9(1), November 1992, pages 93-99

A Comprehensive Prewriting and Revising Program

Evelyn J. Posey

When I first looked at WRITER'S HELPER FOR WINDOWS, I was reminded of Collins's and Sommers's motive for editing Writing On-Line: Using Computers in the Teaching of Writing. They edited the book because of their suspicion of the "claims about computers being the best thing to happen since lined paper" (Preface). I approached WRITER'S HELPER FOR WINDOWS with this same suspicion. After all, how could one software package support the writing process as I believe it should be done? Of the many programs that I have used in my writing classes, however, approached WRITER'S HELPER FOR WINDOWS is one of the best matches for our computer-supported writing curriculum--one that introduces computers as a tool to support a writing community, encouraging students to generate ideas, draft, and revise as part of a comprehensive, recursive process.

Moreover, WRITER'S HELPER FOR WINDOWS meets our criteria for pedagogically sound writing software: It is written by a college-level educator who has taught composition, knows composition research, and teaches in computer-supported labs; it offers students choices, reinforcing the idea that each writer has a unique process; it is inexpensive and easy to use, with clear on-screen instructions and easily accessed menus; it promotes critical inquiry rather than prescriptive learning; and it motivates students to write, write, write. And, yes, WRITER'S HELPER FOR WINDOWS supports the composing process in more ways than I ever knew possible.

Support for the Composing Process

WRITER'S HELPER FOR WINDOWS, an improved version of WRITER'S HELPER, STAGE II, is a program that offers a variety of prewriting and revising strategies. Because this new version works with Microsoft WINDOWS, it is easier and faster to use than the earlier versions. By using a mouse, students may now point and click on icons and menu selections; they no longer need to memorize and execute commands. Additionally, the program now offers new prewriting and revising strategies including model formats for certain writing assignments and a peer review option. The reference and instructor manuals, which have also been expanded and improved, are easier to handle in a new, smaller spiral notebook size.

As in the earlier version, students may select from either a prewriting or revising menu. The prewriting menu offers the following choices: "Find," "Explore," and "Organize." Under the "Find" menu, students select from eight activities including "Quotations," "Fact File," and "Questioner," each with 10 to 20 prompts to help them select a topic for a paper. One of the prompts under "Quotations," for example, is "To be a leader in business today, it is no longer an advantage to have been socialized as a male." Under "Fact File," one prompt reads "16% of college graduates smoke. 34% of high school drop-outs smoke." "Questioner" includes the prompt "What do you think that you will be doing in the year 2001?"

Once students have used one of these "Find" options to select a topic, they may then choose from six "Explore" activities to help them generate ideas. "Five W's," for example, provides prompts such as "Why would a reader care about your subject?" "Three Ways of Seeing" helps students to view their topic from three different perspectives: exploring the topic, noticing how it has changed over time, and comparing it to similar topics. "Audience Analysis" includes prompts such as "Who are your readers?" and "Briefly describe your readers."

Finally, students may "Organize" their writing by choosing from eight activities. "Structure Guide," for example, provides formats for frequently assigned papers such as history, chemistry, or sociology reports. "Goals" includes prompts that encourage students to clarify their reasons for writing the paper, and "Develop a Paragraph" provides ways of developing a paragraph with an assertion, support, and specific details.

When students have completed the prewriting activities, they may opt to use the built-in word-processing program, "Document Editor," or export their file to Microsoft WORD FOR WINDOWS to begin drafting their papers. Once they have a draft ready to revise, they return to the program's revising activities, including "Structure," "Audience," and "Checks." One of the eight structure activities, "Paragraph Development," provides students with information such as the number of paragraphs, number of sentences in each paragraph, and number of words in each sentence. In some instances, the software suggests that a paragraph may be too short or too long. "Subordinate Clauses" helps students analyze their writing for syntactic maturity, pointing out how many subordinate clauses are contained in the paper and which conjunctions the students used as well as suggesting others they might consider. "Word Frequency" displays the number of times a student uses each word in a paper, providing a quick check of whether or not a word has been overused.

"Audience Tools" includes 10 activities. "Transitions," for example, indicates the number of transitional words a student has used at the beginning of sentences; the program then suggests other transitional words that students might consider. "To Be Verbs" indicates all forms of the word to be found in the text, suggesting that students strengthen their writing by replacing some of these with active verbs instead. "Peer Review" provides prompts such as "What did you like about this paper?" to help students review each others' writing.

