The New Work of Composing

Why Linearity Is Not the Issue; or,
The New Work of Composing is Much Like the Old
Only Different

Diana George
Dan Lawson
Tim Lockridge

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“A.D.” first found a home online when it was serialized on SMITH in 2007-2008. The web version of “A.D.,” though significantly shorter than this book, is presented in a way that allows for a multilayered experience. It is seeded with links to podcasts, YouTube videos, archived hurricane tracking reports, and even personal details like the Doctor’s favorite mix drink recipes. “A.D.” on SMITH also features video and audio interviews with the characters, a Hurricane Katrina resource list, and an active blog.

Check it out at

Still, I always planned for “A.D.” to be a book. When comics are presented on the web -- often one panel at a time -- something of the gestalt of the comic book is lost: the interplay of the tiers of an image on a page, the way a two-page spread can work to frame and augment the drama, and the aspects of timing, meter, and rhythm.

-- Jeff Neufeld, “A.D. After the Deluge”

In the 1970s, a favorite joke among students in the University of Missouri English Department was a comment one professor had made when asked, given that poetry seemed to be anything he wanted to call a poem, how can anyone tell the difference between poetry and prose? His response, with not a touch of irony: “Poetry has big margins. Prose has little margins.” In other words, the only difference is in how we see it or in what we might expect from a text set up as a series of stanzas in a narrow column with lots of white space all around. Layout. Design. Genre expectation. Habit.

Most readers know that the distinction (big vs. little margins) doesn’t stand up today. It didn’t in the 70s, either, but the comment does hit on much that is common to this section of readings. How do we know what to call a text that seems (and, at least, looks) very different from texts we’ve come to expect in tenure reviews or in college classrooms or as sources of news? Do we call it art or new media? Do we rely on older forms to read (and evaluate) newer forms? What is demanded of both the writer and the reader as they compose, produce, and consume these new texts? At the edge of this discussion hovers what we can only call a new fear of the linear.

Linearity, quite frankly, has become our latest taboo.

Take, as a case in point, Anmarie Trimble and Jennifer Gratz’s exploration of Born, an online publication aimed at putting “writers and ‘new media’ designers and artists” in collaboration to create a multimedia composition using -- most of the time but not always -- poetry. The question they raise, “How does the medium affect the experience of poetry?” is an important one especially when we place the academic article they have written next to the artist’s interpretation of that article.

The PDF version looks familiar enough: standard 12 pt font with 1 inch margins. It is prose. No doubt about it. The artist’s interpretation, set up in what appear to be stanzas, features quotes from the article surrounded by … well … lots of white space. The artist’s interpretation is nicely designed. It looks very much like a poem, in fact. But, of course it is not a poem. It is a series of pull quotes from the original article. And, though the authors call the artist’s interpretation “a patchwork,” a “visual representation of how the narrative unfolds in the designer’s mind,” those pull quotes perform exactly the same function pull quotes always perform: They tell readers what they are supposed to get out of the article, what’s important, and in what order those ideas should be read. They provide a kind of summary of the argument. So, if linearity is something our authors wanted to avoid, they haven’t done that here. What they have done, however, is to literally re-form the way a reader experiences that article and its argument (or, narrative). And, that, we might suggest, is one of the most important reading and composing experiences digital technologies afford us.

Cover of Neufeld's A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge

Or, to take a print example, Josh Neufeld’s (2009) A.D. New Orleans After the Deluge looks just like a comic book or graphic novel. It has everything we would expect from a comic -- panels, linear storyline(s) we follow by reading each panel in order, pictorial action -- in other words, visual narrative. It is a pretty standard comics text, except that it isn’t. It is comics reporting and commentary, biography and story. And, as Neufeld tells us, one form or mode or technology (the original website on which it appeared) just wasn’t going to get at what he wanted and which he achieved in the comic’s print form.

