two black boxes connected together in a series. The first black box takes ideas as input and outputs a structured, detailed outline formatted in Markdown. The second black box takes that outline as input and outputs a composed text. Either black box can change internally (in terms of tools or practices) without affecting the writing activity of the overall workflow, provided that it still produces the expected output.

Diagram of Sparks' black box workflow
Sparks' "cooking ideas" workflow depicted as two black boxes in a series.

One larger point about this modularity is that it allows Sparks to continue experimenting with a subset of tools that fit the blackbox requirements without losing his focus on writing. Because of Markdown's increased popularity over the years, many different applications produce and import Markdown-formatted text (as opposed to various proprietary rich text formats). Without such a well-defined workflow, changes in tools and practices could lead to larger disruptions at various points in the process. And yet even with these black boxes, experiments with alternate tools and the practices they afford can lead to significant changes in Sparks' writing activity because inside each black box, very different things might be happening. In other words, the modular workflow isn't so circumscribed that switching out components makes no difference at all. So how do we track what changes and how throughout these experiments?

One of the aspects about Sparks that stood out to us in our review of his blog posts and podcast episodes before we began this project was his willingness to experiment with a wide variety of applications and workflows for accomplishing his writing and other work. When we talked to him, he had just begun using an application called Ulysses (which fit into the "composing" black box in the workflow diagram above), in part because its iPad counterpart to its Mac app had just been released, allowing him to easily sync text between Mac and iPad. He had preferred to use Scrivener on the Mac for many years for large writing projects, but that app did not at that time have an iPad version (it does now), so Sparks was looking to experiment with Ulysses and the iPad. As he noted:

For the longest time, for me, if it was like a book-length or research-heavy it was Scrivener, and if it was short it was Byword, and now Ulysses has turned my world upside-down, so I'm not sure exactly how it's all gonna sort out. I'm currently writing my next book in Ulysses, and I'm gonna see how that goes.

Screenshot of Ulysses
The Ulysses interface, showing the three panes containing the outline, the available sheets, and the text of a particular sheet.

His interest in different tools and willingness to shift platforms (from the Mac to the iPad) and explore what new practices may be available as a result of such a shift (e.g., more mobility, more flexibility of work locations) makes Sparks something of an outlier as a writer. He is productive, and thus not crashing into the rocks of learning new tools for their own sake (e.g., the problem Maid seeks to avoid by not using advanced word processor features that change from version to version). Nor is he sticking with the same comfortable tools forever (e.g., supporting a decades-old obsolete computer like author George R. R. Martin). In other words, Sparks seems to be willing to experiment with tools and develop writing workflows after seeing what affordances became available.

What we find so provocative about Sparks' case is that it suggests there is a quality of invention involved in experimenting with applications. It's not always possible to know what practices or mindsets or workflows will be afforded by an application prior to using it. Lists of features can be helpful, but actually using them brings along an embodied knowledge that can't always be anticipated. Music producer Brian Eno discussed the value of making time for this kind of experimentation in addition to more conventional production mindsets in a 2011 interview on the radio show Sound Opinions:

Now anyone who's been in a studio in the last ten years knows that there are, in fact anyone who's just looked into a music program in a computer, like Logic or Reason or anything like that knows that there are thousands of thousands of millions of things you could do, so if you want to wander into a studio completely open-minded and just sort of do whatever comes up first, you're probably going to waste a lot of time, there are too many options to explore that way I think. I mean what I do in the evenings late at night when I know the phone isn't going to ring, is exactly that. I sit around and I just try the tools that I've got and see where I go with them. And quite often I'll spend the whole evening and nothing of any lasting musical importance comes out of it, I'm just really learning about my tools and practicing my familiarity with them. (DeRogatis & Kot, 2011)

Without this kind of learning and practice with new tools or features, it can be difficult if not impossible to just select the tool that best aligns with one's task. Maid's goals for students (including to "choose the tool right for the task") were delivered in 2001 and perhaps formulated much earlier when there were fewer software choices and fewer features within them. At the time of this writing, there are so many different applications and online services aimed at, for example, collaborating on documents, that choosing the right tool means understanding a variety of competing feature sets and the different practices these tools were designed to support, the practices they can be modified to support, and the expectations that the participants involved bring to the collaborative activity. Playing around with these tools as Eno describes provides opportunities to learn more about what the tool can be made to do as well as what one's expectations are for what might be useful for a variety of tasks.

Scholars invested in using computer technologies in writing classrooms have written a good deal about the value of exploring these tools. Typically, these discussions have offered an important critical viewpoint on the exuberant marketing copy and enthusiasm of early adopters. Dickie Selfe (2003), writing a few years after Maid's comments, advised scholars: "Don't simply engage in a technology exploration because you have heard of or seen interesting things happen in other teachers' classes unless you and the students enter that digital space together, explicitly as explorers" (p. 22). Writing nearly ten years later, Alexander et al. (2012) noted that they drew from Selfe's advice as they developed their teaching with technology statements, working to avoid falling "into the traps perpetuated by advertisements and often by the lore of early adopters, which tell a tale of smooth transition, seamless integration, and emphasize the 'newness' of a particular tool" (p. 30).

