5(3) p. 29

How to get the Words Just Right: A Reappraisal of WordProcessing and Revision

Paul LeBlanc

At the University of Massachusetts/Amherst, we have been teaching English 112, "College Writing," on computers for three years. In that time, we have seen a flood of scholarly work examining student writing and word processing, a 300% increase in journal submissions on the topic. Much of that work has focused on revision, an area of the writing process where most people locate word processing's greatest strength as a writing tool. The ease with which one can make changes in text, without ever paying the price of retyping, has been well- documented (Daiute, 1983). Established writers have sung the praises of word processing for the way it simplifies their task, leaving more time to write, revise, and edit (Zinsser, 1983). In the classroom, researchers found the same phenomena occurring when student writers went from pencil and pen to keyboard and started to produce and revise more text (Daiute, 1983; Rosegrant, 1984). However, that initial ardor has cooled somewhat, and much of the early praise for the benefits of writing on computers has withered in the face of new critical

p. 30

analysis. Regarding revision, Collette Daiute now finds that more meaningful revision takes place with pen and paper than computer, and Jeannette Harris sees not only fewer higher-level revisions but also fewer revisions taking place on the computer than on paper (Daiute, 1986; Harris, 1985).

Both the early enthusiasm and the later skepticism about revision and using word-processing programs has seemed a bit extreme to me. Simply, I have had students who seem to revise quite .effectively on the machines, while others seemed almost hindered by the power of the computer. Using a case study approach with six students over two semesters, I have looked closely at the question of word processing and revision. The results of that work suggest three points for research and teaching in this area:

  1. Instructors teaching writing on computers need to identify the effects of word processing on the writing processes of individual students, recognizing degrees of compatibility between the two and offering strategies to maximize the computer's helpfulness.

  2. Word processing does not so much create new modes of behavior in the student writer (creating effective revisers, for example) as much as it renders already existing writing behavior more or less effective.

  3. Future research into the revising behavior of student writers should be expanded from comparisons of mid-process and final drafts to examination of the writing process as a whole.


The six students in my case studies were volunteers from my first-year composition class. They were chosen from a larger pool of volunteers on the basis of their competent writing skills as identified in a screening exercise, two writing samples completed during the first week of class. Another prerequisite for the student's

p. 31

participation was the ability to type, though typing speed was not considered. The students wrote the same assignments as their classmates and followed the normal progression of the course: seven essays, each of about a thousand words, written over a single term. However, the students selected for the case study were asked to keep a writing log in which they would record their work for any given writing session, no matter the length of the session or the amount of work accomplished.

These logs became one of the three methods used for examining the students' writing. The logs were, of course, only as reliable as the students' ability to describe what they had done in a given work session, as well as their general faithfulness in keeping the log. My second window into the students' writing was through periodic interviews with individual students, and a group session at the semester's end. Finally, I used close observations of student writing behavior, and analysis of their drafts and finished essays as a means of examination. I asked them to make hard copies of all new versions of their writing, no matter how rudimentary the changes, and to make hard copies of any text worked on within a writing session. This procedure resulted in sets of notes, outlines, and series of drafts for each student in each assignment. I also recorded what I observed in the lab, especially the students' use of the function keys necessary for both high and low level revision: text movement keys, cut and paste keys, deletion and insertion keys, and copy text keys. My findings stand on the three legs of student observation, teacher observation, and student text.


In their recent work on revising and word processing, both Daiute and Harris locate revision in the progression from some mid-process draft to a final draft, what Daiute calls "draft-revision pairs" (1986, p. 148). Harris admits to what I believe is a problem with their methodology:

Revision is not simply the act of making changes in a final draft, but is a recursive process that occurs
p. 32
throughout writing; I, nevertheless, analyzed only those modifications that occurred between the two drafts submitted to me: the rough draft on which I made comments and the final draft (1985, p. 325).