The final revising activity is "Checks." In this activity, "Homonyms," "Gender," and "Usage" locate words that might be confused, such as their and there, words that are gender-biased, and possible usage errors such as using accept for except.

Research on Effectiveness

Although WRITER'S HELPER FOR WINDOWS has just been released, some research has been conducted on the earlier versions, WRITER'S HELPER and WRITER'S HELPER, STAGE II, for their effectiveness in the writing classroom. At The University of Texas at El Paso, we have used WRITER'S HELPER and WRITER'S HELPER, STAGE II with basic, average, and advanced writers for the past three years. To evaluate the success of our basic writing program, we used a research model that included student ethnographic surveys and writing attitude questionnaires, learning journal entries, and student interviews. Additionally, we followed basic writers' success in subsequent English courses (Posey & Ward, 1991).

Although we have made no effort to isolate WRITER'S HELPER, STAGE II as a variable for research purposes (we use it in conjunction with word-processing programs and the DAEDALUS INTEGRATED WRITING ENVIRONMENT software), we are satisfied that computer-supported instruction motivates students to write. Students' responses to the writing attitude questionnaire, for instance, indicate a change in writing attitudes and approaches during the course of the semester. As indicated by recent questionnaire results (from 248 students), students improved attitudes and confidence in their own writing. One statement on the questionnaire, "I enjoy writing," showed a 22% increase from the beginning to the end of the semester, with 50% of the students agreeing with it at the beginning of the semester and 72% agreeing with it at the end. The most dramatic improvement, though, was demonstrated by the statement "If I have enough time, I usually rewrite a paper (sometimes several times) until I'm satisfied with it," with 55% of the students agreeing with the statement at the beginning of the semester and 91% agreeing at the end--a 36% increase.

We also measure program effectiveness by student success in subsequent English courses. Of the students who passed our basic writing course, 87% have passed the next writing course, English 3110, with 61% earning above-average grades (A or B). Some of our students successfully challenged English 3110, thereby placing into English 3111, the third course in the freshman composition series. Of those who have placed into 3111, 89% have passed, with 59% earning above-average grades.

Other researchers have looked more specifically at WRITER'S HELPER's effect on student attitudes and abilities. Deborah Meem (1992) recently completed a five-year study of approximately one thousand basic writers, including control groups, word-processing groups, and groups using both word processing and WRITER'S HELPER. Although she limited her study to the prewriting activities, she hypothesized that computer users would demonstrate better attitudes and quality in their writing as a result of using the software. The results of her study suggest that students did indeed enjoy WRITER'S HELPER and felt that the software improved their confidence to write. Additionally, students in the WRITER'S HELPER group rated their instructors and courses higher than those in the control group. She was not able, however, to demonstrate statistically superior writing, with one exception--adult nontraditional students. When these students were placed in sections using WRITER'S HELPER, their posttest entrance exam pass rate jumped dramatically (to 67.6%), leading Meem (1992) to theorize that WRITER'S HELPER may be especially useful for adult learners, resulting in greater proficiency and self-esteem. In general, though, her findings support earlier findings (Dauite, 1985; Hawisher, 1988; Posey, 1986; Rodrigues, 1985) indicating that the greatest advantage of adding computer software to the writing classroom may be that it motivates students to write and to enjoy writing.

J. Michael Reed (1989, 1990) has conducted two studies on the effectiveness of WRITER'S HELPER. In the first, he reviewed essays written by 63 college freshmen to determine how reliably the WRITER'S HELPER revision strategies predict essay quality. Reed (1989) concludes that these strategies are fairly reliable predictors of essay quality if "writers analyze their writing via these evaluation routines and follow the suggestions" (p. 80). He adds, however, that the software is useful only if students understand what to do with the information provided by the software. Reed also points out that weaker writers may not know how to lengthen a sentence or improve their writing for an intended audience. Thus, WRITER'S HELPER is best used as a supplement to instruction, "saving the time needed for the instructor to perform the same analyses on the same number of essays" (Reed, 1989, p. 80).

