Building a Writing App

By Noreen Masud

Good writing requires structure and depth, a well-planned architecture with a clear route from beginning to end. As writers and teachers, we are grateful for the IT Innovation Fund’s award to design a writing application that will engage students in drafting units of connected, continuous text.  Despite the growing need for constructive writing supports, such a tool, let alone an app, does not exist.

Following the award, the team has been undertaking research to refine the app’s pedagogical focus. It was important, we felt, that the app’s design and function rose out of students’ intuitive beliefs and values about writing. To be accessible, the app must dovetail with writing strategies which are familiar from school and early university life. Project leader Sally Bayley, a university lecturer with twenty years’ experience of teaching writing, therefore ran a series of five workshops with school and university students, over May-July 2016, to explore the metaphors which they instinctively bring to their essays.


Student response to an exercise from the first workshop. Is an essay a ‘window’ into a text?

Do they think of their essays as rooms which they move through? As journeys through their arguments? How do they visualise their moments of transition?

After each workshop, our team – including a digital narrative expert and an animator – discussed the findings. We considered the metaphors that students used instinctively, and used them to devise new workshop activities which situated these metaphors in hands-on, practical writing tasks.


Diagram of how one student visualises their essay structure.

Building on the findings from these workshops, we currently envisage that the app will support students to identify the most important ‘agents’ in their argument (in an essay about epistolary fiction, for instance, the genre of the letter might be the most important actor) and to think about the way in which the agents act. Does the letter, for instance, instruct, or subvert, or connect?

Based on this plan, we have devised a basic ‘paper test’ which we are using with summer school students. The results of this test will feed into the creation of a design specification in August.

Thanks to students from Lady Margaret Hall, Cheney School and Wood Green for their participation in the workshops – and of course to IT Innovation!

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