How Computers Cause Bad Writing

How Computers Cause Bad Writing (1988)

Original title: “Lessons from the Computer Writing Problems of Professionals”

by Gerald Grow, PhD
Professor of Journalism
Florida A & M University

Published in College Composition and Communication, Vol. 39, No. 2, May 1988, pp. 217-220. Copyright 1988. Words [in brackets] were added in 1999.

In the past seven years, I have edited the writing of a number of professionals–including instructional designers, engineers, management consultants, environmental planners, biologists, psychologists, Army officers, and journalists–who write with computers. Like most users of word processing, these are not “writers”–they are professionals whose work requires them to write. Few of these have ever heard of “the writing process,” and few have had any formal training since freshman English 20 years ago. For them, like millions of others, writing by computer is largely a self-taught enterprise.

Although most of these professionals share the belief that computers help them write, they display specific writing problems that may actually be caused, or accentuated, by the fact that they write on computers.

There are two reasons why the writing problems of professionals may be important to teachers of writing. First, students that I have taught (graduate students in instructional development and education, juniors and seniors majoring in communication and journalism) show similar tendencies when they write on computers. Though student writers may not have enough experience to demonstrate all of them, they distinctly gravitate toward the writing problems described here.

Second, many students from writing classes will soon be surrounded by people who have largely taught themselves writing and word processing. These self-taught professionals will become your graduates’ next writing instructors–and their bosses. Unless students bring with them enough experience to maintain and defend good writing habits–the kind that make them effective, productive writers–they may be swamped by the kind of writing habits and writing problems common among self-taught professionals.

I will describe the problems I have observed among “real world” users of word processing and suggest some strategies for working with future professionals while they are still your students. What I have to say will apply best to nonfiction writing that is amenable to strong focus and clear organization–functional writing of the kind required of professionals in many fields.

The Editing Trap [Substituting Writing for Thinking]

Computers seem to tempt people to substitute writing for thinking. When they write with a computer, instead of rethinking their drafts for purpose, audience, content, strategy, and effectiveness, most untrained writers just keep editing the words they first wrote down. I have seen reports go through as many as six versions without one important improvement in the thought. In such writing, I find sentences that have had their various parts revised four or five times on four or five different days. Instead of focusing, simplifying, and enlivening the prose, these writers tend to graft on additional phrases, till even the qualifiers are qualified and the whole, lengthening mess slows to a crawl.

Drawn in by the word processor’s ability to facilitate small changes, such writers neglect the larger steps in writing. They compose when they need to be planning, edit when they need to be revising.

Problems in Collaboration by Computer

Computers encourage more collaborative writing, and they encourage the collaboration to be far more intense. Before computers, the usual form of collaboration consisted of dividing up the work so that different authors wrote different chapters; then they reviewed one another’s work. Writing with computers, though, collaborators can enter into one another’s work so readily and revise it so easily that, in effect, co-authors can mutually co-write each sentence.

This kind of collaborative writing can be difficult to read. No two writers have quite the same sense about punctuation, tone, rhythm, headings, sentence variation, and the like. In collaborative works, I sometimes find grammatical conventions changing from the beginning to the end of the same sentence–because one author started the sentence and the other finished it.

In the worst cases, collaborative writing becomes a colloid of conflicting styles. In a document I recently edited, one section was written by a psychologist with a propensity for theoretical language, another by a computer programmer concerned mainly with the technical characteristics of machinery, another by a manager recording the history of the project. To complicate things, each author had inserted a few sentences (in his own style) in the midst of the other sections. Every time I reached a new major heading, the narrator changed voice–and the voices occasionally jumped around from sentence to sentence. It was schizophrenic prose, with faults that had been amplified by the easy editing made possible by the word processor.

Reused Prose

Writers easily become attached to what they have written, even when it serves the purpose badly. The computer frees many writers from this attachment by making the text fluid and continuously editable; for some writers, though, computers make this attachment harder to break. Typewriters challenge this attachment; in writing with a typewriter, writers typically retype each passage several times, which forces them to reread word for word and presents an excellent occasion to hear the passage and make changes. By contrast, a word processor enables writers to reuse passages from the developing piece so easily that reuse becomes a universal, invisible step in writing.

Being pragmatic, professionals often reuse blocks of material from previous reports. A good writer can do this well, but a less accomplished writer easily succumbs to a clumsy kind of self-plagiarism. Most of the adult writers I have worked with reuse “boilerplate” materials in a simple, modular fashion, stacking blocks of self-contained material in the midst of new passages, having little sense of how to combine the different parts. Most of them are tone deaf to the lurches, shifts in convention, and changes in tone between new and old writings.

I often advise authors to throw out these drafts and rewrite from scratch, but no one ever has. In part, they are always too busy; but more important, they are not writers. They are unaccustomed to taking responsibility for a piece of writing, devising an effective strategy, and seeing it through. Few of them have developed an effective writing process, and their approaches to writing lack flexibility. Such people do not need an editor; they need a writing instructor–something they lack but your students are fortunate enough to have.

Distortions of Length: Prolix and Telegraphic

The ease of writing on a microcomputer liberates many writers: And though this liberation helps reticent students, aids brainstorming, and makes many professionals more productive, the very ease of writing can lead to problems. People who have little to say suddenly take a long time to say it. Word-inflation multiplies. Instead of saying it well one time, unfocused writers devise dozens of ways of coming close to saying what they mean. They continue writing. The words pile up. The results look impressive, but I never know quite what the writers meant to say.

Computers have the opposite effect on other writers. Normally intelligible, they become cryptic. Each mysterious word stands for phrases, sentences, even whole pages of unwritten intentions. I have to pry the words apart to uncover the thoughts concealed between them.

Small Screens and Clean Copy

It is hard enough for writers to get an overview of their work when they write on a typewriter; when they use a screen that shows, at most, 24 lines at a time, an overview is almost impossible. Without a clear sense of direction, prose wanders, partially expressed ideas recur, and the point gets muddied.

Faced with this problem, I advocate various strategies, including extensive use of an outlining program. Among the professionals I have assisted, however, few use outlining programs (something available to them all), and only a few others outline effectively in any form. Generally, they try to write as they talk–offhand, or from a few casual notes.

Even one of the nicest features of word processing can cause an unexpected problem. At any stage, writers can always get a beautiful print-out of perfectly-formatted clean copy. Unfortunately, some writers confuse clean copy with completed copy. When they see their words on nice-looking pages, they begin to feel finished long before they have a reason to. When I think this is happening, I deliberately mess up their printouts with markings–to shock them into distrusting the finished appearance of their working drafts.

Computer Self-Defense for Future Professionals

You may find the problems I have described worth discussing in technical and professional writing classes where students are writing with computers. I raise them in courses on editing and magazine article writing. The recommendations that follow may not seem new, but they offer a different perspective from which to justify, explain, and reinforce certain teaching methods.

Over-Editing. Emphasize that writers should think through the topic until they develop a strong focus. Reinforce the distinction between large-scale revision and small-scale editing. Give them exercises in revising passages that need, not just editing, but rethinking.

Collaboration. Show students ways to divide responsibilities among the writers preparing a collaborative writing project. (For excellent charts to track the various roles of collaborators, see Dan Poynter and Mindy Bingham, Is There A Book Inside You? 1985, 154-56.) Have them write in collaboration with at least 2 other students. Give the class practice editing a work of multiple authorship so that it has a single, consistent style.

Boilerplate. Show students how to reuse blocks of prose from previous work, and show them the problems that may come up. Give an assignment that requires such reuse. For example, give them an article on disk to rewrite for a different audience, reusing large portions of the original text. Or have them design form letters that use boilerplate passages, then add appropriate transitions and edit the results for continuity.

Problems of Length. Experience is probably the best cure. Make sure your students write enough to become comfortable with a word processor. Show them the problems. Teach them to edit out prolixity, to identify and expand cryptic passages. By reading aloud examples of good writing, train their minds to hear the rhythm of prose that speaks and breathes. Interview cryptic writers as a way of drawing out their intentions and helping them move past a draft filled with enigmas.

Small-Screen Thinking. Help students clarify the topics they are writing about. Show them ways to keep the focus of the piece in mind while writing. For a simple method, tape a one-sentence summary to the side of the screen. For a more complex method, demonstrate how a project-management chart can be adapted to track a complex article as it develops. Study examples of how good writing is organized. Practice devising alternate plans for organizing and developing a given topic, preferably with the help of an outline processor like “ThinkTank.” Ask students to be ready at any time with a clear, short answer to the question, “What are you writing about?” [“ThinkTank” has long disappeared. Meanwhile, the outlining function of Microsoft Word has developed into a valuable tool for organizing long pieces.]

So they won’t confuse clean copy with finished copy, encourage students to leave in extra headings, embed working questions, etc., so their working drafts look distinctly different from their final drafts.

Remind students that you are helping prepare them for a world after college–a world in which many of them will write with computers. By helping your students develop ways of writing that make them effective and productive, you give them the best general defense against the pressures facing them when they are required to write on the job.


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