6(2), April 1989, pages 45-59

A Process of Composing with Computers

Timothy Weiss

Although more and more students are using computers to write papers in composition and business and technical writing courses, the extent to which the computer is incorporated into the instruction and the process of composition in these courses seems to vary from class to class and from student to student, with many using the computer only as an aid to a late-stage revision (Schwartz, 1986). This essay proposes that, in order for students to gain the maximum benefits from the computer as an education and as a composition tool, they should use the computer throughout the composing process, and that teachers of writing should design computer exercises and activities that encourage this use among students.

In the following pages, this essay will describe the adaptation of computers to a process of composition and instruction in a specialized business and technical course of Persuasive Writing. Using computers, business and technical writing students can move more efficiently and effectively through the processes of collecting information, drafting, evaluating, and revising typical persuasion-oriented documents such as sales letters, "good cause" letters, brochures, proposals, resumes, and letters of application. Research that I have conducted suggests that computers used in this way, throughout the writing process, can help students improve the overall quality of their written products (Weiss, 1988).

I believe that teachers should develop assignment-specific computer exercises that engage students in "dialogues" out of which a draft of a writing assignment can be developed, be critiqued, and be improved. For the computer is not only a tool that facilitates the production of a piece of writing, it is also a "dialogic" tool which can be used to stimulate writers' internal and external dialogues about the piece of writing. Although the concept of dialogue is as old as Socrates and has, in fact, already begun to be discussed in the context of computer-assisted instruction (Daiute, 1984), the concept has come to us anew in the discourse theory of Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian philosopher, linguist, and literary critic. (For an introduction to Bakhtin's life and works, see Todorov, 1984.) Two ideas of Bakhtin's seem applicable to the ways in which the computer can be used as a compositional, pedagogical tool in the writing classroom: first, the idea of "otherness" (i.e., that each person is a social being who depends on a network of "others" for his/her sense of meaning and identity); and second, the idea of intertextuality (i.e., that each discourse is related to innumerable other discourses on the same subject). Elaborating on Bakhtin's concept of intertextuality, Tzvetan Todorov writes that "all discourse is in dialogue with prior discourses on the same subject. . . A single voice can make itself heard only by blending into the complex choir of other voices already in place" (1984, p. x, emphasis mine). In practice in the composition classroom, the concept of "otherness" translates into an increasing emphasis on active "textual dialogue" between student writers; "intertextuality" translates into bringing texts of a related kind and on a related topic to bear on the individual student's text.

Teachers of writing can use the computer to complement common kinds of classroom activities such as peer collaboration and teacher-student collaboration. Through computerized exercises/ activities, the computer can stimulate both an external dialogue between students and an internal dialogue within the individual student by posing heuristic questions about a student's text. Of course, innovators in the field of computer-assisted instruction, like Hugh Burns, Helen Schwartz, Dawn and Raymond Rodrigues, Colette Daiute, Cynthia Selfe, and others, have written computer programs that employ questions designed to engage students more deeply in the composition process (Wresch, 1984). The pedagogic principles of their programs are not radically different from the principle of the computerized exercises that I will describe in this essay. There is, however, one basic difference: What follows are exercises, not computer programs, and any teacher using computers in the composition or business/technical writing classroom can easily design exercises like these depending on the subject matter of the writing assignment and the kind of writing on which the assignment focuses. I believe that there is much potential for using the computer to complement the kinds of dialogic, collaborative classroom activities that are at the heart of teaching writing. For me, these computer exercises are the first steps toward tapping this potential in the business and technical writing classroom.

Course, Students, Computer Lab, and Writing Assignments

A few introductory remarks about the course, its students, the manner in which the computer lab is used, and typical writing assignments are necessary. Persuasive Writing is an elective that is popular with students majoring in advertising and communication. Its students are better-than-average, University of Illinois students with GPAs between 3.5 and 5 on a 5-point scale. About one third are sophomores; the other two thirds, juniors and seniors.

