Workflow Thinking

Workflow thinking is the act of reading knowledge work as modular and intertwined with technologies.

Through workflow thinking, writers break any particular task into a series of smaller steps and search for writing technologies and practices that might improve, challenge, or alter their work. Workflow thinking encourages the writer to ask questions about each component part of the workflow: “Through which technologies will I accomplish this task? Why? What does a change in practices offer here?” In offering the concept of workflow thinking, we diverge from the business- and systems-focused concept of the workflow (one that is often used by our participants) in suggesting that workflow thinking need not privilege efficiency above all else. Just as there are compelling outcomes to automating a mundane computing task via a program or script, there are also compelling outcomes to purposefully introducing constraints to a modular workflow component—for example, writing a draft in crayon (Wysocki et al. 2004)—and purposefully introducing friction into process.

Writing Workflows | Introduction
two pens and a phone beside a macbook

Ultimately, we argue that a workflow-focused approach to writing offers a pathway to agency, creativity, and confidence with computing-a spirit that is very much in line with the lineage of digital and multimodal work in composition studies.

Writing Workflows | Introduction

I’m learning a lot about myself since my ADHD and autism diagnoses. One of the things I’m learning is that a lot of my ways of working are actually disability hacks: as it turns out a LOT of my people are very visual and a LOT of my people have poor working memory. Instead of trying to change myself to fit the ways of working I think I should have, because other people, I should maybe instead celebrate that I have, by trial and error and very little help or encouragement from anyone, kluged my way into some best practices for my particular career and set of challenges. I should congratulate myself on the self-knowledge that got me to a place that I’ve devised a whole workflow that minimizes the disabling effects of my particular forms of neurodivergence and allows me to shine. (para. 5)

Writing Workflows | Introduction
masking tape and medical tape stacked on a table
A person's hands typing on a laptop and writing in a notebook

Morrison’s post suggests that workflows can be an inclusive and productive concept-that we have much to gain by considering how we work, what tools we work with, and how those preferences can help us think beyond a set of default, invisible, or unstated norms.

Writing Workflows | Introduction

In this book we use workflows as a lens to examine the often omitted tools, material conditions, and activities of writing. Although the field of Writing Studies has numerous theoretical methods and lenses for considering the mediated and socially situated work of writing, we have few descriptions how specific pieces of software and hardware mediate writing in practice. A focus on workflows highlights the importance of writing tools and allows us to consider how tools shape activity and, in turn, how activity shapes tools.

We offer the concept of workflow as a way to move personal and local computing practices into a form of disciplinary knowledge.

As researchers, we argue that workflows can further our understanding of and approaches to writing processes, and we develop that argument through what we call workflow thinking, or the act of reading knowledge work as modular and intertwined with technologies, and workflow mapping, or the personal examination of how writing preferences accrete over time.

In these contexts, “workflow” functions as a personal process, rubric, and metacognitive lens. A workflow, for these writers, is a means of evaluating the components, processes, procedures, and technologies of their work. It is a lens through which they can look at their broader writing process and begin to analyze the connections, intersections, and fissures within the component parts of their work. And it is a lens that is fully intertwined in writing technologies.

From our participants’ practices we draw the concept of workflow thinking—the act of reading knowledge work as modular and intertwined with technologies. Workflow thinking allows our participants to break any given project into a series of shorter process steps—a perspective that is well in line with Writing Studies’ understanding of process and its typical pedagogical practices. Workflow thinking, however, foregrounds the mediated nature of that work. It looks at each task or component and asks a series of questions about the writing technologies and available affordances within that component: “Through which technologies will I accomplish this task? Why? What does a change in technologies offer here?” For our participants, a shift in these practices might afford them mobility, the removal of drudgery, new ways of seeing a problem, or new invention strategies. In each case, however, they can use this mediated and modular thinking to reevaluate when and how they approach knowledge work.

In this way, we want to emphasize that workflow thinking can be a personal reevaluation of the capital-minded, deskilling focus of workflows in industry or business contexts.

A lens of workflow thinking pushes against this, instead asking “What are the component pieces of this work?,” “How is this mediated?,” and “What might a shift in mediation or technology afford me in completing this?” In short, we see workflow thinking as a way to reclaim agency and push against institutionally purchased software defaults.

We also offer workflow mapping as a complement to workflow thinking. Where workflow thinking imagines new composing possibilities, workflow mapping instead looks backward, asking how practices and preferences accrete over time.

Workflows, however, aren’t about tools used in isolation or in perfect test conditions. Rather, a workflow is a habituated, mediated, and personal means of accomplishing something.

For participants in the workflow affinity space, searching for friction means identifying and eliminating moments when software gets in the way.

We believe that a workflow-focused approach to computing tools and environments offers a pathway to agency, creativity, and confidence with computing, which is the spirit that has driven work in computers and writing research since the late 1970s.

Workflows provide a similar opportunity: the chance to consider and think through one’s use of writing technologies and ask “What’s troublesome here?,” “What are new possibilities for this work?,” and “How might other mediated approaches allow me to see this work differently?” Through seeing knowledge work as modular, flexible, and adaptable, workflow thinking challenges the transparent technology model that dominates much of the contemporary computing market, and it encourages users to move beyond default solutions and configurations.

Although intensely personal and often idiosyncratic, workflows are also replicable and shareable things.

Writing Workflows | Chapter 1

Further reading,