Writing Prompts

Each response on this page was done as an in-class writing exercise in WRA 410.

Session 1

What do you consider "advanced" web authoring? What skills or knowledge do you already possess in this field? What do you hope to gain through this class? How do you see this as the work of a professional writer?

I consider "Advanced web authoring" to be designing for the web that goes beyond templates and GUI interfaces--that actually involves the crafting of code and the ability to understand how a programming language translates into an end product. In that sense, advanced web authoring requires advanced web literacy.

I have some ability to do this already--I taught myself to use html and CSS at the dawn of the personal blog so I could run a personal website my freshman year of college. I have not advanced much further than that; I also am not confident in my ability to design something complicated in CSS (most of my experience is using somebody else's CSS design and just maintaining it, such as my job for two years being the worst webmaster in the world for Allen Neighborhood Center).

I am really looking forward to learning some of these advanced programming languages for the web and increasing my advanced computer literacy. As someone who has worked in professional writing this has been a skill set expected of me, and yet the people who expected me to have it offered no support for its development--web skills are like a magical bag of tricks that the non-profit sector seems to expect people to mysteriously acquire so they don't have to learn anything themselves. Also, writing for multiple audiences includes writing for web audiences, and the design and implementation element is part of that composing process. If we as writers want web publications to be well-composed and audience aware, we have to be able to do this ourselves.

Session 2

Zeldman frequently discusses the need to remove “presentation from structure.” Describe what this means, particularly in the relationship between XHTML and CSS.

The metaphor I have used to explain exactly what CSS is and why it is different from HTML to people at my old job is that HTML is like the actual lightswitch, and CSS is the faceplate. If the lightswitch were all one unit, you would have to integrate the wiring of the device into the pretty part of the device; people who make rooms pretty are usually not the same people who wire them, the tasks require two different skills, and the pretty-ness and the wiring serve different purposes. Moreover, what Zeldman is adding to such a differentiation is that it should be that way. He goes into various reasons why this is better: by describing data separately from design elements it makes the data on the website more accessible to a wide range of audiences for web content. It allows for the existence of two different coding languages that serve a specific purpose. It is better to have two coding languages that each have a very clear rhetorical purpose than one language that is trying to serve many purposes at the same time, and using devices for purposes that they were not intended for.

Session 3

What are the rhetorical implications of non-standards-compliant browsers? Think particularly in terms of the 5 canons of rhetoric (invention, style, , memory, arrangment, delivery).

Non-compliant browsers affect the way that a web author can reach their audience. They garble the intended rhetorical act at the point of delivery--the delivery not happening in person but mediated through the use of different software technologies. They add a measure of uncertainty to the act of authoring a web text--one cannot know for sure what browser any particular member of her audience is using (although in some situations one might be able to take a guess) and thus some people may not be able to get the message at all, and some people may receive it in a way that is arranged inappropriately due to the bugs or noncompliance with standards, or appears in an unattractive style. An author can compose in the canons of rhetoric but if they can't be sure that their audience can receive their compositions, their effort may be wasted. Additionally, the history of browsers being non-compliant required web authors to compromise the way they used html code. There is an aspect of invention in the creation of "work-arounds" for buggy browsers--I think that writing a way to make your website readable to people using noncompliant browsers is a rhetorical act. The issue makes a web designer consider audience in a highly practical way that someone composing text might not have to think about (unless they are dealing with a multi-lingual audience).

Session 4

Consider Hart-Davidson’s assertion that “a text can be understood as a collection of objects related to one another.” Explain what he means by this, and how might it also describe an xHTML document?

A strategy I have for approaching a difficult text is looking for the "nuggets of clarity". Every text is made up of parts, and some of those parts, even in Derrida, are going to make more sense than others. Those are the ones you should start with.

