6(3), August 1989, pages 63-79

"Windows" on the Composing Process

Michael Steven Marx

The introduction of word processing into composition courses has been praised for making the process of writing more visibly apparent to students (Selfe, 1985; Womble, 1985). The ease of both surface and global revisions with word processors encourages students to revise more readily. But the composing process is more than a two-fold activity of writing and revising. As Donald Murray (1982) labels it, writing entails pre-vision, vision, and re-vision (p. 73). The "split-screen" or "Windows" function of word-processing programs allows students to view activities that are typically taught in the context of specific stages of writing as ongoing steps that writers engage in throughout the writing process. [1] Rather than appearing as isolated, time-consuming activities assigned by the writing instructor, previously prepared pieces of writing--whether freewrites, outlines, research notes, or peer critiques--become resources and guides for students to refer to, draw upon, and incorporate as they plan, compose, and revise their texts with the use of split screens.

The following article describes how the use of "Windows" can open up the writing process for students. The activities presented were developed for WORDPERFECT 4.2 on IBM PS/2 Model 30 computers. [2] When students select the CTRL+F3 function, WORDPERFECT divides the 24-line screen into two windows, each a size the students choose. This function creates two separate document screens divided by a highlighted bar. The arrows in the bar indicate in which screen the writer is currently working. The size of the windows can be readjusted at any time without affecting either of the documents students simultaneously see; single spacing maximizes the amount of text students can view on the windows. Using the "switch" function (SHIFT+F3), students move between screens easily. More importantly, students can perform block moves of material from one document to the other. When the student is finished, both windows can be saved and stored separately and later individually retrieved.

"Windows" is not a substitute for instruction about the recursiveness of the composing process. Rather, the "Windows" function of word-processing programs opens a window through which students can see writing as a complex and recursive yet coherent process rather than as a linear progression of distinct activities, which the traditional composing method of pen and paper suggests. Even composing on a word-processing program without the support of 'Windows" tends to isolate the actual work created during the stages of prevision, drafting, and revision because these materials are stored in separate files. The previously prepared materials which may benefit students at different stages of composing seem buried within the directory to all but the most dedicated of students. The often cumbersome process of exiting the draft file, accessing the desired file, and re-entering the draft file interrupts the writer's train of thought and disrupts the unity of the activity of composing the draft. The use of "Windows" breaks down this inaccessibility because the function allows students easily to retrieve materials written earlier; students can return to earlier files yet keep their place in their drafts and not disrupt the flow of composing. Moreover, switching from split screens on which students are composing to other screens, either to view earlier ideas or to develop ideas originating in the discovery process of writing, safeguards the integrity of their drafts. "Windows" encourages writing as discovery because the split-screen function allows the entire draft to remain untarnished as the student explores an idea.

The split-screen function is aptly named "Windows." An actual window functions metaphorically as a picture, framing the view beyond the window and lending a sense of unity to the view. The viewer can see how the parts within the frame relate and how new items entering the view can enhance it or detract from it. Similarly, the casing of a microcomputer's monitor creates a frame within which the student composes. This physical border becomes a window frame in which writers can view existing pieces of their writing on the split screen concurrently and decide whether to draw from the pieces as they advance to their final drafts. Like the perception created by looking through a window frame in a house, the monitor's window frame maintains the beneficial sense of relatedness among the elements appearing on the split screen. The window frame of the monitor reinforces the principle of the process approach to writing--that the freewrites, outlines, and drafts displayed on the two split screens are unified parts of the composing process. Thus, students literally see how these different pieces of writing created throughout the composing process are interrelated parts of a recursive process.

"Windows" serves as the passageway through which students enter this recursiveness of the writing process. The ease of using this passageway itself encourages students to call upon "Windows" once they have been instructed about the various stages of the writing process. When students begin to compose their essays on computers and take advantage of split screens, this technological trick opens the interrelatedness and reveals the recursiveness of the writing process.