Neufeld is very careful, though, to make clear that it isn’t one form over another he favors. It is simply that the two do not perform the same work. Print cannot put audio, video, archival reportage, and more at our fingertips for immediate access. The digital text cannot -- or, at least, currently does not -- achieve what Neufeld calls the gestalt of the comic, “the interplay of the tiers of an image on a page, the way a two-page spread can work to frame and augment the drama, and the aspects of timing, meter, and rhythm.”

The “new work of composition and production,” then, is far more complex than knowing how to handle the latest digital technology. The new work of composing, like the old work of composing, is about deciding what you want a text to do, what audience you want to reach, and where and how you want that text to appear. More than that, the new work of composing is about responsibility: understanding new technologies’ countless possibilities as well as its limits. For Neufeld, then, it wasn’t either a website or a comic. It was both.

Implicit in the phrase “the new work of composing” or even the question “what is the new work of composing” -- particularly as it regards the title of this subsection, “New Strategies for Composing and Production” -- might be more questions: “what ought to be the new work of composing?” and “what does it look like?” and, perhaps most importantly, “what traits define new strategies?” In terms of this response, we want to point toward the connection between the terms new and work, rather than new and composing. This new work, then, isn’t focused on the technologies of production, but rather the ways in which we apply those technologies.

Gunther Kress (2003) addresses something of the same in Literacy in the New Media Age: “The materiality of the different modes -- sound for speech, light for image, body for dance -- means that not everything can be realized in every mode with equal facility, and that we cannot transport mode-specific theories from one mode to another without producing severe distortions” (p. 107).

If the new work of composing is, as Kress suggests, bound up in technology and technology produces new venues for different modes, perhaps part of the new work of composing lies in asking different kinds of questions, such as, “to what end are these technologies being put?” and “does framing the new work of composing in a binary of 'new tech versus old tech' reify superficial difference between media?”

The Photographer

Understanding Comics panel excerpt on defining comics

Even in “old media” such as print, traditional genres and modes are blurred and productively problematized. Comics like Neufeld’s, for example, have been particularly fruitful sites to explore new avenues for making meaning in multimodal contexts. And yet, at a glance, comics are very linear. Even some of the landmark texts in comics proclaim it. The title, for example, of one of the most important works in comics scholarship is Will Eisner’s (2008) Comics and Sequential Art (emphasis ours), and one of the most cited definition of comics, supplied by Scott McCloud, defines them as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (p. 9). At least part, then, of the power to make meaning in this medium lies in linearity. Despite this, comics also highlight the weakness of unreflective criticisms of linearity because, like most ostensibly “linear” forms, making meaning in comics actually demands of a highly recursive and frequently tangential literacy.

The way we read comics is both dialogic and recursive. As Eisner argues, there exists a “tacit cooperation” between artist and reader in comics in the way that sequence and meaning are negotiated in an image-based narrative (p. 41). He observes “there is no way in which the artists can prevent the reading of the last panel before the first” (p. 40). Further, Groensteen (2007) describes the process of “plurivectoral navigation” in comics -- the process of deciphering the meaning of a given panel by retroactively juxtaposing it with the panels that follow it. That is, we cannot necessarily deduce what is occurring in a panel until we see what occurs in following panels: “As a reader, I construct meaning on the basis of inferences that appear to be the most probable” (p. 108).

For scholars interested in new strategies for composing and production, the recent wave of visual narrative forms -- especially those texts using comics as their primary medium -- have posed a particular challenge in terms of analysis: How might one read the sort of text that refuses to conform to visual genres as we have come to know them and yet draws upon a number of conventions from these genres and the media they typically appear in? To examine this literacy and the demands raised when the texts and genres we associate with comics shift, we turn to The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders (2009).

Cover of The Photographer

One part photojournalism and one part travelogue, The Photographer blends comics with photographs and prose to tell the story of LeFevre’s travels in Afghanistan in 1986 with Doctors Without Borders. The oversized book consists of several sections and is composed in several different media. The Photographer is a rhetorically complex text, particularly as we consider the new work of composing. Its multimodal character does what Purdy and Walker describe as “enacting.” That is, as a multimodal composition that incorporates text, comics, and photography, its form enacts the sorts of hybridity discussed in the narrative.

