XX.2 March + April 2013
Page: 58
Digital Citation

Why Microsoft Word does not work for novice writers

Joohee Huh

Have you ever written five paragraphs, without any tool, all in one draft? I raise this question to think about the relationship between the function of tools and thought in writing. Since writing activity, as one of the external symbolic forms, is based on visual representation, it necessarily involves tools. The tools have material properties, and our bodies work with the tools. During the writing process, the materiality of any tool is important in that it determines the ways in which we interact with written words. At the same time, tools mediate and enable certain thoughts and the physical reality of language as written form. Therefore, bodily movement matters both in the use of the tool and in the development and representation of thought.

Let’s narrow down this writing-tool analysis to one software program, Microsoft Word (MS Word). If we open MS Word, a white background appears. We find dozens of fonts as options waiting for our selection. Other menu options, such as left or right paragraph arrangement, are easy to see. If we type a sentence longer than the page width, the cursor goes one step down, as if there were an invisible staircase. But can we easily represent Mallarmé‘s concrete poetry using MS Word? Probably not. What Microsoft not so subtly implies is the space of typewriting and the printed-book model of linear writing. Currently this is the software that many schools and institutions adopt as the primary tool for writing. Can we say that this choice of writing tool is satisfactory in all respects? I don’t think so. We even describe this program as “word processing,” not “writing” or “thought processing.” Here, I will argue why MS Word does not work as an effective writing tool for novice writers.

Beyond Words and Keystrokes

I observed five graduate students over a two-month period while they were writing their theses in a studio on campus. During this observation, I stopped taking for granted bodily movement—human bodies moving voluntarily between the fixed environment of the screen and the movement of the mouse. In doing so I found that the relationship between the students’ bodily movements and their tools was problematic, because the expansion of thought seems tied to the process through which thought in writing interacts with spatial arrangement in addition to written words. But the functions of MS Word do not presume such a process. There seemed to be a gap between the way the students oriented their attention when writing and the functions of the tool on the computer.

Further, the five students’ writing did not proceed in a linear way, in either a material or an intellectual sense. In most cases, their writing did not start upon opening MS Word. Moreover, something other than the alphabet came out in the students’ writing process:

  • Written words were arranged spatially on the page, along with frequent appearances of concept maps, diagrams, and drawings.
  • Some written words, located in a diagram, were moved from time to time, and circles in a diagram were superimposed or divided.
  • Once they externalized ideas, students grouped ideas with simple tools such as flash cards.
  • There were lines linking certain words, and some written units stayed on Post-it slips for a while and then disappeared.
  • Students were working on paper.
  • Individual ways of controlling evolving ideas appeared.

Surely, there were various transitional states of writing and other elements that MS Word could not easily accommodate. The thesis projects advanced through students searching for an understanding of the problems themselves. Since the writing took place simultaneously with the larger investigations of the theses projects, the process could be called exploration as well as writing.

The behavior that emerged in the students’ writing process followed a pattern:

  • They created external signs as parts of written units, manipulating those signs spatially and dealing with them like objects.
  • Through external objects they mediated their own thought.
  • Signs were used as a mnemonic device for a larger concept or future discussion.
  • Some students built 3-D models of concept relationships, using marshmallows and toothpicks. The models represented the multiple relationships between the concept and other ideas in the text. They served as 3-D concept maps that the students rotated in space as a way of thinking about how the written narrative would be different if ordered by alternate points of entry to the discussion.
  • They viewed pictures of 3-D models on the computer, rotating them to see various perspectives.

For these students, raised and active in a hypermedia environment, writing is spatial. Each unit of information has many connections to the rest of the text, not just to the paragraph immediately before or after it.

Why did these students create visual signs in addition to words and use them in the writing process? And why did they need a spatial arrangement of signs or words and movement to resolve their writing? Considering that the artificial, spatial arrangement of signs was a manifestation of their thinking during the invention process, either as a conscious or unconscious activity, we can say that the spatial arrangement of signs was used as a cognitive tool. This observation raises questions about the relationship between cognitive tools, thinking, external representation, and the process of constructing text.

