Purposeful Prose began with an exploration of planning in writing, and I stumbled on the multi-layered process of constructive planning. The purpose of constructive planning is to give writers different tools with which they can customize a planning process that complements their minds, but these tools are abstract as opposed to physical.
Instead of writing finished products on paper by hand or using a typewriter, most people use programs up to and including Libre Office, Microsoft Office, and Google Docs. There are also programs that are set to prevent writers from clicking into any other program during a set amount of writing time, something that wouldn't be helpful for me because it helps me to have Mahogany or Alexa Rainbird playlists on.
Everyone has a different methods that work for them, and some people need "distractions," things I prefer to call "external motivation." In the same vein, everyone has a different method of planning. Plans are an important part of any writer's toolbox regardless of whether they are physical or mental.
Some writers prefer to be "pantsers," a term coming from the phrase, "flying by the seat of your pants." Pantsers write without any conceivable physical pre-writing, but what I find interesting is that we have no way of knowing what level of planning through reflection went into the work.
In 1989, word processing was a novelty and looked very different from how we conceive Microsoft Office. Basically, writers were not inhibited by any of its small precision parts and backspacing. Early predictions about word processing were that word processing programs would likely increase planning time, particularly for young students, and that they would focus on "higher order" concerns. Higher order concerns are usually defined as ay writing concern outside of mechanics.
In case you need a reminder that I'm specifically looking at a study from 1989, "Computer screens typically display less text than a writer can see when using pen and paper" (Haas, 1989). This is less of a problem now that more people have larger computer screens and sometimes dual monitors. Sometimes, I split my screen and will have one document on the left side of my screen while I have the document I'm typing on the right.
This study aimed to test how the medium through which a person writes affects the product of their writing, their method of planning, and the choices made in writing planning. The participants consisted of ten writers for whom writing is their profession and ten student writers. Different groups of writers would write in different conditions. One would use pen and paper alone, one would use the word processor alone, and another would use a mix of the two.
The study used the Andrew system of computing that came with its own text editor, the ability to bold, italicize, and change the size of the font, and a preview of how a finished document would look.
The findings were interesting because they were so inconclusive. With word processing, researchers found that there was less planning, but when planning did take place, it was organizational as opposed to conceptual. Working off of information that isn't available to me, I question what among the submitted documents was considered to be planning or if some parts were discarded.
This includes possible doodles, strikethroughs, or anything that was backspaced while writing on the word processor. There are several aspects of the planning process (acknowledged in another study that I've read that was published before this one) that take place in those unintentionally discarded pieces. They are still a part of the thought process and therefore the writing process.
Researchers were unable to determine how using both the pen and paper and the word processor generally impacted the overall processes because writers used them in such different ways. More simply, these results showed that writing problems aren't the kind of problems that have immediate solutions even if they are tech-based, and I think that's still true.
Technology offers great tools that can help people with different writing difficulties, but the technology itself is not the solution. The solution, I think, is in how technology can offer writers ways to shift their ways of thinking and accommodate the way that they think. If a writer doesn't understand how their mindset has shifted through use of a certain technological tool, the utility of that tool has the capacity to wear off quickly, and the writer might not be able to shift their habits for the long term.
It's no secret that writers are influenced by factors in their environment. Any context that a writer is in, externally and internally, can impact both the planning/prewriting and product. Technology has contributed several tools to that context since the Andrew system of computing. So, the remaining question is whether the experiment could be completed with different results.
Yes and no.
While the results would probably be just as murky in a new study, other variables could be added such as different devices (laptops, tablets, smartphones, pen and loose paper, pen and notebook), more participants with varying writing experiences, and a choice of prompts.
This kind of work is still taking place, but interestingly, we are not replicating these studies in different conditions, and I think that this would be a productive next step in researching writer cognition and writing strategies.
Thank you to everyone who has given me feedback on Purposeful Prose thus far and to the amazing reader who sent me this study a little over a year ago.
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Haas, C. (1989). How the writing medium shapes the writing process: Effects of word processing on planning. Research in the Teaching of English, 181-207.