COMPUTERS and COMPOSITION 8(3),
August 1991, pages 83-88
As early as 1980, Allan Collins and Dedre Gentner were theorizing
about the potentials of "WritingLand," a computer-based
reading and writing environment that might assist students by
suggesting strategies and structures to negotiate the several
levels of cognitive activity in composing. 
Now, a team of a dozen interdisciplinary scholars and researchers
report on "the progress being made toward the creation of
ideal computer writing environments for college students and professional
writers" (ix), defining ideal computer writing environments
as "those that support all of the cognitive processes fundamental
to good writing" (ix). Psychologist Bruce Britton and educational
psychologist Shawn Glynn join three other psychologists, two English
professors, two computer scientists, a linguist, a technical communications
specialist, and a humanities educator to provide snapshots
of the quickly changing computer-support systems available
In doing so, the authors use a substantial base of theory and
cognitive research to validate the appropriateness of computer
support for writers in electronic environments. The six chapters
of Computer Writing Environments describe computer management
of writing and augmentation of cognitive processes, a variety
of student approaches to electronic writing, the status quo of
present writing aids along with desirable future enhancements,
and work in progress on a "comprehensibility aid" for
Britton and Glynn, with co-authors Denise R. Oaks and Linda F.
Mattocks, lead into the book with their chapter, "Computer
Environments for Managing Writers' Thinking Processes." They
praise the computer as a more recursive environment for writing,
less linear than writing by hand or by typewriter. Their imagined
"wish list" for an ideal computer-writing environment
includes five goals: 1) the system should facilitate interaction
and recursion, structuring not just bottom-up grammar checks but
also top-down organizational probes; 2) it should be graphics-based
as well as character-based, using icons and spatially represented
information; 3) hypertext capabilities for searching, indexing,
and document variation should allow for manipulation of large
and multiple documents; 4) multi-tasking should allow flexibility
and quick switching among texts, data, and graphics; and 5) group
and individual writing environments should facilitate team composing
Such computer environments will affect teaching and learning strategies
in the writing classroom, but they will not threaten job security:
"At the present time, and in the foreseeable future, word
process[ing packages] cannot replace the instructor who fulfills
the important roles of guide, collaborator, editor, and audience"
(p. 11). Student writers using computers may revise more, gain
fluency (which may be explained by the absence of the end-of-the-page
syndrome), become more open to peer review, and enjoy writing
more. Teachers will benefit from these improvements in process
while remaining critical of programs that isolate skills, such
as the grammar subprogram Grampop. Although such support is available
for writers, the authors point out that the real promise for computer-assisted
writing instruction lies in "[t]he integration of programs
for managing top-down and bottom-up processes, [which] represents
a quantum leap in word processing" (p. 15). Nevertheless,
such advances will require refinements in artificial intelligence
that have only been imagined, not achieved.
Chapter 2, by John B. Smith and Marcy Lansman, is titled "A Cognitive Basis for a Computer Writing Environment." Research by cognitive psychologists in reading comprehension and written communication reveals schema for decoding and gisting (creating memory representations) propositions, coherence links, and hierarchical macrostructures. Certain typographical and rhetorical conventions, such as thematic titles, advance organizers, signaled or cued structures, and topic or theme sentences in initial positions, aid readers and suggest effective guidelines for writers.
Writers' cognitive processes are analyzed with the Flower and
Hayes model, which uses three types of representation common in
cognitive psychology: the box model, the flow chart, and the production
system. A matrix of constituent concepts and cognitive modes for
writing (p. 36) weaves together the interdependencies of processes,
products, goals, and constraints with seven modes or particular
ways of thinking involved with writing. The various cognitive
modes that are analyzed range from exploration, situational analysis,
and organization, to writing and three kinds of editing (for global
organization, coherence relations, and expression).
The design of their WRITING ENVIRONMENT (WE) system emphasizes multimodal cognitive support for writers. The network mode is tailored for exploration. Here, computer screens allow for a graphic clustering type of brainstorming for ideas and relationships. The tree mode allows the writer to organize ideas into a structured hierarchy. The editor mode is for drafting, linguistic encoding, and expansion of concepts. The text mode provides editing support. Although the names seem rather arbitrary and perhaps interchangeable, the rich environment offers flexible guidance and support for a writer's complex tasks.
The authors test their system with users in three ways. An automatic tracking function records a transcript of each writing session. Session replays (speeded up or slowed down) prompt retrospective think-aloud protocols from writers. A grammar parser reduces data from the protocol tracker into a parse tree and infers cognitive processes and modes associated with particular items in the text product.
Ronald T. Kellogg offers a rationale for augmenting word processing
to enhance human cognition in chapter 3, "Idea Processors:
Computer Aids for Planning and Composing Text." The power
of computing can address three common problems of writers: attention
overload, idea bankruptcy, and affective interference. Three novel
computer functions, in addition to "Computation" and
"Memory Retrieval" (archival) functions, can help writers
overcome these difficulties.
Allocation of attention can be guided by a "Funnel"
function in which the writer's attention is channeled electronically.
This may be done by hiding distracting information, such as collapsing
outlines or paragraphs, or by encouraging on-screen free-writing
by using flashes that prompt pauses. Eventually, physical or mental
workload may be further reduced with "Listening Typewriter"
functions using voice recognition.
Failure to generate usable ideas, memorably labeled "idea
bankruptcy," is addressed by "Inventor" functions
to aid forming concepts and relationships. Whether a hypertext
NOTECARD device, a tagmemic matrix, or visual
synectics, such "inventory devices" enrich writers'
thinking. As with any invention aid, such programs generate new
ideas only by processing the writer's preliminary (and ideally
secondary and tertiary) thoughts on a topic.
