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.
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. 
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
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.
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
2. Be sure to store your responses in a new file before you
remove your diskette from the disk drive.
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.
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. 
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
(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.)
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.
3029 Shackleberry Road
Houston, Texas 92833
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.
WHERE ARE THE HAND-HELD COMPUTERS?
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 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.
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
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.
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!!
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.
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
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
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,
Roszak, T. (1986). The cult of information: The folklore of
computers and the true art of thinking. New York: Pantheon
Schwarz, J. (1986). Today's computer-hip generation. Personal
Computing, 10, 147-151.
Todorov, T. (1984). Mikhail Bakhtin: The dialogic principle
(W. Godzich, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Weiss, T. (1988). Word processing in the business and technical
writing classroom. Computers and Composition, 5(2),
Wresch, W. (Ed.). (1984). The computer in composition instruction.
Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.