These criticisms of such tall tales of the ease with which new technologies can be adopted are useful and important. But these dangers should not prevent scholars from making the time for low-stakes experiments. Such experiments are frequently on display in contemporary accounts of teaching multimodal composition, yet we see less experimentation with tools for writing primarily alphabetic texts. The technologies Sparks and our other participants work with may be familiar to some in our field, but rarely, if ever, appear in our research. We suggest in this chapter, and the book overall, that workflow thinking offers a way of recognizing the value of these experiments for understanding writing processes and innovating within them.

Of course, one might argue that Sparks' writing workflow, and thus our frame for interpreting it, merely adds a high tech gleam to the activities writers in our research have engaged in for decades. They work with invention activities, incubation practices, composing rituals. Sparks' fixation on tools, one might suggest, is nothing more than a distraction from writing itself. And certainly, as Sparks suggested in our interview (discussed in a subsequent section) and as another participant explained, exploring new applications can become a form of procrastination. However, when we examine the roles tools play in activity, and in writing in particular, we see that invention, incubation, and composing are shaped through and through by the material tools and technologies that enable them. While we think the tools Sparks uses are interesting because they are writing technologies not examined in our scholarship, ultimately we are not making an argument about their particular value or that Sparks' use of them merits imitation. What we want to argue is that what merits imitation is Sparks' careful attention to the ways his tools shape his mindset and allow him to work in ways that make sense for him, and his willingness to experiment to explore what is possible. To build a framework for understanding Sparks' activity as "workflow thinking," we turn now to mediated action theory.

Mediational Means

When Maid talks about helping students find the right tool for the task, he echoes a common frame for understanding tool selection. However, such advice becomes more ambiguous when one attempts to define the criteria for determining what makes a tool "right." Should aesthetic qualities of the interface count? What about the number of steps it takes to accomplish the task? The number of devices on which the software can be used (e.g., laptop, phone, tablet)? In some teaching situations, we can artificially determine the task in such a way that the "right" tool becomes clear—the one that meets our teaching goals. But writers like Sparks and others in this affinity space have a variety of goals they are trying to meet. There is the obvious overarching goal of finishing writing projects. But there are many other goals as well.

For example, in our interview Sparks described several goals associated with his cooking ideas workflow. First, he described the importance of syncing text across Macs, iPhone, and iPad: "I want to put it in something that makes it very flexible for me to move the text back and forth." Next, he described a brainstorming/incubation goal: recording ideas in a mindmap over several weeks. He then described a goal related to improvement: "I'm a nerd, so I'm always looking for something more effective." Later he described a goal for the mindmapping process: "quick capture" of fleeting ideas into a mindmap while on the go (e.g., while "eating a taco"). Once he's moved on from mindmapping to composing the text itself, he wants tools that "get out of the way [...] I just want the words to show up." More broadly, Sparks suggested that a goal is to continue experimenting and tinkering with apps and workflows in order to write about it for his MacSparky business: "And frankly, I write about this stuff, so, you know, I am at the sharp end of the stick on some of this stuff, admittedly."

Trying to find the right tool for the task becomes more complicated when we recognize there are varying goals the "right tool" must address. The concept of mediational means offers a useful frame for understanding how Sparks' (and all writers') broader goals shape tool selection and use, and are subsequently shaped by the tools and their use over time. Jody Shipka (2011) argues that James Wertsch's framework of mediated action is well-suited for "tracing the situated and highly distributed processes by which texts are created, circulated, and consumed" (p. 44). Drawing from the work of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky and others, Werstch (1998) examines "mediated action" in order to avoid becoming "too narrowly focused on the agent in isolation" by "recogniz[ing] the role played by 'mediational means' or 'cultural tools' in human action" (p. 17). When we focus too narrowly on Sparks' broad goals as a writer to the extent that we ignore his tools, seeing them as interchangeable or superfluous to the "real" task of writing, we are likely to miss the ways these tools inherently situate the activity "culturally, institutionally, and historically" (p. 24).

Wertsch's discussion of mediated action clarifies much of the above discussion about goals and tools. He argues that "mediated action typically serves multiple purposes" and that these purposes "are often in conflict" and therefore "in most cases mediated action cannot be adequately interpreted if we assume it is organized around a single, neatly identifiable goal" (p. 32). As in the case of Sparks' writing processes, Wertsch notes that people may have immediate goals (his example is of an Olympian attempting to clear a pole in a pole vaulting competition), but also broader goals (such as "impressing a particular audience" or "irrational hatred of an opponent" [p. 33]). Furthermore, goals may not even be solely associated with the individual and their thinking processes. Wertsch suggests:

For example, if we ask whether pole vaulting should be considered an Olympic sport or why competition and pride in individual accomplishment operate so powerfully in this context, we are dealing with goals whose circumferences extend beyond those concerned with individual efforts to get over a cross bar, and we are touching on issues that cannot be reduced to mental processes in the individual. (p. 33)

Similarly, issues of productivity, efficiency, and quality are at play in Sparks' workflow that extend beyond his own individual thoughts and intentions. Why does he want to be able to brainstorm ideas over several weeks while eating a taco or in other small moments? Because this work, he believes, makes his composing more efficient and more thoughtful later on. He may internalize and appropriate these goals to some extent, but goals related to productivity and efficiency are also operating (and probably originating) outside of his individual cognition.