In that same vein, Hart-Davidson describes all texts as fundamentally made up of what I would call nuggets (which probably has some other highly specific programming definition but whatever), but what he calls objects. He uses a scaled-down lunch menu to show an example--every text has different elements, whether they are structural (parts of a list, like the bullet points, the titles of the list items, and the descriptions) or content-delineated (in the example he gives about the tax document, answers geared toward IT guys or tax professionals, or questions that are technical or policy-related). These can all be seen as individual pieces, the connections between them turning them into a whole text. The relationships between objects are what give them a lot of their meaning

Each of these "objects" has different qualities, and they can be described in a structured way. An xhtml document also contains elements that can be identified from one another (paragraphs, list items, tabled data, headers, etc) but that also have different reasons for being on a page and contain different information that is valuable to different audiences. It is the connections between the different elements that makes them into an xhtml document as a whole. Based on the structure of our document, we can get meaning about how the elements are related to one another. The significance of seeing a text and an xhtml document in this way is that it allows you to imagine a dynamic interface with the text, where objects are not only different from one another but coded so that they can be distinguished from one another in order to provide a "view" that is specific to the needs of the user.

Session 5

Revisit "Shaping Texts That Transform." What does Hart-Davidson mean by "re-use" of objects? How might this be an important factor in creating customized texts (or "views")? What sort of implications does this concept have on design, especially for rhetoricians?

Re-use of objects means, in part, not having to code the same thing over and over again. In my understanding, older programming languages (like fortran?) don't allow you to reuse pieces of code you have already written, so every action has to be done from scratch. Object-oriented programming languages allow you to create "objects", modular pieces of code that you can move around, modify, and re-use. As Hart-Davidson says, applications are created by combining objects together in different permutations (p. 7). Designers can also create generic objects that can be re-used in many situations that are the "parent" of more specific classes of object.

This idea of re-use also applies to the conventions that audiences expect viewing our text on the web. They allow us to use the same content to make unique views for different audiences with different interests.

This really allows for consistency in design, as well as repetition. If you can re-use an object in your design, it allows for a consistent user experience (every button looks like a button, every "help" pop up, etc) and a consistent "view". If you have a website with dynamic content that might display different information objects for different users, allowing each of those objects to operate independently but still have a parent object that allows them to have a similar design allows for a consistent user experience for different audiences. Since one of the rhetorical problems we addressed before regarding non-compliant browsers was an inability to consistently address one's audience, having a re-usable object that allows for consistency lets the web rhetorician be confident that their style can be delivered properly to their audience.

Session 6

Write a detailed summary of feedback offered by your peers, along with a list of your next steps to complete the assignment.

For peer reviewing of sites, I worked with Dave and Ann. We talked a lot about CSS and the neat little things you can do with it, and shared our knowledge with each other. From Dave, I learned how to make a text box with a slider bar that displays content; I don't think I really need to do that with my site (and my feedback for him was he probably didn't need it either, although it is fun to play with). I showed my partners how to give elements some depth by playing with the border property to make black outlines on just two sides of list items in the navigation bar. We also talked a lot about color--Dave has a lot of different subtle colors on his site, and I have a very bold color scheme. They suggested I choose a more subtle contrasting color for the background of my "content" div. I will play around with this. Dave showed us how if you type "color" in Dreamweaver it automatically pops up a color-picking box. This is really neat. We also talked about the merits of coding in a text editor versus using web design software. Ann is newer to web design than Dave or I, so we talked about how to space out elements on her page using margins, and I also helped her style the links in her navigation bar. We used dreamweaver to find an attractive shade of purple for the links, and I helped her style the body of her page to contrast with her container div.

My site is almost totally done, aside from design considerations. I may tweak the appearance of my header over the weekend by the only next step I absolutely have to do is transfer the files to my personal domain.

Session 11

An old mandate of rhetoricians is to “know your audience.” Garret never uses the term “audience,” though, referring instead to “users.” Is there a difference? If so, what does that suggest about the “texts” we create, especially for the web, and for our design methodologies? Should professional writers be prepared to practice user-centered design? Are they already?

