Using the Computer to Improve Your Writing
Written by Margaret Procter, Writing Support   

You already know that the computer makes a good typewriter, letting you easily type in text, shift it around, and make small proofreading changes. It can also do much more for you if you make the most of its capacities. It has some disadvantages too, though—for instance, you can see only half a page of your work at a time. Here are some practical tips on making the most of the computer and minimizing its limitations. Use the Help key in your word-processing program to learn more about the functions mentioned here

Composing

If you use word processing only for typing final drafts, you may be surprised how much power you gain by doing all your writing on the computer. Try it!

  1. You don't have to create clean or fully developed text the first time. Try jotting down your ideas as they come, without looking up spelling or other details—just make a note or a few XXXs or //// in the text to mark the place to return. You will be able to create a full draft quickly—then you can go back and strengthen it. Using a word processor means you never have to recopy!
  2. Try doing brainstorming on screen. It's encouraging to scroll through your results later and develop worthwhile bits. For real writer's block, turn the monitor brightness to zero and type in anything at all on a darkened screen: you'll probably be surprised at how much sense these seemingly random sequences make.
  3. Outlining is easier on computer. If you like working out your logic first, type in your initial ideas in outline form. Many word-processing programs include built-in outliners (use Help or your manual to find out). Even a simple list of points to cover helps get you started. Then you can fill in as much as you want in each draft. The computer also lets you check the logical strucure of a completed draft: either use the built-in outliner function or just copy the opening sentence of each paragraph into a sequence and look at the set to see if it shows the structure you want.
  4. A simple idea: don't double-space your text until you're ready to print it out. You need to see as many lines as possible on screen to get a sense of the flow of your work.
  5. Save time by using short forms in your first draft. Then get the Search and Replace function (Alt-F2 in WordPerfect 5.1) to insert full wordings. Type s-a at first, for instance; then replace that set of letters with sovereignty-association.

Word processing comes into its own with the real work of good writing—cutting, arranging, rewriting. Get to know what your computer can and can't do to support you. (Visit the University of Victoria's link on revising for a good discussion of the principles of effective revision.)

  1. Don't be deceived by the orderly look of text on the screen. Print out your paper several times in order to look at it as a whole. Be sure you read it through critically, comparing sections and checking overall flow and logic, just as its eventual reader will.
  2. This kind of checking may make you want to restructure your essay completely. Luckily, the computer makes that easy with its cut-and-paste functions. If you're uncertain about where a piece should go, try copying rather than moving; then you can choose.
  3. You can combine versions easily too. Windows and Mac HyperCard let you see a number of documents at once; even less advanced programs let you see two at once (Ctrl-F3 in WordPerfect 5.1). Then you can copy from one to another.
  4. To go quickly to a specific passage in your draft, use the Search function of any word processor. Type in a few words you remember using and ask the computer to find them—quicker than scrolling through.
  5. Documentation is less trouble to do well. Footnotes or endnotes take only a few keystrokes (Ctrl-F7 in WordPerfect 5.1). Parenthetical citations are easy to check and complete. There are ways also to create a Bibliography or Index as you go.
  6. Do use a spell checker as a final touch to your editing. They catch not only spelling errors but also typos. If spell check flags a word as wrong when you are sure it isn't (this happens with names and technical words), then add that word to your "personal dictionary" so the computer recognizes it next time. Keep in mind, though, that the computer won't tell you that you've mistyped form for from, much less that you've misused principle for principal.
  7. So don't throw out your print dictionary just yet. You will have to look up the occasional words that spell checkers don't recognize; and of course you still need it to check meaning and usage. With a computer thesaurus you still need to look up meanings and usage for the words it suggests. Don't accept suggestions blindly.
    (If you don't want to leave your computer, there are some handy on-line dictionaries. Visit our link to Online Writing Reference Tools.)
  8. Style checkers such as Grammatik and CorrectGrammar, built into recent versions of Microsoft Word and WordPerfect, may help you overcome bad habits such as overusing jargon or the passive voice. Don't count on these programs, however, to clear up all your problems with sentence structure or word choice. They catch only a few kinds of grammar errors, and they sometimes mistakenly flag good sentences. If you do use a style checker, read the onscreen comments: knowing why something is wrong is more valuable to you than just having it corrected once. Warning: Don't accept the automatic correct features of recent versions. They can make your text into nonsense.
  9. You can do your own style checking by making the most of the simple Search function. For instance, if you know you have overused or misused a certain word or phrase, let Search call up each instance and then you can look at it in context. This can even work with types of words: try searching ion[space] or ment[space] to notice how many abstract words you have been using. Even looking at each use of and[space], but, or which can show up some habits of sentence structuring.
  10. If you hit a tough sentence to revise, give yourself lots of screen space to try out new versions. Do a hard-page return and use the rest of the screen to play around with your ideas. It can sometimes help to make a list or other visual structure—use Enter and Tab as much as you like until you see the innate shape of your ideas. In WordPerfect, RevealCodes lets you get rid of the formating when you want.
 

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