Regardless of the thoroughness of their outlining or freewriting, writers often find themselves at ideational forks or intellectual impasses in the road of composing. At such moments, writers need to return to freewriting to test their ideas or uncover the direction an idea may lead to. An open window is always available for the students to create new material or review existing work. Should the additional freewriting prove fruitful, students can simply perform a block move to incorporate the freewrites into the text of their composition. On the other hand, if the direction the idea has taken seems undesirable or inappropriate for either the whole essay or a particular part of it, students can undertake other freewrites or return to the draft without having marred their original text.

Prevision: Opening Windows into Ideas

In her survey of 1987 research on computers and composition, Gail E. Hawisher finds "some [new] suggestion that writers may engage in less prewriting when they use computers than when they work with conventional tools of pen and paper" (p. 16). Hawisher finds this a troubling side effect of the use of computers in the composition classroom because a greater amount of prewriting and planning typically distinguishes the experienced writer from the beginning writer (Flower and Hayes, 1980). This change may be due to a difference that the new technology creates in a student's writing process itself; within this new technology for writing, "Windows" encourages sustained engagement in prewriting by opening an accessible passageway for movement from prewriting and planning to drafting and revising a paper.

Even before writers begin composing, "Windows" can help generate productive prewriting. Although lacking automatic, on-screen progression, many topic development protocols can be imitated using the "Windows" function, making the purchase of a separate heuristic program superfluous. The instructor can design a series of questions; these can either be specific to the rhetorical purpose and subject of the composition or follow formal heuristic models such as Burke's Pentad or Young, Becker, and Pike's Tagmemics. This heuristic file can then be transferred to the students'' diskettes either by copying it using DOS or by having students type the questions directly into new files. To use such topic development questions, students divide their screens into a top window of four lines for the heuristic questions and a bottom window of 20 lines for their responses. Different from following this heuristic with pen and paper, the narrowness of the questions' window forces students to focus on only one question at a time. When they have completed their response, they can scroll down to the next question. The advantages of using the "Windows" function here are two-fold: The heuristic questions can be used again for other writing assignments because they are on a separate file, and the separate file of responses created on the lower screen can serve as an on-file resource when students later compose their drafts.

Freewriting--as presented by Peter Elbow (1973)--and collaborative freewriting also readily lend themselves to split-screen writing. Using "Windows" for consecutive or progressive freewriting enhances the future value of this heuristic. To freewrite on the split screens, students first divide their screen in half and then write exploratory freewrites on the top screen. Upon completing the freewrites, students save and name them according to the main subjects of the freewrites plus the numerical suffix .01. To develop their initial ideas further, students reread the freewrites and choose one passage (a sentence, fragment, image, or even word) upon which they would like to elaborate. Then, using WORDPERFECT's "copy block" function, students transfer the passage to the first line of the bottom screen while keeping the text's position in the original freewrite. [3] Students then write second freewrites leading from these pieces of text. When completed, students save these freewrites, create separate files for them, and name them according to their main focus plus the numerical suffix .02. This process can be repeated as often as necessary. Once finished, students have a series of files that will serve as "freewriting resources" to consult as they use "Windows" to write their compositions.

While consecutive or progressive freewriting encourages students to dig deeper and write further, collaborative or cooperative freewriting provides an interactive method of exploration and development of ideas among students. Because it incorporates another's ideas, collaborative freewriting with "Windows" clears the glass through which students view their topics and provides them with sharper images of, and new insights into, their subjects.

In collaborative freewriting, as in traditional freewriting, students begin by splitting their screen and entering their freewrite on the top screen. After switching to the bottom screen, students move to different computers and type numbered responses to the author's ideas on the second screen. A response may agree with the author and elaborate on the subject. But the response may also disagree and provide an alternative perspective or ask questions of the author. Students may change computers several times, thus generating a collection of numbered replies to the original freewrite, or a series of saved, individual files. Like conferencing done with a computer network (Cassidy, in press; Daiute, 1985), collaborative freewriting with "Windows" produces a collection of additional ideas and alternative points of view. The accessibility of these ideas confronts the writers and requires them to consider and possibly include these ideas when they compose their papers.