In some contexts, these goals may seem in tension, or even in conflict. Perhaps the most useful tool has an unappealing interface, or comes with tradeoffs (e.g., it provides useful textual organization tools but doesn't have an iPad version). Wertsch explains that mediational means, as cultural tools, have goals "built into" them and that these goals may conflict with the "goals of the agent" (p. 33). In Bruno Latour's (1999) terms, we can identify this process as "translation" and note the drift between one's original goal (use a variety of devices to write in multiple contexts and environments) and one's final goal (write with one application on multiple devices, but revise with another application only on the desktop computer), seeing how it was initiated by the addition of a new tool (the software) with its own (embedded) goals (pp. 88–89). In this way, a writer's goal of seamlessly switching between many devices may encounter a short detour, as she realizes that a new tool offers new possibilities but brings new requirements, which may require new practices and workflows (e.g., brainstorming, outlining, drafting, and revising in separate applications limited to particular devices).

Latour's diagram illustrating translation
Latour (1999, p. 179) illustrates translation by showing how, for example, a person's initial goal is thwarted in some fashion. This person takes up a tool, which has its own goal that the person must negotiate. Together, the person and tool arrive at a third goal that is somewhat different from each original goal.

As Latour's concept of "translation" suggests, mediational means can push and pull people as they try to accomplish their goals. Drawing from Wertsch, Jody Shipka (2011) explains that "an action is simultaneously enabled and constrained by the mediational means or cultural tools employed" (p. 46). For example, a writer may rearrange printed paragraphs on a table (cf. Roozen & Erickson, 2017) to gain a global view of the text, yet when working this way the ability to edit is constrained (in contrast with rearranging with a word processor). Where Latour speaks of "detours" and "translation," Ron Scollon (2001) highlight's Wertsch's characterization of mediational means as "partial," suggesting that a "mediational means never fits the action exactly. Only some of the characteristics may be called upon in any specific action" (p. 121). During the paragraph arrangement exercise, the paper's flammable affordances aren't desired or used, for example. Scollon continues: "a mediational means affords some actions but this lack of exact fit to concrete actions means the mediational means also limits and focuses that action. Thus the mediational means is transformative of actions that are taken, by both doing and saying more and less than is intended by the users" (p. 121). This aspect of "saying more" than a person might want could be illustrated by a new possibility afforded by the paper paragraphs: simply crumpling up the paper in a fit of frustration. This aspect of mediational means seems particularly at the forefront with software tools, where so many features are often available that users can become overwhelmed with the possibilities beyond what they may have intended for any particular action.

Given this, Jody Shipka suggests "it may prove helpful to think about the various ways individuals work with, as well as against, the agency of mediational means" (p. 46). In most of the examples provided so far from Sparks' experience, he is primarily empowered by the mediational means involved in his writing activities. However, he did describe how word processors got in his way and worked against what he was trying to do:

Well I mean before I was doing the usual drill in Microsoft Word, or whatever the word processor of the day was, MacWrite at one point, and, you know, different word processors, where I would sit down and just start writing it there, which just never was right for me, because I would get distracted by all the bells and whistles. And frankly those word processors aren't really a very good place to focus on your words. They're page layout tools. That's the thing. People don't realize it, but word processors really—they're not about words, they're about page layout.

You look at Microsoft Word, it's like getting in the cockpit of an F16. It's like, I just want to write a letter and there's 17 switches and 200 buttons and font choices and I just want to write a letter. It completely gets in the way of what you're there to do.

Screenshot of Microsoft Word
Microsoft Word's Mac interface, showing the switches and buttons in the top row.

It is, in part, this experience of working against the agency of Microsoft Word and its complications that led Sparks to consider alternative applications and the writing workflows they afford.

Wertsch, and others focused on mediated action, emphasize how mediational means are used in the immediate moment to accomplish a task and also shaped by a history of prior uses of similar and different mediational means for a variety of tasks in many different situations. Sparks' "cooking ideas" workflow is mediated in the moment by particular mindmapping applications and the devices he uses, and also mediated by his rich history of writing, incubation, and invention using many different mediational means. His use of writing applications that provide a global view of structure (e.g., Scrivener) and more minimal interfaces (e.g., Byword and Ulysses) are shaped by his past use and rejection of Microsoft Word for composing.

Furthermore, mediational means bring with them a history prior to their use and appropriation by any particular person. In other words, it's not just Sparks' own previous use of Word, Scrivener, and Byword shaping his current writing activity, but also the histories of those mediational means in the world at large. Scollon (2001) explains:

A mediational means is simultaneously linked to a history in the world as an economic, political, social, and cultural entity—coffee is part of a world-wide political economy—and to a history for each person who has appropriated it. This might be my first cup of coffee or it might be something I have daily at this time. Because mediational means embed a history both in society and in the habitus of a person, mediational means inevitably embed the power and authority structures of society. (p. 120)

It seems likely that it is not only the buttons themselves on Microsoft Word's interface that Sparks and others interested in the category of applications now called "distraction-free writing environments" (cf. Van Ittersum & Ching, 2013) find so distracting. It is the formatting features they afford, which bring along writing processes aimed at a finished product, at drafting and polishing simultaneously. Furthermore, the application itself is freighted with its associations with corporations, standardized review procedures, and enterprise software development. These associations stand in stark contrast with the independent (and often solo) developers of most distraction-free apps, and their much smaller user bases.

