9(1), November 1992, pages 127-134

A Deep and Welcomed Emptiness

Peggy Mulvihill

Once upon a time, one of the teachers who worked for me in the communications unit at the Center for Academic Development got terribly excited about something called hypertext. This colleague contacted someone named Michael Joyce, and the two of them began to speculate on the possibility of my unit becoming a beta site for the hypertext program, STORYSPACE. As the teacher pleaded for my support and begged me to join forces, I saw no reason to stifle his enthusiasm. I agreed to participate and offered my next junior-level writing course as a sacrificial class, despite the fact that I had no understanding of hypertext and no experience on Macintosh computers, for which the program STORYSPACE is designed. But my support, I thought, took very little courage; after all, my unit did not even include a computer lab.

On the first day of classes in the winter semester of 1989, as I gathered my papers and began my jaunt to meet a new group of junior-level writers, I heard a voice from behind me shout, "They're here!" When I turned around, my colleague, in a flurry of excitement, explained that he had somehow managed to get Apple Computer to lend us a small computer lab and that the plans for the STORYSPACE beta site were on.

Thus began my relationship with STORYSPACE. I can honestly say that my students and I have lived happily ever after since that first encounter. I began to learn, quickly, I might add, about the power and freedom that this program lends to the writing process. I continue to use STORYSPACE in my writing classes because I have found it to be an extraordinary application for both the teaching of writing and for the act of writing.

STORYSPACE and the Writing Process

In any writing class where process is stressed and respected, STORYSPACE will be an asset. Although I have used the program mostly in developmental writing, my colleagues and I have also used it in first-year composition, advanced (junior-level) writing, and upper-level education (writing for teachers) courses. In every case, the program--the first hypertext program to be designed for writing teachers--has enhanced the course.

One of the reasons for my enthusiasm is that STORYSPACE provides writing teachers with an application flexible enough not only to accommodate the writing process but also to show the writing process. Students may create places to hold ideas, drag one place inside of another, link one to another, and then, with a simple click of the mouse, view their ideas as an outline or as a flowchart. With another click, they can split windows, causing the outline, flowchart, or STORYSPACE view to appear on the left and a text window to appear on the right (see Figure 1). This allows the user to see their organization even as they write. In other words, the program shows students some of the dimensions of their own writing processes and facilitates the writing and thinking processes better than I had imagined a software program could.


[Figure 1]

Figure 1. Three Ways to View Writing. Users may choose the STORYSPACE view, shown in the upper right; the outline view, shown upper left; or the flowchart view.

Another program feature allows for workshopping student drafts on-line. The "Star" tool allows readers to write comments about the draft. Readers simply highlight any portion of the text they wish to respond to and then choose the "Star" tool from the tool bar. A small text box appears, allowing the reader to enter her or his comments. The "Close" box makes the comment disappear, and the process is repeated until the reader is finished. The writer may hold down the OPTION and COMMAND keys to see where comments have been entered. Any annotated text will appear outlined. To read the comments, the writer simply clicks inside any outlined area, and then chooses the "Navigate" tool (a double arrow on the tool bar). The note appears.

As students revise their writing in STORYSPACE, they have the benefit of readily seeing all the ideas they and others have recorded during the writing process. They can access peer comments, brainstorm lists, early freewrites, or even electronic journal entries from inside the same file as they work on a draft.

Learning the Program

Although STORYSPACE is a powerful and sophisticated program, its fundamental features are easy to learn. There are basically two types of screens in STORYSPACE: "Text" screens and "Place" screens. In a "Text" screen, the program acts much like a word-processing program, except that it has more powerful capabilities such as linking. Users can enter text, cut and paste, copy, and so on with the same basic commands used in Microsoft WORD. In a "Place" screen, the program allows users to create places for ideas and text. When the program is first opened in the default STORYSPACE view, the places look like shoe boxes with title spaces on the lids. The boxes can be moved inside of one another simply by dragging them with the mouse. The places change their look when the user chooses a different view (e.g., "Outline" or "Flowchart") from the top menu.

Students with computer experience may struggle initially because it is unlikely that they have experience with hypertext. Once they accept that the application is not a word-processing program but a hypertext program, they learn it quickly and easily. Teachers can walk students through a simple exercise the first day of class that not only teaches them a few basic features of STORYSPACE but also gets them started on their first writing assignment. In other words, from the time the program is introduced to students, the writing process may begin. The time learning the program, then, is well spent.

For example, in one of my expository classes in which juniors would be writing about issues all semester, the students started prewriting their first assignment--a personal narrative about sexism--during their first encounter with STORYSPACE. I showed them how to open the program and then told them to click on the "Box" tool. They were told to create a box (click anywhere in the white space) and call it Brainstorm. Then I showed them how to open a "Text" window, instructing them to double click on the title bar. Students began to brainstorm a list of times when they failed to act the way their respective genders were expected to act. Our focus that day fell on the subject of the assignment, not on the program. We discussed their lists, and then I told them to choose "Explode" from the "Features" menu. This command automatically creates a place (a box in the STORYSPACE view) for each of the items listed in the writer's Brainstorm. Now the students, faced with a number of boxes labeled with their own ideas, could open any text window and begin freewriting. Even on the first day in the computer classroom, my students learned several basic features of the program while remaining focused on the lesson plan. For the most part, each semester my students learn to use the program before they even realize they have learned it.