Although I have taught the course in both a computer classroom and a computer lab, in this essay I will refer only to the computer lab. Approximately four class periods at the beginning of the semester are scheduled for teaching persuasive-writing students how to use the microcomputers, the networking, and the word-processing program, VOLKSWRITER 3. After this introduction, classes are held in the lab one or two times per week.

Typical writing assignments in Persuasive Writing contain features of what Maxine Hairston (1986) has called "self-limiting" and "reflective" writing. In an article entitled "Different Products, Different Processes: A Theory about Writing," Hairston divides her subject into three groups: Class 1, "routine maintenance" writing (e.g., much interoffice correspondence in business); Class 2, "self-limiting" writing (e.g., research reports, technical reports, laboratory reports); and Class 3, "reflective" writing (e.g., scholarly writing, speculative or exploratory articles). A piece of persuasive writing like a sales letter is in one sense formulaic or self-limiting, yet in another sense creative or reflective. Persuasive Writing is not "routine," at least not for undergraduate students who have had little or no experience in this realm of writing. Although "the process approach" to business and technical writing has been attacked as time-consuming and unrealistic, I believe that a process approach to writing and to writing instruction can be useful anytime students encounter a "problem" outside of their day-to-day experience as writers, a problem that calls for reflection and creativity. [1]

A Process of Composing

Let us consider, then, the following situation and assignment. Robert, a senior majoring in agricultural engineering and a student in Persuasive Writing, is preparing to respond to a typical sales-writing assignment:

Write a direct-mail letter about an "item"-product or service- costing less than $200 that you own, use, or subscribe to. Be sure to choose an item that sparks your imagination and that can be advertised by mail. Personalize the copy as much as possible, looking for opportunities within the copy to insert information from computer records of potential customers.

To help Robert respond to this assignment, he has available to him a collection of computer exercises dividing the process of composing into four sets of interrelated activities: Inquiry, Focusing/ Analyzing, Drafting, and Evaluating/Revising. (These sets of interrelated activities constitute merely different points of entrance into the essentially recursive process of composing.) To obtain and work on an exercise, Robert retrieves it (either from a hard-disk drive or from floppy diskettes that the instructor has brought to class), stores the exercise template (so that it can be reused for any related sales-writing assignments), responds to its questions, and stores the responses under a new file name (so that he will have a copy of the template and of his responses to its questions).

Activity 1: Inquiry
The first exercise that Robert selects is from the category of Inquiry; this category of exercise prompts students to record basic information about the item that they will promote and seeks to engage them in a dialogue about that item.

Two well-known methods of inquiry that can be adapted to sales-writing assignments are the "Reporter's Inquiry" (or "Who-What-When-Where-Why-How") and Young, Becker, and Pike's (1970) "Particle-Wave-Field." The former asks students for basic information about the item being promoted; the latter asks students to view the item from various perspectives. For a facsimile of the "Particle-Wave-Field" exercise and Robert's response to it, see Figure 1.

Particle-Wave-Field Exercise

1. Store this exercise as PWF.LTR and respond to the questions.

--View the item (product/service) as a particle, as an isolated, static entity. How is it different from other similar items? If it is unique n some respect, how is it unique?

The product is a computer, a hand-held computer. It's different from other computers in that it's small enough to be carried anywhere. It's unique in that it's the only hand-held computer made by an American company; other hand-held computers are made by the Japanese.

--View the item as a particle with variation. Describe its variety of uses, for example.

Two models. The PC-7 is for engineers. It has 20 of the most common scientific functions; others can be programmed in. The PC-8, the businessman's counterpart of the PC-7, has 17 of the most common business functions. Both computers have the ability to run BASIC; both have 8,000 characters of memory.

--View the item as part of a category of items. How is it typically classified? How could it be classified, or "positioned," in relation to those Items?