Daiute's and Harris' research falls prey to the narrow pedagogical view of revision as the last stage in a linear writing process of invention-composition-rewriting. Daiute makes this assertion: "Short term memory limits affect writers as they compose, indicating that composing and revising are most efficient when done in separate steps" (1986, p. 142). Her assumption seems to undercut current views that understand revision as generative, as shaping text even at the point of production.

Using the narrower parameters of the draft-revision pair for examining revising behavior creates a problem: much of the writing that ought to be considered revision is likely to have taken place before the first of the two drafts. Take, for example, one of my writers, Kathleen, for whom the line between composing and revising was indistinct. In the early stages of her writing, Kathleen writes a single paragraph, laboring over it "until it is just right," before proceeding to the next. For Kathleen, the paragraph is the rhetorical center of her writing. Each paragraph is revised extensively before the writer proceeds to the next (Berthoff, 1984). The following are three versions of the same paragraph. This first paragraph was produced in an early work session for a given assignment:

I thought Michelle hurt Christine's feelings alot now. When they were younger they played together much of the time, but now they were always fighting. Maybe Michelle was right in getting angry at Christine, who was always borrowing her stuff, but she was much younger after all.

Kathleen produced the first two sentences in the above excerpt with little pause but lingered over the third sentence for almost ten minutes. When she completed that sentence, she hit the key marking the end of a paragraph but returned to her just-completed text and produced the next version of it:

p. 33

Michelle was always getting angry at Christine, and I didn't thin it was right. I know Christine can be a pain, borrowing skirts and sweaters and always leaving them in her room instead of bringing them back. But Michelle just didn't get angry, she also hurt Michelle's feelings and say things she never said to her before. This wasn't the understanding Michelle I always knew.

Note that the third sentence in the first version not only becomes the first sentence, but Kathleen moves from saying Michelle "maybe . . . was right" to "I didn't think it was right," a significant shift in meaning. Kathleen has also filled the paragraph with more concrete details. Kathleen handed in the second version of the paragraph, which represented the mid-process draft, for my comments.

The next version of this paragraph was created between the mid-process draft and the final draft, that phase of the writing process where Daiute and Harris focused their examination. Kathleen has merely made word- and sentence-level changes in this reworking of the paragraph, and no higher level revision has occurred:

Michelle was always getting angry at Christine, and I didn't think it was right. I know Christine can be a pain, borrowing shirts and sweaters and always leaving then in her room. never bringing them back. However, Michelle didn't just get angry, she also hurt Michelle's feelings and said things she had never said before. This wasn't the understanding Michelle I always knew before.

In this case, Kathleen is obviously editing, not revising. Using Faigley and Witte's taxonomy for revision types and looking only at Kathleen's draft-revision pair, one would conclude that this student, working on a computer, is not making meaningful revisions in her text. However, if we examine the first version of the above paragraph, which would not be included in either Daiute's or Harris' diagnostics, we see extensive and significant revision.

p. 34

Kathleen's behavior as a writer and reviser points to the limitations of using only draft-revision pairs for revision analysis. Of the six students with whom I worked, three were making significant changes in text before handing in a mid-process draft. Taking into account current theories of revision, born out in the writing processes of student writers like Kathleen, future research in this area needs to consider revision as it is located in the whole of the writing process--from point of inscription to final draft. Otherwise, the place we look for revision will have much to do with the revision we find there. Although I might point out that the revising behavior of three of my six students would be inaccurately described in Daiute's and Harris' work, I do not suggest that my six case studies firmly refute their findings. My work suggests a way to complement their valuable research by broadening their scope of investigation. The research also reminds us again of the inadequacy of a writing model which posits revision as a late stage in a linear writing process.


