8(1), November 1990, pages 81-88

My Write of Passage:
From the Quill Pen to the Personal Computer

Edward P. J. Corbett

I feel so avant-garde. I just recently receded into retirement, and here I am now writing about the computer in academia. In this age of what Marshall McLuhan called the "electronic revolution," one cannot be more au courant than to be associated with the computer--even though the computer is a product of the science of cybernetics, a term that derives from the Homeric word for "helmsman." Although many of us resisted for a long time the intrusion of the computer into academia, computers are now securely locked into place in many niches in ivy-covered halls. As defenders of the faith in the humanities, we have fought the good fight, but we have lost the battle. For old sticks-in-the-mud like me, the defeat should be an occasion for grieving. But actually, I fell quite euphoric about the triumph of cybernetics.

You are aware of the experts who very quickly acquired national reputations in this country for setting up computer-assisted instruction in the humanities. I am not one of those experts. I am one of those humanists who was dragged kicking and screaming into the Electronic Age but who is now a grateful and enthusiastic supporter of the computer--especially of the personal computer, or as it is familiarly called, the PC. During my professional career, I have gone through the complete passage from the quill pen to the personal computer--and I am now awaiting the arrival of the fifth generation of computers, the computers that will make available to me the artificial intelligence that will by-pass my rampant senility. Those of you who are already committed converts to the computer may be bemused by the narrative of my "write of passage from the quill pen to the personal computer.

It is a commonplace now that humanists generally have been slower to adopt the computer than people in the physical and social sciences. Solveig Olsen, the professor of German at North Texas State University, who is the general editor of the collection of essays that MLA published in 1985, Computer-Aided Instruction in the Humanities, offers his own explanation for the reluctance of humanists to adopt the computer in their academic work. He says,

Several factors account for its [CAI's] slow acceptance among humanists: fiscal constraints, lack of familiarity with technology, skepticism caused by the exaggerated claims of an aggressive industry, disenchantment with early experimental programs, and some fear of the machine as a 'dehumanizing' force (p. xiv).

Those factors and others that Professor Olsen does not name have undoubtedly disposed many humanists to be slow in availing themselves of the reputed benefices of the computer.

I saw some evidence of that kind of foot-dragging among some of my colleagues about five years ago when the Department of English at my school offered to install Zenith PC's in the offices of all tenure-track faculty members and to equip those PC's with NOTA BENE, the software program that was highly recommended by the Modern Language Association as the best program for people in the humanities. Perhaps predictably, it was the younger faculty members of the department who first raised their hands an announced, "I want one of those." Then some of the middle-aged professors put in their bid for a free PC in their office. It was not until word-of-mouth testimony got around about the wonders of the personal computer that some of the hoary-headed professors got interested enough to apply for this bonanza.

But a few members of the department, some of them old, some of the young, remained icily intransigent. I recall especially the reaction of one of my esteemed colleagues, an associate professor of Renaissance literature. She was not going to have anything to do with all that folderol. She was going to continue writing her articles on a yellow legal pad with her trusty Parker fountain pen. And she did for several weeks. Then one day she got curious about the Zenith PC that she had been watching her office-mate use, and she sat down in front of the PC and started to play with it. Well, you can imagine how the story goes from there. She got hooked, and before long she put in a bid for her own PC. What you have probably not predicted is that she became a fanatic fan of the personal computer, bought tons of books and magazines about the computer, and eventually invested her own money in another more-sophisticated software program. Today, she is the resident expert in the department that all of us consult when we have problems with our computers.

My colleague represents an extreme of sorts, an example of someone who went from a state of downright hostility to the computer to a state of passionate commitment to it. The more typical resistance to the "machine" was more like my own: an unruffled indifference to, or a mild skepticism about, the virtues of the personal computer. As I mentioned earlier, I had experimented with all the writing tools from the quill pen to the personal computer by the time the department offered to buy us our own PCs for the office. At least three years before the department made that offer, I had purchased my own IBM personal computer for my study at home. When I bought this strange machine, I was more curious about it than committed to it.

Quite early in my teenage years, I had taught myself to type on one of those heavy, clattering Remington typewriters. As soon as I had mastered touch-typing on the cumbersome, noisy machine, I abandoned the practice of writing the drafts of my compositions on lined sheets of paper with a leaky fountain pen. For the first time, I felt professional about my writing, and I began to envision for myself a career as a newspaper reporter, like the careers of many of the American novelists that I idolized at the time.