These scholars show the wide-ranging ways that mediational means shape people's activity in mediated action, such that their mental habits develop around them, and if the activity is performed routinely, even their bodies change in response to how the tools are used (sometimes leading to injury [Owens & Van Ittersum, 2013]). Because a person's performance relies so heavily on their use of mediational means, developing more expertise in any given activity is closely tied to their development of skill with particular tools. When learning a new activity, much of the process involves gaining skill with the mediational means (be they mental or physical). For example, a student learning to write recommendation reports is largely gaining skill with the genre as a mediational means. However, improving skills with a particular mediational means may not always yield the best results. Wertsch (1998) explains:

a change in cultural tools may often be a more powerful force of development than the enhancement of individuals' skills. The irreducible tension between cultural tool and agent that defines mediated action means that, when considering how to enhance or change a course of development, the key may often be to change the cultural tool rather than the skills for using that tool. (p. 38)

It could be, perhaps, that the student has been developing skill with the "research paper" genre learned in school, and trying to fit that into the requirements of the task, when using the new genre of "recommendation report" would produce a better outcome more quickly.

When applied to writing technologies, this assertion could quickly lead to superficial solutions, like replacing Microsoft Word with Google Docs and expecting leaps in student writing quality. To avoid such simplistic approaches, we need to understand what, exactly, a mediational means consists of as separate from any particular object that may be employed as a mediational means.

Scollon argues that "in general, mediational means predate the user" (p. 116), in that people don't create a cultural tool out of nothing, but that they appropriate one with a history of previous use by others within situated contexts. Scollon then differentiates between "appropriation" and "use", where appropriation is "development of a mediational means over time within the habitus as an aspect of practice" (p. 116) whereas "use" "calls upon the unique, irreversible, and concrete object as used in real-time action" (p. 116). The distinction between "appropriation" and "use" is mirrored by a distinction between "mediational means and object, the first of these referring ultimately to a class of objects and the disposition for their use within the habitus, and the second referring to the concrete objects with which a specific act is performed" (p. 116). The difference between mediational means and object is a crucial one for our understanding of writing workflows. This difference has two main consequences that Scollon describes:

In the first place virtually any mediational means may be used for a wide variety of functions outside of their inherent or normative use. In the second place other objects with those same functions may be substituted within any particular action as that mediational means. The result is the fundamental multifunctionality and polysemy of any mediational means which can be instantiated with a rather wide range of material objects in any particular instance of social action. (p. 128)

An example of the first point is that an ink pen can be used for "normative use", such as to write an essay or a grocery list or draw a picture. But it could also be used as a sharp weapon. Or several pens could be stacked together to create a model of a cabin. This point is linked to the characteristic of mediational means as "partial," the way that they exceed any particular use to which they may be put.

An example of the second point is that one may swap a pencil for the pen and engage in the same form of mediated action while writing a grocery list. The mediational means for that social practice has remained the same (writing instrument) while the particular object has been swapped (pen/pencil). For other practices, though, such a swap may not be so seamless. Using a pen or pencil in drawing a doodle is likely no big change, but in sketching a portrait using shading and other techniques, the affordances of a pencil vs. a pen lead to quite different drawing techniques. Further, if one were to swap a tablet stylus and tablet for pen and paper the activity may start out similarly, with shading techniques following a similar path, but diverge as affordances of the tablet and software lead to drawing with layers, manipulating shapes computationally, etc. Switching from pen to tablet and stylus illustrates Wertsch's claim that new mediational means create "a kind of imbalance in the systemic organization of mediated action, an imbalance that sets off changes in other elements such as the agent and changes in mediated action in general. Indeed, in some cases an entirely new form of mediated action appears" (p. 43).

So we have two interesting lines through which development takes place: introducing new mediational means and appropriating the same mediational means over time. As Scollon explains, repeated use of particular objects as mediational means over time leads to more complex appropriation of that mediational means. "Each use elaborates and complicates the structure of the mediational means and the habitus and therefore each use opens up the potential for more complex uses of objects as that mediational means" (p. 135). We can swap the tablet stylus for the pen, but we can also use the stylus many times over a week and learn to do more with it. This choice is precisely what workflow thinking is all about. Being reflective about development and the possible paths one may take by swapping tools and learning more of the affordances of familiar tools.

Workflow Thinking

With this understanding that various objects can be deployed as mediational means, we can begin looking at Sparks' workflow in terms of what mediational means he is employing and what objects function in those roles. We can see how he appropriates tools as mediational means and how different applications and devices can be used, but also how these applications begin to function as different mediational means, shifting to new forms of mediated action and introducing new goals. In this way, we can see that maintaining some reflection on this process can be valuable, as it allows writers to stay open to new possibilities for activity but also accomplish the broader goals they have in mind. In breaking down his writing processes into separate components, Sparks is able to clarify what goals matter most for each and find ways to connect his various chosen tools together. Further, as this section will explain, attending to workflows can help shape mental states via mediational means such that productive writing zones can be achieved.

