Marie-Josée Goulet, Associate Professor
Department of Language Studies
University of Quebec in Outaouais
Laurence Pelletier, Master’s Candidate in Language Studies
University of Quebec in Outaouais
Like all professions in the knowledge society, the field of writing is undergoing technological change. A proliferation of electronic text formats, the diffuse nature of virtual recipients, the mixing of audiovisual and text-based content, the importance of visual design, the development of increasingly specialized computer tools … these are but a few of the challenges facing professional writers today. In order to describe the role and place of technology in professional writing, we conducted a survey of 414 Canadians—the largest quantitative study to date on this subject.
The research participants were all "text workers," i.e., people who write on a daily basis as part of their work or who spend at least half of their work time writing. Survey results indicate that text workers are engaged in many sectors (public service, universities, the media, etc.) and that they are called on to produce various types of texts (19 in total), covering hundreds of subjects. The survey also suggests that many text workers do not identify themselves as such. In fact, 45% of them work in a "language" profession (e.g., writer or editor), while 55% hold other positions (e.g., public servant or professor).
The survey included 15 computer tools. Not surprisingly, word processing, track changes and the Word spellchecker are among the most frequently used tools. Survey results also show that the Web is a favourite source of information: many text workers use electronic encyclopaedias, and some consult blogs and discussion forums. Also among their tools of choice are browsers, especially Internet Explorer, Chrome and Firefox. On the other hand, some tools (e.g., authoring memories and mind mapping tools) rarely make it into a writer’s computer arsenal.
We also wanted to know why some computer tools aren’t used. Of all the reasons put forward, two stand out: the tools are either unfamiliar or not useful to text workers. Many participants said they didn’t use correction software, authoring memories, concordancers or terminology databases because they were unaware of them. In our view, if text workers were aware of these tools and their functions, a large majority of them might use them. Moreover, several participants said they did not need mind mapping software, discussion forums, collaborative work platforms and blogs. This means that these tools are not considered useful in professional writing.
Overall, this study indicates that writers feel there are many more advantages than disadvantages to using the tools: over 75% feel that computer tools help them work more rapidly and efficiently, and write higher-quality and more consistent texts. However, a little under 20% of respondents feel that computer writing tools are inefficient and unreliable, and that they slow down their work rate and affect their creativity. Moreover, writers said they needed to know more about some tools, in all categories.
In the last part of the survey, participants were asked to comment on a few suggestions for improvement. It turns out that text workers feel it should be easier to work with several tools simultaneously. In addition, the track changes function in Word should be more user‑friendly, and word processing should include more automatic tools and functions (e.g., to analyze, summarize and translate). In our view, these results may point to the relevance of developing a single computer environment that would integrate all the tools writers need to perform their work.
Although we are optimistic about future writing technologies, we must ensure that text workers can both use them and participate in improving their work environments.
For more information, visit Professor Marie-Josée Goulet’s website.