Much research in the area of computers and writing addresses the impact of a new technology on writing behavior, seeking to identify the changes in the writing behavior of the person who moves from pen and paper to keyboard and monitor. The key to this inquiry is recognizing speed as the chief feature of word processing as a writing technology. We can do no more on a computer than we can do by hand with the aid of scissors, glue, a fresh ribbon for our typewriter, and extra paper. However, we can't match the speed and ease of the computer. Using word-processing programs, we produce text more quickly than we do in longhand or on a typewriter, never loading paper or hitting a carriage return at the end of a line. We correct errors with the touch of a key and rearrange blocks of text in a moment--always looking at the clean "electronic page" of the monitor. We make all these changes without looking forward to the tedious task of retyping clean copy. The speed and accompanying ease of text handling that the computer affords us have a real effect on the way we write and revise but

p. 35

not in the creation of new writing behaviors or strategies. This fact is most obvious in the area of revision.

The writer revises to bring an existing text closer to an ideal that exists in the head--getting the words just right for the writer, for the reader, and for the situation. The ability to imagine that ideal text, or better still, multiple versions of it, is integral to effective revision. As Charles Moran pointed out:

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 works 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 without creating other kinds of confusion in the process. (1984, p. 3)

Giving a student an easier way to rearrange text and removing the penalty of retyping clean drafts will not result in significant revising behavior if the student cannot imagine an alternative text and draw upon models of how that text might look. The first-year writer placed in front of the computer will not be miraculously endowed with refined revision skills. Instead, that first-year writer will do what he or she has always done--perhaps more or perhaps less of it but not something new.

My case studies revealed the way that apparent changes in revising behavior were in fact not so much new behaviors as much as already learned behavior altered by the speed of the computer. Students differ in their writing processes, so the influence of the computer will be different for each student: Consider the example of Doug, one of the six students with whom I worked. In his log, Doug identified two major changes in moving from paper and pen to computer the speed at which he could now produce text and "losing a sense of page; how many pages are getting written." In an interview, Doug explained the following:

p. 36

When I write by hand [on paper] I write more slowly and I can think about what I'm saying. When I'm using the computer I can type really fast and think out my essay really fast. Now I can get down as much as I can think of--so now I write more pages.

Unlike Kathleen, Doug wrote without ever looking back--editing at the moment of production. As he wrote, he seldom used movement keys to go back into the text or to even reread more than the last couple of sentences he had produced. His first draft, for an early five-page essay assignment, was 10 1/2 pages long, and he came to me bewildered at the task of having to cut so much material. He also felt that the quality of this first draft was not up to his usual standards, though it had seemed easier to create. Because Doug could produce text more easily, physically keeping up with his thoughts, he was spending less time editing those thoughts as they made their way to the page. Revision for Doug took place at the point of inscription, and when inscription was speeded up there was less time for editing. Thus, there was an increased amount of text produced.

Part of Doug's problem was not recognizing the end of a given page. With a typewriter, he had to insert a new page of paper with each new page of text. When writing in longhand, he had the same task. However, the wordwrap capabilities of the word-processing program and its automatic pagination supplied Doug with "fluid text," to use James Catano's term, and took away his sense of progress towards a text length goal. Clearly, this sense of space had helped govern his production of text. In an interview, Doug commented that he had always written "to the required amount of pages." Where Doug had been a more careful writer and reviser off the machines, thinking about his language as he wrote and using page sense to help control his content, he now had to become a late-stage reviser of text that was more ill organized, digressive, and verbose than he was used to. Not practiced or equipped with the strategies for editing text at this late stage in his writing process, he fell into the trap of surface revision and became, I would argue, a much less effective reviser of his work. He became, because of computer speed, the kind of microstructure reviser Harris describes in her work. Note the entries from his work log:

p. 37

Went through a cleaned up my draft. Found lots of spelling errors and a few fragments. Ready to turn in now. Time: 20 minutes.

Finished final draft today, cleaned up sentence problems like fragments and bad wording. Time: 30 minutes.

Using word-processing software did not create new revising behavior for Doug, but its speed forced him to revise at a point in his writing process where his revision strategies were clearly less effective. Doug's ability to imagine a "better" text was impelled by the form of the text he was creating as he was creating it. When creation and revision were separated in time, Doug's ability to revise his writing was hampered by the lack of an imagined better.