Finally, only during a short period of the entire writing process was MS Word used. MS Word was used because of a required format for sharing among readers, its spelling and grammar function, and the ease of editing by faculty, which shows a conflict between personal choices about how to work and write and the institutional demands for editing by a second person. And it speaks to the degree to which certain software programs have become standards that may be shaping or constraining the practice of thinking competencies.

Writing as Bodily, Spatial, and Mediated Activity

The behaviors observed in the students’ thesis projects suggest interesting connections to Lev S. Vygotsky’s study of aphasic behavior (inability/difficulty in processing language); comparing aphasic patients with graduate students enables us to see the taken-for-granted characteristics of language and thought clearly, without focusing on normal or abnormal behaviors. The biggest difference between the behavior of the students and the aphasics in Vygotsky’s study seems to involve the ability to create artificial objects and manipulate them in relation to one’s purpose and the ability to control voluntary attention through such objects.

“The use of artificial means, the transition to mediated activity, fundamentally changes all psychological operations,” Vygotsky writes [1]. The term mediated activity means an indirect act in which “the direct impulse to react is held back, and the operation follows a roundabout way, establishing a certain auxiliary stimulus that fulfills the operation by indirect means” [2]. For example, signs such as language, writing, number systems, and tools serve as indirect means of human behavior and thus are part of mediated activity.

The specific aphasic behaviors, however, have a direct and non-mediated quality. For example, “on a nice sunny day, when he [a patient exhibiting a complex disorder of the higher intellectual functions] was asked to repeat the sentence ‘Today the weather is bad and it is raining,’ he could not bring himself to carry out this request. The first words were uttered easily…but then he became confused, stopped speaking and could not bring himself to finish the sentence in the way it had been given to him. He kept on changing over to another form, which corresponded to the observed reality” [3]. The patient was unable to create a certain free, arbitrary situation: He could not say that the weather was bad when the weather was actually good. Rather, his verbal behavior and thinking was tied only to an actual situation linked to his concrete, sensory experience. In this case, there is no element of imagination.

The aphasic patient’s behavior, however, contrasts with the students’ tool-mediated activities; they made spatial artifacts or external signs at will, physically manipulating them in the imagining of certain phenomena in order to propose a preferred state logically. And the interaction with spatial artifacts was directed “not at the objects” but “through them, at the very subject of the activity,” as Alexei Leontiev has suggested [4].

Vygotsky’s studies show that imagination involves not only the idea itself but also the ordering of actions or possibilities necessary to construct the idea, or implied by the idea—the linking of an intention and imagining the physical/sensory experience of acting on that intention. Some would refer to this as “seeing in the mind’s eye” the course of action in moving from an existing to a preferred state. Tools, therefore, are extensions of the mind; they are the means through which what is in one’s head is executed in the physical world. Therefore, the greater the potential of the tool to respond as imagined, and the greater the affordances of the tool to respond in the multitude of ways we might imagine actions designed to execute intentions, the more likely the products of thought will be imaginative.

Vygotsky argues that tools and signs can be placed on the same plane in terms of mediated activity, but that they are different in that they produce different behaviors: The tool’s function is “externally oriented to serve as the conductor of human influence on the object of activity…It is a means by which human external activity is aimed at mastering, and triumphing over nature.” On the other hand, the sign is “internally oriented; it changes nothing in the object of a psychological operation. It is a means of internal activity aimed at mastering oneself” [5].

How, then, can we define the notion of behavior? Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela define behavior as the transactional relationship between an organism and its environment. They explain the coupling between the inner parts of the body and external behavior through the nervous system; they account for the role of the nervous system through a notion of mediation that expands the possibilities of behaviors: “The behavior of living beings is not an invention of the nervous system and it is not exclusively associated with it, for the observer will see behavior when he looks at any living being in its environment. What the nervous system does is expand the realm of possible behaviors by endowing the organism with a tremendously versatile and plastic structure” [6]. Maturana and Varela’s study of movement and behavior, based on an understanding of the nervous system, facilitates an empirical approach—in that we do not consider bodily movement in using tools for writing as taken for granted—that sees writing as activated partially by physical movement in using tools. Their study of behavior allows us to see bodily movement as an object of analysis in studying the presumed cognitive activity of writing.

