2(1), November 1984, page 1

The Word-Processor and the Writer: A Systems Analysis

Charles Moran
Writing Program, Bartlett Hall
University of Massachusetts
Amherst, MA 01003

In the winter of 1982, I turned our children's Apple II into a low-rent word-processor and began to write with an abandon that was, for me, unprecedented. With the wind of this new experience in my sails, I even wrote about word-processing, saying, in an article I now wish I could delete from the files,1 that because word-processing had been of such tremendous value to me, it would inevitably be also to others, and in particular to young writers. I argued, as others have since, that the machine would facilitate revising, largely because it removed the "copying penalty" that had hitherto accompanied any major change in a text. I have since recovered from my fit of enthusiasm. This article is the result of a measured and rational attempt to answer this question: when we introduce a new technology, word-processing, into a complex human activity, writing, what will be the probable effects? I begin with the dying words of Samuel Richardson's arch-villain, Robert Lovelace: "Let This Expiate."

A writer is usefully considered a system: a complex entity consisting of inter-related and interactive subsystems. The subsystems that we might consider are beyond my ability to catalogue, but let me suggest a few. The writer has a set of physiological systems, including the sensory-motor system and the cardio-vascular system; the writer has developed and/or was born with a set of cognitive systems that permit perception, information storage and retrieval, and problem-solving; the writer has a set of psychological systems, including, let us say, innate drives, learned counter-forces to those same drives, and a mechanism that mediates between the force and the counter-force. You will note that I have reduced and simplified to an almost criminal extent. The alternative is to give you book-length studies on each of the listed sub-systems. When we had finished this labor, mine of writing, yours of reading, we would understand that a single human being is a system of infinite complexity, one whose sub-systems defy full description and therefore seem--may indeed be--infinitely various. Moreover, this being is not only a function of the character of its subsystems, but of the character of their interaction with each other. This interaction is also complex beyond our powers of analysis and description and therefore seems--and may indeed be--infinitely various. This "systems" approach to the writer brings us to a truth that is intuitively accepted by most of us but often lost sight of in the world of pedagogy: each writer is unique; writers differ from one another. To paraphrase S. I. Hayakawa,2 "Writer one is not writer two."

To complicate the situation further, this highly individual entity, the "writer," does not stand alone but exists in an interactive relationship with other systems. The writer works within an ideological system, a political system, a social system, an ecosystem, a history, an economy, a culture. In each of the listed categories there is a range of possible systems. Is the writer working within a totalitarian (teacher-centered) system? Or a non-totalitarian (student-centered) system? It makes all the difference. Another word for the systems within which the writer exists is CONTEXT and, as Janet Emig and others have told us, when considering a writer we must include this context in our field of vision.3 The systems with which the writer interacts are, like the systems that constitute the writer, complex beyond our ability to describe them, and their interaction with the individual human being is therefore exponentially beyond our ability to describe it. And to give the screw a final turn, writing itself is not a single act but an array of activities that take place in a wide range of sequences, sometimes progressive, sometimes recursive.

Taking this systems perspective on the writer brings our topic, as it were, down to earth. The introduction of word-processing technology into the "system" that is the writer will not be simply "good" or "bad." Word-processing will affect the writer in the way that the introduction of a chemical affects a physiology. The change affects every element of the system and alters every relationship in the system. The effects will be manifold and impossible to predict. Some will be considered beneficial and others harmful. I propose to look at a few of the salient features of word-processing, and, using self, friends, and family as my sample, consider the effect of these new elements on the systems to which they have been introduced. Any extrapolation from this small sample to other writers is problematic.

One of the conspicuous differences between word-processing and other writing technologies is

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that with a word-processor the writer can write faster. With the word-processor most of us can get more language "down" more rapidly than we could with pen, pencil, or typewriter. The effect of word-processing on our speed will be a function of our keyboarding skill. If we are very young and have no experience at all with typewriters, the hunt for the correct letter may be more frustrating and slow than the attempt to draw the same letter. But for those of us with even minimal typing skills, word-processing will increase the speed with which we can produce written language. There are no carriage returns at the line end, there is no paper to load into the typewriter, and typographical errors seem to matter less, because they can be so easily changed.

It is generally assumed that this increased speed is a boon to all writers. It has proved to be so to me, and yet I am not all writers; I am a particular writer with a unique history. I would put myself in the category of "blocked" writers. My "block" is an effect whose causes I can only imperfectly understand. I am what Garrison Keillor calls "a shy person." When I was young I stammered. I have never been tremendously confident--a fact that I can account for by looking hard at my own early history as a family member and as a member of an anglophile and Protestant culture. I edit my own work hard--sometimes before it appears. I recently discovered either a precursor or cause of this tendency: my mother's manuscript music compositions, most with the words "awful" or "derivative" written, in her own handwriting, across the top of the page. My paternal grandfather was an historian, the author of two books and many articles. My father, in the way of some eldest sons, did not value what his father had done. When the paternal voice is strong in my ear, my writing is, like my grandfather's, of little value. So my "block"--note how inadequate this word now seems--is an effect that has many, many causes--a constellation of causes that may be unique. No one else has my history.

