In search of #acwri metaphors

The fractal

In her 2013 book The Sociolinguistics of Writing, Theresa Lillis argues that writing needs to be understood as a social ‘phenomenon’ (p. 176). As such, established models of writing (which are generally linear and sequential: left-right; up-down; full of arrows, boxes, circles within circles) can never fully show what writing is and what writing does because each model can only ever hope to capture what Lillis calls a particular “domain” of writing (pp. 162-3). Any given model, therefore, is necessarily insufficient in capturing the inherent complexity of the socio-cognitive, physical-affective, processual, discursive, participatory, rational-transactional, semiotic, poetic-aesthetic domains of ‘writing’ (pp. 160-1, where there is a really handy summative table mapping all of this).

The full visual force of her view of writing as a ‘social phenomenon’, I think, comes out towards the end of her book and can be best captured by this Julia Set (nothing to do with me!) to represent where, I am guessing, Lillis aligns herself most vis a’ vis ‘models’ of writing:

A Developmental Model of Writing (Andrews and Smith, 2011)

Julia Sets are fractals, that is mathematical sets or patterns which model nature and which grow and recur infinitely, repeating themselves at every scale, like snowflakes crystallizing in recurring sets of 6 and like ferns unfurling:









Lillis calls this the ‘developmental model of writing’ referring to Andrews and Smith (2011, p. 158):

In this visual metaphor, the reader can imagine development in motion as a writer draws from existing experiences, forms and practices, explaining their facility with  and adaptability to new tools and audiences, resulting in a pattern of development unique to each individual writer

As with all metaphors, when we extend them too far, they stop working for us, so to try and make sense of the extent to which this fractal metaphor works for me, I need to voice the following reflections.

Firstly, the fractal metaphor works for me when I consider the micro – or structural – dimension of a piece of writing, such as the role that abstracts play. Pat Thomson has called these ‘tiny texts‘, and I see a similar structural concept in the notion of ‘thumbnails‘ which allow you to build up a storyboard from tiny representations to a magnified and detailed piece of narrative (a technique that film-makers use) which amplifies a pattern that has already been condensed into a smaller space (the tiny text and the thumbnail). I can also see how the fractal metaphor might extend structurally to how a journal article can be seen as the smaller fractal of the larger monograph.

Secondly, the fractal metaphor continues to work for me when I consider the meso – or processual/developmental – dimension of writing whereby a writer goes through twists and turns, revisions, changes in her aims, adaptation to new evidence, digressions, and so on. The Julia Set resonates visually with this uncurling and unfurling and infinite, amorphous spreading (at least it resonates with my messy style of research (writing).

Thirdly, on a macro – or socio-discursive (e.g. genre?) – level, the fractal metaphor continues to make sense when we consider the uniqueness of the final product: despite the relative ‘sameness’ of the fractal process*, the end result is different (i.e. no mistaking a fern for a snowflake!). Similarly, the processual nature of academic written communication is fairly similar because it requires us all to situate ourselves within traditions, to cite, to review, to critique, to observe, to provide evidence, all of which, however, then manifests itself in unique forms: the essay, the dialogue, the cartoon, the review, the thesis, the journal article, the conference proposal, etc.

So where does the metaphor stop working?

I think it stops working when we consider the very same macro – or socio-discursive – dimension of writing from a different perspective. Fractals are mathematical models of the patterns already manifest in nature, i.e. they involve calculations and predictions to explain patterns that are happening ‘out there’. Academic writing, on the other hand, is fluid, less predictable, and constantly evolving; we do not fully know what it is and what it will become, what it will look like given the complex interaction of historical, social, technological, and economic variables that influence the shape of its final (public) forms.

At a recent conference, Liz Hamp-Lyons (former Editor of the Journal of English for Academic Purposes) made what to me seemed like an un-intuitive distinction between ‘value’ and ‘quality’. She claimed that as an Editor, she was more interested in the ‘value’ of a text as opposed to its ‘quality’: by ‘value’, she meant whether the article was ‘worthy’ of being included in the disciplinary conversation; by ‘quality’, she meant the form, the grammar, the style.

In order to establish the ‘value’ of something we rely on social norms, beliefs, and cultures. But these change and are not necessarily shared by all, which again reinforces the idea of academic writing being an evolving and fluid semiotic resource, one that can change depending on the knowledge ‘values’that are considered to be important (by the publishers? The public? Who else?).

If we take Lillis’ initial definition of writing as being a ‘social phenomenon’, then it is hard to pin down exactly what is ‘happening out there’ in the world of academic writing. When I look ‘out there’, I see considerable diversity in #acwri, understood as ‘academic communication’, diversity even within the established canon of what is considered to be ‘academic writing’ (see the work of Sousanis, and the socio-semiotic tradition of multimodality represented by Gunther Kress and Jan Blommaert; also this).

In what sense, then, can the process/development of #acwri be understood as a fractal, replicating again and again? Which ‘domain(s)’ (Lillis, 2013, pp. 162-3) of #acwri is best represented as a ‘fractal’? And how do we make sense of the fact that the final #acwri product can be so varied?

I’ll stop here. Any thoughts on, corrections to and questions about any of this are hugely welcome!

* Am I committing what Sokal refers to as “a confusion between unrelated senses of the same English word” (Sokal, 2008, p. 20, #54) (i.e. confusing the meaning of ‘process’ in fractals with the meaning of ‘process’ in academic writing)? Probably.


Andrews, R. and Smith, A. (2011) Developing Writers. Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age. Maidenhead: McGraw Hill/Open University Press

Lillis, T. (2013) The Sociolinguistics of Writing, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

Sokal, A. (2008) Beyond the Hoax. Science, Philosophy and Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press (thanks goes to @alexanderding whose copy of this I have hijacked until further notice)

Images from Wikimedia Commons:

Fern image: No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims).. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons –

Snow image: