Monday, May 06, 2013

Words Count, and So Should Word Counts

James Fallows, at, points out some advanced features of Scrivener, a word processor, one of which is kind of cool in my view: it provides word length targets for projects and measures on progress. The link above leads to his post, and it shows an image where a range of writing projects are listed in table. You’ll note three columns that abut one another in this order: Total Words; Total Target; Total Progress.
Fallows lives, as a journalist, in a world where assignments are by word length, but more and more writing teachers in first year composition in the U.S., and teachers in other courses where writing is assigned, are basing assignments on word counts instead of page length. For those professors, the move isn’t tied to column inches but rather to the erasure of the print manuscript. Interestingly Fallows reports that he doesn’t use the feature for his columns, but rather for writing books, and he uses them as a way of “setting the daily output targets that are crucial to maintaining sanity through the months-long slog of finishing a protracted writing project.” I know a lot of folks working on dissertations and first books who would benefit from this.
Such a tool rejiggered a slight bit for novice writers in college, who are learning the craft of writing longer pieces, or, simply who need to hit writing targets to keep up with work, especially in integrated into an online classroom space, could offer useful learning analytics. For example, if a professor assigned a sequence of writing activities with total word targets, especially for low stakes writing like daily discussion prompts or journal writing -- where part of the goal of such assignments is to work muscles, to get students into a writing habit, much the way some activities in a gym are to build strength, build cardiovascular capacity, build muscle memory – then the system might allow students to see their total words, the target words, their progress on target and as well the class average of total words. Or if students opted to form writing teams or groups, they could see the total words of each member.
So just this one slight thing – capturing word counts and displaying them in slightly different contexts -- changes how writers see what they’re doing and how teachers of novice writers see, and can assign, different writing activities. 

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