Dr. Judith M. Newman

Computers: Help & Hindrance

Computer technology has revolutionized writing. It’s made it much easier to generate ideas, to reorganize writing, even to check spelling and grammar. However, computers can be both a source of help and a hindrance.


Computers can help you write in many different ways. Here are some suggestions:

  • When you begin, create three files: your working document, a references file, and an out-takes file. You might also want a fourth—notes—which you use as a handy notepad (it’s also a place where you can cut and paste stuff you pick up from other sources)
  • When you’re stuck it’s helpful to do one of three things:
    • start a blank page and just write anything—because it’s in a separate place you lose the inhibitions that were stopping you from keeping ideas flowing
    • go to your “notes” file and do the same thing—sometimes having other notes nearby triggers ideas
    • turn the screen off and just let ideas come—you can do this either on a new blank page or where you happen to be writing

    You can do all of the above using scrap paper or a yellow writing tablet, but the wonderful thing about doing this writing on the computer is you can cut and paste what you produce directly into your document—you don’t have to type it over!

  • Some writing tasks you do over and over again. Automate them by building a template which outlines the major categories of information you want to include. It may take some time to set up a good template but it’s worth it in the long run


There are three major pitfalls to writing on a computer:

  • A major trap is revising and editing too soon.
    Rather than just letting ideas come when you’re inventing, you can find yourself caught up by how the words on the screen look, see something you want to change, and lose your flow of thought.

    Resist at all costs the temptation to “fix” your writing when you’re generating a draft

  • A second danger is forgetting to SAVE!
    Be sure to set your Autosave to backup your writing every 5 minutes or so (in MS Word you find that function in the Preferences / Properties under “Save”). That way you can recover most of what you’ve written. It’s worse than discouraging to have your word processing software freeze and lose everything you’ve done for the last hour.

    Also be careful to save the file to the location you intend. Some word processors remember the last place you saved to—that may not be where you wanted to save your current document.

  • Be wary of the spell checker.
    Either it won’t recognize the word you intend and prompt you with words that have no relationship to the one you want, or it accepts what you’ve written because it doesn’t differentiate homophones—words that sound the same but are spelled differently such as “mayor” and “mare” or “their”, “there”, and “they’re” .

    On the other hand the Thesaurus is often useful, although often it won’t give you as many alternatives as a good dictionary of synonyms will.