Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 36 / MAY 1983 / PAGE 62


Joan Vesper

As people in schools, businesses, and homes receive more and more papers and letters written by computer rather than by typewriter or pen, they may feel that the cursor has passed them by and that writing as they know it has irretrievably changed. Students in particular will notice the perfectly-formatted papers that a few of their classmates are turning in. Here are the pros and cons of word processing as reflected in an informal survey at three colleges.

Last year, on an extended visit to Boston (Silicon Valley East), I counted myself among computer greenhorns, and I wondered what it takes to write "on-line," and if it's worth the effort. To find out the answers, I visited three Boston-area colleges (Babson, Harvard, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and talked with students and staff who regularly compose at terminals. In addition to interviewing computer-users at the colleges, I interviewed David Winder, assistant overseas news editor of The Christian Science Monitor, who has two years' full-time experience writing and editing on-line. Most of the interviews took place at campus terminal centers–large rooms equipped with several keyboards and matching screens where students drop in to use a terminal much as they might rent a typewriter. One Babson student, Linda Bailey, was interviewed in her office at Intelligent Devices, Inc., a computer-related company she and her husband started in 1979.

As these people talked about using computers to write, it became clear that:

  1. Most do not use a computer during the Prewriting stage.
  2. Some do, but some do not, use it during the writing stage, depending on individual composing habits and on cost and availability of computers.
  3. Almost all prefer to use a computer for revising and making final drafts.

Their reflections on using the computer at each of these stages help clarify what computers can and cannot do for writers.


None of the computer-users interviewed employs a terminal for jotting down notes days before he or she writes the first draft of a paper. (A special case is Jayne West, consultant and programmer analyst at MIT, who also writes stream-of-consciousness poetry on the computer.) However, some use the computer for data analysis at this early stage. For example, David Meltzer, an English major at Harvard, used the computer before writing a term paper on Byron's Don Juan by counting the ratio of Byron's use of the personal pronoun "I" to the poet's use of the proper noun "Don Juan." Because of the preponderance of the word "I," Meltzer concluded that the poem is highly autobiographical.


"It's just as hard to sit down to compose in front of a blank screen as a blank sheet of paper," Meltzer observes. For this and other reasons, only the most enthusiastic computer users in this survey, a group of undergraduates on MIT's Student Information Processing Board (SIPB) who guide other MIT students in the use of MIT's terminals, use computers to write out first drafts of papers. Steeped in technology and having free access to state-of-the-art equipment, SIPB "hackers" (computer enthusiasts) compose at a terminal by preference.

But most of those interviewed do not turn to the computer to write a draft until after they have gone through the "diagramming and scratching-out phase." Others postpone their approach to the computer even longer. Whether or not writers compose on paper or at the terminal at this stage in the writing process involves two considerations: individual writing habits and computer availability. The habits include what hardware these people have used in the past for composing, how fast they think while writing, and how much disorder they can tolerate. Regarding hardware, users say either they have always composed at a keyboard - typewriter or terminal - or they have always composed with pencil or pen.

In the first group is Bill York, an MIT undergraduate, who says he composed on a typewriter until he was a freshman at MIT, but has since written everything on the computer. "I never use a typewriter unless nothing else is available, like when I go home for vacations," he says. Jeff Schiller, another MIT undergraduate, concurs: "I was always a composer at the typewriter, so the transition to computer was easy." As members of the SIPB, both students meet many computer-users who compose with pencil or pen. "They did in the past, and they still do," they observe.

In this category of yellow-pad composers is Mary Phelan, a text processor at Harvard, who uses the computer only for final drafts. "I handwrite my drafts first," she says. "It's the way I've always done it." She explains that for her, "There's something about being able to touch the paper that makes me feel more in touch with what I'm writing. And I like to carry around what I've written. You can't very well put a terminal in your pocket and look at it on the subway." Another writer, Fred Pickel, who characterizes himself as a "cut-and-paste artist," puts off working at a terminal until later in the composing process because he likes to have all his work spread out around him where he can see it. "The computer limits your vision to one page at a time," he points out.

Another personal reason for using a computer during the writing stage is offered by Winder, who finds that the computer, unlike a typewriter or a pen, can keep up with his thoughts.

Tolerance for disorder is a final factor of personal composing style that enters into decisions about using the computer for early drafts. Some of those interviewed are discouraged by piles of papers with mistakes, cross-outs, and arrows. One touch of a computer's "Delete" key and such impediments vanish.

Bailey, the Babson student-entrepreneur, says, "I used to get very confused by all the ideas going through my mind. I'd write them all down in a series of drafts, and then I got confused seeing too many ideas written down. But with a computer, I keep typing at the keyboard, not making corrections, thinking of the next sentence and not worrying if I've said it correctly, knowing I can go back and remove any sentence without making a sloppy mess of the paper." Meltzer is also affected by the appearance of what he writes: "It used to be that when I wrote a sentence three times I had a mess. The computer eliminates such eyesores."