This heuristic computer activity is especially valuable for planning analytical, persuasive, and argumentative essays because these rhetorical modes typically require writers to consider and account for alternative points of view. For argumentative essays, "Windows" serves as a technological catalyst to begin the dialectic at the heart of this mode of discourse. Students enter their topic, position, and one supporting argument on the top screen. Then, changing computers and switching to the second screen, other students provide objections to either the position or the argument. The aim of a unified and coherent argumentative essay is implicitly reinforced in this activity because the tension between the arguments and objections is contained within the single frame of the monitor. "Windows" can encourage students to generate for recall by providing space for compiling larger pools of reasons supporting argumentative theses in formal arguments.

Vision: Looking into Windows to Compose

Students often admit that they do not refer to earlier written resources when they write or that their freewrites and outlines simply get lost in the clutter atop their desks. Outlines can provide writers with a map of the compositions upon which they are about to embark. But no map is useful if it is not followed and consulted throughout the journey, whether the map is a series of freewrites, a list of ideas to include in a composition, a template designed for a specific rhetorical mode such as problem solving or argumentation, or a formal Roman numeral outline. Thus, it is not surprising that writing instructors can easily remember logically organized diagrams or outlines for compositions that bear no relationship to the completed essays or the unpolished gems in students' freewrites that are never incorporated into the final composition. Although the "Windows" function cannot eliminate laziness, it can alleviate the confusion and clutter that often surround the writing process of a student attempting to incorporate past work created during the prevision stage of the composing process. "Windows" allows students to keep pertinent material directly in front of them in the composition frame as they write; "Windows" permits students to retrieve previously written informal material, re-examine it, and incorporate it into their formal text without confusion or disruption of their text.

Opening a window to keep an outline on the monitor during the act of composing can serve as a guide leading students through the writing of a paper. As part of their planning, students can create outlines for their papers and save them as separate files. [4] When they begin writing, they split the screen in two, retrieve the outline on the smaller top screen, and compose on the larger bottom screen. Typing the outlines in single spacing allows students to see larger portions of the outline at once . Students can scroll down the outline as they begin each new section of the composition. Should they think of new information to include in the outline as they are writing, they can record this information immediately by switching to the top screen and inserting the idea into the appropriate section of their outline. This allows students to keep flowing ideas that come as a result of the discovery aspect of writing drafts and also reinforces the recursiveness of the writing process.

Although generally helpful, the types of linear outlines possible to create with a word-processing program are not useful to every student. Students who prefer spatial outlines, flow charts, and tree diagrams may need to keep handwritten versions of these outlines near them as they write. Other students may feel that any type of outline is of little use. Still, students resistant to outlining may desire some type of visual cue to remind them of their topic and rhetorical purpose as they write. Opening a small window offers a solution. Using the top screen more as a reminder than as a map, students can list their subjects and purposes in three or four lines. Students may even want to copy their thesis statements (once written) onto the top window as a reminder that they can consult visually as they begin new paragraphs and new sections of text. Re-viewing the top screen, students are reminded of their original focuses and intentions. [5]

While putting an outline in a window helps students see where they are going as they write, retrieving freewrites and other supplementary texts to a window helps students clarify what they want to say when they arrive at a particular point in their drafts. Using split screens to contain freewrites as well as drafts breaks down the barrier that often divides these two activities because both visually remain part of a single compositional frame within the frame of the monitor.

If students have composed their papers entirely using word-processing programs, they will have a series of topically and sequentially ordered freewrites. To assist the use of these freewrites, students may want to print the directories of their diskettes to remind them of the preplanning resources they have available through "Windows" as they compose. Alternatively, they can call up the directory any time they are using the word-processing program to see what other resources exist. As in the outlining activity, the top window serves as a guide window. When students are engaged in the actual writing of a particular section of a paper and remember something from a freewrite, they can recall that freewrite to the upper screen. Once the freewrite is in position, students can reread the ideas, switch to the composing screen, and incorporate those ideas into their draft. Alternatively, if students are satisfied with the style and language of the freewrite, they can use the "block move" function (or the "cut and copy" option) to transfer that portion of the freewrite into their compositions without having to retype the text. Students can spend more time revising and editing the freewrite material to integrate it into the formal draft.