Although Doug's revising became less effective on the computer, Elana's revision strategies were clearly aided by the computer, because the two students possessed different writing processes. Unlike Kathleen and Doug, Elana built her text by expanding the raw materials of her essay. Elana started with lists, which she expanded, and then reordered. She would turn the lists into sentences and paragraphs, grouping them together in different ways. Elana was quite comfortable working on a single paragraph, leaving it for another, and coming back to it later. Writing was always revision for Elana, and her first draft was always very close to her final draft. (Note that in an examination of draft-revision pairs, Elana would be considered a non-reviser.) She described her first-stage writing as "getting all my ideas down in any old way and then moving them around and adding to them till they start to come together." On the computer, Elana made more use of the text movement keys than any other student in her class, cutting and pasting, inserting and deleting with a happy vengeance. She found ways to use the boldface, underline, and asterisk keys to highlight parts of her text. The ease with which she could manipulate her text and the perpetually clean electronic copy clearly augmented her writing/revising behavior. In an interview, she commented,

I like inserting text right where I need it. It's better than writing in the margins or in between lines, where you
p. 38
can't even read it. It gets so messy. And being able to move around paragraphs and sentences is good too. Working on the computer makes writing easier.

Elana's comfort with the chaos of creativity and her willingness to change text was accommodated by the computer's function and text movement keys. She could be even less orderly than she had been on paper and would never have to type clean drafts. Unlike Doug, the physical capabilities of the word processor seemed tailor-made to her writing/revising strategy.

The cases of Doug and Elana provide two examples of the way word processing either increases and augments or decreases and hinders pre-existing revising behavior in student writers. In both cases, the speed and facility of the computer has the chief influence on the writer's behavior. Doug's revision strategies are diminished as his production of text increases, and this forces him to revise late in his writing process where he does so less effectively. Elana is able to do more of what she has always done, her revision freed from the physical constraints of messy text and continuous rewriting. Using the same technology, one student's revision process becomes weakened while another student's is empowered.

However, it is important to remember that the technology has not created new revision strategies. Word processing neither adds to nor subtracts from the sum total of models. Experience with text and modes of discourse, and the ability to imagine a better version of what lies before the writer on the page or the monitor are the keys to revision. It is important to recognize the ways in which word processing will act upon individual students' writing/revising strategies, but we must realize that the technology does not alter the difficult task of providing students with a sense of possibilities for their text and a means for bringing the possible in alignment with the writing that lies before them.


As instructors in a computer writing setting, we need to help students reap the greatest benefit from the technology. To do that,

p. 39

we need to identify the various and individual writing/revising strategies of our students and understand how their personal writing processes interact with the speed and facility of the machines. This identifying and understanding might lead to a taxonomy of writer and revisers and a set of plans, conditions, or instructions for their work on the computer. This case-by-case approach makes much more sense than a pedagogy based on wide generalizations of how word-processing software helps or does not help students. The taxonomy requires an intimate knowledge of each student's writing process, a one-on-one approach that computer-based writing invites (I might even argue demands) in the workshop model described by Ronald Sudol and in place here at the University of Massachusetts Computer Writing Center.

The taxonomy of writer and revisers and accompanying computer strategies I suggest can be best illustrated using the examples of Doug and Elana. Elana is the kind of writer I call a builder The chaotic nature of her writing and revising is well served by the computer. I let builders like Elana go off on their own with the machines. In contrast, Doug is a sprinter, the kind of writer who leaves the starting gate and never looks back as he's writing. Doug and I found ways to slow down his writing, to restore some degree of his original revision behavior, and to counteract his loss of "page sense." We did so in three ways. First, I asked Doug to change the setting on his computer from automatic pagination to non-pagination. This forced him to hit an END OF PAGE key every 54 lines of text. Adding this step reminded him of his progress through the text as he wrote, returning to him a sense of page that was important for controlling his text. Second, I encouraged him to make a hard copy of everything he did, to do it often (even in the middle of a writing session at times), and to take this copy home and reread it. This produced some mid-process reflection as he wrote. Third, I worked with Doug on late-stage revising--making large block moves for organization and making his work tighter.

