Narrative Writing in Digital Formats: Interpreting the Impact of Audience

Joshua Fahey Lawrence 1 , Melissa Niiya 1  and March Warschauer 1
  • 1 University of California, Irvine


Digital writing has enabled students to write for a variety of authentic audiences, both in and out of the classroom. As they consider audience, students shoulder a cognitive burden that they must juggle in addition to the task of composition. At the same time, writing provides students with opportunities to craft and express their identities. The ways that identity formation and cognitive load intersect may be particularly complex in digital, online writing environments, as students gain the ability to share and receive feedback from global and local audiences. In this counterbalanced experimental study, 86 seventh- and eighth-grade students responded to two narrative prompts. One prompt was written for the teacher and the other was written for the teacher and peers in an online forum. We examined student writing fluency, mechanical errors, academic word use, and setting. Students were found to be more likely to set narratives in private settings when writing for an audience that included peers. We discuss this finding from cognitive and sociocultural perspectives and how it might inform networked communication research.

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

  • Alamargot, D., Caporossi, G., Chesnet, D., & Ros, C. (2011). What makes a skilled writer? Working memory and audience awareness during text composition. Learning and Individual Differences, 21(5), 505–516.

  • Applebee, A.N. & Langer, J.A. (2011). A snapshot of writing instruction in middle schools and high schools. English Journal, 100 (6), 14–27.

  • Bangerter, A. & Clark, H. (2003). Navigating joint projects with dialogue. Cognitive Science, 27 (2), 195–225.

  • Bereiter, C. & Scardamalia, M. (1987). The Psychology of Written Composition. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

  • Berninger, V.W., Fuller, F., & Whitaker, D. (1996). A process model of writing development across the life span. Educational Psychology Review, 8 (3), 193–218.

  • Biesenbach-Lucas, S. & Weasenforth, D. (2001). E-Mail and word processing in the ESL classroom: How the medium affects the message. Language, Learning & Technology, 5 (1), 135–165.

  • Black, R.W. (2009). English-language learners, Fan Communities, and 21st-century skills. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 52 (8), 688–697.

  • Bos, N. & Krajcik, J. (1998, April). Students’ awareness of audience in web-published science writing. Paper presented at the Annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

  • Brennan, S. & Clark, H. (1996). Conceptual pacts and lexical choice in conversation. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 22 (6), 1482–1493.

  • Britton, J., Burgess, T., Martin, N., McLeod, A., & Rosen, H. (1975). The Development of Writing Abilities. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

  • Carvalho, J.B. (2002). Developing audience awareness in writing. Journal of Research in Reading, 25 (3), 271–282.

  • Clark, H.H. (1996). Using Language (pp. 221–252). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Clark, H. (2003). Pointing and placing. In S. Kita (Ed.), Pointing: Where Language, Culture, and Cognition Meet (pp. 243–268). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

  • Clark, H. & Brennan, S. (1991). Grounding in communication. In L.B. Resnick, J.M. Levine & S.D. Teasley (Eds.), Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition (pp. 127–149). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Clark, H. & Fox Tree, J. (2002). Using uh and um in spontaneous speaking. Cognition, 84 (1), 73–111.

  • Clark, H. & Krych, M. (2004). Speaking while monitoring addressees for understanding. Journal of Memory and Language, 50 (1), 62–81.

  • Clark, H. & Marshall, C. (1981). Definite reference and mutual knowledge. In A. Joshi, B. Webber, & I. Sag (Eds.), Elements of Discourse Understanding (pp. 414–465). New York: Cambridge University Press.

  • Clark, H. & Murphy, G. L. (1983). Audience design in meaning and reference. In J.F. LeNy & W. Kintsch (Eds.), Language and Comprehension (pp. 287–299). Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing

  • Clark, H. & Murphy, G. (1982). Audience design in meaning and reference. Language and Comprehension, 9, 287–299.

  • Clark, H. & Schaefer, E. (1989). Contributing to discourse. Cognitive Science, 13 (2), 259–294.

  • Clark, H. & Wilkes-Gibbs, D. (1986). Referring as a collaborative process. Cognition, 22 (1), 1–39.

  • Cohen, M. & Riel, M. (1989). The effect of distant audiences on students’ writing. American Educational Research Journal, 26 (2), 143–159.

  • Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly, 34 (2), 213–238.

  • da Cunha Recuero, R. (2008). Information flow and social capital in weblogs: A case study in the Brazilian blogosphere. In P. Brusilowsky & H. Davis (Eds.), Proceedings of the 19th ACM Conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia (pp. 97–106). New York, NY: Association for Computing Machinery.

  • DeVoss, D.N., Eidman-Aadahl, E., & Hicks, T. (2010). Because Digital Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Online and Multimedia Environments. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

  • Ericsson, K.A. & Kintsch, W. (1995). Long-term working memory. Psychological Review, 102 (2), 211–245.

  • Fahey, K., Lawrence, J., & Paratore, J. (2007). Using electronic portfolios to make learning public. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 50 (6), 460–471.

  • Flower, L. & Hayes, J. (1981). A cognitive process theory of writing. College Composition and Communication, 32 (4), 365–387.

  • Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

  • Graham, S. & Perin, D. (2007). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for adolescent students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99 (3), 445–476.