The new writing speed offered by the word-processor has had at least these effects on my writing: I edit what I write less forcefully as I write it, and I give more value to the words that I now see on the screen before me. I edit less forcefully because the editor has less time to act--the words are up there before I can prevent their appearance. The words are, moreover, not yet on paper. They are phosphor dots, not type, and therefore transient, movable, not, given my deep grounding in a print culture, real. If they are wrong or stupid, so what? Up they fly, to be edited/revised later. In addition, I give more value to my words now that they are on the screen. I do not believe this to be the effect of a television analogy, for I do not watch much television. I do love machines--I have been called a mechanic disguised as a humanist--and the word-processor is a slick machine. My father was an engineer and race-car driver before he was a stockbroker. Our family grew up with automobiles--carburetor parts in my sock-drawer--and word-processing allows me to associate my writing with the new prestige machine: the computer. Therefore what I write must have value--a value conferred on it by the technology that I have used to produce it.

A good friend of mine, however, has experienced a rather different effect. We are both college teachers both humanists, persons of similar age, physiotype, and ambition. Yet my friend initially found that his Apple made his writing worse. "It makes me write too fast," he complained. For him, the writing speed made possible by the machine prevented valuable editing from taking place. His writing became, according to his own account, "more open" and required severe, after-the-fact editing and revising. He has since returned to the word-processor, entirely because of its efficiency. He has completed one book and begun another. He guesses that the machine enables him to work 50% faster because it eliminates the typist--the necessary typing and re-typing of book-length drafts. But he is still ambivalent about the machine. His first drafts are, he feels, more open less highly-wrought, and less well-organized. He has, it seems clear, shifted the locus of his editing. With pen in hand, he edited/organized before and while he wrote; now, with his word-processor, he edits/organizes after he writes. Word-processing has introduced a new step in his writing, and he is not altogether pleased with the change.

Clearly this new "fast writing" capability has had different effects on two human beings who are, superficially, at least, quite similar. I do not know my friend as well as I know myself, but I see at least these differences. My friend is a relatively confident writer, one who has written much more than I have. His confidence in his own writing has been validated by the world of readers and publishers. He is not as likely as I am to cancel his work before it appears on paper. And my friend does not particularly love new technology. In his background machines have not

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been conspicuous. He does not have an author-relative in his recent past, but he does have composers and painters--people who do hand-work. He is therefore more likely to see writing as ineluctably connected to graphics, to the making of marks by the human hand. For him, and here I begin to imagine, the act of writing is self-expression through motion, the hand traveling over paper and making marks, designs, shapes of language. For me, the act of writing is overcoming a sense of inadequacy deeply felt before the blank page, working past the stammer toward full articulation--and, like my father before me, expressing myself through a machine.

My friend finds that word-processing's "fast-writing" characteristic makes more work for him: it forces him to edit his early drafts forcefully and thoroughly. He stays with the word-processor, however, because of a second characteristic of this new technology: word-processing makes revising easier, because it allows for rapid, cut-and-paste text manipulation, and because it eliminates much tedious retyping. On the face of it, this second characteristic should prove an unalloyed blessing to all writers. And yet, like the first characteristic we have considered, "fast writing" capability, it does not. Revision does not always make writing better. Inexperienced writers often make their work worse as they go, and so do experienced writers, although less often. The word-processor's "ease of revising" capability will be useful to the writer who is adept at revising. To the writer who revises poorly, word-processing will make this poor revising faster and easier.

Revision is an attempt to bring what is into closer alignment with what should be. Revising cannot take place in the absence of an imagined "better"--a new direction, a further development, a finer distinction. A writer's ability to imagine something better than the first draft is a function of a particular aspect of the writer's history: the writer's store of models, acquired through reading and through writing--exposure to the work of others and experience with one's own work. The writer's ability to revise toward the imagined "better" will be a function of the writer's confidence in his/her ability to move usefully in the new direction, to push on usefully to further development, to refine the distinction without creating other kinds of confusion in the process. So it is not surprising that the Massachusetts Assessment of Educational Progress discovered that only half of the teen-agers, when given a chance to revise their work, made it better.4 The "easy revising" made possible by word-processing will be a blessing only to those writers who have a good sense of a "better" toward which they can revise, and who have the experience and confidence to press on toward that elusive goal. Writers who do not have this sense of "better" will revise rapidly and pointlessly, producing final drafts that may be worse than earlier drafts. Writers who do not have experience and confidence may see the "better," but they may not push on through to its realization. Revising behavior will be a function of a writer's history, physiology, and of the context in which the writer works. Every writer is unique.