It was many years before I make my next step up in the technology of the writing tools: I bought myself an electric typewriter. The electric typewriter brought to my writing process a noticeable decrease in the noise level and in the physical effort to depress the keys. My typing could now keep pace with my thinking, and I could stay longer at the keyboard without getting tired. The next step for me was a more-sophisticated electronic typewriter, which had all of the features of my previous typewriter and an erasing tape that made it easy for me to obliterate typos and to revise my phrasing. At this stage, I thought I had reached the ultimate in a writing tool Gone forever were the cramped fingers that always resulted from extensive manipulation of a pen or a pencil over sheets of paper; gone was the physical exhaustion that ensued from long hours of punching recalcitrant typewriter keys; gone were the erasure dustings that settled down on my desk after any unusually erratic sting with the typewriter. I was free at last--free from the expenditure of muscular energy required to inscribe words on paper. But the electronic typewriter was not the ultimate. I was unaware of the liberator in the offing--word processing.

Those of you who have done your writing on a word processing system know what a liberator it is. Writing is still an arduous and painful process for me and perhaps for you, too. But the difficulty now resides entirely in the cognitive part of the process--finding something to say, selecting and arranging what I have found, verbalizing what I have selected and organized. The physical effort required now is so minimal that I can sit for hours at the keyboard and the monitor without drooping. The only physical strain now is on the eyes, from long hours of staring at the lighted words on the screen. But apparently one will not have to pay the price for eye-strain until many years hence. Someday in the future, we may have a whole generation of computer hackers afflicted with cataracts.

Another effects of word processing is that my writing habits have changed radically. I used to spend most of my time preparing to write--reading, meditating, taking notes, jotting down at least a rough outline of what I was going to say, discussing my problems with colleagues, doing some more reading to fill in the gaps, and then fiddling around with a lot of inconsequential an irrelevant activities just to postpone the awful moment when I would have to sit down and put some words on paper. Now, blessed with the facilities that word processing offers me, I still do some preparing to write but not nearly as much as I used to. Because word processing makes it so easy to lay out the words--to obliterate unwanted words and substitute better words, to expand cluster of words, and to shift parcels of words--I do a lot of my preparations at the keyboard. Now more than ever, the act of putting words down is part of the invention process for me. I am likely now to start out with only a vague idea of what I want to say in a discourse and to discover what I want to say in a discourse and to discover what I want to say and how I want to say it by simply laying words out on the monitor's screen. Sometimes I have to throw away big chunks of words that I have put together, but just the act of laying out words helps me to overcome the inertia that always seizes me when I sit down to write. It also helps me to discover my content and thesis and organization and verbalization.

Another change that word processing has effected is the way I revise now. I used to write off in a white heat, just getting words down on paper, not worrying about spelling or punctuation or precise wording or effective style. Once I got the whole chunk chiseled out, I could go back and reshape it. Now, largely because of the ease of making changes with word processing I am constantly revising as I go along. I write a sentence out, read it over, spot a typo or an infelicitous phrasing, and immediately change it--and may make further changes before I go on to the next sentence. And because of my fear of having a power surge wipe out what I have composed, I always make a hard copy of a page as soon as I finish composing it. So I reread the whole page once again and often make further revisions before punching the key that activates my printer. Quite frequently now, the prose on those pages that I have meticulously revised as I go along is the prose that appears in the final draft of my paper. I do very little additional revising before printing out the final copy of my paper.

I hope I have not bored you with the narrative of my experiences with various writing tools. For those of you who have switched to word processing, much of what I told you in my narrative matches your own experience. Some of your writing habits may be different from mine, but all of you, I am sure, have made some changes in the way you write since you switched to a word-processing system. Those of you who have just dabbled with word processing or are still hesitant about getting involved with it may be prompted by my narrative to give it a good try.

What you may have concluded from my narrative is that I have become enchanted with my word-processing system simply because it is a glorified typewriter. And it is true that so far I have exploited only a few of the resources of the NOTA BENE program that I use. Although I have been given the third version of NOTA BENE, I am still working with the first version. I do not want to devote the five or six hours it would take me to learn version three, because that learning period would take me out of production for five or six hours. But I told you before I am a prime example of a stick-in-the-mud.

Another thing you may have noticed is that I made use of the computer only to enhance my writing process. To date, I have not used the computer to help others with their writing. My department has set up several sections of first-year composition taught entirely on word-processing systems; but since in the last years the only writing course I have taught is our upper-lever technical-writing course, I have not had an opportunity to teach one of the first-year writing courses. Because most of the students who enroll in our technical-writing courses are whizzes at the computer, they would be an ideal population for a writing course taught with the aid of the computer. But our technical writing courses meet only twice a week, instead of the five times a week that our first-year courses meet, and there would not be sufficient time in those two meetings a week to do any effective teaching with computers. Having a great deal of the literature, however, about the use of word processing in composition classes, I know something about how those machines are used in the four stages of the writing process-- prewriting, writing, revising, and editing--and I am looking forward to the further revelations that will be made about that teaching.

