We often take for granted just how complex the act of writing is, and the range of mental and motor skills it involves. While we each go about the process of writing in our own unique way, some distinct steps are typically involved: pre-writing, drafting, revising and editing.
You may experience barriers in any of these steps of the writing process that can keep you from being a successful writer. Fortunately, the devices many of us already own have a range of built-in features to support you at each stage of the writing process, and many free or low-cost apps and extensions are also available.
Prewriting is everything you do before sitting down to write an initial draft of your ideas. It includes research to understand the topic better and brainstorming to generate and organize new ideas. The goal is to try out ideas and see if they are worth pursuing further.
There are a variety of tools that can help you with these initial steps of the writing process:
- Use the basic note-taking app built into your device to capture your initial thoughts or create a basic outline. These built-in apps have limited formatting capabilities, but that is a good thing. Too many options can be distracting at this stage of the writing process. Windows has a simple text editor called Notepad, and Apple devices have the built-in Notes app. You can also use online note-taking apps such as Google Keep or Microsoft OneNote. That way, you can access your notes from any device with an internet connection.
- Speak your thoughts into a voice memos app. This can be helpful if you want to capture your ideas at a time when writing them down is not a possibility. Many operating systems include a basic voice memos app: search for Voice Memos on your iPad or Voice Recorder on your Windows device.
- Capture your ideas visually by building a concept map. This is a diagram that starts with a central idea and organizes related thoughts as a series of connected nodes. There are a number of concept mapping apps you can try, such as MindMup or MindMeister. Sketchnoting with an app such as Paper and a stylus is another way for you to brainstorm ideas and capture notes visually.
- Use tools such as Wakelet or Pocket to save links to articles, videos and other resources you collect as your research your topic and organize the information in preparation for the next step, writing a draft.
Low-tech methods can be helpful as well, but make sure to take a photo of your notes to make sure they are not lost or damaged and the great ideas you have captured are lost.
In this step, you develop your initial ideas into sentences and paragraphs that start to show some connections in your understanding of the topic. This step involves the mechanics of writing: taking what is in your mind and getting it into a more tangible form that can be refined in later steps of the writing process.
Typically you will create several drafts using a word processing application. You may encounter barriers with typing due to physical or cognitive challenges, and typing on a touchscreen can be difficult for everyone. Fortunately, word prediction and dictation are now included as built-in options on many devices. Originally created to make interacting with a computer easier for people with disabilities, these features have become helpful aids for everyone:
- Word prediction can save you time and effort with typing. Enter the first few letters of a word and the word prediction feature will then present several words or phrases for you to choose the best option based on the context. This can be especially helpful if you struggle with spelling. Third-party apps or extensions such as Read and Write and Co-Writer provide additional options such as text-to-speech for proofreading what you've typed with the word prediction.
- Dictation uses speech recognition to turn what you say into text. You can speak punctuation as well as use some basic formatting commands. The accuracy of the recognition will depend on the quality of the audio and how clearly you speak. For the best results, use an external microphone. Dictation is available as a built-in option on all the major operating systems. In most cases you will activate it with a special keyboard shortcut once it has been configured in the system settings. Dictation is also built into Google Docs, where it is known as “Voice Typing.” At the time of writing, it only works when you open Google Docs in the Chrome web browser. You will find it under Tools.
The goal with this step is to get you closer to a final product that is cohesive and compelling. Here the focus turns to the audience and their needs, by addressing questions such as:
- What does the audience already know about this topic?
- Does the organization make sense? Are there any gaps where further explanation is needed?
- Is the language as concise as it can be? Are there places where it could be tightened up?
- Are the connections clear? Does the content flow from one idea to another?
With cloud-based editors such as Google Docs, you can easily provide and receive feedback as a peer editor by using the commenting feature (which is only available when a document is shared with edit/comment permissions). Peer editors can choose Reply for any comment to start a discussion about it. You can also “tag” someone with their email address so that they get an email notification when your comment or response is posted.
Google Docs also supports a “Suggesting” mode. With this mode, any changes to the document become suggestions that need to be accepted by the author. The online version of Microsoft Word has a commenting feature that works in a similar way.
