Professional Writing 101: Digital Tools for Better Writing
The Professional Writing 101 series aims to educate readers on the best practices applied to various industries that utilize professional writers. This series will dive into several aspects of writing such as professional writing pedagogies, defining and analyzing the audience, and document and readability design.
The Professional Writing 101 series will be divided into 6 main chapters:
Professional Writing 101: Collecting Data for Audience Personas
Professional Writing 101: Digital Tools for Better Writing
Tools are utilitarian objects that ultimately create ease and efficiency in the labor process. The world progressed through the Industrialization Age of the 18th century and the Digital Age of the mid-20th century, and as a result of that, advancements in tools in efficacy, design, and innovativeness followed these changing times. For writers, typewriters, paper, ink, and quill are tools of the past. The technology of the 21st century also transformed how writers write, lay out their content, and supply a variety of writing and design programs that can improve their mastery. This final section of the professional writing series features how the Tech Age has influenced education in technology when training writers, outlines writing tools that are available, and suggests how professional writers implement them in practice.
To begin, educators in primary, intermediate, secondary, and higher education have infused technology with their class materials and assignments to facilitate multimodal learning for students. Shoba Bandi-Rao and Mary Sepp (2014), professors in Literacy and Linguistics, quickly identified in the mid-2010’s how digital media curated a new kind of literacy (digital media literacy) and would continue this trend for younger generations raised with the internet. The professors introduced digital storytelling as a method to strengthen students with both basic and advanced writing skills: “[By using pictures taken on their phones,] students sectioned their story into smaller meaningful parts and put them on index cards or used comic-strip-creating software programs such as Bitstrips. They sequenced the parts so that the narrative flowed coherently and logically” (p. 111). For example, a student writing about their favorite city may start by chronologically ordering the photos of their experience, noting central landmarks to visualize a key event tied to that location one at a time before reaching a conclusion.
This process is called “storyboarding”, a common technique used for script writing, video game writing, market event launches, and other manifestations of digital media writing. Stories are how humans have made connections and taught important information. Regardless of whether the writing is related to science, tech, healthcare, government, marketing, and business, there’s a story being told and a message to disseminate.
Indeed, technology competency has become a vital, integrated part of the writing profession, more than some may realize. Dr. Eunjyu Yu (2014), a professor of English at State University of New York, conducted a survey on college writing students seven years ago exploring tech proficiency for writers. Her findings continue to heed the trends of undergraduate writing students’ relationship with technology and writing today:
52% of students [of 21 total] indicated that knowledge in technologies would prepare them for writing in technology-enhanced environments. In addition to computer skills, research skills played critical roles in understanding their writing topics and enriching their digital composition (p. 38).
This number very easily increased today, especially with the sheer amount of hybrid or fully online freelance, full-time, and part-time “content writing” roles. Many companies even prefer their writers to have familiarity with Microsoft Suite, Adobe Creative Cloud, SEO, social media management programs, and website platforms. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2022) confirms these preferences by stating how “technical information is delivered online and through social media [through] interactive technologies of the Web and social media to blend text, graphics, multidimensional images, sound, and video” (What Technical Writers Do section, para. 7). Naturally, some amount of tech and software literacy seems to be a highly demanded skill in today’s writers.
Additionally, writing is a highly collaborative process, and writers often work with other business professionals, including technical teams. Hence, the demand grew for software programs that allow intuitive and user-friendly collaboration between writers and other team members. Jessica Behles (2013), a professional technical communicator, administered a survey on practitioners’ and students’ opinions on online collaborative writing tools (OCWTs). Practitioners responded accordingly: “Roughly 85% of practitioners using them—and 57% of those on a daily basis. Particular tools (for example Microsoft SharePoint, and Google Docs) are becoming standards in some technical communication places” (p. 29). Collaborative software systems also streamlined other internal business communications, becoming perpetually more evident as the world entered the 2020s. Behles (2013) rightly predicted the increased methodology by which writers would collaborate on drafting and managing their documents. The most highly ranked program in this survey, Microsoft Sharepoint, “is a centralized content management system for collaboration and document management. This tool is a company standard in many organizations” (p. 35). SharePoint is encompassed with Microsoft Teams and OneDrive under Microsoft 365, with several features often wielded interchangeably. Through this collaboration technology, business teams can share files, post comments on documents, organize calendars for meetings, and send real-time messages.