While comics theorists including Eisner, McCloud, and Groensteen have sought to explain how comics “work,” much of their theory seems to elide the ways meaning might be made differently by the introduction of different media. The way Carolyn Miller (1984) explains Alfred Schulz’s formulation of the role “types” play in building our stock of knowledge, however, can describe the reason for some of this: “our stock of knowledge is useful only insofar as it can be brought to bear upon new experience: the new is made familiar through the recognition of relevant similarities; those similarities become constituted as a type. A new type is formed from typifications already on hand when they are not adequate to determine the new situation” (pp. 156-157). That is, when we encounter a text like The Photographer or A.D., we rely on the generic forms we bring to the text -- namely, comics. A comics literacy alone is not sufficient for making meaning in the work.

Comics theory can, however, lend a basis for beginning to understand how certain formal parameters work in the text. For instance, Groensteen’s theories can explain phenomena such as how the photographs in The Photographer work as panels belonging to a multiframe tied to other panels and the frame through “reciprocal determinations” (p. 89). It can account for how these panels may be read to deduce narrative propositions. It can also account for how caption boxes function in relation to frames. Overall, Groensteen’s theories can tell us a great deal about the syntagm -- the system -- of comics, but they do not account for the semantic, denotative function that the insertion of photographs and contact sheets has in The Photographer. Put another way, Groensteen and others have provided an account of how readers construct a narrative out of panels on a page, but they do not account for the way that photographs, in their unique way, can “prick” us (as Barthes would say) -- surprise us and cause us to step out of the diegesis, asking us to consider the narrative in which they are embedded in another way. These theories do not take into account “the type of consciousness the photograph involves … not a consciousness of being-there … but an awareness of its having-been-there” (Barthes, 1977, p. 44).

Similarly, if we privilege the photographs and simply regard the comics as another form of text (reading The Photographer as a merely novel approach to the photographic essay), we also risk reducing the way meaning in this book is made. The comics do not merely act as commentary on or context for the photographs; instead, the photographs are woven in as panels of the comic. With little exception, few are technically finished photographs. What we have instead are contact sheets, many featuring red editing marks and roughly inserted to the more symmetrical and complete comics panels. To characterize the comics as text that “constitutes a parasitic message designed to connote the image” (Barthes, 1977, p. 25) is to ignore the image function of the drawings as well as the syntactic/narrative function of the sequenced images. As a hybrid text, The Photographer thus implicitly interrogates rhetorics of purity that often accompany both cultures and modes of representation.

Timelines, Oral History, and The Olive Project: In Defense of (Hypertextual) Linearity

“…we’ve constructed the assemblages of acts 2 and acts 3 as a series of brief ‘scenes’ that can be viewed / handled / explored in a variety of ways. Although we have arranged these scenes into a kind of linear performance, it is of course possible for you to resist this linear frame -- to engage the disparate scenes in whatever order and whatever manner you find most conducive for your own (re)invention.”
-- Bre Garrett, Denise Landrum, Jason Palmer
“Re-inventing Invention: A Performance in Three Acts”

“A hypertext is as prone to seeking closure as any other text. Hypertextual linking affords connectivity between closed documents, thus opening them up to endless extension, but linking cannot alter the composition of hypertext.”
“No hypertext that creates meaning is completely de-centered.”
-- Michael Allen
“This is Not Hypertext, but …"

Many of our notions about “linear” thinking stem from perceptions of print and oral traditions. In the case of a speech, we see the speaker as beginning at one point in time and ending at a later point of time -- a linear motion. Likewise, we are taught to read with books that have first pages and last pages, a sequence of text that asks us to begin at one point and then end at another. This connection also lives in our composing spaces, many of which have a vertical pull, a linear plane through which we move up and down, stacking paragraphs and sequencing sentences. In comparison, the hypertext and the database can seem like a free for all, a method of composition that, for media scholars like Jay David Bolter (2001) and Lev Manovich (2002), speaks more to spatial metaphors than to linear ones.