It's better than a calculator because it can perform more operations; it's better than a personal computer because it can be taken on field trips and business trips.

--View the item as a process. Describe the process, contrasting it with the process of other similar items.

The hand-held computer helps the active engineer or businessman perform calculations in the field, in a plane, anywhere away from the office. Both models interface with an optional printer and cassette, so that information can be stored and printed back at the office.

2. Be sure to store your responses in a new file before you remove your diskette from the disk drive.

Figure 1: Particle-Wave-Field Exercise [2]

Two points should be noted about this exercise and other computer exercises cited in this essay: First, the exercises appear differently on screen from the way the same exercises appear on paper. On screen, questions are highlighted, and the space between questions can be increased or decreased to fit the length of the student's response. Second, the wording of the questions in the exercise can be easily changed to fit the assignment. These are obviously two significant advantages over pen-and-paper exercises.

Activity 2: Focusing/Analyzing
After responding to "Particle-Wave-Field," Robert selects an exercise from the category of Focusing/Analyzing. This category of exercises emphasizes the contexts of a communication. The exercise "Four Ad Questions," for example, is a basic heuristic for copywriters. Here are a few of Robert's responses, with the exercise questions in bold face:

--Who is the audience or group of consumers most likely to be interested in the product? Describe the characteristics of this audience.

Two groups: on the one hand, engineers and businessmen, and on the other, gadget fanatics. Engineers use the hand-held computer while in the field, surveying, or in the lab. Businessmen use it on trips. The gadget fanatic just likes anything unusual.

--Through what media can this audience be most efficiently reached? Why? How might a sales-letter campaign fit into the marketing strategy?

The hand-held computer could be advertised on television and/or by brochure or letter. A sales letter would be sent to a mailing list of Tandy customers and to mailing lists of professional organizations. Reader would be told to bring letter to Radio Shack and get a discount on the purchase of a hand-held computer.

-What advertising appeal will be most effective? What art and copy will best do the job?

Problem and solution approach. Computerized letter that uses an array of fonts and emphasis- something that would appeal to the person who likes electronic gadgets and likes to experiment with his own PC.

An exercise like "Four Ad Questions" exhibits a fairly structured approach to composing. Students who dislike the constraints of such an approach can skip the exercises for Focusing/Analyzing. They may prefer, instead, to read sample sales letters on diskette and then begin drafting their letter as a way of channeling their thoughts and trying out a strategy of development . One of the great advantages of the microcomputer as an instructional/compositional tool is its flexibility-its adaptability-to either a structured, rhetorical, algorithmic approach to composing (e.g., that of Flower and Hayes, D'Angelo, and Baker) or a "literary" approach (e.g., that of Coles, Murray, and Elbow) (Hairston, 1986, pp. 442-443).

Activity 3: Drafting
Persuasive Writing students draft their sales letters by selecting from and building upon their initial responses to an assignment rather than by starting all over again. Robert uses a simple method of computerized drafting, the "end-of-file" method: He retrieves the complete "Particle-Wave-Field" exercise from his diskette and moves any useful excerpts from his responses to the end of the file, the place of the emerging draft; then, he develops this draft further by adding to, deleting from, and rearranging it. He obtains a printout of the "Four Ad Questions" and refers to it as he drafts the sales letter. [3]

The following paragraph within Robert's draft shows how he had begun to build upon ideas from pre-drafting exercises:

The PC-7, An Engineer's Dream

The PC-7 features 20 of the most used scientific functions. The PC-7 has 8,000 characters of memory, and uses the BASIC computer language to allow you to program special functions as well as design your own applications. This computer can be used for surveying and other field work, but also does the job in a laboratory environment.

We will view a complete draft of Robert's letter after discussing some methods of computer-aided evaluation and revision.