Shaping mind

As seen above, Sparks works with multiple goals as he engages with his "cooking ideas" workflow. He is drafting a mindmap to serve as an outline, he wants "quick capture" of ideas, and he may sometimes want to experiment with a new application or an updated application in order to write or speak about it as MacSparky. He achieves these goals via his use of mediational means that he appropriates over time. These mediational means function as classes of objects, not specific objects. This indicates that the mediational means Sparks appropriates could be identified as "iOS mindmapping app," and that different particular applications (e.g., MindNode or iThoughtsHD) could be used. Or, as described above, he might experiment with a new drafting app, swapping Ulysses for Scrivener. If substituted apps can meet the same features that have been appropriated as mediational means, then these alternate objects can function as those mediational means in Sparks' workflow. In terms of mindmapping, as long as the application allows for quick capture and will export to the OPML file format or as a Markdown-formatted outline, Sparks can use it similarly. In this way, different applications can be used to achieve similar goals.

If different objects can function as the same mediational means, it may be tempting to conclude that particular applications do not matter much and that they can be judged merely based on their feature set. We see this conclusion as flawed for several reasons: First, because software rarely offers the exact same features and affordances and as these objects are appropriated over time, they may develop into new mediational means or lead to new kinds of mediated activity (as described in the previous section). Second, judgements about software features rarely cover aspects that relate to how the app "feels" to use it, how it supports one's desired mental states for working.

Wertsch and Prior both address these affective evaluations of tools in their discussions of mediated activity. Wertsch (1998) described an Olympic pole vaulter who disliked using fiberglass poles because the spring of these poles was too much like a "circus trick" to him and made him feel "ridiculous" (p. 44). Prior (1998) discusses people's dispositions toward tools:

Central to appropriation is a person’s affective and evaluative orientation to a tool: Tools may be encountered, partially appropriated, and then rejected. In other words, people develop varied dispositions toward and senses of ownership over the psychological tools they encounter and (to some degree) appropriate. (p. 181)

Running throughout MacSparky.com, the Mac Power Users, and many other blogs and podcasts by other people in this affinity space, are accounts of individual's aesthetic and affective responses to software2. These accounts often focus on the interface, such as whether it is "ugly as sin" or "attractive" with "great typography and color choices". They also frequently use figurative language related to comfort and ease, such as referring to using an app by saying it "feels like slipping under a warm blanket on a cold night".

Basing evaluations of software interface design and function on affective responses may seem like a luxury or privilege, as many writers must simply use what is required by their employer or what is provided for free by the operating system. For writers in technical and specialized jobs who must use custom software, their choices are limited. However, even in these cases writers' appropriation of their tools is shaped by their dispositions toward it, whether they experience frequent annoyance from unintuitive navigation of text fields or appreciate the lack of clutter on the screen. As for cost, every writing application in this space is priced for individuals and is orders of magnitude less costly than the annual subscription to Microsoft Office, and many have student and/or educational discounts. Writers who cannot buy software are left out of some of these deliberations between artisanal interfaces, yet again, the more general point about the role of affective responses to software in appropriation remains relevant.

These affective responses to software matter because writers use writing software to direct their activity, therefore their dispositions toward how that activity plays out shapes their motives, their evaluations of it, their performance itself. Prior and Shipka (2003) describe writers as engaging in "environment-selecting and -structuring practices (ESSP’s), the intentional deployment of external aids and actors to shape, stabilize, and direct consciousness in service of the task at hand" (p. 219). Thinking through Sparks' "cooking ideas" workflow via ESSPs can provide a concrete example of what is at stake with this perspective. First, in attending to the agency of actors, as discussed in the previous section, the mediational means Sparks uses for this workflow push and pull him toward various ends and ways of working. Scrivener or Ulysses, in presenting the full project as a hierarchically-organized set of text chunks, encourage Sparks to consider the global structure of the text and make it simple to re-arrange sections, thus perhaps subtly persuading him to do so.

Second, looking at ESSPs as supporting "the production of environments" (p. 228), we include digital environments along with physical ones, and in Sparks' case and others who are working with mobile computing technologies, these overlap in important ways (cf. Pigg, 2014). Returning to the "quick capture" aspect, Sparks wants to be able to record ideas when he is in any physical environment, even one that makes writing challenging, such as when "eating a taco." In this case, the digital environment for mindmapping must by synced accurately with the latest version of the mindmap that may have been edited previously on a computer or iPad and now will be added to via his iPhone. Its interface must quickly and efficiently support adding a new bit of text or "branch" to the map. For large maps, it must also support easy panning, zooming, and navigation, doubly so on iPhone screens as opposed to tablets or computer monitors.

Third, we turn to the ways ESSPs support writers in their efforts to "shape, stabilize, and direct consciousness in service of the task at hand" (p. 219). One way to illustrate this aspect is through Sparks' composing practices, which came as a surprise to us. We had known Sparks prior to our interview as an advocate for applications with "distraction-free" interfaces (e.g., Byword), but it turns out we had not entirely predicted how he related to those interfaces.