In another study, Reed reviewed 26 essays written by English education students to determine the types and quality of revisions made by a group of 13 students who used WRITER'S HELPER and a control group of 13 who did not. He found statistically significant microstructural changes in additions, substitutions, and consolidation of text in the WRITER'S HELPER group, but no significant differences at the macrostructural level. Holistic graders, though, scored the essays written with WRITER'S HELPER significantly higher than those written by the control group.

From the studies conducted of WRITER'S HELPER's effectiveness, it appears that the software is a worthwhile addition to a computer-supported writing program. It surely improves students' attitudes and motivation, and it may improve quality as well for those students who are taught how to take advantage of the information provided by the revising strategies. It is important to note, however, that no comprehensive study of both the prewriting and revising strategies has yet been conducted; those researchers examining it have each used specific menu options rather than the entire program.

A Few Caveats

I would like to suggest that no comprehensive study of WRITER'S HELPER has yet been conducted probably because the software offers so many prewriting and revising options that no one instructor can possibly introduce all of them in one semester. This variety, of course, is one of the program's strengths, but the number of choices also poses a problem: Instructors who plan to use it must be willing to review the software carefully to determine which options they want to introduce to their students. In my classes, for example, I have selected various prewriting and revising strategies based on the level of the writers. (The new instructor's manual even provides suggestions for possible choices for each group.) Some of the strategies, such as "Idea Wheel" and "Crazy Contrasts," seem too gimmicky to me, and so I don't use them at all. Additionally, I encourage students to explore other menu options outside of class. My experience, though, is that only a few motivated students will actually try strategies that have not been introduced in class.

WRITER'S HELPER FOR WINDOWS works with its own word-processing option, "Document Editor," or with Microsoft WORD FOR WINDOWS; writing program directors who have invested in other word-processing software such as BANK STREET WRITER or WORDPERFECT will not be able to use this newest version unless they are willing to change word-processing programs. WRITER'S HELPER, STAGE II, though, is still available for these users.

Finally, both Reed's (1989) and my experiences suggest that WRITER'S HELPER may be more useful for basic and average writers than for more-advanced writers. Advanced writers seem especially to resist the prewriting strategies, possibly because they already have successful strategies that they prefer to use.


WRITER'S HELPER FOR WINDOWS provides writing instructors with all of the advantages of computer-supported composition instruction in one comprehensive program that takes students from prewriting to drafting to revising. It represents the best in computer-supported instruction--individualized instruction, immediate response, infinite patience, and effective use of both the instructors' and students' time. More important, it is pedagogically sound, and it motivates students to write. When used in conjunction with effective writing instruction, WRITER'S HELPER FOR WINDOWS can assure a successful computer-supported writing curriculum.

Evelyn J. Posey is an Assistant Professor of English at The University of Texas at El Paso.

WRITER'S HELPER FOR WINDOWS is available from the following source:

The University of Iowa,
Oakdale Campus
Iowa City, IA 52242
(800) 365-9774

Single copy: $135
Network: $660
Lab packs available.

The software requires an IBM PC, PS/2, or compatible computer with at least 1 MB of memory and 286 or faster processor; DOS 3.1 or later, and Microsoft WINDOWS 3.0 or later installed on a hard drive with at least 300K of available disk space.


Collins, J. L., & Sommers, E. A. (1985). Writing on-line: Using computers in the teaching of writing. Upper Montclair, NJ: Boyton/Cook.

Dauite, C. (1985). Writing and computers. Menlo Park, CA: Addison-Wesley.

Hawisher, G. (1988). Research update: Writing and word processing. Computers and Composition, 5 (2), 7-29.

Meem, D. (1992). The effect of classroom computer use on college basic writers. Research & Teaching in Developmental Education, 8(2), 57-69.

Posey, E. (1986). The writer's tool: A study of micro-computer word processing to improve the writing of basic writers. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, New Mexico State University.

Posey, E. & Ward, D. (1991). Ideas in practice: Computer-supported writing instruction: The student-centered classroom. Journal of Developmental Education, 15(2), 26-30.

Reed, J. M. (1990). The effect of composing process software on the revision and quality of persuasive essays. Paper presented at meeting of the Eastern Educational Research Association, Clearwater, FL.

Reed, J. M. (1989). The effectiveness of composing process software: An analysis of WRITER'S HELPER. Computers in the Schools, 6(1/2), 67-82. Rodrigues, D. (1985). Computers and basic writers. College Composition and Communication, 36(3), 336-339.