Activity 4: Evaluation/Revision
After the sales letter is drafted, peer evaluation can open students' eyes to "underdeveloped" copy and to problems of theme, organization, tone, etc., in their letters. Through exchanges, students have the opportunity not only to read and to learn from each other's letters, but also to experience writing as a dialogic, collaborative activity. (For an interesting article on a related topic, see Brodkey, 1987.)

One popular exercise in this category is "Switch," in which two students exchange diskettes, retrieve a copy of each other's sales letter, and suggest developmental changes. (See Figure 2.)

Switch Exercise

  1. Retrieve your letter.
  2. Give the F2 command and store the file as Switch.LTR.
  3. Give the ALT-F10 command.
  4. Retrieve the file called Switch1.LTR
  5. Exchange diskettes with your partner. retrieve your partner's sales letter (Switch1.LTR). and revise it.

(Your objective is to discover ideas that your partner has not expressed, to develop ideas already contained in your partner's response to the assignment and to point out any sentence-level problems in the letter. Put an asterisk like this * next to problem areas in the text and any additions or deletions you make.)

  1. When you have completed the revision, store the changes and comments as Switch1.LTR and return the diskette to your partner.

  2. After your own diskette has been returned, retrieve Switch1.LTR, use the find command (ALT-F7) to locate your partner's comments and changes (simply search for '). Using your own judgment, either incorporate the suggested changes in your letter. or delete them. When you are finished, store the file as a revision of your original file name for the sales letter.

Figure 2: Switch Exercise

Thus, in Robert's letter, his "Switch" partner indicates, with asterisks and brackets, comments that the paragraph below needs to be developed, that the word businessman is sexist, and that a reference to situations in which the businessman or businesswoman would use a hand-held computer should be mentioned.

Business Computing with the PC-8

The businessman *[sexist?] will love the flexibility the PC-8 allows him. *[flexible in what sense? develop this point] The PC-8 has 17 of the essential business functions, including net present value and standard deviation. This computer also has 8,000 characters of memory and the ability to use BASIC programming to develop applications for day-to-day usage.

After Robert's diskette is returned, he retrieves the copy of his letter and moves the cursor to the problem areas in the text through a FIND command that locates each asterisk. He makes changes and stores the new version of the letter. In this instance, these are minor changes. More substantial changes might require renewed inquiry; focusing/analyzing, and a re-evaluation of the sales letter by another student. The process is recursive both within each set of activities and in general.

In a final editing exercise, "Flag," students read each other's sales letters, checking for typographical mistakes, misspellings, grammatical mistakes, awkward phrasing, and format flaws. The method of this exercise is similar to that of "Switch": Two students exchange diskettes, read a copy of each other's sales letter, and place an asterisk next to any surface error; the authors then locate the asterisks (the "flags") through a FIND command, correct the mistakes, and print their letters. For a facsimile of Robert's letter, see Figure 3.

Robert's Letter

Tandy Corporation
3029 Shackleberry Road
Houston, Texas 92833

Dear /fname/:

I am writing to you because I know you and I are a lot alike. We share an interest In electronic gadgetry. and can't wait for new products to be developed to replace the old ones. Because we share this attitude. I am giving you a special introductory price on the newest products from Tandy.


When you bought your /kind of computer/ there were four main computer companies: IBM, Tandy-Radio Shack, Apple, and Commodore. Today there are hundreds of microcomputer manufacturers. With this many manufacturers you would think there would be an influx of very small but powerful computers on the market. These computers, about the size of a calculator, would aid businessmen and women as well as engineers, scientists, students, and hobbyists.


The truth is that only a handful of manufacturers are making these 'pocket" computers. The only major thrust to explore this market has been made in Japan. The Japanese, as usual, are finding ways to miniaturize their computer components and have developed several hand-held computers.


At Tandy Corporation. we feel this area of high technology has been ignored in America for too long, and as a result are announcing the arrival of two new products to the Tandy Computer line.