When I first used STORYSPACE, I learned it a half step ahead of my students. As I mentioned, I had no experience with the program before I used it in a classroom. Of course, I recommend a better level of preparedness, but I mention my first experience to make the point that the program is easy to learn. My own learning happened mostly as I planned classes. I planned objectives for each class and then asked how STORYSPACE could be used to reach those objectives. I have found over and over that the program helps me accomplish my classroom goals in a way that pleases both me and my students.


Some users may be disappointed in the program's refusal to be a word-processing application. It has no spell checker, and layout commands are few. Converting text to MACWRITE or Microsoft WORD though, is quite easy due to a built-in conversion feature, and importing text is also simple. In one of my developmental writing classes in which students published a book at the end of the term, the class did all their work--invention, organization, writing, and rewriting--in STORYSPACE. At the end of the class, though, we converted everything to Microsoft WORD so we could work on layout and use the spell checker. In other words, we used the word-processing program for cosmetic reasons; we used the hypertext program for thinking and writing.

Users will find the program's "Path Builder" somewhat difficult to use. This feature is intended to handle complex links and is itself fairly complex. The manual becomes more important than ever when attempting to use this feature, though even with instructions the going is likely to be slow. The "Path Builder" allows users to create multiple links and to create tours through documents.

Creating Hypertext Documents

Of course, one of the most obvious capabilities of STORYSPACE is that writers may create their own hypertext documents. Fortunately, for those interested in creating hypertexts, the linking feature is not difficult to master. One way to link an idea to another is to simply highlight some text--even a whole "Place"--click on the "Link" tool, and place the link (which appears as a line) in the "Tunnel" tool. Then the user goes to the destination idea or text and clicks again on the "Tunnel" tool which releases the end of the link. Another click on the destination idea or text creates the link. To create more than one link at a time, the program includes a "Path Builder" where links can be created even by way of "keywords."

In my upper-level writing courses, I have given students the options of creating hypertexts or hard copy texts. Some of them, a minority, have elected to work on hypertexts, and the results have been interesting. Even without prior discussion, the students begin to notice some of the implications hypertext creates for reading and writing as we have always known it. These implications lead inevitably to some interesting class discussions, but the hypertexts created by my students thus far have not been overwhelmingly impressive. Some of the students paid more attention to their electronic links than they did to the content of their writing. On behalf of the few who created effective hypertexts, by working harder than anyone else in the class, I will say it can be done.

So at the risk of disappointing the hypertext gurus and their followers, I must admit that I see STORYSPACE as a valuable classroom tool, not because it enables students to create hypertexts but because it enables them to more naturally pursue their writing processes on-line.

Designing STORYSPACE Materials

Often, what attracts educators to certain applications is the number and quality of class exercises embedded within the program. Admittedly, STORYSPACE contains no such exercises. But the program's many features allow teachers to design their own class exercises to suit individual styles of teaching. On many occasions, I have entered a set of heuristics specifically written for given assignments. With a split screen, students may navigate through my questions as they choose (see Figure 2). If they feel an urge to begin drafting, that option is open to them as well. I have also created exercises that include a number of links so that students may choose various ideas or topics to explore. One exercise gives students a list of tips on how to eliminate wordiness. They may click on any of the tips, and then click on the "Navigate" tool, which takes them to a screen that explains the tip, gives examples, and presents practice sentences. Another exercise lists types of imaginative leads. Students choose any of the types and then find themselves reading, for example, an explanation of a dramatic opening, an example of one, and then a prompt that asks them to try this type of lead for the assignment they are currently working on. I now have a whole repertoire of exercises that pertain to various assignments and various parts of the writing process.

Of course, I spent more time designing exercises when I was unfamiliar with the program, but even then I was amazed at how quickly I was able to put something together. I have found the program so versatile that it not only accommodates most of my standard classroom exercises but it also enhances them. Students seem much more eager to work through the STORYSPACE exercises in which they control the order and the pace at which they work.


[Figure 2]

Figure 2. Designing Writing Assignment Heuristics in STORYSPACE. Choosing "Anchor windows side by side" from the "Write" menu causes the screen to split, which allows writers to navigate through their own writing so that they may work on any part of their documents at any time. In this case, students may navigate through a set of teacher-designed questions.


Unlike word processing, which restricts writers to flat lists, freewrites, and drafts, STORYSPACE offers space, a deep emptiness actually, where at last writers may record thoughts and show their relationships to one another without losing track of a single idea. Recently, when I was on leave to write a full-length play, I found myself experiencing the limitations of word processing. I began to write the play in a word-processing program, but as I started writing dialogue, new plot ideas and thematic insights began to emerge. I wanted to record those ideas so they would not be lost. I could have listed them right there in the middle of my dialogue, or I could have created a new file and listed them there, but I wanted my ideas before me. I wanted them organized and accessible. I went to STORYSPACE, where I could make one place for plot ideas, one for themes, another for characters, and still another for sets. The list goes on. I was able to record every idea and then link them to one another so that I could go about inventing a play. Even though I was not writing a hypertext document but a traditional stage play, STORYSPACE facilitated my writing and thinking processes in a way that word processing could not. As a writer, I experienced a new freedom created by the deep and welcomed emptiness of STORYSPACE. This is a freedom I wish to continue to share with all my students.

Peggy Mulvihill is Communications Coordinator for The Center for Academic Development at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

STORYSPACE is available from the following source:

Eastgate Systems
P. O. Box 1307
Cambridge, MA 02238
(800) 562-1638

Single copy: $215
Ten-pack: $595

System requirements are a Macintosh Plus or higher.