6(1), November 1988, pages 15-26

What Handbooks Tell Us about Teaching Writing with Word-Processing Programs

Robert Perrin

It may seem odd at first to assess the state of teaching writing with word-processing programs by examining collegiate handbooks, but it really is not. After all, handbooks offer a general look at the teaching emphasis in composition and follow several patterns that make them natural choices for such evaluation. First, full-length handbooks (as opposed to concise handbooks) are a fairly standard size, 600-700 pages. Because these books present approximately the same number of pages, they offer parallel treatments of the subjects they cover--parallel at least in lengths of the treatments. Second, they address the same basic features of composition, covering major units on sentences, punctuation, mechanics, and--these days at least--the composing process. Third, they must present spare, concise discussions of important topics. Because space in handbooks is limited and because so many subjects must be treated, the discussions must of necessity be brief. For this reason, the proportional treatment of subjects is more readily apparent in handbooks than in other texts and can easily signal publishers' emphasis on a "new" topic like word processing.

Fourth, handbooks must be mainstream texts, rather than idiosyncratic ones. After all, handbooks are general reference books and must include "basic" discussions of a wide range of primary subjects. Because of these constraints, handbooks cannot afford to devote space to subjects that are not fundamental . Fifth, handbooks are revised more often than other texts and can therefore illustrate the state of thinking in composition in the last several years. Current handbooks, for example, include large sections on the composing process, whereas handbooks of even ten years ago did not. With average revision cycles of three to five years, it is possible for all current handbooks, then, to illustrate the thinking of the last few years. Sixth, and finally, handbooks are no longer books based solely on rules of punctuation and mechanics but are instead rhetoric-handbooks, offering advice on many aspects of the writing process. The once common emphasis on predominantly technical matters is gone. Most handbooks these days place such work in a writing context--as part of proofreading or perhaps revision and certainly not as part of the early stages of writing.

To look at handbooks, then, as indicators of the current state of writing and word-processing instruction is a sensible strategy. Through such an examination, we can see in a specific way that word processing has assumed a place in college writing, but we can also see that authors and publishers have not found a substantial enough place for word processing in composition instruction.

Handbooks provide a special service in the scheme of writing, serving in some cases as the primary text for a course. More typically, however, handbooks are reference tools--books intended for students to use on their own to supplement the directed work in the classroom. For this reason, writing teachers who value computer work must be well aware that our students will often turn to their handbooks without our being there to offer comments and further advice. It is, as a result, especially important that handbooks present discussions of writing and word processing that are positive, accurate, clear, and advisory, because students will be helped little by discussions that are vague and students will be encouraged little by comments that are intimidating or negative.

To see what teachers and students will find when they turn to handbook sections on word processing, I examined ten hardback handbooks published in 1985 or 1986 by nine major publishers:

Crews, Frederick, & Schor, Sandra. (1985). The Borzoi Handbook for Writers. New York: Knopf.

Elsbree, Langdon, & Mulderig, Gerald P. (1986). The Heath Handbook. 11th ed. Lexington, MA: Heath.

Fowler, H. Ramsey. (1986). The Little, Brown Handbook. 3rd ed. Boston: Little, Brown.

Gefvert, Constance J. (1985). The Confident Writer: A Norton Handbook. New York: Norton.

Guth, Hans P. (1985). New English Handbook. 2nd ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Heffernan, James A., & Lincoln, John E. (1986). Writing: A College Handbook. 2nd ed. New York: Norton.

Hodges, John C., Whittin, Mary E., & Webb, Susan S. (1986). Harbrace College Handbook. 10th ed. New York: Harcourt.

Kirszner, Laurie G., & Mandell, Stephen R. (1986). The Holt Handbook. New York: Holt.

Leggett, Glenn, et al. (1985). Handbook for Writers. 9th ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

Marius, Richard, & Wiener, Harvey S. (1985). The McGraw-Hill College Handbook. New York: McGraw.

To locate discussions of word processing, I searched the lengthy indexes of these books using computers, revision, and word processing as key words. All but two--Elsbree and Mulderig, and Crews and Schor--include entries under at least one of these headings. I then turned to the appropriate pages, read the discussions, took notes, and synthesized the materials. Here is what I found--some of it expected, some of it surprising.

Most obviously, everyone (or almost everyone) writing an up-to-date handbook wants to include something on computers and word processing. Authors and publishers clearly understand that teachers and students expect to find some treatment of computers in current handbooks, and a brief perusal will yield a number of page references for further reading about word processing. Yet turning to the pages themselves is not always satisfying.

