COMPUTERS and COMPOSITION 8(1), November 1990, pages 41-48

Invisible Writing With a Computer:
New Sources and Resources

Stephen Marcus


In its simplest form, invisible writing with a computer is done by turning the brightness knob on the computer screen down so that the writer cannot see the text as it evolves. Students do invisible writing for a short period of time, anywhere from one to five minutes, and then brighten their screens in order to see what was on their minds. Invisible writing with a computer is most often combined with freewriting, a technique that helps build fluency by giving students permission to put on temporary hold their concerns such as spelling, grammar, punctuation, and complete sentences.

Teachers and students who have tried invisible writing with a computer report that it frees them from the compulsion to tinker with their text--a common problem when trying to prewrite with a word processing package. It helps writers focus their thoughts on a topic; generates interest in "seeing what they have to say"; evokes writing that comes more from the subconscious; and, as described by educator Anne Beversdorf (personal communication), encourages the movement from facts to feelings.

This technique has been used with students in elementary grades through university classes; these students have different levels of writing ability and of computer experience. It has also been used by teachers from a variety of content areas.

A good introduction to this technique can be accomplished in 20 minutes. Some of the other activities described in the following pages can obviously take longer. It is important, however, to take time to reinforce the habit of trying invisible writing--for example, when a student experiences writers' block while typing at the computer.


I first described invisible writing with a computer in 1983 (Marcus & Blau, 1983; see also, Marcus, 1984), and I had demonstrated it in workshops and conference presentations for a year or so before that. Its wide appeal and general value are suggested by the frequency with which it has been practiced by others and referenced in texts dealing with computer-assisted writing (see References for a sample listing). The technique has also been incorporated by others into several computer-assisted composition aids, including THE BANK STREET PREWRITER, THE HBJ WRITER, SUCCESS WITH WRITING, and WORDBENCH. A handbook on classroom-based research on computers and writing, which focuses on invisible writing, has recently been prepared for the California Writing Project/California Technology Project Alliance (Marcus, 1990).

A non-computer form of invisible writing was initially used by James Britton (Britton, et al., 1975) to suggest that writers couldn't compose without being able to review or scan their evolving text. Sheridan Blau (1983) (whose work inspired the computer-based version), utilized empty ball point pens and carbon paper to provide strong counter-evidence that

[the] absence of visual feedback from the text [that teachers and students] were producing actually sharpened their concentration on each of the writing tasks, enhanced their fluency, and yielded texts that were more, rather than less, cohesive (p. 298).

In a computer context, invisible writing has the advantages of emphasizing the special features of the technology. Invisible writing develops in students more of a sense that they can control text production, and invisible writing provides a general purpose technique that can be used with any computer and word-processing system. As an aid in the teaching of writing, invisible writing builds fluency by freeing students from the common desire to tinker unnecessarily with their words; invisible writing helps them focus on the content of their writing instead of its surface features; and invisible writing provides a general technique that can be used in revising efforts.

Invisible writing with a computer is a good example of how technology can change the quality (and often quantity) of time spent at any given point during a writers composing processes. The technique assumes that there is value in concentrating on different dimensions of composing at different times, and that not only focus but also fluency can be improved by eliminating distracting factors.

Additional Applications

Here are several variations on invisible writing with a computer. They are presented below both as instructions being given to students and as instructions to the teacher.

An Introduction to the Method
Start typing (visibly) with the words, "I'm typing on this computer and. . . ." Keep typing for one minute. Then tap the RETURN or ENTER key a few times to move the cursor down. Next, darken the screen and start typing with the words, "I can't see what I'm typing and . . . ." After a minute, stop typing, turn the brightness knob up, and examine your text. Move down a few blank lines, and do a minute of visible writing, starting with a topic like, "Why do people read poetry?" Then do a minute's invisible writing on a comparable topic like, "Why do people write poetry?" Finally, do a minute's worth of visible or invisible writing (your choice) comparing your experiences writing in the two modes.

Encourage class discussion at the end of this sequence. Make sure that people who didn't particularly like invisible writing get their say. See if people changed their minds over the course of the activities. Point out that it's not for everyone, that it doesn't have to be done all the time or for long periods of time, and that invisible writing takes some getting used to. People sometimes change their minds after they've practiced it.

