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Unit #2: Tap Essay

(Worth 15% of your grade; due on April 1)


Touch-screen devices like smartphones and tablets enable new ways of interacting with digital media. Where we once clicked and dragged with a mouse, we now tap and pinch with our hands. Recently, several writers have embraced the affordances (and constraints) of touch-screen devices by writing short essays and stories that are read (viewed? experienced?) by tapping through a linear series of screens. For this assignment, you will develop a tap essay that advances an idea, explains a complicated concept, or makes an argument, then you will disseminate and promote your tap essay.

What is a Tap Essay?

The tap essay is a very new genre — the first one was published less than a year ago by Robin Sloan. Since then, several people have borrowed and built upon Sloan’s idea. Most notably, a company called Betaworks created a platform called Tapestry that allows users to create their own tap essays in a browser window, then share those essays with other users of the Tapestry mobile app.

At its most basic level, a tap essay is just a series of static screens containing text and images, similar to a PowerPoint presentation. Essays must be read linearly, from start to finish, and each tap on the mobile device advances readers from one screen to the next. Sounds simple, right? Technically speaking, yes, the Tapestry platform is remarkably unsophisticated. But its simplicity belies its narrative and rhetorical power. Because the tap essay format is so constrained, authors must carefully consider every word, every image, and every transition. Concision becomes incredibly important, as does the pacing of an essay. Do not be fooled — creating a successful tap essay is harder than it looks. Just as PowerPoint presentations can be highly engaging or dreadfully boring, tap essays can grab and sustain a reader’s attention or leave that reader feeling annoyed and uninspired.

Strategies for Creating an Effective Tap Essay

Each of your tap essays will be unique, and I hope you will consult with me often as you develop your essays. However, a few general guidelines should help you stay on track:

1. Get familiar with the tap essay format. Begin by reading several of the articles and blog posts linked on Robin Sloan’s site, then create an account on the Tapestry website and download the app to your iOS or Android device. Inside the mobile app, download and read at least ten different stories to get a feel for what makes a good tap essay. You can find links to additional featured essays (that you can read in your browser) on Tapestry’s Twitter feed, and I’ve collected some of my favorites on the Resources page.

2. Brainstorm ideas for your tap essay. As with any piece of writing, the finished format of your document won’t matter much if you don’t have something important to say. Before you begin worrying about images, fonts, and colors, you need to carefully consider what point you want to make with your essay. Is it a manifesto? An attempt to explain a complicated idea in a simple way? A response to an essay or article you recently read? Any of these starting points could work well, as could several other approaches. The only requirement for this assignment is that you write a nonfiction essay rather than a fictional story. To ensure that no one gets too far off track, you will submit three possible ideas for your essay on Wednesday, March 6, and I will help you finalize your decision.

3. Draft (and revise, and revise) your essay. Once you have settled on a topic, you should begin writing your essay. As you do so, keep in mind the constraints of the Tapestry platform and draft your essay so it can be “chunked” into individual screens. Part of the drafting process will include creating or finding images to illustrate your essay, so as you write, don’t forget about the visual aspect of your argument. We will spend time in class learning how to crop and enhance images so they work well in Tapestry, but you should begin collecting visual materials early in the drafting process.

When you begin transferring your original draft into Tapestry, you will likely find that some sections work well and others need to be revised or discarded. That’s OK — this is part of the iterative process that accompanies all digital writing. As you create your essay, pause frequently to see how your work looks on a mobile device, and don’t be afraid to scrap the elements that aren’t helping you make your argument.

Since each of your essays will be different, this assignment does not have a specific minimum requirement for number of words or number of “taps.” However, your essay should have enough “substance” to make a point and make it well. The original tap essay, “Fish,” has 154 screens. Other successful tap essays are much shorter than this, but if you find that your argument can be made in 10 taps, you probably need to find a better argument.

4. Get help fine-tuning your essay. After a few days of working in Tapestry, chances are good that you will grow tired of tapping through your own work over and over and over…. At this point, it will be helpful to partner with another member of our class and get an outside opinion on your work. We will devote a full class session to a peer critique activity, but I strongly recommend sharing your drafts with other students (even those who aren’t in our class) both before and after our formal critique session. You may receive conflicting advice about how to improve your essay, and ultimately, you will be responsible for deciding how to revise your work, but gathering a multitude of reactions to your work can help you identify the parts of your essay that are connecting with your readers and the parts that are missing the mark.

5. Share and promote your essay. After you have revised your essay and are ready to submit it for a grade, you should “publish” it on the Tapestry website and share the link with your friends, family, and classmates via email, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media channels. I don’t want this to turn into a popularity contest, and the number of views your essay gets won’t influence your grade, but we will have a friendly competition in class to see who can best harness the power of their social networks to promote the ideas in their essay.

Submitting Your Tap Essay

Your essay is due before you come to class on March 27 April 1. To submit your project, email me the URL for your finished essay. In addition, create a folder inside your shared Google Drive folder called “Tap Essay” and save all images, drafts, etc., related to your project in that folder.

Evaluation Criteria

I will evaluate your essay using the following criteria:

  • Substance: Does the essay make a compelling argument or successfully explain a complicated concept?
  • Arrangement: Does the essay proceed in a logical fashion, carefully leading the reader from beginning to end?
  • Multimodality: Does the essay incorporate images, typography, and colors in ways that strengthen the written text?
  • Technical Proficiency: Does the essay function on a mobile device? Is the text sized and colored so as to be readable? Are the images properly scaled?
  • Grammatical Conventions and Mechanics: Does the essay adhere to the conventions of standard written English (grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.)? If not, do you have a good reason for deviating from these conventions?