From essays to tweets: Writing education for the digital generation

Shruti Singhal

I finished school (class 12) in 2008, having chosen English literature as one of my main subjects, while English language was the mandatory subject. I loved both subjects: reading the classics and learning about the different eras in poetry in the literature classroom and persevering to get better at the mechanics of grammar and creative writing in the language classroom.

Writing essays, letters or emails, and summaries – exercises that began at the middle school level – continued up until class 12, with the form and content increasing somewhat in complexity. A quick look at the CBSE 2024 syllabus for English writing shows that not much has changed in the years since I finished school. Although now, in addition to essays, and letters, and summaries, children are also taught to write messages and notes.

A part of me felt validated to see the practices of essay composition, letter-writing, and diary-entries continue to provide generations of students with opportunities to hone their language skills, express their thoughts and emotions, and connect with others through the written word. And yet, I wondered if we were missing something crucial. A majority of our communication today is nearly instantaneous and occurs through digital platforms. So, even if the traditional writing exercises remain useful in helping students structure their thoughts, it is important to recognize that digital communication has given rise to new modes of literary expression and communication. Doing so would urge us to rethink our approach to teaching writing in ways that are relevant for our digital and socially mediated world.

Digital literature for a digital world
The world of digital literature is a vast expanse of creativity and connection, beyond the limitations of pen and paper. Think of posts on your WordPress blog or Substack, tweets on X (formerly, Twitter) as Twitterature, posts or carousels of poetry on Instagram, and so forth, where people use technology to write as well as present a piece of writing. Interestingly, where and how the writing is presented determines whether a piece of work can be considered digital writing. For example, if you wrote a novel on a blogging platform or any of the aforementioned microblogging platforms, and interacted with your readers and audiences, your work would be labelled as ‘digital literature’. However, if you merely wrote your novel on your laptop or computer (or any other digital device), and printed it, you wouldn’t necessarily be credited for creating digital literature.

I would also be remiss not to mention the sundry ways in which people write or create “content” today. There’s hypertext fiction, flash poetry, interactive fiction, locative narrative, text adventure, visual novel, video poetry, and generators (see box). You’ll notice that the content or literature is not limited to text, but includes sounds, visuals, images, charts, graphics, videos or moving images. I’m told there are several platforms (beyond social media platforms) for interactive storytelling and collaborative writing to explore, experiment, and engage with the written word in newer and more creative ways. Twine, for instance, is an open-source tool that allows users to interact and share non-linear stories, and Playfic is an online community that lets users write, play, and share text-based games with each other. Wattpad and Storybird are other web-based platforms that allow users to share their creative works.

Alongside these, Twitterature and Instapoetry have garnered popular attention and emerged as prominent examples of digital literary forms. Several authors have tweeted out entire novels, while others share their romantic musings or pearls of wisdom on Instagram. Small Places by Nicholas Belardes and The Good Captain by Jay Bushman, tweeted in 2007 and 2008, are considered the first Twitter novels. The popularity of Lang Leav’s poems on Instagram was noticed by Andrews McMeel Publishing. Widely regarded as the first success story of Instapoetry, Leav signed a deal with the publishing house for her book, Love and Misadventure. More recently, Rupi Kaur’s collection of poems was published in her book, Milk and Honey, which sold more than 11 million copies! These successes have inspired countless authors and poets to share their digital writing with their friends and followers.

Lay the foundation, and then innovate
Introducing digital literature to the classroom would free today’s children from the constraints of traditional formats, especially since they are digital natives, having grown up in an era when digital media are commonplace. Their communication practices involve a persistent exchange of images, voice notes, videos, GIFs, memes through a variety of instant messaging apps. And so, wouldn’t it be severely limiting if the extent of their writing education was writing essays and formal and informal letters?

By introducing children to digital literature, we encourage them to think and express themselves in different ways, fostering students’ creativity. However, I do realize that we must remember to balance the allure of technology or digital communication with the timeless value of classic literature. Because it’s not about abandoning the tried and true methods of writing education, but rather about expanding our toolkit to include the digital tools and techniques that are reshaping our literary landscape. It’s about striking a balance between embracing the latest trends and ensuring our pedagogical choices remain rooted in tradition. And finally, it’s about cultivating in children a deep and lasting appreciation for literature in all its forms.

For instance, alongside writing descriptive essays or opinion pieces on a given topic, children can be asked to write Twitter threads, captions and carousels for Instagram, and voiceovers for a podcast or radio show.

Rethinking our existing approach in this manner will enable tomorrow’s writers to express the thoughts, sounds, and visuals of their imagination. The entire process of writing then becomes an immersive exercise for the writer as well as the reader.

Some forms of digital literature

Hypertext fiction: A non-linear style of storytelling, this genre uses hypertext links and allows readers to choose the links they follow and the form the story takes. An interesting example is I Have Said Nothing, by J Yellowlees Douglas.

Interactive fiction: Using gaming software, this is a real-time storytelling format that allows users to make decisions for their characters and move along in the story. An example is Emily Short’s Savoir-Faire.

Locative narrative: This form takes users or readers through an immersive experience by having them listen to audio tapes about a specific location. Janet Cardiff’s The Missing Voice is a locative narrative that users experience while taking a tour of London.

Visual novel: A form of digital interactive fiction with multiple storylines and more than one ending, this genre is often associated with video games. This genre is especially popular in Japan, where it originated. An example is Key’s Japanese visual novel, Clannad.

Video poetry: A poem accompanied by a video, this audio-visual genre involves the use of video recordings or graphics to complement the narration of a poem. An example is We Keep Searching published on YouTube.

Generators: Telling a story through an algorithm or code, this genre enables readers to choose between their preferred words, phrases, and media that come together to form unique stories. Some examples are Nick Monfort’s Taroko Gorge, a poetry generator, and Novelling, an online novel about writing that combines text, audio, and video.

Flash poetry: Also known as ‘cyber poetry’, this form used the once-popular software, Flash, to animate a word, a line, or an entire poem into a work of animation. Today, it denotes the use of interactive features and multimedia elements like graphics or animation. Komninos’ cyberpoetry site has a few notable examples.

Twitterature: Enabling users to write and share prose as well as poetry, this form is confined to the 280-character limit of the microblogging site, X.

Instapoetry: A sub-genre of poetry that uses typewritten fonts and drawings, this form is popularly used on Instagram where users write their poems.

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