It's important to give people the first two easy assignments in order to get them accustomed to the technique. The next two assignments require more challenging thinking, and they have the same degree of difficulty in order to allow the students a fair basis of comparison for their experiences writing visibly or invisibly. Other topics are: Why do people like to work or play? Why do people like to sleep or wake up? Why do people like to read history or write history?

Invisible Writing With A Partner
If the monitors can be moved while still connected to their respective computers, put Student A's monitor on top of Student B's computer, and vice versa. As Student A begins typing, the text will appear in front of Student B. If Student A loses the train of thought, he or she can type "???"--whereupon Student B types something like "You were writing about. . ." and paraphrases what is on the screen. If Student A runs out of ideas, he or she can type "X~(X." Seeing this, Student B can suggest a new angle or topic by typing, "What about. . . ?" When the students print their respective files, Student A can use this record of their collaboration for further study and discussion and for use in his or her next draft.

This general technique has been used to introduce students to telecommunication, simulating the kinds of conversations that can develop between writers at a distance. Barbara Rother, Co-Director of the Redwood Writing Project at Humboldt State University, has also used this technique to very good effect in teacher-education workshops that combine writing with math/science instruction. In one activity, a person has to type a description of a collection of geometric figures, with enough specificity to allow a partner to recreate the figures. The words appear only on the partner's screen. Participants reported that doing this kind of invisible problem-solving encouraged the recall of knowledge they had forgotten they had. The experience was quite remarkable for a number of the participants.

A Revision Strategy
This revision strategy combines invisible writing with nutshelling. After they have spent some time typing something that is visible, ask the students to type a dotted line on the screen. Then have them darken the screen and "test" themselves by typing an answer to this question: "In a nutshell, what is it you've said so far?" After a minute's invisible writing, students can brighten the screen and continue composing. Additional questions for invisible writing are (only one is tackled each time): What do I want my reader to care about at this point? What am I worried about in my writing right now? What do I want my teacher to think about me at this point?

Answering questions like these several times in the course of a typing session can help students refocus their thoughts and gain some perspective on what they've been saying. Initially, you may have to interrupt their writing at inopportune moments as you are introducing this technique. With practice, students can refocus on their own at appropriate pausing places in their writing.

A Prewriting Strategy
Pick a theme to concentrate on, e.g., the modern world, getting older, or the individual vs. society. Visibly type a list of ten words that you associate with that topic. (Press RETURN or ENTER twice after each word.) Now move the cursor just below the first word and spend one minute elaborating on that word with visible typing, then move the cursor below the second word and spend one minute invisibly expanding on the second, then one minute visibly on the third, and so on. When you're done with this, spend a few minutes writing (visibly or invisibly) on any ways your experiences writing in the two modes differed.

Another Prewriting Strategy
This prewriting strategy activity assumes that you have previously been asked to write both personal and academic papers in the course. Visibly type a list of five words that describe you as a student, that is, as an academic person. (Press RETURN or ENTER twice after each word.) Then, type five more words that describe the personal you, words that apply to you when you are with your friends, family, or just when you are on your own somewhere. Now, spend one minute expanding visibly on the first word, one minute invisibly on the second, one minute visibly on the third, and so on. When you are done with this, spend a few minutes writing (visibly or invisibly) on any ways your experiences writing in the two modes differed. (For example, is it easier to be personal when you are invisible?)

Another Prewriting Strategy
This prewriting strategy activity assumes you have been given an assignment to write about for class. Get your computer ready for invisible writing (i.e., darken the screen). Now, pretend the computer can hear your thoughts as you type them invisibly. Spend two minutes talking (i.e., typing) to your computer, explaining what you really feel about the assignment you are supposed to write about. Now, turn your brightness knob back up and read what you've written. Next, spend two minutes typing visibly and comment on what you said invisibly. Now, go back to typing invisibly. Spend two minutes commenting on what you said visibly. Again, pretend that your computer can hear you. At the end of two minutes, go back to writing visibly, and spend two minutes commenting on your previous invisible writing. Finally, spend two minutes writing, visibly or invisibly, about what it was like to do this kind of switching back and forth.