Correspondingly, aside from collaboration tools and document management and organization, writers also require instruments that aid in two of the most fundamental but convoluted challenges that writers face: grammar and mechanics. One of the most well-known editing tools for writers is Grammarly, an AI-based grammar and proofreading checker that offers both free and premium services. J. M. Dembsey (2017), a manager for Online Learning at the National Association of College and University Business Officers, offered a critique of Grammarly’s 2015-16 update in research exploring Grammarly’s usefulness to students in place of writing centers:
Positive and negative reviews from 2015 still found that Grammarly provided inaccurate feedback, lacked rhetorical and contextual awareness, and required users to already have grammar knowledge (p. 88).
Conversely, Rina Alya Fitria, Sabarun, and M. Zaini Miftah, researchers in English as a foreign language (EFL) education, explored the application of Grammarly by EFL students in undergraduate thesis writing (2022). Despite a higher overall approval rating, the researchers also concluded some drawbacks that mirrored Dembsey’s earlier study, “Grammarly's weaknesses include limited usage, the requirement to pay if students want to use all of Grammarly's premium features, and Grammarly's feedback was not always clear, requiring students to have a good understanding of grammar” (p. 370). AI-powered editing tools with convenient browser extensions and premium features comparable to Grammarly, such as ProWritingAid and LanguageTool, present similar challenges. For that reason, writers utilizing AI editing tools should mostly use them as aids to fix small errors they may have overlooked during the drafting process or in snippets of written language such as an email. Writers can leverage these programs as a helpful surface cleaner. Still, they should be further educated in proofreading and consulting with other writers to improve the deeper compositional issues they may face in their professions.
Aside from word editing tools, there are other creative document design applications such as Adobe Creative Cloud and Canva. Canva is a free (with premium features), simplified graphic design tool offered in over 100 languages on mobile and browsers to create logos, video thumbnails, business cards, pamphlets, and more. This sort of tool not only benefits students to visualize their writing in a user-friendly and resourceful platform, but it is also highly accessible because its free features still allow writers to experiment and learn. Yulinda Utami and Dewi Suriyani Djamdjuri, faculty of Teacher Training and Education Universitas Ibn Khaldun, classify Canva as “A twenty-first century LMS [Learning management system]” (p. 86). In their qualitative study, the researchers surveyed 10 students in a writing class about the utility of Canva, and thanks to this tool, students not only learn how to write but learn how to write in English as a second language. One participant quoted in the study stated how Canva improves students' writing and rouses the motivation to write:
I can remember my writing because of the design. And canva motivates me to write something. I felt interest in writing because I [can] design my writing more creative [sic] in canva (as stated in Utami & Djamdjuri, 2022, p. 88).
Although these students are not experts in writing, the learning process of writing from a young age is pivotal for future professional writers for speakers of all languages. Multimedia enables creative ways to communicate and captivate readers, a rudimentary goal for future and current communication professionals.
