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Computers and Writers

Computers and Writers: A Powerful Combination
St. Peter School Hilites, Mar 1991
If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing. B. Franklin
For good or ill, effective writers have shaped the world. Aristotle, Matthew, Luther, Locke, and Marx have all recognized and used the power of the pen. Among the most important skills teachers can help develop in St. Peter students are writing skills. Effective communication of ideas through writing is essential whether the end product is a resume, an advertisement, a bid, a college term paper, an editorial, or a love letter.

Your children have a powerful new tool, when effectively taught and used, which should help them become better writers: the computer. Most of us are by now familiar with the word processor, that wonderful device which allows writers to edit, print, and save their work. However computer software has been developed to help the writer during every phase of the writing process.

An outliner is a program which helps students organize their thoughts and structure their writing. I used an outliner to write this paper (see diagram). The computer program supplies the Roman numerals and indentation. Ideas can be “promoted” or “demoted” as headings or subheading, and reordering the headings is quick and simple process. Finally, I can transfer this outline to a word processing file to serve as a writing guide.

After the paper’s rough draft is written using a word processor, there are several editing tools which can be used to help clarify the document by eliminating “mechanical” errors. The first is a spelling checker. Most now are built into word processors and can be “invoked” at any time to check the spelling of an entire document or a single word. For those of us who have always had poor spelling as a life-long curse, a spelling checker is invaluable. A related tool is an electronic thesaurus which can also be called up from within word processors. This program helps provide synonyms for words a writer might be overusing, and it can suggest related words with more exact meanings. My electronic thesaurus for example suggested these words for tool: device, implement and utensil.

Sophisticated grammar checkers are also proving to be useful. These programs can spot poor sentence structure, punctuation errors, problems in agreement, troublesome homonyms, and capitalization mistakes. It can alert the writer to words which are vague, sexist, slang, cliche, or jargon. Sentence length, word variety, readability, and overall structure can be analyzed by these programs. It is important to remember that like a spelling checker or electronic thesaurus, grammar checkers only alert writers to possible errors and suggest alternatives. They do not make corrections.

So far we have discussed only the ways the computer helps improve the content of a piece of writing. But as most effective communicators realize, the appearance of a document can also send a message. Word processors make setting margins, adding footnotes or headers, and paginating almost effortless. Graphic-based word processors not only allow the writer to underline, boldface, or italicize words, but to actually change the style and size of the font. These features are great fun for reluctant writers, and useful features for students doing persuasive or creative writing.

Finally the edited document can be quickly printed. Typed or printed documents get more serious attention paid to them than hand written papers. They are easier for teachers and other students to read. Because an electronically produced paper contains fewer errors, is better organized, and is easier to read, it is a more effective communicator of ideas. And students who are proud of being effective writers are more motivated to keep writing.

Many high school students now do most of their computer assisted writing in labs. Whole classes are taught the basics of word processing and the writing process, and this teaching method will continue for some time. There are, however, some exciting technological developments which might change the ways computers are used to develop writing skills.

The price and power of notebook style computers is making them a real option for many students. These 2 pound, $250 computers, the size of a hardback book, have a host of programs built into them, including word processors and spelling checkers. A student can easily carry one from class to class and then home each evening. Assignments can be composed and edited on the notebook computer in any location, and then transferred to a desktop computer for formatting and printing. They will become to writing what the pocket calculator has been to math.

Changes are also possible in established computer labs. A networked lab with the proper management system will allow students to electronically submit their writing for peer and teacher review. Comments can be made and errors highlighted within the document itself before it is printed. Programs can keep track of the types and numbers of errors students make in their writing so specifically designed lessons can be taught.

Finally, students will have the opportunity to combine their writing with other forms of communication. Easy desktop publishing programs are already available which allow the writer to set columns, add headlines, and import pictures, charts or graphs into a document. “Hypermedia” will allow students to add music, sound effects, voice, animation, photographs, and video to their communications, so that the written word becomes a part of a total “information presentation.”

A computer will never write a poem or editorial any more than a telescope will ever discover a new galaxy. Yet poor writers can use the power of technology to become competent writers, and our good writers can use the tools to become terrific ones. Encourage your children to use the computer for writing as much as possible. It will greatly enhance their chances for future success regardless of career choice.
Posted on Friday, July 6, 2007 at 06:56PM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson in | CommentsPost a Comment

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