Semi-invisible Writing
Some students prefer to darken their screens halfway. They report that doing so gives them the reassurance that comes from being able to monitor their typing in a general way while discouraging them from examining their texts too closely and getting distracted by typos.

Evaluations and Conclusions

In the case of invisible writing with computers, not every student has pleasant experiences, particularly those individuals with formal and strict typing instruction. These students sometimes feel anxious when their eyes, for lack of a text to follow, stray to the keyboard. For others, not being able to review their work-in-progress becomes so distracting that it interrupts fluency. As one student put it,

I can't see what I'm writing, and it is really difficult to keep up with what I am saying. If I can't see what I am writing, I feel. . . lost, and it throws me off track.

Many students report, however, that invisible writing frees them to concentrate more on the content, rather than the form, of their emerging thoughts. They are freed from the compulsion to spend their time doing local editing, fixing trivial typing errors, or making relatively minor changes in the text at the expense of the broader ideas they are trying to articulate. Students also sometimes report that, with invisible writing, what they wind up saying comes more from their subconscious.

It's important to note that students will often change their minds about invisible writing as they become more accustomed to it. One student began by finding it "hard because you don't know if you're making any mistakes. . . . Furthermore, it's hard to know what you've already said." This same student, with just a bit more practice, declared,

I like the invisible writing because I'm not always correcting my errors. . . which slows me down. It's fun to do because. . . my mind isn't breaking [all my thoughts] down. If I freewrite visibly, I have to look away from the machine in order to truly say what I want to [say].

Invisible writing helps many students see how premature editing interferes with the composing process, and it brings into sharp focus their own tendencies in this regard. In the words of one student, "Invisible writing helped me understand that writing really begins with prewriting."

Some students also appreciate the privacy that this method provides, because text on a monitor is too public for some people, some times.

Invisible writing with a computer is just one example of how teachers can help students take greater advantage of the special features of the technology. It is a generic strategy, working with any word processing package that runs on any computer. The success of even a simple approach like this one should provide encouragement for those who see word processing as a major resource for the teaching of writing.

Stephen Marcus teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara.


Invisible writing has been described in several discussions of computer-based writing tools, within the more general context of the value of word processing, in helping students do prewriting and, especially, free writing activities. The following references include not only the works cited earlier but additional discussions of the invisible writing technique and extended descriptions of other valuable applications both of word processing and of a wide range of computer-assisted pedagogy.


BANK STREET PREWRITER. (1990). New York: Scholastic, Inc.

Blau, S. (1983). Invisible writing: Investigating cognitive processes in composition. College Composition and Communication, 34, 297-312.

Britton, J., et al. (1975). The development of writing abilities. London. Macmillan.

Costanzo, W. V. (1989). The electronic text: Learning to write, read, and reason with computers. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Edwards, B. L., Ir. (1987). Processing words: Writing and revising on a microcomputer. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Feldman, P. R. & Norman, B. (1987). The wordworthy computer: Classroom and research applications in language and literature. New York: Random House.

THE HBJ WRITER. (1986). San Diego, CA: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovitch.

Marcus, S. & Blau, S. (1983, April). Not seeing is relieving: Invisible writing with a computer, (12-15).

Marcus, S. (1984). Realtime gadgets with feedback: Special effects in computer-assisted writing. In Wm. Wresch (Ed.), The computer in composition instruction (pp. 120-130).Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Marcus, S. (1990). Teacher researcher. Santa Barbara, CA: The South Coast Writing Project, Graduate School of Education, University of California.

Mitchell, J. (1989). Writing with a computer. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Schwartz, H. J. (1987). Interactive writing: Composing with a word processor. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Schwartz, E. & Vockell, E. (1988). The computer in the English curriculum. New York: Mitchell/Random House.

SUCCESS WITH WRITING. (1989). New York: Scholastic, Inc.

WORDBENCH. (1988). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Wresch, W. (1987). A practical guide to computer uses in the English/language arts classroom. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.