The resources students call upon when writing extend beyond outlines and freewrites. As the nature of individual writing tasks change from the expressive and personal to the expository and academic, students will need to consult outside sources. Much like index cards of old, "Windows" can become a more manageable resource for storing relevant references, quotations, and statistics. Opening a window for such information makes writing more accessible, manageable, and accurate. If, for example, students are writing literary analyses or argumentative essays, they can list in the top window the quotations and passages that they wish to cite or refer to in their papers. Then, as they come to places in compositions requiring supporting evidence or textual references, students switch to the top screen, scroll to the appropriate references, and block move them into the draft.

This method of dual-screen composing has several virtues. First, as suggested by modelling activities from classical rhetoric, the very act of typing a passage into a file may make the student more sensitive to the stylistic qualities of the writing and more attentive to the finer aspects of the meaning (Brooks, 1983; Corbett, 1981; D'Angelo, 1983). Second, preparing a list of supporting evidence or outside references may help the student realize an organization for the essay dictated by the contents of the essay itself. Third, reducing the number of times a citation is copied increases the probability of the accuracy of that citation in the final draft. Finally, as is true for all of the split-screen composing activities presented, the act of writing a paper--and more importantly, the thinking process of a paper--is uninterrupted because students no longer need to return to books or often illegible notes to locate a specific piece of information. Outside references displayed on a split screen as students are composing informs but also maintains the flow and continuity of students' thoughts and writing.

Revision: Seeing the Text Reflected in a Window

When looking at a glass window, we not only see through it, but also see ourselves reflected in it. Such a property is equally true for word-processing "Windows." Using "Windows" to assist the revision stage of the writing process, student writers can see reflections of the drafts of their compositions--reflections shaped by the visions of peers, teachers, and their own perceptions. When used at this stage of the writing process, "Windows" lets light shine on the collaboration, interaction, and recursiveness inherent in the process of writing.

Re-vision means to see again. Peer critiquing techniques were developed in part to assist students' abilities to reconsider their texts. By providing a reader's response, peer critiquing increases writers' abilities to see their texts again. Adding the technology of "Windows" to peer-critiquing activities further supports this aim because the split screen literally permits students to see simultaneously the texts they have drafted and the peer criticism the texts have received. In this format, students not only see their papers again but see them anew with the accompanying on-screen critique, which promotes greater thought and involvement in their writing as they revise.

For peer critiquing with "Windows," the top screen holds the text to be critiqued and the bottom serves as the composing screen on which the critic offers advice and criticism. Because the split screen reduces the number of lines of text on a screen to below the standard 24 lines, students should read hard copies of completed drafts before they begin to critique each other's papers. This allows students to see and read the drafts holistically rather than as a segmented series of screens. This global overview can inform and enhance the comments students are able to make about the cohesiveness and coherence of a text, qualities which often become opaque when reading a text on a monitor (Hult, 1988). The variety of peer-critiquing programs found in today's college composition classrooms is extensive. The following discussion offers several peer critiquing activities that allow critics to comment on drafts through a system of split screens and annotations. These activities can be used individually or in conjunction with each other to produce a more comprehensive critique.

A basic peer-critiquing activity introduces the dynamics of peer review by asking students to read and critique drafts exclusively for problems of grammar, punctuation, syntax, and spelling. After students have read the hard copy of the draft they are to critique, they exchange diskettes and retrieve the composition to the top screen. [6] Critics insert their corrections directly into the text as either bracketed information or boldfaced print alongside the original text (Forman, 1988). This activity is more than an exercise in proofreading; if any errors recur throughout the draft or if they are making syntactic revisions, students are required to provide the author with rationale for these changes. Rather than disrupt the writer's text with these comments, student critics type numbers in the text, switch to the lower screen, and type their explanations. [7] Such comments provide writers of the drafts with a basis for understanding or assessing the corrections or changes the critics have made. Comments also help the critics become attentive to aspects of syntax and grammar. At the same time, this activity can direct the writers as well as the critics back to a textbook or to the teacher for additional instruction.