A simple view of audience and text would distinguish the concept from that of a user by virtue of passivity. An audience, in such a view, passively receives a unit of text, which contains meaning. However, a postmodern view of the triangulation between text, audience, and author, would say that the meaning comes from the interaction between all three, and is produced as much by the actions of the "audience" as those of the author.

If the meaning of a written text is created collaboratively by the author and the audience and the text together, then what does that mean for the triangulation of designer, web text, and user? User experience! I think you could really reflect "user experience" back on rhetoric and see how a text is an artifact used by the audience in some way. If web authoring is rhetorical, then, we must see the audience as actively engaged in the use of our product/text, and not only communicate our message effectively to the audience but compose the text in such a way that it is accessible and useful to the audience. However, I think "usefulness" also has a lot to do with rhetorical purpose in addition to "audience". If "everything the user experiences should be a conscious decision on your part", as Garrett says, then there is a structural level to this composing as well as a meaning-based level.

Session 12

How is writing code and developing interactive documents like or unlike "traditional" forms of writing?

I think an important component of developing interactive documents and coding is that it combines both writing and editing practices. The traditional "writing" focused composition practice is logocentric--it is about stringing words together in various ways to create meaning. If it were to be published, someone would later add formatting and visual elements to your piece of text, and arrange it in a document/artifact that would be used in some way by a reader (reading being a type of use...propping up a wobbly table also being one). In web developing, you are creating the content as well as the layout and structure of the document. You are potentially your own publisher and editor, working in all parts of the process.

There is a greater learning curve and potential for failure in writing code that does not exist in composing plaintext. There are elements that have a required structure, or else they will not work at all. If you violate the received grammar rules in your writing, someone can still read it, although it might make less sense to them, or be perceived poorly. Violating the rules of code is more like using the alphabet wrong--if you don't know what sounds letters make, or how to form them into words, your text won't be able to be read by a person at all. In that same vein, plaintext is first interpreted by the human brain, and code is first interpreted by a machine. You have to compose both in a language that your immediate audience will be able to understand. In the case of code, your ultimate audience, the human, also has to understand your content language. In that way, composing both code and text content might be like what they call "code-switching" in linguistics--shifting back and forth between two languages for different audiences within one situation. I think.

One might observe a difference between the uses of creativity and invention in both sites of composing but I think there is room for creativity in both areas. Coding is very structured but at the same time different situations require creativity, and there is usually more than one way to code for a particular purpose, some ways more elegant than others or more creative of a response to the situation. So, I don't think creativity is the difference between coding and composing plaintext.

Session 15

Explain the DOM. What is it – what is it made of, and how does the browser understand it? How do the various languages we’ve used so far (xHTML, CSS, Javascript, PHP) understand and interact with the DOM?

The document object model treats every unit of the xhtml document as a unit that can be manipulated and interacted with. xhtml, css, and JS can access the DOM but PHP cannot. It is a cross-platform language that allows webpages to be dynamically updated by scripts and programs (this is based off the WC3 definition). Xhtml controls the content and organization of the document, css controls the visual style of the document, and javascript allows the document to be interactive on the browser-side of the site. It basically accesses the "id" attribute of pieces of the website and does stuff to them, whether it's CSS telling the browser that the thing with this ID is pink, or JS telling the browser to change the thing with this ID based on the actions of the user. PHP can't access the DOM but it can interact with JS, which does use it. The DOM is crucial for creating interactive and dynamic web texts because a browser that supports the DOM is basically smart--it has metaknowledge of what to do with content because it is given instructions for that certain content.

The DOM is also important because it allows for a standard model and method of creating complex interactions that is browser-neutral--browsers all support the same DOM, instead of each browser's company creating new html tags that only their browsers can read to accomplish certain functions. (This is outlined in some of our reading, which was written when people were still using some browsers that did not support this model.)

The DOM's cross-language functionality allows all of these languages to interact with the same content and it is basically what allows for the exciting and interactive web resources (Gmail is used in the textbook description) that we rely on today.

email me at howesfra at msu dot edu