Writing is NOT Set in Stone

As a result of ENGL 340 (as well as a course I have taken previously, ENGL 425: Recovering Marginalized Texts), I have realized that writing is a work in progress. As a writer myself, I am overly critical of myself. I write poems just to leave them in the notes app on my phone or in a notebook that sits on the shelf, gathering dust. I write my poetry all in one shot and I never really come back to it, but I have learned through this course that that is not how I should be writing. Even with my papers, (I shouldn’t, but) I write them all in one go, never making any additions or seeking out new information afterwards that will help my arguments. This is my biggest mistake as a writer and is probably why I am never fully satisfied with my writing.

In our work with fluid texts like Walden, I have realized how important it is review and edit what I have already written even if it is considered “complete.” This course has taught me that, technically, no body of writing should be called “complete” because it can always be better and it can always be altered. There are seven versions of Thoreau’s Walden that came before the final version that is so highly regarded by many, proving that greatness takes time. Though this course, I have also realized that this was the overall point of a course I took during Fall 2019 called Recovering Marginalized Texts. In that course, we learned about the expectations, strifes, and processes of an editor when recovering “lost” texts. The course highlighted the changes that these editors would make to these outdated texts to make them palatable for modern readers. More importantly, we explored why editors would make the decisions that they did while leaving other parts of the text as is. We even learned how to edit texts on our own, learning skills like being able to determine what background information was important to include. In a way, I feel that ENGL 340 and ENGL 425 oddly work hand in hand to highlight the importance of a fluid text as the many changes that occur emphasize writing as a process.

The difference between ENGL 340 and ENGL 425 is definitely the use of technology in ENGL 340 to make this process easier. Prior to taking this course, I had some experience with HTML and have always been interesting in coding as you can take some words with <> to make something amazing. I really enjoyed seeing the original manuscript for Walden as well as transcribing some of the text using metalanguage. In ENGL 425, we did some transcription, but had to write down the transcriptions by hand. I feel that using a TEI file is a more effective way to track the changes in a text that ends up being clear and descriptive. Although computing takes away a bit of the uncertainty and lack of guidelines that I crave, I think that it is a great way to visualize what makes a piece of writing as well as how it can be customized. For sure, I will use VS Code beyond this course to write notes and maybe even my poetry because I like the way I can easily format, edit, and publish my work that can be accessed from anywhere once published.

I feel that the sudden educational changes that we had to make campus-wide due to COVID-19 proves how technology = accessibility. Whereas my other professors had to scramble to convert their courses to an online-friendly version, the transition with ENGL 340 was the smoothest given that many of the tools and resources we use were already online. I feel like I am just rambling now, but I really want to emphasize that although I fell behind in this course, it was my absolute favorite from the beginning. It became apparent that combining English with technology made more sense than ever before. While other professors denied the legitimacy of online texts and computers in general, this course welcomes nontraditional methods. And for that I am grateful because, again, it taught me that writing is not set in stone (even if it is in print): a piece of writing can be revisited, revised, and rewritten again and again and again and there is nothing wrong with that.

The Relationship Between Language and Computing

In chapter 3 of The Information, Gleick discusses how during the 16th century, people had not come to a consensus on the spellings of words. He uses the example of a 1591 pamphlet where “the word cony (rabbit) appeared variously as conny, conye, conie, connie, coni, cuny, cunny, and cunnie…Others spelled it differently” (55). I found that although there were nine different spellings of one word, the author still spelled it with the letter ‘C’. To me, this begs the question: Who is to say that cony is not spelled with a ‘K’?

This led me to think about English as a discipline. I have always said that English is an easy subject because you can argue anything, as long as you have sufficient proof to convince your audience. As Gleick reminds us, historically, “language did not function as a storehouse of words, from which users could summon the correct items, preformed. On the contrary, words were fugitive, on the fly, expected to vanish again thereafter” (55). I feel that this version of language, that is temporary and ever-changing, lines up with my thoughts about English more than contemporary ideals. I think this way because whether you write a sentence that says “I buy a pair of pears every week,” but you wrote “I by a pear of pairs every weak” instead you still understand the message. At the same time, I found it surprising that there were not any grammar rules and regulations prior due to the fact that the numerous spellings of a single word could possibly be confused for completely different words. What comes to mind is the difference between “red” and “read” where the spelling could affect a reader’s understanding of the text. As time goes on, words become more permanent as stories are no longer shared solely orally.

Gleick asserts that “the availability – the solidity – of the printed book inspired a sense that the written word should be a certain way, that one form was right and others wrong” (55). I could not help but think about how the computer combines the uncertainty of words prior to print as well as the certainty that these grammar rules bring. What I mean is: digital texts are always subject to editing thus making them less certain, but many aspects of the computer prevent the same fluidity that oral tradition provides. For example, autocorrect will put that little squiggle under words that it does not recognize, signifying that it has been programmed to determine what is right from wrong. At the same time, the person who programmed the autocorrect had to spell all their tags correctly and make sure they are in the right place or the computer is literally unable to “read” it, thus incapable of carrying out the command. The difference between <!DOCTYPE> and <!DOCTIPE> could change the entirety of whatever you are working on. Meanwhile, if I spell something wrong in a paper, my professor will still understand what I meant I would just be incorrect.

There are definitely certain expectations in regards to spelling and grammar in any field. However, I feel that the difference is in the penalties for ignoring these ideals. In the humanities, communication is more based on the message rather than the details of the message. At the same time, computing is based on the details of the message, how the message will be conveyed. Due to these parameters, I think that the solidity of language is more important for computing as the use of incorrect spelling will greatly change the results of a project. Considering that, I believe the humanities is more fluid and forgiving (despite the adoption of these guidelines) because my message will be understood despite the misspellings.