Screenshot of Byword
Byword's minimal interface.

One aspect of "distraction-free interfaces" is the simple graphical interface, which does away with the palettes or ribbons of interface buttons common on Microsoft Word or Google Docs. Further, such interfaces display text with minimal formatting, allowing for only one font and font size and color. But for Sparks, "distraction-free" also has come to mean an application that "is going to get out of the way." He refers to an iOS text editor called Editorial that offers essentially an integrated programming environment powered by the scripting language Python, an application that allows users to create or import what it calls "workflows." Sparks says the application is "massively nerdy."

You can create specific workflows inside the application, you can actually create mini programs to make the application do more than that, and there's a lot I like about it, but the fact is I don't use it that much, I use something like Byword or Ulysses where it really is just a place to write words. I mean I don't want to have to get in there and do more with the application. I just want the words to show up, and I want them to appear on my other devices when I get there. So I almost am looking for something sort of basic to do this with.

Screenshot of Editorial workflow
Editorial workflows consist of different steps (similar to the Mac app Automator). This screenshot comes from Federico Viticci's original review of the application, showing a workflow for transforming link formatting in a Markdown text.

Given Sparks' interest in automation and tinkering with tools that provide similar features as Editorial's "workflows" (Sparks often writes on his blog about Applescripts or Automator actions for Macs and he has produced a tutorial video for the iOS automation app called Workflow) it initially struck us as surprising that he didn't use Editorial more with a suite of custom workflows for his legal or technical writing. For Sparks, however, the kind of writing he does with the "cooking ideas" workflow does not involve this kind of automation, especially while drafting. There may be automations or scripts used during revision, proofreading, or production activities, but Sparks didn't mention these in our interview nor in blog posts or podcasts, leading us to presume that he doesn't see "cooking ideas" as extending there.

One explanation we could offer for Sparks' preference for writing applications with distraction-free interfaces and minimal features would be that Sparks sees different workflows and their activities as supported by different mental states. During our interview (and during his podcast discussion of "cooking ideas"), Sparks explains his preference for working as he does with the reason that this is how his "brain is wired."

The way my brain is wired, I'm not very good at just sitting down and starting a big writing project. It just never goes well. Instead I will start it weeks in advance where I will open an outline or a mindmap and then I will go spend little spurts of time in there over the next couple weeks, even though I know I'm not going to start writing for two weeks, the map will begin quite early. And it's just been my belief that my subconscious mind does a better job of kinda sorting out how I want to put it all together. And so with a limited amount of active time on it every day, but probably the thing kind of percolating in the back of my head all day, I usually come up with a pretty thorough outline by the time I'm gonna start writing the text. And once I get to that point I export the mindmap or the outline just as simple text into a text file. And then I just start, you know, putting meat on the bones, for lack of a better word. And I keep the thing in text, I don't think about what the typography is gonna be or what the headings are going to look like or any of that stuff until the very end. And I spend the vast amount of my time writing whatever it is I'm writing into that text. And it just makes it really easy for me, because I can edit it on my phone, my iPad, or my Mac. And the only thing, my only job at that point is the words. It's not any of the other layout stuff. And once again just because, you know, the way my brain is wired, that actually makes things a lot easier. So I go and I write the text. And sometimes I get it done very quickly, and sometimes it takes a long time. [laughs] You know, just like anybody else, I guess. And I write projects of varying length. I've written hundred thousand word books, and I've written thousand word articles and everything in between. So that obviously plays a role in it as well.(emphasis added)

While the sociocultural theory Prior & Shipka draw on might disagree with Sparks' characterization of his brain as stably "wired" in any particular way, his account exemplifies the aspect of "tuning consciousness" (p. 228) via ESSPs. As Prior & Shipka describe it, these ESSPs "regulate thought and affect [and] channel attention and action" (p. 228). Distraction-free software tools support the mental states Sparks understands as necessary or desired for drafting legal work or technical guides. We can even go further and suggest that ESSPs and consciousness shape each other through time as different events, mediational means, physical environments, tasks, and goals reshape activity. Rather than seeing consciousness as the stable agent guiding and directing activity toward the achievement of ends, we can see consciousness as produced through rich engagement with multiple and even competing goals; individual (or collaborative in other cases) selection, arrangement, and deployment of pre-fabricated mediational means; and lamination of roles and previous chronotopes such that no "workflow" is ever really fully separate. In other words, consciousness is not a stable thing that precedes any particular workflow, but instead is made and remade through ESSPs, through setting up and engaging in workflows that produce states of consciousness. Workflow thinking, therefore, deliberate attention to the ways tasks and tools can be fit together and reshape each other, is about understanding what states of consciousness are needed or desired and what workflows will reliably produce them. Neglecting this reflective work results in achieving desired states through chance or while being resisted by one's tools.

The Limits of Tools and Workflows

Sparks typically restricts his evaluation of the usefulness of the software to his own case, his own needs for his writing tasks. But sometimes on the podcast, and when we asked him directly, he will generalize and say that the writing software he uses will help people do better work.

Derek: What do you think these things—are there specific things you could point to that they improve people's—ways they improve people's writing?