For critiquing the larger rhetorical features of a draft, students follow the same split-screen approach described above, this time creating an annotated version of the draft. [8] After having reread the printed copy of the draft, students write three paragraphs responding to rhetorical features of the composition: how (and how well) the draft responds to the purpose of the assignment; how (and how well) it uses the rhetorical techniques specific to this particular mode of discourse; and how (and how well) the draft is written for its designated audience.

The goal of such a critiquing exercise is for students to write text-specific, fully developed comments so that the critique will benefit the writer as well as sharpen the reviewer's critical reading skills. As they are formulating their comments, students scroll through the draft on the top screen to compose elaborated responses. When students find passages that illustrate the points they are making, they can cite the passages by either copying and cutting them into their critiques using block moves or by footnoting them. As with the topic development questions, an instructor can provide a variety of questions for student critics to respond to in this form of peer critiquing with "Windows."

"Windows" also allows students to provide annotated, qualitative commentaries to the writer about the contents or organization of an essay. This form of peer critiquing with "Windows"--as with collaborative freewriting for topic development--invites critics to engage in a dialogue with the writer. Critics can highlight strong parts of the draft to the writer or point out areas requiring development and recommend additional information for the author to include. If a portion of a text is unclear, critics can offer possible interpretations to help the writer clarify the meaning. If critics disagree with the writer, they can use the split screen to challenge ideas, raise alternative points of view, or comment on the sophistication of material presented.

Suggestions for revising the organization of an essay may become apparent as critics read both the hard copy and the copy on the screen. Following the same method of annotation, critics can recommend block moves for reordering paragraphs. If the problem of arrangement is on the level of syntax or lexis, critics can use the "copy-and-cut block move" to transfer the passage in question to the text of their critiques and demonstrate the revision along with an explanation supporting the change.

Composing peer critiques with "Windows" produces two documents: the annotated draft and the accompanying critical comments. Because these texts are composed in separate files and printed on separate pages, the author reads the completed peer critique document on the computer and in its print version as a set of parallel texts. This division has the advantage of preserving the integrity of the student writer's original draft. In addition, the comments are legible and organized. "Windows" also keeps peer critique comments in their proper perspective as suggestions for revision, not as exhaustive, almighty dicta of how to perfect the composition because the critique supplements rather than supplants the writer's text.

This visual advantage suggests that teachers, too, may want to adopt a split-screen method of commenting on student texts. As Nancy Sommers (1982) points out in her seminal article "Responding to Student Writing":

[T]eachers' comments can take students' attention away from their own purposes in writing a particular text and focus that attention on the teachers' purpose in commenting. [emphasis added] The teacher appropriates the text from the student. . . . (p. 149)

Providing comments for revision on a separate window prevents the visual signs of appropriation--the teacher's red-ink handwritten comments across the text. Because the student's text has not been violated with either peer or teacher comments, the text and the purpose of that text remain intact both physically and psychologically for the writer. Furthermore, as writers begin to revise in response to the comments their drafts have received, the use of Windows for composing critiques invites students to reengage actively in their texts. Rather than encouraging students "to see their writing as a series of parts--words, sentences, paragraphs" (Sommers, p. 151), comments prepared using "Windows" force students to reread their drafts in their entirety. In doing so, students recontextualize the comments to understand the suggestions being made. Although comments may address the individual "parts" of the writing, reading the draft and the critique as parallel texts assures that students view their drafts as "a whole discourse" (Sommers, p. 151).

