Printout: Textbooks for Writing with Computers
College writing textbooks now often devote a perfunctory chapter or so to word processing. The three books reviewed here go further. they assume that computers alter all phases of the writing process. Thus, rather than providing a mere set of tips, each book offers a more comprehensive perspective on how this technology should play an integral role from invention through revision and publication. But each proceeds with this task differently and with different degrees of success. Bruce Edwards considers his 300-page book "a textbook about writing and revising" using a microcomputer. George Moberg thinks of his book, half the length of Edwards', as a "basic rhetoric," with an emphasis on collaboration or group work. Hult and Harris point out that their 165-page book is neither a "word processing manual" nor a "writing text." Instead, they call it an "introduction to word processing."
Of these three recent publications, Processing Words conforms most closely to the standard model of a first-year student writing
text. Chapter 1 is a brief introduction to composing with a microcomputer, an informative pep talk including advice on using the book. Then, Chapters 2 through 11, roughly half the book, take the student through a step-by-step process of writing, beginning with "Writing to Discover" and concluding with "Editing: Polishing the Final Draft." The subsequent three chapters cover types of writing: self-expression (Chapter 12); explanation, analysis, and persuasion (Chapter 13); and the research paper (Chapter 14). A hefty appendix doubles as a workbook where students can record computer commands that fit their word-processing packages.
Edwards' model of composing is systematic and thoroughly informed by current composition theory. The influence of James Kinneavy (one of his mentors at Texas) is evident in several places. And as he acknowledges, his approach to revision draws on the work of Richard Lanham and Joseph Williams. Early chapters present writing as a process that, by turns, involves discovery, understanding, and communication. Later chapters are organized around four main revision goals: clarity, economy, fullness, and grace. Throughout, Edwards includes sample student papers. In keeping with his purpose, much of the text addresses writing in general rather than word processing. Although many of the exercises concluding the chapters refer to the computer, most of them could be done without it.
One of the distinctive features of Processing Words is the "templates"--forms or questionnaires, suggested at various points in the composing process that the student can use to generate ideas on the computer screen. These templates are similar to what Richard and Dawn Rodrigues have called "lesson files." In effect, this technique is a way of using word processing as a heuristic medium, as more than a versatile typewriter.
Like Edwards, Hult and Harris in A Writer's Introduction to Word Processing structure their book as a methodical sequence of steps. Following an initial eight-page overview of the writing process, the authors insert a 20-page chapter surveying the use of word processing for writing. As generic discussions of word processing go, this chapter is not bad. It's clear and thorough. Nevertheless, this chapter would be practically useless without a word-processing manual for the system the student is using. In fact, a good manual could well substitute for this chapter.
Hult and Harris then devote a chapter each to prewriting, composing, and revising, following with a chapter on editing and proofreading. Finally, they attach an appendix, which shows formats for various types of writing (letters, resumes, etc.) and a glossary that defines key computer terms. Although the authors say they do not think of the book as a writing text, the book preempts the goals (if not the breadth) of such a text. For example, the authors conclude each chapter with writing exercises that run on for several pages, take up disproportionate space, and are not always keyed to word-processing strategies.
Some of the writing guidelines are so misleading or so sketchy that they are useless. At one point the student is asked to create an outline by marking and moving thesis and topic sentences ("usually the first sentence of each paragraph") on the dubious assumption that each paragraph has an identifiable topic sentence (p. 75). Elsewhere, under "Check for Correctness," the book provides a list of eight errors and one example of each, with the comment, ". . . the following list can help you edit your text for correctness" (p. 98). Doubtful.
Some of the guidelines for making maximum use of word processing are thoughtful (such as the tips on proofreading), but as a whole the book has an identity problem: it is neither writing text nor computer manual, and I have trouble seeing how it could work smoothly into a writing course. If the exercises and appendix were set aside, perhaps it could serve as quick introductory reading early in a composition course.
Moberg's Writing on Computers is the quirkiest of the three books reviewed here. His style is chatty, his structure unpredictable and collage-like. He frequently intersperses his text with student writing, while dialogues, lists, and illustrations vary the flow of ideas. And the text maintains a laudable emphasis on the importance of collaboration. This seems the work of a lively, engaging teacher. But the book remains miscellaneous, even careless, with few substantial suggestions for using computers in writing. The chapters seem to unfold almost randomly. From "Meaning: General and Specific" (Chapter 4), Moberg moves to "Definition of Terms" (Chapter 5), "Automatic Writing" (Chapter 6), and "Group Reports" (Chapter 7). Chapter 8 concerns keeping a journal and Chapter 9 takes the student back to group work. In
short, Moberg's 144-page book may be useful as a compendium of ideas but not as a methodical text.
Curiously, none of these three books gives much credence to software other than word processing. Hult and Harris list text-editing, spelling, tutorial, and other types of software at the back of the book but scarcely mention these in the text. Apparently all of these writers agree with Moberg when he writes, "You don't need any of the outlining, heuristics, vocabulary, or grammar-drill programs now coming on the market. You might choose to add one or more of them, but they are not necessary."
As writing textbooks continue to merge the modern skill of word processing with the ancient craft of rhetoric, they will have to struggle to reconcile the need for technical instruction with the need for communicative theory and practice. It is a difficult mix, and we may eventually decide that it is best achieved with a computer manual in one hand and a composition text in the other. An alternative, as we find greater standardization among word-processing systems, might be writing texts written specifically for MACWRITE or WORDPERFECT or PC-WRITE. Of these three books, all of which are necessarily constrained by the need for generic word-processing instruction, Processing Words is most likely to be genuinely useful in a composition course.