  • Hayes, J.R., & Nash, J.G. (1996). On the nature of planning in writing. In C.M. Levy & S. Ransdell (Eds.), The Science of Writing (pp. 3–30). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

  • Heisler, J.M. & Crabill, S.L. (2006). Who are “stinkybug” and “Packerfan4”? Email pseudonyms and participants’ perceptions of demography, productivity, and personality. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 12 (1), 114–135.

  • Holliway, D. (2004). Through the eyes of my reader: A strategy for improving audience perspective in children’s descriptive writing. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 18 (4), 334–350.

  • Holliway, D. & McCutchen, D. (2004). Audience perspective in young writers’ composing and revising. Revision: Cognitive and Instructional Processes, 13, 87–101.

  • Horton, W. & Gerrig, R. (2002). Speakers’experiences and audience design: Knowing when and knowing how to adjust utterances to addressees. Journal of Memory and Language, 47 (4), 589–606.

  • Huffaker, D. (2004). The educated blogger: Using weblogs to promote literacy in the classroom. Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education Journal, 9 (6), 91–98.

  • Ito, M., Baumer, S., Bittanti, M., Boyd, D., Cody, R., Herr-Stephenson, B., Horst, H.A., Lange, P.G., Mahendran, D., Martinez, K.Z., Pascoe, C.J., Perkel, D., Robinson, L., Sims, C., & Tripp, L. (2009). Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

  • Kellogg, R.T. (2008). Training writing skills: A cognitive developmental perspective. Journal of Writing Research, 1 (1), 1–26.

  • Kroll, B.M. (1984). Writing for readers: Three perspectives on audience. College Composition and Communication, 35 (2), 172–185.

  • Kurcz, I. (2004). Communicative competence and theory of mind. Psychology of Language and Communication, 8 (2), 5–18.

  • Lam, W.S.E. (2000). L2 literacy and the design of the self: A case study of a teenager writing on the internet. TESOL Quarterly, 34 (3), 457–482.

  • Laufer, B., & Nation, P. (1995). Vocabulary size and use: Lexical richness in L2 written production. Applied Linguistics, 16 (3), 307–322.

  • Magnifico, A.M. (2010). Writing for whom? Cognition, motivation, and a Writer’s audience. Educational Psychologist, 45 (3), 167–184.

  • Marwick, A.E. & Boyd, D. (2010). I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience. New Media & Society, 13 (1), 114–133.

  • McCutchen, D. (1996). A capacity theory of writing: Working memory in composition. Educational Psychology Review, 8 (3), 299–325.

  • McCutchen, D. (2000). Knowledge, processing, and working memory: Implications for a theory of writing. Educational Psychologist, 35 (1), 13–23.

  • McCutchen, D., Covill, A., Hoyne, S., & Mildes, K. (1994). Individual differences in writing: Implications of translating fluency. Journal of Educational Psychology, 86 (2), 256–266.

  • Piche, G. & Rubin, D. (1979). Development in syntactic and strategic aspects of audience adaptation skills in written persuasive communication. Research in the Teaching of English, 13 (4), 293–316.

  • Piché, G., Rubin, D., & Michlin, M.L. (1978). Age and social class in children’s persuasive communication appeals. Child Development, 49 (3), 773–780.

  • Potter, J. (2012). Digital Media and Learner Identity: The New Curatorship. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Rijlaarsdam, G., Couzijn, M., Janssen, T., Braaksma, M., & Kieft, M. (2006). Writing Experiment Manuals in Science Education: The impact of writing, genre, and audience. International Journal of Science Education, 28 (2-3), 203–233.

  • Rubin, D. (1982). Adapting syntax in writing to varying audiences as a function of age and social cognitive ability. Journal of Child Language, 9 (2), 497–510.

  • Rubin, D. (1997). Writing for readers: The primacy of audience in composing. Yearbook-National Society for the Study of Education, 2, 53–73.

  • Russell, J., Bachorowski, J., & Fernandez-Dols, J. (2003). Facial and vocal expressions of emotion. Annual Review of Psychology, 54 (1), 329–349.

  • Sacks, H., Schegloff, E., & Jefferson, G. (1974). A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation. Language, 50 (4), 696–735.

  • Shippen, M.E., Houchins, D.E., Puckett, D., & Ramsey, M. (2007). Preferred writing topics of urban and rural middle school students. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 34 (1), 59–66.

  • Traxler, M. & Gernsbacher, M. (1992). Improving written communication through minimal feedback. Language and Cognitive Processes, 7 (1), 1–22.

  • Traxler, M. & Gernsbacher, M. (1993). Improving written communication through perspective-taking. Language and Cognitive Processes, 8 (3), 311–334.

  • West, K. (2008). Weblogs and literary response: Socially situated identities and hybrid social languages in English class blogs. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 51 (7), 588–598.

  • Witte, S. (2007). “That’s online writing, not boring school writing”: Writing with blogs and the talkback project. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 51 (2), 92–96.

  • Wolfe-Quintero, K., Inagaki, S., & Kim, H.-Y. (1 998). Second language development in writing: Measures of fluency, accuracy & complexity. Honolulu, Hawai’i: Second Language Teaching & Curriculum Center, University of Hawai’i (University of Hawai’i Press).


Journal + Issues