1(2), February 1984, page 6

Five Ideas for Composing on the Computer

Michael N. Milone, Jr.

One of the most significant advances in teaching composition is word-processing software. Such software is relatively inexpensive, is available for all computers that are commonly found in schools, and contains features that minimize the drudgery associated with composing. Even the most reluctant writers can become enthusiastic about composition if they have the opportunity to use a computer and word processor.

Despite the advantages of word-processing software, it is often under-used in the classroom because most teachers are so busy that they simply do not have the time to become fully acquainted with the capabilities of their software and how those capabilities can be integrated with the teaching of composition. Teachers cannot squeeze extra hours into an already full school day, but some useful hints will help teachers make the most of their word-processing software.

Provide students with free time to learn about the word-processing software you are using. The computer is the perfect environment for incidental learning. One of the best ways to promote incidental learning is to give students the opportunity to play with a word processor. Because the purpose of this free time is for students to learn about the program rather than about composition, they should not be given a specific writing assignment. Instead, list the important functions of the software, and ask students to try to discover how to perform the functions. Make the user's manual available to students, respond to their questions about the terminology used in the manual, but other than this minimal help, encourage students to work on their own.

Have two or three students of comparable ability work together on this discovery learning. Students working together are less likely to become frustrated with the program, and their interaction is as beneficial as the learning activity itself. If several students pick up the operation of the software quickly, then they can serve as peer tutors for other students who are having more difficulty.

While students are learning about the word-processing software, remove the diskette from the disk drive to prevent the program from being damaged should students inadvertently perform a function that writes to the disk.

Encourage students to do extensive pre-writing on the computer. Most of what has been written about composing on a word processor has focused on drafting and editing. Yet the most powerful use of the word processor is probably in the prewriting stage. A word processor allows students to enter, organize, and edit their thoughts easily, thus building a strong foundation of ideas from which drafting can be initiated.

Pre-writing on a word processor involves several steps, the first of which is choosing a working topic. The topic can be assigned by the teacher or chosen by the student, but, in either case, students should first enter a working topic. The topic, remaining at the top of the document, will then serve as a ready reference by which students can judge later ideas.

Once students choose a working topic, they can enter supporting ideas in a rough form, as these capture only the essence of what the writer wishes to express. Trying to impose a high degree of structure at this stage will impede the flow of ideas. Students should separate each idea from others by at least one blank line.

After listing several ideas, writers should compare each idea to the topic and ask "Does it fit?" If an idea does not fit, writers should type question marks at the beginning of the idea but make no other changes. After comparing all the ideas with the working topic, writers should examine the points closely. If only a few are related to the working topic, then the teacher should encourage students to change the topic. If most of the ideas support the topic, then the topic is valid, and students should delete or change only unrelated points.

Now, writers can go back and refine the supporting ideas, not from a usage perspective, but still from a conceptual point of view. Students might reorder ideas into a new sequence, condense several ideas into a single idea, or break a single general idea into several more specific ideas.

Refining ideas should be repeated several times at different computer sessions. Students should have the luxury of time to think and should play with their ideas. Usually, the more time spent at the prewriting stage, the better the final product.

COMPUTERS and COMPOSITION 1(2), February 1984, page 7

Start a great idea file. Virtually every writer has faced the problem of what to do with "great ideas" that simply do not fit the content of a paper. When composing is done by hand, the ideas are sometimes simply ignored and forgotten, or are jotted down on a piece of paper to be ignored or forgotten at some future date. With a word processor, however, these thoughts can be preserved in a "Great Idea" file. Just create a file called "Great Ideas," and, as priceless thoughts come into existence, store them in the file.

One good way to use a "Great Idea" file is to review it periodically to see if the ideas it contains fit a paper that is currently in progress. Another use is as a stimulus for writing; Check the "Great Idea" file before attempting to choose a subject; one of the ideas in the file might prove to be the perfect topic.

A "Great Idea" file serves an additional purpose: it shows students that their ideas might still be important, even if they do not fit the current topic of a composition. No matter how many times a writer faces self, peer, or teacher criticism, it is still disappointing to discover that an idea is lacking something. A "Great Idea" file diminishes the impact of negative criticism and provides students with a resource they can call upon in their future efforts.

Set the right margin of the printer to half-measure during the editing stage. Even with word-processing software, editing a manuscript on paper can become a nightmare if there are many revisions and your thoughts are coming fast and furious. As text is inserted and paragraphs are moved, the manuscript becomes more and more convoluted, and soon the thread of meaning is hopelessly tangled.

The easiest way to avoid this situation is to anticipate it and to display the manuscript in half-measure. Simply set the right margin of the printer to half the width of the paper, and you will have plenty of room for your editing. The manuscript itself will occupy the left side of the paper, leaving the right half for comments and possible changes. This practice is especially helpful if you want to insert an idea but are not sure exactly what idea it will be. If students are working together to criticize each other's manuscripts, the space on the right of the printed document will enable several students to write their comments on the same manuscript and to see what others have said.


The computer equipped with a word processor has provided us with an exciting new means by which to enhance the teaching of composition. Undoubtedly, teachers can extend many of their traditional methods to teaching composition with word processing, but the greatest benefits of this new medium will evolve through innovative instructional practices. The suggestions presented in this paper are only a few of the innovations possible with the word processor, and as teachers become more familiar with the medium, they will discover many more. And, in exploring how word-processing software aids composition instruction, they will add to their own enjoyment and that of their students.