What, then, could be regarded as critical in the interplay between writing as an external symbolic form and its representation by a tool? Isn’t it a type of mediation that facilitates bodily movement to interact with external signs linked to certain thoughts—mediated activity that calls invisible objects into physical being, and that allows for delaying voluntary attention or selection? From where does the need to use self-generated spatial artifacts arise?

Non-spatial MS Word vs. Expansion of Thought

McCutchen, Teske, and Bankston discuss novice writers’ working memory resources and long-term memory resources in the cognitive process of writing that affect the quality of a paper: 1) “[T]he major writing processes such as planning, text production and revising make demands on working memory resources” and “long-term memory depends on the availability of sufficient resources within the limited capacity of working memory.” 2) Novice writers with the lack of task schema in long-term memory resources may “frequently focus on retrieving relevant content rather than developing conceptual plans.” 3) Working memory constraints can affect “the development and functional use of global planning,” “the structural complexity of texts,” and “reading texts critically in a macrostructure of the text level” [7]. The structure of a text is something that needs to be made; thus, it exists as indeterminate and needs to expand. But it should present a logical order for the argument.

I argue that MS Word, with respect to all those needs, presents novice writers with one simple structure, while ignoring spatial and mediated activities. The theoretical background for the need for tools based on spatial activity comes from the embodied nature of abstract reasoning. George Lakoff explains metaphorical extensions of bodily movements to abstract domains as follows: “Schemas that structure our bodily experience preconceptually have a basic logic. Preconceptual structural correlations in experience motivate metaphors that map that logic onto abstract domains. Thus, what has been called abstract reason has a bodily basis in our everyday physical functioning” [8].

Among bodily schemas, for example, the configuration of a baby in his mother’s arms is a container schema, which is used to describe a certain conceptual category. The whole configuration of the relationship between the baby and the mother consists of a gestalt structure. But we don’t think usually that our spatial, bodily activity is related to abstract reasoning; spatial image schemas based on bodily movements such as part-whole relations and cycle image schemas structure our understanding and organize thought.

When the abstract relations among concepts become complex, and when they go beyond our working memory capacity, embodiment becomes important. Without relying on external manipulation to control their expanding ideas, novice writers without deep topic knowledge may find it difficult to construct the complexity of relations. The need to see the complexity of relations lies in the fact that the structural complexity of texts needs to expand and to be critically reflected on at a meta level. The core of the expansion of thought, the formation of an argument, and its logical development are abstract relationships, aren’t they? Also, people think spatially, and spatiality can be used efficiently. Why did we lose such an opportunity?

In conclusion, MS Word is contradictory to novice writers’ need for the expansion of thought, which starts from not knowing the need for mediation to constructing abstract concepts through spatial activities. HCI researchers and interaction designers must consider that there is a need for writing software such as MS Word to support spatial activities.


I would like to thank Meredith Davis, Martha Scotford, Christopher Martin Anson, Christopher B. Mayhorn, and Erik Stolterman for providing me with advice, references, and feedback. I thank the writers in the study for sharing the writing process with me.


1. Vygotsky, L.S. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, and E. Souberman, eds. Harvard University press, 1978, 55.

2. Vygotsky, L. and Luria, A. Tool and symbol in child development. In The Vygotsky Reader. R. Van der Veer and J. Valsiner, eds. Blackwell publishers, 1994, 145.

3. Ibid., 266.

4. Leontiev, A.A. Psychology and the Language Learning Process. C.V. James, ed. Pergamon Press, 1981, 14.

5. See 1., 54-55. The order of sentences was slightly changed from the original source.

6. Maturana, H.R. and Varela, F.J. The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Shambhala Publications, Boston, MA, 1998, 138.

7. McCutchen, D., Teske, P., and Bankston, C. Writing and cognition: Implications of the cognitive architecture for learning to write and writing to learn. In Handbook of Research on Writing: History, Society, School, Individual, Text. C. Bazerman, ed. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2008, 447–465.

8. Lakoff, G. Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1987, 278.


Joohee Huh received a Ph.D. in design at North Carolina State University in the College of Design. Her dissertation topic was the dynamic interplay between spatialization of written units in writing activity and functions of tools on the computer. Her research interests include embodied imagination, creativity, learning environments, and writing.

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