Certainly, there were other types of writers/revisers in the class, and they each demanded their own type of help. Kathleen, for example, was a crafter. She would finely craft each paragraph before going on to the next; however, as the term went on and she became more able on the computer there arose a problem just the opposite of Doug's. Where his editing was reduced because he was

p. 40

creating so much text, Kathleen found she was editing more because she could make changes more quickly and easily. She reported in her log:

Lots of times I make changes and end up going back to what I had before. It is frustrating because the computer doesn't save each version and I have to remember what I had. I think I spend more time rewriting than I used to, but t his is still better.

Kathleen seemed to overwrite at times, and it was clear to me, and often to her, that early versions of text were frequently better than later versions. I suggested she make a quick hard copy of these versions as she wrote so none would be lost, and they could be compared side by side (our DecMate IIIs do not have split-screen capability). In addition, during our frequent one-on-one sessions in the lab, I would simply try to encourage her to move on a bit. Given a little less time to write, Kathleen seemed to belabor her writing less.

The range of writer and revisers varies widely in any given class, and I have hardly scratched the surface in my description. Taxonomies of writers and computer strategies will be affected by a number of variables. The first variable we must confront is, of course, the students. We need to size them up as writers and understand as best we can the writing strategies they bring into the computer writing lab. In addition, the hardware and software one is working with will influence one's computer strategies. The ease with which a particular system can store versions of a text, split screens for text comparison, and network can all influence the kinds of things we might do with our students and their machines. The facility itself and its logistics will be important. How much writing is done in the presence of the instructor, at home, or alone in a lab setting? As Ann Matsuhashi suggests, the assignments given in a writing class will also affect our students and alter their revising from assignment to assignment as the goals and demands of the subject change (Matsuhashi, 1986). The complex number of factors involved need to be factored in by the individual instructor.

The goal of making computers work well within the framework of an individual student's writing process must be allied with the

p. 41

knowledge that the computer will not make the student a significantly better reviser. Without the instructor's help, computers might even make the student a poorer reviser. To understand its effects on our students, we must examine its use at every stage of the writing process, and we must work to make the technology transparent. Otherwise, we run the risk of confusing the physical act of writing (on a keyboard in this case) with the cognitive act of writing. The former has its role but can be altered to make it best serve the latter. Then we can get on to teaching writing and revision, having put the power of computers in perspective and having worked them into our pedagogy in a most useful way.

Paul LeBlanc teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in Amherst, Massachusetts.


Berthoff, A. (1984). Recognition, representation, and revision. In Richard L. Graves (Eds.), Rhetoric and Composition (pp. 27-37). NJ: Boyton/Cook.

Catano, J. ( 1985). Computer-based writing: Navigating the fluid text. College Composition and Communication, 36(3), 309-316.

Daiute, C. (1983). The computer stylus and audience. College Composition and Communication, 34, 134-145.

Daiute, C. (1985). Writing and computers. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Daiute, C. (1986). Physical and cognitive factors in revising: Insights from studies with computers. Research in the Teaching of English, 20, 141-159.

Faigley, L. & Witte, S. (1981). Analyzing revisions. College Composition and Communication, 32, 400-414.

Harris, J. (1985). Student writers and word processing: A preliminary evaluation. College Composition and Communication, 36(3), 323-330.

Matsuhashi, A. (1986). Revising the plan and altering the text. In press.

Moran. C. (1984). The word-processor and the writer. Computers and Composition, 2,1-5.

p. 42

Rosegrant, T. (1984). Fostering progress in literacy development: Technology and social interaction. Seminars in Speech and Language, 5 (1), 47-57.

Sudol, R. (1985). Applied word processing: Notes on authority, responsibility, and revision in a workshop model. College Composition and Communication, 36(3), 331-335.

Zinsser, W. (1983). Writing with a word processor. New York: Harper & Row.