The most common references to computers and word processing are to issues of manuscripts preparation, most notably to the use of dot-matrix printers and draft-quality computer paper. Fowler, for example, discusses both letter-quality and dot-matrix printers, mentions the need for descending letters, advises against using special print features, suggests using quality paper (not green striped), and recommends tearing pages (p. 577). Leggett recommends printers that produce both upper- and lowercase letters, wisely suggests getting approval from an instructor regarding both print face and paper, and encourages double-spacing (pp. 110-111). Heffernan and Lincoln discuss double-spaced final copies produced on 8 1/2 x 11 paper (p. 75). Several comments from other handbooks typify both the kind of advice given and the tone of the advice:

If you plan to use a printer to produce your manuscript, consult your instructor to make sure that the typeface and paper will be acceptable. (Hodges, Whittin, and Webb, p. 91)

Computer paper is notoriously poor in quality, but nearly all computer printers will accept ordinary white bond paper. (Marius and Wiener, p. 573)

These treatments of technical matters are accurate, to be sure, but they do little more than address the surface issues of using word-processing programs. We can be thankful, as a result, that most of the handbooks currently on the market address more than these issues of manuscript mechanics.

Another strand of common references to word-processing programs is the use of spelling checkers, although such discussions are limited in most handbooks to a "you-can-use-a-spell-checker" notation. Only two books of the ten--Hodges, Whittin, and Webb; and Kirszner and Mandell--attempt to explain this correction aid, and the advice given is limited in one book and questionable in the other. Hodges, Whittin, and Webb offer this comment:

If you have access to a computer that singles out [errors in typing] for you to correct, use it as a time-saving tool; but be aware of its limitations--for example, its inability to recognize a misspelling that spells some other word, such as hole for whole. (p. 170)

This comment touches upon the issue of spelling checkers and presents it in a positive manner, although half of the brief notation is a useful warning about one primary shortcoming of spelling checkers. Kirszner and Mandell offer a much more specific discussion of spelling checkers but then end their discussion with this curious comment:

Before you even think about using a spelling checker for your college work, be sure to get explicit permission from your instructor. Learning to spell and punctuate correctly on your own is more important than submitting a mechanically perfect paper that has been corrected without your participation. (p. A.8)

That so many authors ignore the obvious benefits of spelling checkers suggests that they, perhaps, have not used them extensively themselves or have not seen how much they can help students. If they had, the advice would be much more specific, and the encouragement would be much more enthusiastic.

One handbook, Guth, devotes a long portion of the word-processing discussion to explanations of computer equipment. In approximately three pages, Guth describes keyboards, monitors, disk drives, and printers (pp. 383-386). No other handbook includes such a fundamental discussion. Students totally unfamiliar with computers (are there really that many?) will benefit from such a discussion, but essentially these pages add bulk to a computer/ word-processing section (a great strategy for indexing) without offering students thorough and useful methods of using the equipment.

The most common treatments of word processing appear under the rubrics of "writing" and "revision," with heaviest emphasis on "revision." Although these discussions of using word-processing programs add numerous subheadings to the books' indices, the discussions are remarkably uneven in quality. Most of the handbooks offer essentially general comments about prewriting and composing at the keyboard, offering little more than computer-age platitudes. The positive attitudes about word processing may certainly encourage a novice computer user, but the advice will be, at best, superficial.

Gefvert, like most of the texts, offers general comments, but the comments are usefully presented as seven advantages of writing the draft of a paper on the computer--ranging from seeing what you've written (in readable form) to getting a clean copy easily (pp. 115-116). The most specific help with drafting a paper, however, comes from Kirszner and Mandell, and Fowler. Kirszner and Mandell suggest this simple but effective strategy:

When using a word processor, try writing without erasing--at least on your first few drafts. Something wrong for an introduction may fit perfectly into the conclusion you have not yet written . Saving your progressive versions is, then, the safest and most useful way to compose. (p. A.4)

In addition, Kirszner and Mandell suggest a specific approach for prewriting: turn the brightness down on the monitor to produce "invisible writing" (p. A.3). This strategy, especially functional during composing, will allow students at the draft stage to move beyond issues of form and mechanics to issues of content. Fowler also suggests this "dim out" strategy and usefully notes that this approach concentrates attention on writing rather than editing--eliminating fussing with minor matters during drafting (p. 11). These kinds of suggestions--user's suggestions--are the sort that handbooks need to include, for they offer novices strategies that will improve their work with word processing. Unfortunately, few of these kinds of specific recommendations appear in current handbooks.

Beyond these two specific discussions of prewriting, most of the handbooks comment on the value of word-processing programs during revision. Some--like Heffernan and Lincoln, Fowler, and Kirszner and Mandell create functional "lists" of revision strategies, noting that writers can add, delete, move, re-form, check spelling, and so on. These lists, though they suggest the power of word processing, remain essentially general.