A writer's ability to revise will also depend upon the writer's attitude toward the clean-typed or printed page. The word-processor makes it possible to make a clean-printed draft of what you have written, no matter how good or bad the writing. For a student writer like our son whose handwriting is difficult to read, this clean mid-process draft makes revision, at least potentially, easier, because it is easier to read the printed draft than it was to read the handwritten draft. Because the draft is more legible, large-scale revision is easier to imagine: the writing can be read more rapidly, and therefore its macrostructure can be more readily seen. But this same clean draft may produce another radically different effect. Because the draft is clean-typed, all margins justified and straight, almost like a book, the writer may feel that the writing is better than it is. This writing looks like what you see in books; writing that appears in print has been refereed and edited; therefore this writing I have just pulled from the printer has been refereed and edited and must be good, just as it is. This effect of the clean draft will occur to the extent that the writer is unaware of the work that, invisible, precedes the printed text.

The effect of the word-processor's potential for rapid revision will depend also upon the writer's work habits. If the writer sits down well before the deadline and begins to draft, then we can suppose that the word-processor will enable this writer to more closely approach potential. If the writer works at the last minute, however, the new technology will allow the writer to postpone and avoid the task even longer. In our family, one of our children falls into the first category, and one into the second. Our son gets to work early and therefore can revise more often and more thoroughly. Our daughter, however, writes at the last minute, in one case so close to the wire that she had to ask me to print the essay for her

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and deliver it to school. In my own case, I find that "ease of revising" causes me, sometimes, to postpone forever the final revision. More frequently than before I see in print language that would have been changed in the last run through the typewriter.

Finally, the new technology's effect upon a writer's revising behavior will be a function of that writer's attitude toward that technology. Writers like myself, who have long-standing love affairs with machines, will believe in their efficacy and reliability and excuse their faults. When our Apple misfires, and it does so more frequently now--do machines grow old?--I look for ways around the difficulty. To prevent loss of text I now save files more frequently. I am energized, not repelled, by the complexity of the block-revision routine on our ancient word-processing program. This love of machines generates, inevitably, its own forms of avoidance behavior--proofreading text that is fundamentally unsound, tidying up the disks on which my articles and drafts are stored. But I work on the machine without fear. Writers who distrust machines will have a rather different time of it. The first time they lose a file they will react as Pirsig's romantics react to their broken motorcycle: by kicking the machine and damning technology.5

In making my argument, I have looked closely at only two of the salient features of word-processing: speed of production and ease of revising. There are other features that will, like the two I have chosen, have different effects upon different writers. The word-processing screen, for example, becomes an audience of sorts, one that will perhaps affect the writer's sense of audience. Will this produce more writer-based prose? The writer writing to the screen-self? The word-processing screen holds only a screenful of words--150-250 words, generally. What effect will this page-size have upon the way writers work? And what will be the effect of spelling-checker programs? Style-analysis programs? It all depends, as I hope I have made clear. It all depends upon the individual character of the writer. What we must expect, given an array of individual writers, is an array of different effects. Some writer will want to compose their first drafts longhand and bring them to the screen for revising. Others will compose on the screen. Some will work one way when confronted with writing task A, and another way when confronted with writing task B. Some will be able to do large-scale revising, most of the time, on the screen; others will have to work, most of the time, on hard copy. Some will be able to compose in a crowded, newsroom-like terminal room, comfortable public writers; others will need to compose in a quiet and private place.

It is, of course, the case that we are in transition from one technology to the next, and that what hold true now will not be true once the new technology is firmly established. The writer who learned to write with pen/pencil and paper has a different history from one who learned on a word-processor, and, given a different history, will connect to the technology in a different way. It will not soon be the case, however, that every writer will begin on a word-processor. Pen, pencil, and paper are cheap and accessible; word-processors are expensive and therefore relatively inaccessible. The automobile was first a toy for the very rich. Only recently has it become a necessity for certain kinds of lives. There are still garages without automobiles, and people without garages. Word-processors may sit on every desk, but unless our economy and our politics undergo rapid change, not everyone will have a desk. The relatively timid dream of a chicken in every pot has not come to pass. Until everyone has food and shelter, it is pointless to think of universal word-processing. In the foreseeable future we will, therefore, be working in our schools and colleges with writers who learned to write with pen and pencil. When word-processors do become a substantial presence, our students will react to the new technology in different and unpredictable ways. It will be as critical then as it is now to understand that writers differ from each other in important and valuable ways. Writing is human behavior, as difficult to account for and predict as love, and as mysterious as the human soul.


1 Charles Moran, "Word-processing and the teaching of writing," English Journal, 72, Number 3 (March 1983), 113-15.

2 S. I. Hayakawa, Language in Thought and Action (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949), 213-15.

3 Janet Emig, "Inquiry paradigms and writing," College Composition and Communication, 33 (February 1982), 55, 67. Cited by Carol Berkenkotter in "Designs and Revisions: The Planning Strategies of a Publishing Writer," College Composition and Communication, 34 (May 1983), 156.

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4 Mary Ann Hardenburgh, et al.., Massachusetts Educational Assessment Program: Writing, 1975-1976. (Massachusetts Board of Education, 1977), 36-7. More recent studies have been done on smaller populations with similar findings. One good example of such a study is reported by John C. Bean in College Composition and Communication, 34, (May 1983), 146-149.

5 Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (New York: Bantam Books, 1975), 52-4.