sealPurdue News

October 1994

Writing lab answers questions worldwide via e-mail

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- A new on-line writing lab at Purdue University helps people worldwide with a few clicks of the keyboard.

A teacher in Hong Kong asked for help with English plurals.

Two lawyers from Oregon were able to settle a bet about punctuation.

A journalist at USA Today got help writing the first sentence of a story.

Other requests have come from the University of Georgia and a British Columbia high school, from government agencies such as NASA and automobile makers such as Volvo in Sweden.

"People are downloading everything they can get" from the lab's on-line series of handouts on writing skills, says Muriel Harris, a professor of English and director of the Writing Lab.

The new On-line Writing Lab is known as OWL and is available to anyone with an account on the worldwide computer network known as the Internet.

"People can ask questions or request any of our electronic handouts," says Harris, who began Purdue's Writing Lab in 1976 as a tutorial service for Purdue students.

Harris says that when she discussed OWL at a national convention of college teachers over the summer, "there was great excitement and lots of plans for others to try starting up similar programs."

"As far as I know," she says, "we are the only ones doing this right now."

Writing Lab staff members, who are graduate and undergraduate students, help more than 6,000 on-campus students each year with planning and revising papers. They answer questions about grammar or research papers, or help build a resume. They talk with students about developing ideas, organizing, paragraphing, punctuation, sentence structure and bibliography format.

Now, with OWL, the same help is available via electronic mail for anyone on the Internet.

Within a few days of announcing OWL on the Internet last spring, more than 3,000 e-mail requests flooded into the center, Harris says. Since then, the numbers have constantly risen, topping 7,000 within five months. Harris expects the numbers to balloon now that schools are back in session.

"People are so information hungry," Harris says, "they are sending for every writing skills handout we have, especially resume information. I think this is a medium to which a lot of students are accustomed. I think the usage numbers will just keep going up, and there's an exciting potential for distance learning. Students no longer need to come to the Writing Lab in person or wait until we are open to talk about writing skills. At 2 a.m. on a snowy January night when they have a question about something they're writing, they can send the question electronically. Within a day or so, they'll get a reply. As high schools go on-line, they, too, can connect to OWL."

The handouts include "using commas," "the apostrophe," "common words that sound alike," "conciseness," "non-sexist language," "proofreading strategies," "differences in quoting, paraphrasing and summary," "dangling modifiers" and "when you start to write." Some of the handouts include exercises that would be helpful for teachers, too, Harris says.

Getting the information is as simple as typing in an e-mail message. Send to Type "owl-request" on the subject line and type "send index" as the message to look at a list of handouts. Type "send docs" to request a specific handout. Instructions in the index help users get through the program. To get answers to writing questions, enter the topic on the subject line of the e-mail message. A Writing Lab tutor will send an answer back within a couple of days.

The Writing Lab tutorial services are among the oldest and largest in the country, says Harris, who has seen the office grow from a small corner space to two large rooms with tables, sofas, computers and file cabinets full of helpful information. What began as a small operation to accompany English department writing courses now consists of OWL, the Grammar Hotline (317-494-3723), 14 basic writing classes and three groups of peer tutors who focus on a variety of areas: essays and research papers, technical writing, resumes, business writing, English as a second language, or whatever any student needs for a particular class.

"I think there is an increasing awareness that success in any given field is dependent on being able to write and communicate information in the field," Harris says. "There also is more awareness among professors and students that writing promotes learning. We learn better and think more critically by writing about what we're studying. This is true in all disciplines: pharmacy, computer science, biology and engineering as well as the social sciences."

Harris says there needs to be a place outside the classroom for students to get one-on-one help with this complex skill.

"Students can come to the lab in person, by phone on our Grammar Hotline, or on the Internet, and develop a relationship, develop a dialogue, and we can help them become better writers," Harris says. "The one-on-one tutoring is highly useful for students as they develop papers and improve their writing skills. Even in a large university like Purdue, this is a place where each student gets personal attention, a tutor they can talk to about their writing. This personalized learning is something I'm totally involved in, something I truly believe in."

Source: Muriel Harris, (765) 494-3723; Internet,
Writer: Julie Rosa, (765) 494-2079; Internet,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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