Rhetorical Forms & Delivery

23 Writing Multimodally

Kate L. Pantelides and Erica M. Stone

A multimodal text is sometimes referred to as something that incorporates modes beyond the textual, but in truth there aren’t ever really non-multimodal compositions. There are simply compositions in which we take the multimodal components for granted. For instance, consider a writing project composed in Calibri font size 10 on 8 1/2 x 11 white print paper, created through a word processing program such as Microsoft Word. Although we sometimes aren’t attentive to the multimodal components of this text, because they’re default, there are multiple modes that animate this text: the page is visually designed, there are textual components, there are spatial components, and there are even gestural components because we can touch and feel the printed text.

Some scholars identify five different modes: Linguistic, Visual, Aural, Spatial, and Gestural. You might take a moment to think about examples of each and how they apply to the compositions in your midst.

However, there are different ways to conceive of multimodality. For instance Anne Wysocki (building on Communication scholar Gunther Kress) questions the frequent binary we use that divides image and text. To complicate this understanding, Wysocki invites us to examine the phrase “awaywithwords.” What do you see when you consider this phrase? A way with words? Away with words? Away with-words? Wysocki makes this point to remind us that not too long ago spacing in written text was very different. In fact, there weren’t spaces between many words, and people read differently (and perhaps thought and acted differently?) because of this. The space between words and images helps define them as words or images. Ultimately, she suggests that space is focal to design and communication, and it’s worth questioning the sometimes rigid roles we assign to image and text, and other modes for that matter.

In his book The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World (a great read for anyone obsessed with music and sound!), Damon Krukowski usefully disrupts another binary that we often assign to multimodal texts: digital vs. analog. He chronicles the way that sound has been produced over time, reminding us that much of what we attribute to digital is in fact analog.

Sometimes we talk about writing “with technology” and writing without, as if that were possible. Denis Baron’s fascinating history of writing technology, A Better Pencil, offers useful historical context about writing technologies, noting that writing itself is a technology, something created. And from the invention of writing technologies, folks were worried! Plato famously noted that writing will allow people to be dishonest, that because you won’t have to see someone speaking or shake their hand to know if they’re telling the truth, democracy will suffer. Baron notes in his book how the pencil was a particularly disruptive technology, one perfected by none other than Henry David Thoreau (and his family), someone we often associate with nature rather than technology.

It is important to remember that whenever we compose we are doing so multimodally. As you read and compose, we invite you to be aware of this multimodality and make rhetorical choices that demonstrate awareness of the constructed, multimodal nature of our communication practices.



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Writing Multimodally Copyright © 2021 by Kate L. Pantelides and Erica M. Stone is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book