Affective interference comes about because of the fears, anxieties,
and other emotional reactions students bring to writing. The computer-as-therapist
reduces frustration, apprehension, lack of confidence, blocking,
procrastination, and other neuroses, Kellogg asserts. Covert reinforcement
can be embedded in the programming by choice of words and phrases
for on-screen response to writers' behaviors. Other programs,
like MORTON, are specifically designed for
overt cognitive therapy or perhaps even contingency management
Kellogg uses Bridwell-Bowles, Johnson, and Behe's classification
of "Mozartian" and "Beethovian" revisers to
conclude that these funneling, inventory, and therapeutic computer
aids are especially effective with Mozartian executors who plan
extensively before producing a polished draft. Beethovian discoverers,
who compose rough, exploratory drafts, have been less satisfied
with augmented word processing.
In chapter 4, "Word Processing and Student Writers,"
Michael M. Williamson and Penny Pence focus on the value of word
processing as a window on composing strategies. They study novice
student writers using word-processing systems with dribble
files, which save keystroke records. Measuring revision episodes,
or chain reactions of text changes, they identify three basic
styles of revision: linear revisers who save revisions for last,
intermittent revisers who stop periodically, and recursive revisers
who continually embed revisions at the point of text generation.
Such close attention to texts-in-progress can be disabling, or
at least slowing, for basic writers, but Williamson and Pence
label the linear style as weaker and praise the recursive, highly
embedded revision style of expert writers. These professional
writers exhibit "metacognitive awareness;" they know
what they're doing. Word processing facilitates a reconceptualization
or externalization of the composing process necessary for growth
as a writer. The ecology of the laboratory/classroom encourages
tinkering with texts, even "slash and trash" rewrites,
and "facilitates the dump of human memory into electronic
memory" (p. 122). These researchers conclude that word processing
frees writers from "the linear conception of writing that
is an artifact of writing on paper, and it frees them from the
messiness of recursive revision strategies on paper" (p.
In chapter 5, "A Computer-Based Writing Aid for Students: Present and Future," Morton Friedman and Earl Rand analyze WANDAH and present their vision for a SUPERWANDAH of the future. As part of the research and development team that produced WANDAH at UCLA, these authors share their wish list for potential enhancements. WANDAH was designed for cognitive problem solving, with attention given to composition theory and research as well as the human-machine interface, using the Flower and Hayes design model and a toolkit of heuristic devices. While keeping computer jargon to a minimum, the program displays good screen and keyboard design, excellent error correction, and extensive on-line help. It automatically formats output and has a split screen for word processing and for a commenting section ("writers need readers" (p. 134)).
Possibilities for a SUPERWANDAH by 1993 include
the addition of templates for supporting details, examples, quotes,
or particular subject matter: i.e. the psychology experiment or
thesis proposal.  Further
enhancements that Friedman and Rand speculate about include review
and revision checklists plus multi-tasking and windowing to provide
a richer and more active environment. Next-generation programs,
such as intelligent tutoring programs, would still have limited
knowledge domains unless quantum jump improvements are discovered.
David E. Kieras concludes with chapter 6, "An Advanced Computerized
Aid for the Writing of Comprehensible Technical Documents."
Interested in improving the clarity of writing and in providing
more comprehensible technical manuals, Kieras contrasts automated
reading detection processes within reach of current computer technology
with judgmental and stylistic correction processes that remain
in the human domain. Computers can perform the sequential stages
of comprehension: word identification, syntactic analysis, semantic
analysis, and pragmatic and functional analysis. An advanced writing-aid
system can feasibly "identify some of the comprehensibility
problems that can occur at each stage of the comprehension process"
(p. 151). Kieras adds that computers, at best, imitate poor readers,
exhibiting "artificial stupidity" (p. 152). Such natural-language
processing is difficult to implement given the status quo of artificial
intelligence. Yet he describes a demonstration system designed
on the principle of given and new topics and referents.
Parsers and augmented transition networks can analyze the grammar,
but comprehensibility issues include more than grammaticality.
Additional issues of user-interface and usability are critical,
so "close integration with the text-editing environment and
very high execution speed" are recommended components for
such a system design.
With only occasional lapses into unexplained jargon, 
the authors present a complex theoretical and technical overview
of the realities and the possibilities for computer-assisted composition.
Although their reliance on cognitive research might be expected
to limit their concerns to individual mentation, their focus on
the computer-writing environment as a location of cognitive support
includes social interactions and cultural contexts that are external
to the writer's psyche. The electronic medium is a support structure
of the brain (not equivalent to or substituting for the brain),
located in the socio-cultural milieu of the classroom, laboratory,
or workplace. The authors' defense of computer writing as a whole
environment for writers becomes an invitation to teachers and
writers to make full use of such electronic support for the various
stages of composing, from planning and inventing to reviewing,
revising, and stylistically improving our written products.
The concept is catching on. Jane Zeni continues the contagion
in her book, WritingLands: Composing with Old and New Writing
Tools, recently published by NCTE. Her investigation moves
from support of individual writers to classroom environments and
communities of writers in computer-enhanced schools. Converts
and doubters both will want to read Zeni's book as well as Britton
and Glynn's to keep current with the profession's reasons for
such enthusiasm about electronic writing.
Collins, A., & Gentner, D. (1980). A framework for a cognitive
theory of writing. In L. W. Gregg & E. R. Steinberg (Eds.),
Cognitive processes in writing. (pp. 51-71). Hillsdale,
NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Zeni, J. (1990). WritingLands: Composing with old and new writing
tools. Urbana, IL: NCTE.