1(2), February 1984, page 1

[conclusion of Letter from Editors at top of this page]

A Writing Teacher Experiments with Word Processing

Elizabeth Ann Sommers
SUNY - Buffalo

Word processing is a versatile tool for helping writers learn how to write, with the powerful potential to change radically the ways we teach, learn and perceive writing. As teachers and researchers, we need to devote serious attention to introducing word processing into composition instruction based on sound pedagogical theory. My own integrative use of word processing is presented and exemplified in this article.

In my college writing classroom, the individual student-teacher conference advocated by composition theorists is the primary method of instruction. Writers begin by creating a first draft, either with prewriting help or alone. When they are ready for reaction, they confer with me or with a partner before deciding how to continue work. With skillful help, writers are able to understand their problems and potential solutions in their writing, and begin refining their work by drafting and redrafting. A complete piece is gradually built from this series of partial solutions.

A heirarchical level of priorities is observed, although the writing process is never the clean, linear pattern presented in writing textbooks. In contrast, writers use a recursive process, often dealing simultaneously with multiple levels of concerns. Content elaboration is our first priority, and writers develop their ideas without laborious retyping of draft after draft. Once content is under control, organization can be tackled. When a writer conceives the order most workable for a particular piece, changes are simple. Text can easily be rearranged with word processing.

In the same way, sentence level and word level problems can be corrected. Here too, the writer must find the errors and work on the solutions before corrections can be made using reference books, sentence combining, peer conferencing and oral reading as well as computer assistance.

Writers in my composition classroom use word processing in many ways and at different points in creation of a piece, accommodating their writing processes and strategies to best exploit the

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microcomputer. The creative possibilities seem endless. Some writers, for example, prewrite and draft directly at the terminal, while others bring in handwritten drafts which they type into the computer. Some writers review spontaneously as they type in their first drafts or while they add handwritten revisions to later drafts. Some writers revise at the terminal without handwriting changes, and still others tend to wait for a printout and a conference before they make changes.

Often writers solve problems directly at the terminal. For example, a search-and-replace command (which is generally used to correct misspelled words) is available. One student uses this option to look at each comma in her piece, thinking about whether it should be replaced by a period or a semicolon. Another interesting problem-solving strategy is to experiment with alternative ways of writing a portion of the text, from a sentence to an entire section. The extraneous material is easily deleted later.

Whatever their interaction styles, my writing students find word processing particularly valuable as a revising and editing tool. Much repetition of effort is avoided and time is saved as writers draft and redraft, dealing with problems at various levels. While their individual revision practices vary, the practice of revision itself is much easier on the computer since subsequent versions are saved on floppy disks as they evolve. Writers are typically far more motivated to continue working toward satisfactory completion of their writing when they work on the computer.

A case study conducted in 1983 with a student named Michael illustrates one successful interaction style developed by a writer in response to instruction and word processing. Michael, a second-semester college freshman, learned to use Applewriter word-processing software with an Apple II microcomputer within several hours; he had no previous word processing experience. He learned first to type his drafts by using a keyboard much like that of an ordinary typewriter, with the addition of extra keys. Some of the keys are used for a variety of common functions allowing a writer to add, move and delete test in any amount: a punctuation mark, a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a page, an entire essay.

Like all writers, Michael had the option of composing directly into the microcomputer, but generally preferred bringing a handwritten draft to the terminal. In either case, he viewed his emerging draft on a screen that looked like a small television screen. If the displayed draft was obviously flawed by typing mistakes or other immediate problems, the copy could be corrected immediately.

Once his draft was fed into the computer, Michael saved it on a disk, a simple step. Revised drafts could be saved to replace former versions or could be saved simultaneously and compared. Another simple command by the writer resulted in a printed version of the test.

This printed draft was then brought to conference. One of Michael's rough thesis statements read as follows:

Time magazine, like other publicatins, is politically persaded which is reflexed by the biase point of view found in their nterpretation of the news. Certain tehcniques are used by journalists inorder to propagandize. such techniques are composition, the manner in which the article is constructed and organized, repetition, the restating of an idea over and over, and a method of presenting and argument with a counter-argument.

With my help as his writing instructor in a series of four problems in his essay, including the quoted paragraph, and solved them one by one. In our first conference, the writer realized that his meaning was unclear to me. He clarified his meaning verbally as I asked questions, then began to rework his thesis in pencil. His subsequent step was to load those changes into the computer.

A new version was printed for our next conference. Content had been elaborated, but Michael was dissatisfied, and I was still bewildered. Although more sentences had been added, many problems still hampered the realization of meaning. As we read this draft, Michael discovered that the source of his difficulties was organization. Accordingly, he concentrated on work with the organization of his thesis statement. Michael decided to reorganize entirely in pencil while we conferred, writing organizational cues to himself in the margins: arrows, underlining, questions marks. As instructor, I helped by presenting two potential organizational plans for the entire essay. Michael chose the most workable and began changing his draft.

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This draft, too, was loaded onto the disk, printed, then brought to conference again. The text was far more successful both in communication of meaning and in organization of material. Satisfied, Michael moved on to his subsequent concerns.

This refinement of text continued through half a dozen more drafts on the word processor and several more conferences with the teacher. Michael next shifted to sentence-level revisions. Every sentence needed to serve the purpose of elaborating his ideas, and each sentence was reread and often revised on the computer with this necessity in mind.

In still later drafts, Michael was pleased with content and organization of his piece and became an editor. Punctuation, spelling, capitalization and other editorial concerns were now the focus of his efforts on the word processor. A composition handbook, dictionary and thesaurus helped him here, as well as other editing strategies: reading aloud, listening for the punctuation in his voice, sounding out words.

The ninth draft of this writer's piece was a polished, smooth essay which he felt was complete. The thesis quoted above is shown in its revised form below:

Time gives its interpretation of the news from a biased point of view based on the magazine's political persuasion. Certain techniques are used by journalists in order to propagandize. One method is composition, the manner in which an article is constructed and organized. A second method is repetition, the restating of an idea or concept over and over. A third method is presenting an argument which is refuted by a counter-argument.

Michael was very happy with his piece and wrote that he learned a great deal about how to revise both content and organization. The conference method of teaching helped him to learn how to write, and word processing helped him to make his textual changes easily and quickly without risking new mistakes. The time required to create and complete a piece was much shorter than traditional composing methods permit: only ten days were necessary for Michael's nine drafts.

Continued work with writers confirms my experience with Michael: sound composition instruction is even more effective when students are given word processing as a composing tool.