But Michel de Certeau (1984) has reminded us that, despite our best intentions in structure and arrangement, our readers are nomads and poachers, moving from one place in the text to the next. Even the most traditional and linear texts are subject to the non-linear movements of readers. If the new work of composing is hypertextual, the new work of reading is much like the old work of reading -- highly individualized and often unpredictable. By de Certeau’s measure, then, Garrett, Landrum, and Palmer need not have told us (their readers) that we are free to engage in the text in any order we please. We all do that, anyway. In other words, linearity is not really the issue.

While, in other parts of this response, we’ve discussed how linearity functions within print contexts, this collection prompts us to consider the linear in electronic contexts. The Prezis in the webtext of Purdy and Walker, for example, help to illustrate the linear friction: As a space for invention, Prezi is a spatial canvas that resists the vertical inertia of the text editor or the sequenced slides of typical presentation software. Once the writer begins to shape the presentation, however, Prezi becomes highly linear, ultimately limiting the viewer to a strict sequence of information.

So how might we rethink linearity in electronic environments? How might an author balance the branches of hypertext with a comics-like linear plane? And what might a deliberate use of linearity, such as the one we’ve used in this response, offer a hypertext composition?

Screenshot of the Olive Project

In Erin Anderson’s (2011) “The Olive Project: an oral composition in multiple modes,” the reader is presented with what Anderson describes as a “scrolling archive.” Anderson writes that “the user is invited to participate as a co-authorial agent in the Olive project, creating new strategies of arrangement and interpretation as she navigates segments of my grandma’s audio-visual memory.” The reader, after launching the scrolling archive, is presented with a series of images, one of which contains an audio recording and three links.

Clicking one of the three links moves the reader to another photo, another clip of sound, and another group of links. Much like a comic, the photographs exist within transparent frames, squares that section off the piece but that also create a comics-like “gutter” within the panels. It’s important to note that the reader can only navigate the piece through links, not through a scrollbar. And as these links are the only means of navigating the horizontal plane, the images then acquire a specific and tenuous gravity; the reader has a limited sense of control.

Beyond jumping from link to link, however, the Olive Project also uses navigation as a metaphor, as a way to conceptualize the impact of spatial arrangement. As the reader moves through the horizontal plane, the transitioning images slow and accelerate, generating a linear perception of memory with pictures blurring between the departure link and the point of destination.

Screenshot of a video editing timeline

Similarly, The Olive Project’s horizontal plane looks much like a frame-by-frame timeline found in video editing software.

This timeline is a major tool in video editing, allowing the user to manipulate specific parts of a film clip. And the timeline, based on the chronological movement of film, requires the composer to work through its linear constraints. These constraints -- and the types of compositions they privilege -- seem to be the very things that Anderson’s Olive Project is working against: “At the root of this alternative approach to composing is my desire to stimulate critical reflection on our habitual desire for a precomposed sense of meaning and to provoke a gentle struggle between your sense of agency and its limitations.” But this “precomposed sense of meaning,” as described by Anderson, is entangled both in the problems of oral histories and in the assumptions of software that privilege the tidy and composed movement of film narratives.

In this respect, Anderson’s project has something in common with Tony O’Keefe’s story of his father. Recalling a passage from Barthes -- that reading is “rewriting the text of the work within the text of our lives” -- O’Keefe writes,

This line of Roland Barthes’ … was much on my mind when I first read the letters that had come into my possession. Here was a powerful and unexpected set of texts that now existed -- in difficult ways -- within the text of my life. How would they, both in their first-encountered immediacy and then over time, rewrite for me the man who had been my father? And how would I “rewrite” them and him for myself? Early on I felt a strong need to produce some kind of textual response to them…

Like Anderson, O’Keefe is faced with the dilemma of telling a story without imposing a narrative line. Furthermore, as an admitted novice in electronic composing, O’Keefe lets us in on his own struggles with both oral history and the assumptions of software. Both Anderson and O’Keefe remind us of the tensions and responsibilities involved in the construction of histories, and they both approach the work of biography as a technology itself. But where O’Keefe centers his concerns on the difficulties of collaboration and multimodality, Anderson instead focuses on an “experimentation with alternative modes of creative-critical composing.”

Understanding Comics panel about Gutters

We see Anderson’s creative-critical experiment as connected to Thierry Groensteen’s differentiation between film and comics, how a movie viewer is often caught in the inertia of film but the comics reader is confronted with a panel-based mobility -- how “at the perceptive and cognitive levels the panel exists longer for the comics reader than the shot exists for a film spectator” (p. 26). Similarly, many definitions of comics hinge on the gutter, on the space between two panels -- rather than on the panels themselves. Comics theorists keep returning to the cognitive work that happens in those spaces. Anderson’s Olive Project also functions in a similar manner, creating specific navigational links for the viewer but also asking that viewer to build a narrative in the spaces between its panels. Without the restricted, linear timeline, however, the Olive Project might not be as successful. And it isn’t the hyperlink or the audio clip that allows it to work; instead, the Olive Project works because it draws upon our existing knowledge of technologies, genre conventions, and storytelling.

In this regard, The Olive Project is similar to The Photographer, which frequently uses photographic contact sheets as a sequential series of “shots”:

Contact sheet example from The Photographer

By placing each photograph adjacent to others, both texts use photographs to perform the rhetorical move Purdy and Walker describe as “implicit association.” That is, they allow for associational means of making meaning. For example, even if they are not ostensibly related, the photographs on either side of the selected photograph in The Olive Project (or, for that matter, any photograph in The Photographer) inevitably inform that photograph. In the frames of the Olive Project and in The Photographer’s contact sheets, series of pictures portray what “happened” after a fashion, but they do not completely tell the story the author is trying to convey. Alone, these media are insufficient. Instead, the writers supplement them with other genre conventions and their attendant expectations to construct accounts that highlight not only the authors’ attempt to interpret the subject but also the act of mediation itself. Because each involves gaps in the sequencing, the reader is called upon to supply what occurs between each framed image (be it a comics panel or an isolated photograph). For McCloud, the “gutter” is where the action happens, where static images are lent motion and time through the readers’ interaction with permutations of repeated images. These images, in reference to one another, to their photographic referents, to captions, and to other texts, could then be thought of as hypertextual; far from being simply linear, texts like The Photographer and the Olive Project ask the reader to frequently embark on tangents beyond what is printed or displayed to consider the other texts and forms of meaning-making invoked in what is being displayed.

It’s worth noting that, based on the author statement, the Olive Project was driven by frustration with the representative possibilities of technology. This is a familiar concern to researchers, and when connected to our questions about print and electronic linearity, it prompts us to ask: How do both linear and hypertextual representation function in the Olive Project? How do the parts of this piece (the panels, the audio, the links) work as biography? And how can we connect these questions of material and motion to print artifacts?

Somewhere Along the Road to a Conclusion

Narrative Line in Tristam Shandy

By now, it has become something of a cliché to remind readers, as Michael R. Allen (2003) does in speaking of hypertext that, “Lawrence Sterne already did it!” We suppose the “it” in this context refers to Sterne’s resistance to the straight (linear) storyline, his refusal to come to closure. After all, at the end of the fourth (originally ninth) volume, Tristram’s promise to tell his life story has only gotten him to age 5. Moreover, in terms of timelines, Sterne himself admits he has had trouble sticking with a story that moves forward in anything resembling a straight way.

Tristam Shandy Blank Page

In 1759, Sterne was even composing/offering up an interactive text when Tristram tells his readers that his powers to describe the Widow Wadman are beyond him. Instead, he leaves a blank page with the invitation:

“never did thy eyes behold, or thy concupiscence covet, any thing in this world more concupiscible than Widow Wadman. … To conceive this right, -- call for pen and ink; -- here’s paper ready to your hand. -- Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind; -- as like your mistress as you can, -- as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you, -- ‘tis all one to me, -- please but your own fancy in it” (p. 146).