David: Well, it improves your focus on your words. And there's only one thing that can do, is make it better. If you—and I guess I'm looking at it from a whole bunch of vantage points. I mean when you have a fluid organization like something like Ulysses or Scrivener gives you, it allows you to be constantly questioning the big picture about how the words should be organized or the sections should be organized. When you have a system that allows you to plan and organize your writing before you start writing the text I think it helps you make a better product. And frankly when you have a system that refuses to let you fiddle with fonts and headings when you're trying to write the words, the focus on the words is going to make the words better. ... I mean, it's just my opinion, honestly. I'm sure there's people who are much better writers than I that open up Microsoft Word and they make brilliant stuff, but I think if given everything else equal, if you get somebody on a system like this, I think that they can do a better job of writing some good text.

Through regulating thought and channeling attention (Prior & Shipka, 2003) the workflow and the tools used support the writer in doing better work. The cooking ideas workflows encourage engaging in invention activities that people may be inclined to put off or ignore out of expediency or procrastination. As is frequently said in this affinity space, "your mileage may vary," meaning that not everyone will find these workflows to lead to the same results. But Sparks, extrapolating from his experiences, sees significant value in being systematic about invention and concentration, and using particular tools to achieve this.

Yet, sometimes tools do get in the way of good writing, as many in our field worry. They can distract us (as distraction-free software suggests), they can require more time or attention that doesn't feed back into writing activity. As described above, Sparks doesn't use text editors that include automation and scripting features because he prefers minimal environments that focus his attention on generating text. As he suggests later in the interview,

So scripting is super useful for a lot of types of writing, like you know emails and repeated things like in legal cases [...] So I have a use for that, but for the real writing I do, whether it's an article I do for the website or a legal brief or a book or whatever, that automation stuff doesn't really do much good for me. It helps in the editorial process, sometimes I'll find I'm using a term incorrectly or I need to go through and search and replace and do some things like that, but I don't know that those tools are all that useful when you're really doing the hard business of writing. To me it's like the technology got so advanced that it was getting in the way of people making good stuff. (emphasis added)

Here Sparks makes an interesting distinction between “the hard business of writing” and other tasks connected to literate activity. The "hard business of writing" requires a certain mindset and therefore a certain workflow consisting of ESSPs that involve particular mediational means and physical environments and timescales. Editorial work requires another mindset (we might characterize it as careful efficiency) supported by a different workflow, one involving automated scripts that quickly catch common errors or change each term to another term without missing one (as one might do if searching and replacing manually).

Our participants in the study recognize as well that distractions tend to be idiosyncratic and may shift over time. Another participant in the study, Brett Terpstra (whose blog linking workflow is discussed in the next chapter), also talks about the hard business of writing and how applications can get in the way, although for him the distractions are different. "I spend more time exploring features than writing when I use Scrivener, and I think I find something new every time I use it—and that is friction. For a personality like mine, that is a death knell for actually getting any writing done." "I love people like the developer of Scrivener [...], I love seeing the way their brains work and the features that they add—it's just, it's like going to the zoo for me. It's like looking in at all the animals. Not the people, but the features themselves are like zoo animals and I just want to walk around and see them all."

One key distinction between Sparks and Terpstra is their approach to managing writing workflows. Sparks suggests that once a workflow is assembled, he just writes without any more tinkering until the project is finished.

I do tinker with picking the software tools and figuring out the workflow, because that's kind of my thing, but when I get into the writing, that's what I do. I write. And I write in Byword or I write in Ulysses or whatever app I've chosen to carry this project. It's just about the words.

Terpstra, on the other hand, maintains a tinkering mindset throughout a writing task.

I tinker a lot, I'm constantly looking for a better way to do things even if that means putting two hours into solving what should've been a fifteen minute task. But the next time I do it it'll be instant. So as I run into any friction as I'm writing, I go build a tool to fix that friction. That's why a blog post that should've been a five minute just-write-it-out often ends up being three to four hours of making it work. But, yeah, it changes any time something seems like it could be better. I don't like the feeling of working around an issue instead of fixing it, at least not when it comes to like my own writing workflows.

Whether these are personality traits reflected in working habits or conscious decisions made by discriminating entrepreneurs, or some mix between the two, is beyond our ability to analyze. Sparks has clear motives for writing—selling books, producing legal writing for his law practice, writing blog posts to stay current with his audience. Terpstra has clear motives for searching out friction in workflows, since these searches may result in new projects to share on his blog or software applications to sell. While we are not looking to hold up either participant as a role model for writing scholars, teachers, or students, their separate approaches both have some value for writers to consider. Sparks' approach makes straightforward sense—spend some time and effort developing a few writing workflows, then leave them alone until the project is completed. Yet, we are reluctant to critique Terpstra's approach, as writers who might adopt it could, in their sensitivity to some bit of friction in their writing workflow, help to develop some new writing technology that could be valuable for themselves and others.