The PC-7, An Engineer's Dream

The PC-7 features 20 of the most common scientific functions. The PC-7 has 8,000 characters of memory, and uses the BASIC computer language to enable you to program special functions as well as design your own applications. This computer can be used for surveying and other field work, but also does the job in a laboratory environment.

Business Computing with the PC-8

Businessmen and women will love the flexibility and convenience the PC-8 allows them. The PC-8 has 17 essential business functions. including net present value and standard deviation. This computer also has 8,000 characters of memory and the ability to use the BASIC programming language to develop applications for day-to-day usage. Take the PC-8 with you on business trips--use it in hotels. taxis, trains, and planes. You need never waste another travel minute again!

Options for Expansion

Both pocket computers feature permanent memory and an automatic shutoff after eight minutes without use. With the optional printer and cassette interface. you can print output on a 24-character per line printer and save your programs on an cassette recorder. There are also programs available for the user who doesn't want to spend the time learning the BASIC language.


Now for a limited time there is a special price of $99.95 for either the PC-7 or PC-8 with the printer/cassette interface. The suggested list price for the computer will be $49.95. and the price of the printer/cassette interface will be $79.95.

This special price won't last long, so go take a look a the PC-7 and PC-8 and take immediate advantage of the utility of pocket-computing.

Thank you.

Robert F.
Product Development Coordinator
Tandy Corporation

P.S. Of course these products are available at the over 6000 Radio Shacks nationwide. Please bring this letter, /fname/, to your local dealer to take advantage of the special price and to receive an additional $5 discount!!

Figure 3: Robert's Sales Letter

Final Remarks

I believe that the computer can fit well into a process approach to composition in business and technical writing. The computer can aid the student writer not only during revision, but also throughout the stages of composition. A more active dialogue can be stimulated by using the computer to complement collaborative exchanges between teacher and student, and among students in common group work such as brainstorming and peer evaluation. In these senses, then, the computer is not only a tool of production, but also of inner-action and interaction. As teachers of writing, we seek to place our students in verbal situations where these interactions can take place, whether through modeling texts, talking with students about their writing, assigning groups of students to discuss the nature of a project topic, or using computers to elicit student's internal and external dialogues.

Two final qualifications within this coda of final remarks. First, in recommending that students use computers throughout the stages of composing, I do not mean to suggest, as a recent Apple Computer ad imagistically suggests, that students should snap their pencils in two and promise to use them no more. There are moments within the composing process-perhaps a time of listening to music while thinking about an emerging idea, or a time of carefully reading and revising a draft of a paper while one is ensconced in one's easy chair-when one is not necessarily seated at the computer keyboard. Second, although this essay's approach to the process of composing with computers has focused on a course in business/technical writing, such an approach would also be successful, I believe, in any course where students are eager to use computers, are allowed to use computers throughout the stages of composing, and are involved in responding to assignments that demand reflection and creativity.

  1. See the Winter 1987 issue of The Journal of Business Communication, especially John Hagge's article, "The Process Religion and Business Communication" and W. Steve Anderson's article, "Process in Business Writing Texts?"

  2. Even if no exact sentences or paragraphs are copied from the pre-drafting exercise(s) to the draft itself, students can at least see their ideas more clearly when working from a computer printout than they often can when working from handwritten notes or outlines.

  3. This exercise is adapted from Young, Becker, and Pike's Rhetoric: Discovery and Change, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1970.

Timothy Weiss teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


Anderson, W. S. (1987). Process in business writing texts? The Journal of Business Communication, 24(1), 73-77.

Brodkey, L. (1987). Modernism and the scene(s) of writing. College English, 49(4), 396-418.

Daiute, C. (1984). Can the computer stimulate writers' inner dialogues? In W. Wresch (Ed.), The computer in composition instruction (pp. 131-139). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Hagge, J. (1987). The process religion and business communication. The Journal of Business Communication, 24(1), 89-120.

Hairston, M. (1986). Different products, different processes: A theory about writing. College Composition and Communication, 3(4), 442-452.

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