Contrarily, Adobe Creative Cloud is considered a step up from Canva, as the robustness of the programs demands more extensive training and video tutorials for each program within Adobe. Additionally, Adobe’s premium functions are also reflected in the pricing, roughly 20.00 USD a month (Adobe, 2022), making it more inaccessible in the long term. Adobe InDesign is the most used program in the industry, used by writers to create and publish (in print or digitally) books, magazines, eBooks, posters, interactive PDFs, and more. It is to be taken into account that the type of professional writer also determines the scope of familiarity with other Adobe products such as Photoshop and Illustrator, which hyper-focus on advanced graphic design. Claire Lauer and Eva Brumberger (2016), professors in technical communication at Arizona State University, wrote that Information Developers (ID) and User Experience (UX) are closely related but diverge in content:
All of the ID-only competencies pertain to the development of what is primarily verbal content. Even subject matter familiarity and working with subject matter experts (SMEs) ultimately support the creation of content that is technically accurate. UX-only competencies are directed at creating the underlying design and structure that determines how users will interact with information (p. 261).
In other words, writers in the UX field require more creativity, and for that reason, necessitate higher competencies in graphic design programs than information developers. Regardless of these differences, design programs such as the ones aforementioned in this essay are valuable tools that will continue to evolve and progress.
In conclusion, a myriad of design, compositional, and editorial tools are at the disposal of professional writers in training and well-practiced writers alike. In the book “Evolving as a Digital Scholar: Teaching and Researching in a Digital World”, co-author Miné De Klerk (2022), a Project Manager at Hybrid Learning at Stellenbosch University, emphasized the omnipresence of multimedia and how digital authors and scholars should adapt to the digital world and today’s digital literacy:
What we see, listen to and read via digital screens is both an explicit product of our cultural inheritance and a clue to what our implicit societal aspirations are. By continually developing the skills to optimally use the digital devices, channels and tools at our disposal, we are taking part in this conversation (p. 68).
The digitization of business encouraged everyone to remain students forever by adjusting to updates of previous methodologies or acquiring knowledge of new industry-leading writing and formatting tools. Digital communicators must adapt their practice and arm themselves for the phenomenon of writing digitalization, with no signs of turning back. Digital devices introduced by educators will enrich learning materials and set the foundation for writers who will employ them later. Each article within the Professional Writing 101 series highlighted the similarities in how writers approach the mechanics and design of their content, and then how composition strategies based on the industry diverge. From technology and science to government and business, frequent adjustments to what makes effective writing in that industry will persist. Advancements in technology and web-based social intercourse change the medium and manner of communication, but as long as there are humans who continue conceiving ideas, practitioners of words are needed to develop the most accurate and appropriate message.
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Behles, J. (2013). The Use of online collaborative writing tools by technical communication practitioners and students. Technical Communication, 60(1), 28–44. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43093100
Dembsey, J. M. (2017). Closing the Grammarly® gaps: A study of claims and feedback from an online grammar program. The Writing Center Journal, 36(1), 63–100. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44252638
Fitria, R. A., Sabarun, S., & Miftah, M. Z. (2022). Students’ perception of the use of Grammarly in undergraduate thesis writing. Project (Professional Journal of English Education), 5(2), 366–371. https://doi.org/10.22460/project.v5i2.p366-371
Lauer, C., & Brumberger, E. (2016). Technical Communication as user experience in a broadening industry landscape. Technical Communication, 63(3), 248–264. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44809502
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Utami, Y., & Suriyani Djamdjuri, D. (2021). Students’ motivation in writing class using of Canva: students’ perception. English Journal, 15(2), 83–92. https://doi.org/10.32832/english.v15i2.5536
Van Petegem, W., Bosman, J., De Klerk, M., & Strydom, S. (2021). The Digital Scholar Framework. In Evolving as a Digital Scholar: Teaching and Researching in a Digital World (pp. 17–32). Leuven University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv20zbkk0.5
Yu, E. (2014). Angel or devil: face-off of web 2.0 technologies for writing. Research and Teaching in Developmental Education, 31(1), 30–47. https://www.jstor.org/stable/90012219
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Figure 4: Pulido, F. (2022). UX Writing-Editorial [Illustration]. https://www.behance.net/gallery/136850809/UX-Writing-Editorial/modules/774032049
Figure 5: Jung, C. (2022). Unknown [Illustration]. https://www.cjungart.com/new-page
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