Marius and Wiener offer a similar list of possibilities. But with brief explanations and nine "helpful hints" for using the equipment, the discussion is much more usable: Print hard copy, revise from hard copy, keep successive drafts, and do not overuse special print features are some of the kinds of advice Marius and Wiener offer (pp. 572-574). Again, these are the sorts of tips that can help students begin their work with a clear advantage.

Moving beyond these general kinds of comments, Kirszner and Mandell offer a few bits of "users"' advice, clearly learned from computer work. They suggest, for instance, doing global searches for overused words like very and really (p. A.7) and suggest pulling topic sentences from a paper to examine the paper's logical structure (pp. A.5-A.6). And finally, Kirszner and Mandell offer this snippet of practical advice that might save a novice computer user from retyping materials:

Use the end of your paper as a temporary storage space as you revise. If you keep moving unwanted sentences and paragraphs to the end, you can delete them when the paper becomes more polished. (p. A.5)

Beyond this advice--some general, some specific--the materials found in other handbooks are not especially helpful. Leggett, for example, talks about drafting as a "recursive process" and adds this general note: "word-processing equipment can make [the] 'cut-and-paste' method of drafting very efficient" (p.316). Leggett, a handbook that seems to have been written by computer users once removed, quotes from Zinsser's book Writing With a Word Processor in another section of the handbook:

I was struck by how many phrases and sentences I wrote in this book that l later found I didn't need. Many of them hammered home a point that didn't need hammering because it had already been made. This kind of overwriting happens in almost everybody's first draft, and it's perfectly natural--the act of putting down our thoughts makes us garrulous. Luckily, the act of editing follows the act of writing. . . . (p. 325)

These comments are all true, of course, but they make no specific mention of word processing; one can suppose that the words word processor in Zinsser's book title were enough to trigger this token index reference.

Perhaps the most general issue to address regarding composition and word-processing programs is the attitude presented in the discussions. Some handbooks concentrate on the power of word-processing programs. Heffernan and Lincoln, for example, comment in this way:

If you have not already put your fingers to the keyboard of this computer-age marvel, you will almost certainly do so before you finish college. And once you start using a word processor, you will rapidly discover that it can save you a good deal of work. (p. 645)

Marius and Wiener note that "the computer is rapidly becoming a standard medium of communication. Word-processing programs enable you to make sweeping revisions or small changes in your work with relative ease" (p. 574). And Gefvert states, "If you are lucky enough to have access to a word processor, or to word processing software on a computer, consider using it both to draft and to revise your essays" (p. 115). These kinds of comments offer encouragement to students who are considering using word-processing programs, but they offer little substantial advice on how to begin such work.

In fact, only one handbook of the ten, edited by Heffernan and Lincoln, offers suggestions for learning and practicing word-processing strategies. In a manner typical of many instruction manuals, Heffernan and Lincoln suggest that students copy a section from their book, print it, proofread it, and make necessary changes to produce a clean copy. Although this approach is not revolutionary, it is a practical suggestion for students beginning work with word-processing programs, showing a sensitivity to the needs of students using the handbook as an independent reference.

What disturbs me most about the discussions of word processing is that most of them suggest a surprising reticence about word processing: some handbooks offer rather severe warnings about the "dangers" of word processing. We all know how important warnings can be for students--because they so often expect magical results from technology--but at some point we must recognize that warnings may serve to frighten rather than guide.

Fowler, in a comment that matches the tone of most of these warnings, makes this comment:

As electronic machines, computers have one major disadvantage: they are susceptible to breakdowns that could have disastrous consequences for the writer. Power failures, brownouts, and surges of electricity can destroy data stored in the computer's memory; spilled liquids, fingerprints, and even the magnetism of paper clips can destroy data stored on a disk. (p. 50)

Granted, all of these warnings are accurate--as those of us who have lost files during brownouts know--but it seems to me that as we are trying to convert students to new technological approaches to writing we can sometimes intimidate them by offering too many caveats. In much the same tone, Heffernan and Lincoln offer this warning:

But it is as risky to overestimate as to underestimate what computerized tutoring can do. It can help to develop your capacity to generate and revise an essay, but it can never do the essential work of writing for you. It cannot choose your topic, develop it for you, reorganize a draft for you, or turn a weak sentence into a strong one. Even in the age of computers, the hardest tasks that writing involves must still be faced directly by the writer. (p. 650)

Hodges, Whittin, and Webb provide an equally ominous warning:

A word of caution: word-processing programs are only a mechanical means of manipulating language you create yourself. They cannot think for you; they only remind you to think for yourself, and they make revision faster and easier. Furthermore, because it is so easy to use, a word-processing programs can make a wordy writer even wordier, a terse writer even less fluent. (p. 377)

What troubles me most is not the fact that these warnings are included, but that they assume a disproportionately large part of the discussions. If, for example, one-fourth of the discussions were warnings, I might not be so concerned that students' impressions of word processing would be negative. But, it is rather depressing to find that, in the few pages handbooks devote to word processing, that these kinds of negative, patronizing comments constitute roughly half of the discussions. Would that these lines had been devoted to specific and helpful advice for avoiding problems, rather than to warning students about false impressions and technical failures.

