The Surprising Process of Writing

Shari Wilson wonders why some of her students improve dramatically when they must work without keyboards.

January 30, 2006

Amelia, a university sophomore, scores a 60 on her first academic paper. On her second she scores a 60 again. On her third paper, she pulls up to an 80 -- mostly due to extensive rewrites. Yet on her midterm and final, she received an astounding 90 and 85. Not only was her paragraph structure and use of quotations significantly better, but her ability to sequence ideas and support claims had taken a leap. Even her mechanics (grammar, sentence structure and punctuation) had improved.

I'd like to say that these two high scores came at the end of the semester; this would prove what an effective instructor I was. Instead, they came at odd times -- the first A came just after the second paper (which scored a D). The solid B paper did come at the end of the semester. The difference was in how the papers were produced. Both the 90 and 85 papers were handwritten in-class timed essays that constituted the midterm and final. The much lower scores were for computer-generated papers that she produced out of class. These, of course, could be rewritten over and over before the due dates.

I'd like to say that Amelia's experience is an anomaly. But I can't. In fact, this semester, 8 of my 20 sophomore English composition students scored significantly better on in-class essays written by hand in a timed situation. Some jumped more than a full grade level. In my three freshman composition classes, almost 20 of 60 students excelled when allowed to write in class rather than compose typed papers on their own time. In fact, at a large community college in California where I taught for six years, I frequently saw 10 to 25 percent of my developmental- and freshman-level writers do significantly better when asked to compose in-class with a topic given just before a two-hour writing period.

How can I make sense of this? Of course I immediately considered my grading rubric. Was I somehow more relaxed when grading handwritten essays? Possible. But in my mind, that could not explain jumps from 75 to 90. Yes, I was somewhat easier on misspelled words when grading handwritten essays. Yes, I may have been swayed by a student's handwriting -- in fact, studies have shown that instructors are often influenced to grade slightly higher or lower, depending on a student's handwriting. But in my mind, there must have been something more to explain jumps of more than a full grade level.

Finally I typed up a student's handwritten midterm and compared it to two computer-generated essays. The handwritten midterm was so much smoother -- I was shocked. Transitions abounded. Other than a few run-ons, sentence structure was fluid. One idea followed another. Claims were supported. The writer seemed to have hit a stride that held out for the required three pages. The computer-generated essays were passable. The ideas were sound, but the writing seemed awkward in every sense. Other than the possibility that I was flawed in my grading, there were several explanations for this jump.

First, the process of writing in-class in a timed situation seemed to discourage the kind of overwrought, constipated writing that some students produce with a typed paper. In my courses, I appeal to the high-context student. After wrangling syllabi for seven years, I've come to the conclusion that I like giving the students necessary information on the front end. After the first class, students walk away with a course outline that gives out specific due dates for all papers -- along with general topics. Those who are worried about their ability to produce college-level work may start on a paper ahead of time and rewrite up until the due date.

Although my office hours are busier at the end of the semester, I do notice an influx of students a week before each paper is due. The good news is that some of these students are producing better work -- their essay structure is sound, their now-approved thesis statements are well supported, and their conclusion doesn't sound tossed-together. The bad news is that some of these well-intentioned students are working, rethinking, and rewriting their papers until they become stiff and self-conscious. They rehash each sentence, tormenting themselves, rewriting until they can no longer see what works anymore. Suddenly their original draft has become stiff and mechanical -- and the due date is looming.

These students often relate number of hours to their final grade. Thus every weekend they have poured into an eight-page study of the topic should translate into a 10 percent jump in grade. Unfortunately, the reality is that trying to infuse light and spontaneity into a paper that has been reworked several times is impossible. So the end product is dull and overworked -- and their grade less than what they expected.

In-class writing, on the other hand, is a completely different form of exercise. Instead of dumping hours and hours into a format that already feels old and overdone, students are given a topic at the top of the hour. True, some students choke. They deliver half a paper. What is on the page is poorly thought-out and incoherent. Yet some, relieved of the need to think and rethink the topic, find themselves rising to the challenge. After outlining for 15 minutes, they find themselves churning out coherent paragraphs that stand together as a unified essay. I've never been able to predict which way a student will perform. It is only when I've graded their midterm that I can make observations about which process seems to produce the best written work.

Next, handwriting encourages students to focus on the writing process; for those less experienced with computers, keyboarding encourages students to focus on the end product. When asked to type up a sample paragraph in a classroom computer lab, all 20  of my English composition students spent more than 15-minutes setting up a document in MSWord, setting margins, choosing a font, centering a title, and typing up their names, instructor's name and class name at the top so that it sat flush-right. This left a disappointing 30-minutes of actual composing of text -- and of that, approximately five to nine more minutes were wasted when students insisted on particular line breaks with text, tried to change the amount of space between lines, and attempted to remove forced underlining of URLs.

Students' questions were not about how to approach the topic -- but were focused on the particular mechanics of the assignment: how many words they would have to provide, whether they could utilize grammar- and spell-check, whether the sample was to be single, one-and-a-half, or double-spaced, if one-inch margins were acceptable and the like. I started to feel like a software instructor instead of an English composition teacher. My frustration was compounded when students either couldn't print out their single paragraphs -- or attempted to e-mail them to me.

Second, handwriting brings writers closer to their work -- which may encourage excellence with particular students. Daniel Chandler, a scholar out of the University of Wales, has done extensive research on how students learn. His article, "The Phenomenology of Writing by Hand," comments on the conditions present when writers write by hand rather than by computer -- and the effect on the end product. In effect, the neurophysiological mechanism of each process is different. And although both handwriting and typing are under the influence of the central nervous system, the dynamics are noticeably different.

With substantial practice at the keyboard, I do believe that students are can become  more "fluent" at writing and produce a product as creative as that produced by handwriting. In fact, studies often show that students do as well on a computer than they do handwriting compositions.

In the end, questions still remain for me. How does the time-constraint affect the end product? Do some students simply do better under pressure? Is there something about the timed in-class work that encourages a more focused end product? Does directly typing a work somehow encourage a piecemeal approach? If offered an in-class essay exam with computers, would students then do substantially better than those who chose handwriting? How does typing speed and familiarity with software and hardware impact a student's work?

What about the "power of print"? Isn't it true that students often view a typed paper as an "end product" whereas handwritten work feels like a step in a process? And, of course, how exactly can ideas be more "fluid" with the preferred composition method -- whether it be writing by hand or word processing? With research, more will be revealed. Until then, I will give my students the benefit of both methods. I will continue to offer both in- and out-of-class writing. Those who flourish with the additional time for writing will produce more polished work; those who chafe with the weight of long-term deadlines will rush into the midterm and final to write well -- and ultimately both groups will find the process that produces the best work. Those students who then hone their ability to do both handwriting and word processing may do better in all areas; the resulting degreed professionals may find that both processes serve them well.


Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.


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