(And, quite truly, many a library copy of Tristram contains some reader’s sketch -- for better or worse.)

Throughout Tristram there are blank chapters, blackened pages, paragraphs made up only of asterisks or dashes, even a music score. We imagine that, had the technology been available, Sterne would have linked that score to an audio file.

Still, we offer Tristram here not as a “Laurence Sterne already did it” claim. After all, if we really want to look for an origin for non-linear, experimental, even interactive texts, there are many including Rabelais’ work two centuries earlier. Instead, we offer Tristram as one way of illustrating why linearity per se is not the issue or, in the end, a problem. To fixate on the linear, we would argue, misses the point of what it means to compose and produce texts using the technologies currently available -- not to mention those that will inevitably replace what we have to work with today.

Earlier in this piece, we used the word responsibility when talking about the new work of composing. We return to that word here as we conclude. What, we would ask, are our responsibilities with the new work of composing, and how might we see those responsibilities as opportunities to understand more about composition and production of all sorts?

Jentery Sayers opens his first section of “Standards in the Making: Composing with Metadata in Mind,” with this basic assumption: “That the new work of composing is the work of composing new media as a form of scholarship, where new media are more than objects of inquiry. They are the very means through which ‘new composers’ do work, write, teach, and research.” With this statement, Sayers and his co-authors put forward a challenge -- not that we all simply learn to read, like, and respect new media, but that we learn to use it in its deepest sense.

We would add to that challenge the charge that the new work of composing and production, like the old, is deeply and should be consciously rhetorical. It is not enough to admire (or study) new media as objects of inquiry or poetics. We must perform the work of rhetoricians. Any given composition is not good or bad, relevant or not, by virtue of the way it embraces or shuns linearity. Rather, relevance is (as it has always been) determined by using the most appropriate medium and genre in the most appropriate manner available given a contingent audience, purpose, and rhetorical situation.


Allen, Michael. (2003). This is not hypertext, but…: A set of lexias on textuality. Retrieved from

Anderson, Erin. (2011). The Olive project: An oral history project in multiple modes. Kairos: A journal of rhetoric, technology, and pedagogy, 15(2). Retrieved from

Bolter, Jay David. (2001). Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. London: Routledge.

Barthes, Roland. (1977). Image-Music-Text. New York: Hill and Wang.

Certeau, Michael. (1984). The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Eisner, Will. (2008). Comics and sequential art. New York: W.W. Norton.

Groensteen, Thierry. (2007). The system of comics. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.

Kress, Gunther R. (2003). Literacy in the new media age. London: Routledge.

Lefevre, Didier, Guibert, Emmanuel, & Lemercier, Frederic. (2009). The photographer: Into war-torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders. New York: First Second.

Manovich, Lev. (2002). The language of new media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

McCloud, Scott. (1993). Understanding comics: The invisible art. New York: HarperCollins.

Miller, Carolyn. (1984). Genre as social action. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 70, 151-167.

Neufeld, Jeff. (2007, January 1). A.D. New Orleans after the deluge. Retrieved from

Neufeld, Jeff. (2009). A.D. New Orleans after the deluge. New York: Pantheon.

Sterne, Lawrence. (1992) The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, gentleman. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club.

Diana George is Professor of Rhetoric and Writing and Director of the Writing Center at Virginia Tech. Her work has appeared in a number of collections and journals, including College Composition and Communication, College English, JAC, and Cultural Studies. With John Trimbur she is the author of Reading Culture, currently in its 8th edition.

Dan Lawson is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Writing Center at Central College in Pella, Iowa. His research interests include peer review pedagogy, visual rhetoric, and the graphic novel.

Tim Lockridge is a PhD Candidate in Rhetoric and Writing at Virginia Tech. His scholarship has appeared in Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture and the Journal of College Writing, and he is an Assistant Editor at Kairos.

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