There is also the cost and availability factor. This is easy for the non-user to overlook, but it is very important in practice. Fortunate in this regard are computer owners, such as Bailey, who has four terminals in her company office. Students at colleges which supply free computer accounts for both computer-related courses and independent projects, such as writing assignments, are also lucky. Students who have to pay out-of-pocket for computer time are sometimes cut off from a desirable tool. "My budget isn't big enough to use the terminal for anything but final drafts," says Pickel, an MIT doctoral student. As more and more people become sophisticated in the use of computers and want to use them for independent work, administrators of college computing services foresee more fees and/or more restrictions on use of college equipment.

Besides cost, location of terminals is another consideration. As mentioned, some people write drafts in longhand because they do not have computers at home. Others avoid computers when writing drafts because they can't concentrate in a terminal center. These rooms may be filled with 50 machines and more than 50 people, especially during rush times — such as the day before a big paper is due, the late afternoon hours when evening students arrive on campus and day students haven't yet gone home, and the end of the term. At Harvard's Science Center, the terminal room "gets very noisy and it's hard to think," math majors Bruce Molay and Jeff Tecosky point out. Hilary Hodgson, working on her M.A. in city and regional planning, adds that Harvard students sometimes have to sign up 24-hours ahead for a terminal. Of course, even alone in a quiet room with a terminal all to oneself, a writer may face interruptions in the form of messages from other users flashing across the screen. This is the situation at SIPB, whose members belong to associations of users who keep each other posted via the display screen on subjects of mutual interest.

In every case, users agree that the day a person plans to write a paper is not the day he should learn how to operate the computer. Most problems occur in simply getting the paper into the machine. After that, the computer is generally an advantage — unless the main computer is "down" (its memory is filled to capacity or it is being repaired), or you can't get a printer.


After the writer has a first draft, most agree that a computer is preferable (with a few minor drawbacks) to typewriter or pen for the rest of the composing process.

First, drawbacks. On a short paper, the effort of getting into the machine — logging on and creating a file with a list of specifications for formatting — isn't worth it, even with the revision capabilities of the computer, according to two Babson users. Also, the time lag between keyboarding a revision and seeing it on screen — sometimes as long as 30 seconds — is frustrating, says Schiller. The lag, he explains, is due to time sharing, or, as he jokes, "ITS" — incompatible time sharing — where as many as 73 users may be plugged into the same computer. "There's a lot of competition for the attention of the machine," Pickel explains.

Another problem, when editing by computer is the time it takes for the cursor, or pointer, to move to the characters on the screen that the user wants to change. "My eye and a red pencil can move faster," says Winder. He adds that seeing only a screen's length of a story (120-150 words) instead of the entire work is a handicap when he wants to move around chunks of copy, and particularly when he is searching for a lead that may be buried deep in the story. Another drawback occurs when a professor specifies the type of paper he wants students to use in an assignment, such as bond with a certain rag content. To remove from the computer standard paper with tractor edges and feed in special paper is expensive and time consuming.

[Editor's Note: Mercifully, these delays and frustrations do not apply to word processing on personal computers.]

In spite of these drawbacks, most users agree that computers make their greatest contribution during the revising stage: they free the writer from retyping correct sections of a paper and allow him or her to concentrate on rewriting incorrect ones. "After you learn how to use the computer — and there is a learning curve — it takes about one-third the time to edit as it would by typewriter, because with a computer, you retype only the things you want to change," Schiller observes. But he cautions that the computer is a "two-edged sword" in this respect. While it allows a better final product, it also creates demand for a better final product. That is, as professors catch on to the computer's abilities, "they may make you revise small sections of a paper that earlier they would have let pass."

An added benefit of the computer during the revising stage is noted by a group of Harvard users who find that a computer is great for group work. Each member can feed his or her revisions into the machine, and then the group can request multiple copies.

Furthermore, the computer allows relatively fine strokes in the revising process. For example, some programs have spelling glossaries which store correct spellings of a few thousand words, including specialized words the user might add. The computer displays spellings in a composition that deviate slightly from the words on this list and displays correctly spelled alternatives that the user may have intended. The user selects the correct spelling, and the computer automatically inserts this spelling throughout.

Evasion Of Displeasure

Another fine stroke is the computer's ability to word count. Meltzer says he reviews his essays in this way as a check on style. For example, in an essay on Emily Dickinson, whose poetry he does not like, he found he often used phrases beginning with "of" instead of possessive nouns. "It was an evasion of displeasure," he concluded, since the "of" construction was less direct.

While the computer can analyze text word for word, as it does when it checks spelling or word frequency, it cannot yet work at the level of syntax. "So if your problem is Baroque sentence structure, you're out of luck," says Love. But he's quick to add that a group of MIT professors is working on the application of computers to the analysis of grammar.

Capping the triple ability of the computer in the revising stage — it minimizes retyping, it's good for group work, and it allows word for word analysis — is the bonus that makes computer compositions irresistible for many writers and their readers: the final product can be 100% typographically accurate, with justified right-hand margins, and printed in a variety of type fonts.