I have also not written anything about the relationship of the computer to the teaching of literature, another aspect of an English teacher's province. Most of us are aware of, but have to be reminded about, the contributions that the computer has made to the study and the teaching of literature. One of the most significant contributions is the compilation of concordances. In the past, because compiling a concordance was such a monumental task for any one person to undertake, only concordances of the Bible and of major poets were published. But the computer has so speeded up the gathering process that now concordances are being prepared not only for minor poets but also for major prose writers. Whereas it took James Strong over thirty years to compile his concordance of the Authorized and Revised versions of the King James text of the Bible, it took John Ellison, using Remington Rand's Univac computer, only about 1,000 hours to index over 350,000 contexts of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.

Closely allied to the production of concordances is the production of stylistic analyses of prose writers. Once a prose text has been typed into a computer, the computer can be programmed to spit out statistical information about various stylistic features, such as sentence length and paragraph length; the proportion of monosyllabic and polysyllabic diction; the distribution of simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentences in the text; the various categories of sentence-openers; the varieties of figures of speech. Louis Milic, in his study of Jonathon Swift's style, was one of the first English teachers to use a computer to gather data about a particular author's style. One of the reasons for the proliferation of stylistic analyses since the mid-1960s is that the computer has taken the tedium out of gathering the quantifiable data about stylistic features.

But the computer is making other contributions too. The CD-ROM discs (that is, the compact disc-read only memory) are capable of storing enormous amounts of information. The most sensation example of the use of the CD-ROM disc to make available texts of special interest to humanists was the 1989 production on compact disc of the entire text of the sixteen volumes of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. It is not inconceivable that all of the issues of three or four journals read by English teachers could be put on a single disc, thereby saving bookshelf space in teacher's offices or home libraries and with a programmed index system facilitating the finding of particular and related articles on a particular subject. Other sets of commonly used reference works could be made available, too, for teachers' private libraries.

Desktop publishing with the use of computers will become more common in the coming years in academia. Teachers will be resorting to desktop publishing to produce tailor-made textbooks for their classes. And teachers are already sending to publishers not only manuscript copies of their books and articles but disk copies of those books and articles, from which the texts and format of those publications will be set in type. With the advances that scholars are making in artificial-intelligence research, "machine translation" of foreign-language texts will become more common. And scholars who have modems hooked up to their computers will have increasing opportunities to share their research with other scholars and to arrange for collaborative publication with other colleagues. Creative writers could also share their current work with other writers and get helpful feedback from those like-minded folk.

Scholars like Walter J. Ong and Marshall McLuhan have reminded us of the changes that the electronic media have effected in the way we communicate our perceptions of the world to others. While the print and the chirographic cultures tended to isolate individuals from one another, the combination of literacy and orality that typifies the electronic media tends to socialize us into groups of communities. The intensely impersonal computer is also bringing us together again in global villages and helping us to express both our idiosyncratic personalities and our concern for other human beings. As humanists, we would do well not to shy away from this astonishing machine. We should recognize its capabilities and its limitations. And we should employ this machine to help us to tasks that on our own powers would take us days or weeks or years to do. I might want to use a quill pen to indicate a special congratulatory or thank-you note to a friend, but despite the calligraphy that the quill pen makes possible, I would still like to write my next scholarly article on a word processing system. How about you?

Edward Corbett teaches in the English Department of The Ohio State University, in Columbus, Ohio.


Burns, H. (1977). TOPOI computer software: United States Air Force Academy.

Holdstein, D. H. (Ed.) (1987). On composition and computers. New York: Modern Language Association.

McLuhan, M. (1965). Understanding media. The extensions of man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Olsen, S. (Ed.) (1985). Computer-aided instruction in the humanities. New York: Modern Language Association.

Ong, W. J. (1967). The presence of the word: Some prolegomena for cultural and religious history. The Terry Lectures. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Ong) W. J. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London and New York: Methuen.

Selfe, C. L. (1986). Computer-assisted instruction in composition: Create your own! Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Selfe, C. L., (1989). In C. L. Selfe & G. E. Hawisher (Eds.), Creating a computer-supported writing facility. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Schwartz, H., & Bridwell, L. (1984). A Selected bibliography on computers in composition, College Composition and Communication, 35, 71-77.

Schwartz, H., & Bridwell, L. (1985). Interactive writing: Composing with a word processor. New York: Holt.

Wresch, W. (Ed.). (1984). The computer in composition instruction. A writer's tool. Urbana, IL: NCTE.