So what is the state of teaching composition with word-processing programs--if, in fact, these handbooks offer a representative view? Clearly, authors and publishers recognize the need for discussions of this crucial topic, but they do not, at present, incorporate discussions that are complete. The fact, however, that handbooks of five years ago had nothing regarding computers--and that current books have something--suggests that we will see an increase in the amount of space devoted to computers and word processing in future books. And perhaps with that increase in coverage will come better treatments of composition and word processing.

But what can composition teachers do to build upon the limited treatments of word processing found in these handbooks? First, and probably most important, composition teachers need to offer students hints, tips, and strategies for using word-processing programs. This valuable, practical advice from computer users is vital as we encourage students to experiment with word processing, and if handbooks don't offer this kind of help, then we must. At present, word-processing sections in many current books seem to have been written without much experience at the keyboard, resulting in discussions that are guarded, uncertain, negative, and tokenistic. Until handbook authors become more knowledgeable in the ways of computers, the handbook sections will be inadequate, and classroom teachers will have to compensate for them by giving practical advice.

Second, composition teachers will have to provide their own discussions of word processing as they move with their students through the stages of planning, drafting, and revising papers. Currently, most discussions of word processing are located in isolated units at the backs of handbooks where, by implication, they serve as addenda. Such an approach is unacceptable because we know that word processing should be a part of writing instruction, not apart from it.

Third, composition teachers must present word processing more positively than do most handbooks. Although we must acknowledge the potential problems of using word-processing programs, we must also continue to point out the advantages of this important technological resource, and we must do so with a good deal more enthusiasm than we'll find in current handbooks. Warning students about brownouts, flawed disks, poor-quality paper, and the like is akin to warning them about ink pens that blob, spiral paper that annoys teachers, and power outages that stop even trusty, old typewriters. Such warnings seem unnecessarily negative, and as long as textbook writers concentrate on these negative aspects of word processing, we will have to provide the encouragement ourselves.

Fourth, teachers of composition must make authors and publishers aware of the inadequacy of treatments of word processing in current books. On one level, this can occur informally. As teachers talk to textbook sales representatives, sales people will become aware of this not-so-new market need, and through them authors and publishers will acknowledge the current inadequacies. (The changes in the last five years suggest that such a process is already taking place.) On a more formal level, reviews of books in journals, in market analyses, and in teacher's evaluations of books they've used can bring insufficient treatments of word processing to the attention of major publishing firms. As teachers who acknowledge the importance of computer-aided writing, we must miss no opportunity to lobby either informally or formally--for improved discussions of word processing in the books we order for our classes.

The efficacy of computer-aided composition instruction depends on a number of diverse but inextricably linked factors. On one level, schools must demonstrate their support of computer literacy by providing hardware and software. Although current computer lab facilities may not be large enough, most schools have taken steps to provide needed equipment and materials. Students, too, must be willing to work in the labs to learn word processing. Being aware of current trends, most students seem willing to "take the plunge" into word processing. Composition teachers as well must be amenable to computerized writing instruction. With the growing numbers of teachers using computers themselves, this, too, will happen. The one element that remains is the books we use with our students--the last and currently ineffective link in the process of teaching students to write using word-processing programs. When authors and publishers catch up with the current trends--as they surely will--then we will see word processing securely joined to the teaching of writing.

Robert Perrin teaches at Indiana State University. Terre Haute, Indiana.

Coverage in current handbooks:
0 = no treatmentA = Crews, Schor
1 = weak treatment B = Elsbree, Mulderig
2 = satisfactory treatment C = Fowler
3 = strong treatment D = Gefvert
E = Guth
F = Heffernan, Lincoln
G = Hodges, Whittin, Webb
H = Kirszner, Mandell
I = Leggett et al.
J = Marius, Wiener

Current hardback handbooks (listed by authors) ABC DEFG HIJ

Number of pages devoted to discussions of word processing 002 1.678.55.5 1.258.5 2.67
Suggested strategies for learning to use word-processoring packages 000 0330 303
Advice on manuscript preparation (printer, paper, etc.) 003 0012 033
Suggested revision strategies0 033 3333 22
Advice for doing global searches0 033 2323 03
Suggestions for formatting materials0 000 3020 03
Suggested prewriting strategies0 033 2003 00
Advice on using spelling checkers0 020 2323 00
Suggestions for textual analysis0 020 3323 00
Discussion of computer equipment0 000 3300 00