Giving deliberate attention to workflows, engaging in workflow thinking, we argue, can help mitigate the risks that the tools will get in the way or will become a distraction in and of themselves. We see a crucial distinction between tinkering and workflow thinking, namely the orientation toward goals. Brian Eno's discussion of his nightly experiments, quoted earlier, points to the value of making space for tinkering, for more goalless explorations. But he also described tinkering in the context of saving it for the evenings and being more production-oriented in the mornings. Workflow thinking orients writers toward maintaining focus on specific goals (e.g., write a book, create a first draft, write for two hours today) and reevaluating tools based on their ability to help accomplish these. Different individuals at different times will need to find their own balance between workflow thinking and tinkering.

At this point, it may seem like just finding and learning one tool that basically supports one's writing well would be the most efficient and effective path forward. Perhaps it's worth reconsidering the arguments about the limits of word processors that this project began with and the book covers in chapter 1. Sparks echoes these arguments clearly:

I think that I'm definitely an outlier, I think most people in the world are just gonna open up Microsoft Word and start writing whatever they're writing. But my argument would be they could do a better job of it if they use some of these modern tools and kind of backed out the WYSI [What You See Is ... What You Get] features, at least for the writing part. I do think that it makes your writing better.

Given the preceding discussion about ESSPs, however, we prefer to generalize beyond admonishments of Microsoft Word or even word processors as a class of software. What Sparks and many other proponents of distraction-free applications or Markdown syntax are pointing toward is the importance of workflows that "regulate thought and affect [and] channel attention and action" (Prior & Shipka, 2003, p. 228). They are pointing to workflows that produce (and are produced by) mental states that support writers in whatever activity they seek to accomplish. For these writers, designing a workflow means crafting a digital environment responsive to physical conditions that supports and helps bring about concentration, focus, creativity, and/or many other states. Any tour through writing advice from the past 100 years or so will cover some of the same ground: writers who have morning rituals, who use particular (physical) tools, who depend on specific brands of notebooks for incubation and invention. What we want to point to with these case studies is first, the benefit of attending more carefully to the role of digital tools and environments, and second, the inseparability of these workflows for writing activity. Workflows aren't activities that simply precede writing or make writing easier or make it more enjoyable. Workflows may involve those aspects, but we are suggesting something broader and more foundational: workflows, as we define them here, are what writing activity is made of.

Conclusion

In addition to suggesting the term "workflow" as a way to capture this activity and perspective on writing, we argue that workflow thinking, that is, being deliberate about crafting workflows and experimenting with them over time has clear benefits for writers. Each case study focuses on a category of benefits.

This chapter began by examining the problem of learning new writing technologies. How can we incorporate valuable new technologies into our (and our students') writing processes without becoming enthralled by these new tools? We hope that our answer is clear after the discussion in this chapter. In focusing on the workflow one seeks to engage in, writers can keep their goals in mind, goals that are separate from any UI/UX demands that applications might make. Applications can be evaluated based on their fit to the goals writers have developed. Further, writers' goals can be re-evaluated in light of the new affordances some applications make possible. If these new affordances pull writers too far astray from their goals, if they introduce too much dissonance in terms of conflicting goals, writers can make a deliberate choice to keep their original goal and abandon the application or tightly restrict their use of it. Or they can change their original goal in light of new affordances. When writers are clear and explicit about their workflow goals, they can evaluate them against translation (Latour, 1999).

When writers are more fuzzy about workflow goals and simply focus on production goals (e.g., wanting to get the document drafted without attending to any tools), they may be flummoxed when the tool does not perform as anticipated, cause friction or other undesirable mind states, or bring requirements they didn't anticipate in their hurry to draft. Then, in a rush to complete the project, they find the first application that seems to have a feature that will address the issue, but this new application now makes demands of its own, which must be addressed if it is to be used (perhaps requiring text in a different file format or syntax). This focus on production goals, then, can lead to a general distaste for writing technologies as tools that mostly get in the way of writing. We hope the case study in this chapter has suggested the value of following the path of workflow thinking instead.

This discussion may also shed light on the popularity amongst writers in this study for applications that "do one thing well." Rather than using single applications that seek to perform every function any writer might want (e.g., like Microsoft Word), these writers choose to assemble several applications together—different applications for brainstorming, outlining, notetaking, drafting, and revising. Sometimes more than one within each broad category of activity. When attending to workflows closely, we presume it is easier to evaluate an application that focuses clearly on a few specific activities and offers features that support that activity in easily understandable ways.


  1. While some in the computer industry may talk about a particular software application's workflow, we emphasize that a writer's workflow is never limited to the intended uses of any tool. In our usage, a writer's workflow may incorporate a particular application's "workflow," but the writer's workflow may also involve working against that application's intended workflow. Tools, as we will describe in more detail in subsequent sections, can be used in varying unintended ways, although these uses may require significant effort or be extremely inefficient.

  2. While aesthetic evaluations of software are not the exact same thing as affective responses, in most of the examples we have seen from people in this affinity space, they are tightly tied together. As Zhang (2009) argues in an analysis of these concepts' use in human-computer interface (HCI) research, aesthetics and affect "should be closely related to each other, especially from a motivational point of view" (p. 2). As Zhang explains,

    aesthetics can be regarded as means to achieve people’s desirable affective states. That is, the purpose of designing an artifact with high positive aesthetic quality is to induce high positive affect in the viewers/users; and the purpose of designing the artifact with high negative aesthetic quality is to lead viewers to have high negative affect. (p. 6)