How Multimodal Editing Has Made Me a Better Writer

By Nathan Elam

Long before I came to Oakland University and found myself pursuing a Writing & Rhetoric major, I was dead-set on working in the film industry.  I was obsessed with the particular way that movies tell stories: a group of people (sometimes a veritable legion) with various specializations, all working in collaboration to deliver entertainment to the masses.  One of the key members of this whole production team is the editor, who manages to take all the disparate parts and stitches them together.

I will be the first to admit that before I was a Writing & Rhetoric student my editing process was ineloquent at best, and outright inefficient at worst; I would push through a draft and “editing” was an afterthought.  At the time, I thought of revision as what I had to do if I hadn’t gotten things right the first time.  It was a tiresome and painful process, that often left me feeling like a lesser writer.  It wasn’t until I was entrenched in my major that my revision process was changed and I grew to appreciate the amount of work an editor, no matter the field, has to do.

Due to my long-standing love of and interest in both films and the process that goes into making them, I made a point to take a few of the cinema studies classes offered at OU as electives.  Taking those classes concurrently with my writing courses really helped me to draw the parallels between my academic writing and the filmmaking process.

Prior to attending OU I had written in an extremely linear fashion.  I would start at the beginning and work my way toward the end.  I was treating writing as if it were reading, because I didn’t know any better way.  Any fresh ideas I generated while writing either had to fit where I was or might be shoehorned into a previous section.  This way of going about things left me with very little “wiggle room” with which to explore ideas that cropped up while I was in the midst of the writing process.

Film editing, and multimodal editing as a whole, operate very differently from what I was used to.  In those fields, editors are given a selection of assets (shots from different angles effects, etc.) and then combine them into a coherent scene.  Entire scenes are sometimes moved around during the post-production process in order to better facilitate the message that the movie is attempting to get across.

It was as if a lightbulb went off in my head: an essay is like a movie; its paragraphs are the scenes and sentences are the shots that come together to create that scene.  All of a sudden I realized that I didn’t have to feel beholden to that linear style of writing.  I could write out various points, entire sections, ahead of time and then shift them around however I needed to help make my point.  That was when the message that my professors had been trying to hammer home finally stuck with me: revision is writing.

All of this was crystallized for me during a ‘Podcasting’ class that was offered as part of my major.  While podcasting and filmmaking are vastly different mediums in many ways, they are both multimodal forms of expressing an argument or idea and, key to my point here, they both require a great deal post-production editing.  So I found myself working within Audacity (a fantastic free audio editing tool), editing an interview, and thinking about how I could apply those techniques to my textual writing.

As I worked away, moving audio clips around one another to better facilitate the point of my interview and selecting (and then deleting, and then re-selecting) musical tracks that evoked the mood I wanted, the lines between ‘writing’ and ‘editing’ started to blur for me.  While this may seem like a strange thing, it turned out to be the key to helping me learn, and it may be applicable to other students as it was to me.

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