In the fields of literature, creative writing, and media studies, creative practice and critical analysis have long been parallel and complementary activities; the poet’s creative experience gives her unique insights into the poetry of others. Direct experimentation for the purposes of critical research, however, has long been relegated to science. Practice-based research, also called action research, is a tried and tested methodology in medicine, design, and engineering. While it has always been present to some extent in the arts and humanities, though generally restricted to practice and research, in recent years artistic practice has developed into a major focus of research activity, both as process and product, and several recent texts as well as discourse in various disciplines have made a strong case for its validity as a method of studying art and the practice of art.
Digital writing as a creative practice and field of scholarly study is similarly new; it is also singular in that a significant portion of its practitioners are equally academic researchers. Given that the affordances and limitations of digital storytelling tools are highly unique, encouraging experimentation with narrative form and content, it is timely that a direct approach to studying the process and results of digital writing is emerging as well.
This paper proposes a specific methodology for the practice-based study of digital writing. “Practice-based” connotes a focused project, a creative experiment designed to answer questions about the process and results of the practice itself: “it involves the identification of research questions and problems, but the research methods, contexts and outputs then involve a significant focus on creative practice” (Sullivan 2009, 48). The proposed method aligns foremost with Sullivan’s conceptual framework of practice-based research, in that the creative undertaking is an attempt to understand the artefacts themselves. As such, it incorporates ethnomethodological (Garfinkel 1967; cf. Brandt 1992) observation of writing activities, maintaining notes, journal entries, comments on drafts, and other relevant, observable paratexts to the composition, in order to “make continual sense to [the writer] of what [the writer is] doing” (Brandt 1992, 324). These notes and paratexts are later analyzed, placing them within the context of composition cognition (Flower & Hayes 1981), and post-textual, media-specific analysis (Hayles 2002) is conducted on the narratives that result. In this manner, the various strengths of practice-based research, ethnomethodology, cognitive process, and post-textual analysis are combined into a robust, widely applicable method of evaluating the activities of the practitioner/researcher.
The digital fiction Færwhile: A Journey Through a Space of Time (Skains 2013) was composed as a practice-based project using this methodology, and is used in this paper as a demonstration.
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