Writing Technology:
Studies on the
Materiality of Literacy

By Christina Haas

Chapter 5
Text Sense and Writers' Materially
Based Representations of Text

In this chapter, Haas explores the ambiguous relationship between a writer's mental representations of the meaning and structure of their text and the material conditions under which that text is produced. On the one hand, a writer's cognitive "sense of the text" is separate from the material artifact, but on the other hand, Haas believes it is also closely connected to that artifact. As she puts it, "Text sense is constructed in tandem with the written text and seems to include both a spatial memory of the written text and an episodic memory of its construction" (p. 118).

As an extension of her earlier study on planning, Haas had the 10 experienced writers recall in order and in detail the major points or ideas they had written in their essays two weeks earlier under two conditions -- using computers only and using pen-and-paper only. In eight of nine cases (Haas doesn't say what happened to the tenth case), writers correctly recalled more points of their essays produced with pen-and-paper than for those produced on computer. Furthermore, seven of nine writers forgot to mention more points of their essays under the word processing condition than under the pen-and-paper condition.

Haas believes these results support the anecdotal reports of text sense problems gleaned from her numerous interviews with computer users. She concludes that the text sense problem is a "psychologically real phenomenon and that the writing medium can influence writers' sense of the meaning and structure of their own texts" (p. 126). Haas believes that one explanation for better recall under the pen-and-paper condition might be due to the fact that writers under this condition generally planned more than they did under the computer condition, as demonstrated in her earlier chapter on planning.

Haas also analyzed videotapes of two writers from her planning study -- one experienced writer and one student -- to determine how they interacted physically with their texts under both conditions. From her analysis, Haas derived a four-part coding scheme for physical interactions:

What is unclear in this coding scheme, however, is why some units of analysis hold true for both conditions, while others are restricted only to pen-and-paper. For example, Haas counts pointing with a mouse cursor the same as pointing with a pen, but she doesn't count scrolling on a word processor as a tactile manipulation of text. I fail to see how generalized, random scrolling is any different than flipping through the pages of a printed manuscript. One is a physical manipulation of pixels, and the other manipulation of paper. To insist that manipulation always be "tactile" seems a limitation of her coding scheme.

While both writers used distancing moves under both conditions, both made more distancing moves under the pen-and-paper condition than they did using the computer, which in this case were workstations. A UNIX workstation is a bulky behemoth that limits the amount of potential distancing, and it would be interesting to see if the same results hold true for writers using laptops. The amount of distancing in both conditions seems less interesting to me, however, than the fact that such distancing moves occurred, for both subjects, when they shifted to planning or began to reread their texts.

Haas' purpose in reported these results is not to recommend improvements in interface design, but to suggest that the tactile dimension of writing with pen and paper seems to be important in how writers construct mental representations of their text. As she puts it,

It may be that these physical interactions provide a link -- via bodily interactions -- between the material tools and artifacts of text production and the mental processes and representations of writers. That is, through their physical interactions with the material tools and texts of literacy, writers' thinking is shaped by culturally-made technologies. (p. 133)

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