As you develop your drafts, there may be times where you want to go back to an earlier version. Fortunately, this is easy to do with cloud-based writing tools. For example, in Google Docs choose File, Version History, See Version History to see a list of snapshots of your document at different points in time. You can then choose "Restore this version" to make it the current version of your document. A similar feature is built into Microsoft Word, but it only works for files stored in OneDrive or SharePoint Online.
Editing (or proofing) involves the final preparation of the work into a more polished version you can share or publish. Most of this step involves the mechanics of writing: checking for any spelling and grammar errors missed in earlier steps, replacing some words with synonyms to avoid repetition, and checking citations to make sure the work meets the requirements of standards such as APA or MLA. These tools can assist you with editing your work:
- Spelling and grammar checkers can alert you about errors as soon as they are recognized. You can then select the flagged item to get some suggestions: either a different spelling or a grammar correction. Newer Microsoft Office applications support a more advanced, AI-powered Editor feature that performs additional checks (e.g. clarity, formality) in addition to spelling and grammar. Other tools for checking grammar and writing style include Grammarly and the Hemingway Editor.
- Dictionaries will let you look up unfamiliar words or find an alternative that is a better fit in the current sentence. If a dictionary is available, you will typically open it by selecting a word and opening a contextual menu. For example, on the iPad you can double-tap a word to select it, then choose Look Up from the pop-up menu to see its definition.
You should give proper credit when building on the work of others to avoiding plagiarism. Each discipline has a style guide that determines how referenced works need to be cited in academic papers. For example, in the social sciences you typically follow the style manual of the American Psychological Association (APA). The Modern Language Association (MLA) is also often used as a style guide for college-level writing. The following resources provide more information on how to use each of these style guides:
- Academic Writer Tutorial: Basics of APA Style
- Purdue Online Writing Lab: APA Style
- Purdue Online Writing Lab: MLA Style
You may choose to only share your work with a small group of peers, or you may publish it online for the entire world to see it. There are many options for how you can publish your work to a wider audience, including:
- Blog/website creation tools such as WordPress, Medium, Wix and Google Sites. There has been substantial improvement on the support for accessibility among these services that allow you to create a blog or website without the need for any coding experience. For example, all of the services listed now allow authors to add alternative text to images.
- E-book authoring tools such as Book Creator, Pages (with EPUB templates) and Microsoft Word (with the WordToEPUB plugin). Many of these tools support exporting books in the EPUB format, an industry standard supported on a range of reading tools. Visit Creating Accessible Publications with EPUB to learn more.
Try it yourself
To practice using the built-in accessibility features, let's start with something you do frequently - composing an email. Don't worry, you don't have to send it! The goal is just to get you comfortable with using these features to support your writing.
- On Windows, go to Settings, select Devices, Typing and make sure "Show text suggestions as I type" is selected under Hardware Keyboards. Suggestions should appear as you type each word in your email.
- On the iPad, go to Settings, General, Keyboard and make sure the "Predictive" option is selected. Suggestions should appear just above the onscreen keyboard as you type.
- On a Chromebook, it takes a few steps to turn on the next word prediction feature. Start by going to Settings, Advanced, Accessibility and choosing "Manage accessibility features." Next, select "Open keyboard settings" followed by "Change language and input settings." The last step is to select the arrow next to the US Keyboard option and then "Enable next word prediction" in the new window.
- On Windows, press the H key to start dictation, then say "Stop Dictation" to stop it. On a touchscreen device, press the dictation icon (a microphone) on the onscreen keyboard to start and stop dictation.
- On the iPad, tap the dictation icon (a microphone) on the onscreen keyboard to start and stop dictation. If you don’t see the dictation icon, you may need to enable dictation in Settings (under General, Keyboard).
- On a Mac, go to System Preferences, Keyboard, Dictation to turn on dictation and choose the key you will press twice to start and stop dictation.
- On a Chromebook, press Search and D on your keyboard or select the microphone icon in the lower right corner of the screen. If you don't see the microphone icon, you may need to turn on dictation by going to Settings, Advanced, "Manage accessibility features" and making sure "Enable dictation (speak to type)" is selected under "Keyboard and text input."