After giving thoughtful consideration to the criticism their papers received and careful reconsideration to their drafts themselves, students can once again open "Windows" on their computer screen to complete their revision and prepare the final text. Beginning their revision with the issues raised in the critiques addressing the global features of the draft--rhetorical approaches, quality of ideas--students can call the appropriate critique files to the top screen and retrieve their draft on the bottom screen, which is once again reserved as the composing screen. Students may wish to keep statements that offer criticism applicable to their entire draft before them on the top screen as they revise. Much like keeping an outline or thesis statement present during the initial composing stages, this technique can lend direction to students as they rewrite their way through their texts. As students concentrate on revising individual sections of the draft, they can scroll through the critiques for corresponding comments. If critiques devoted to surface features and global concerns have been saved as two separate files, students can retrieve these different files as they focus on the relevant aspects of their draft. As in the composing stag, students can cut and copy suggestions from the critiques directly into their new draft using block moves. And the open window at the top of the screen maintains the function of a drawing board, allowing students to rework sections of their drafts and then transfer them into the composition on the bottom screen.

Once students have completed a final draft, they can open their windows one last time to become more conscious of their revision process. To achieve this measure, students evenly split their screen and call up their original draft to the top window. On the bottom window, they recall their final draft. Students then read through the two versions in tandem and keep written or mental notes of how the two versions differ in quality and quantity. The before and after visions of a text which "Windows" offers gives the students insight and understanding into the individual practices and principles of their own composing processes.

Michael Steven Marx teaches English at Skidmore College Saratoga Springs, New York.


  1. As in composing with "Windows," Integrated Software Packages break down the perception of rigidity that often surrounds the writing process. Programs such as the PARAGRAPHING PROGRAM allow students to experience the interrelatedness and recursiveness of the writing process. Integrated Software Packages typically include three parts: a prewriting program, a word-processing program (usually specifically designed for the package), and a revision program. In her critique of Integrated Software Packages, Deborah H. Holdstein (1987) explains:

    A good integrated package will allow for great flexibility. For example, students should be able to enter the writing section, return to the prewriting section, or jump first to the rewriting section without having to go through the software in a tedious linear fashion. (p. 23)

    The virtues of this flexibility are also apparent when composing with "Windows."

  2. Because of the amount of memory the "Windows" function requires, not all word-processing programs have the capacity to provide split screens. In addition to WORDPERFECT, word-processing programs for PCs with a Windows function include MICROSOFT WORD and NOTA BENE. Three programs also provide split-screen capabilities for the Apple Macintosh: MICROSOFT WORD, FULLWRITE PROFESSIONAL by Ashton Tate, and WORDPERFECT.

  3. The steps to this procedure are as follows: 1. Highlight the passage using "Block" (ALT+F4). 2. Copy the highlighted passage using the "Copy Block" option (CTRL+F4, 2). This will retain the text in its original position and temporarily place a duplicate of it in the computer's memory. 3. Switch to the second screen (SHIFT+F3). 4. Move the cursor to the desired spot on this screen. 5. Transfer the text to the new screen by using the "Move" (CTRL+F4) and "Text" (5) options.

  4. WORDPERFECT contains a separate "Outline" function (ALT+F5, 1) that allows a student to create a proper Roman numeral outline (or an outline in the format of the student's design). As with justified margins, form can be deceiving. The appropriate spacing and correct arrangement of numbers and letters do not guarantee a logical or coherent outline.

  5. A former student in a non-computer composition class reported that she copies her thesis onto a file card and tapes it to the wall in front of her desk so that whenever she looks up, she sees the card and is reminded of her focus. I have adapted her technique here.

  6. Alternatively, if students have computers available outside of class, they can copy the file of the composition from their partner's diskette to their own diskette. This also allows the partner the freedom to continue working on his/her own paper during the critiquing process. When the critique is complete, the students simply copy the file of the draft and the critique back onto their own diskettes.

  7. This process annotates the text through manually created endnotes. Although WORDPERFECT contains an automatic footnote function (CTRL+F7), it is not suitable for a critiquing activity because it temporarily clears the original text from the screen when the writer composes the note. This prevents students from referring to the draft as they write their commentaries.

  8. To distinguish between surface-level comments and global comments, students designate surface-level corrections and revisions with numbers and global comments with letters.


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