National Writing Project

WriteLab: Software That Develops Practiced Confidence in Writers

Date: November 18, 2015

Summary: WriteLab is an online writing tool offering immediate, objective, and constructive responses to any writer's prose. Co-founded by former NWP board chair Donald McQuade and by Matthew Ramirez, a graduate student in English at UC Berkeley, WriteLab draws on the latest developments in machine learning and natural language processing.


WriteLab is unique in trying to use tools like natural language processing to provide detailed coaching feedback to the writer rather than scores for assessment.

Writing, like playing a sport or a musical instrument, is a skill that improves over time with frequency of practice. Even with practice, development occurs faster when the writer benefits from an observant coach who analyzes the choices writers make and provides detailed and supportive responses.

WriteLab, a software company recently founded by writing experts at the University of California, Berkeley, is on a mission to change our relationship to writing with the help of technology that serves as a virtual writing coach. WriteLab supports students through the drafting, revising, and editing phases of writing and offers specific, concrete, and actionable suggestions on how to improve a writer's prose. It's not intended to supplant effective teaching, but rather to complement it.

Developing WriteLab as Online Writing Tool

In late fall, 2012 Don McQuade and Matthew Ramirez began talking about the role technology could play in improving writing instruction following Ramirez's response to a book project McQuade was developing—on the influence of evangelical and advertising discourse on such major 19th century American writers as Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and William James. Ramirez suggested that he test McQuade's hypothesis by doing a large-scale literary analysis using digital tools. That analysis confirmed several anticipated peaks in the co-occurrence of such words of belief as "confidence," "trust," and "faith" in religious, commercial, and literary contexts and prompted further research and writing on other non-fictional texts, such as newsprint.

Don McQuade, a long-time composition teacher and scholar, and Matthew Ramirez, skilled in machine learning and natural language processing, recognized that together they could make a significant impact on teaching and responding to writing if they were to develop digital tools informed not only by their own experience teaching writing, but also by the best practices they had observed from skilled practitioners, such as NWP teacher-consultants. McQuade and Ramirez formed a team of practiced writers, professors, executives, engineers, college students, and language nerds to develop writing software that could do far more than simply catch grammatical errors. The result is the enterprise now called WriteLab, with Ramirez serving as the CEO.

As WriteLab's Chief Learning Officer, McQuade took a pragmatic approach to developing the application. Having taught writing for decades at CUNY and at Berkeley, he had seen how the anxiety over grades drives students to rush their writing or to write simply to complete the assignment. So, too, he had experienced the challenges writing instructors face in providing constructive responses on essays in a timely fashion. He and Ramirez leveraged their experience as writing instructors to build a product that would enable writers to develop the habit of making substantive revisions before submitting a paper. "Part of what we are trying to do is to use the technology to create an opportunity for the writer to practice multiple drafts before the writer declares that this essay is ready to be read," said McQuade.

Ramirez and McQuade built WriteLab to be a safe digital space for students to become comfortable experimenting with their voice, to take risks, and to practice articulating themselves to their own satisfaction before presenting their prose to others. Using machine learning to teach its algorithms to learn from user's choices, WriteLab not only offers increasingly customized responses but also continuously improves the precision and recall of its features. Through practice, every user of WriteLab can master the techniques of confident and successful prose and appreciate writing as a tool for effective communication.

What WriteLab Does

According to Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, executive director of the National Writing Project, WriteLab is trying to do something unique and ambitious. "For decades," she argued, "we have had a range of digital tools for error detection and even auto-correction embedded in our word processing programs. More recently we've seen a proliferation of online scoring tools designed for the assessment industry. But WriteLab is unique in trying to use tools like natural language processing to provide detailed coaching feedback to the writer rather than scores for assessment."

WriteLab does this by analyzing and providing specific responses to a wide range of stylistic elements of writing—going far beyond the grammatical elements present in error detection and correction tools. For example, WriteLab will identify when a verb is used incorrectly, but it also identifies when a verb is used effectively and explains why. Furthermore, the software calls attention to more subtle and sophisticated features of writing, such as purpose, tone, emphasis, and the impact of specific word choices.

WriteLab works supportively with the user, offering observations on how to produce more successful prose, how to create an engaging authorial voice and presence, and how to develop more confidence as a writer. Using natural language processing algorithms to analyze any text, WriteLab provides thoughtful assistance for improving specific features of the writer's thinking and writing. Rather than automatically "fixing" a text, WriteLab offers responses and suggestions that encourage writers to recognize how to strengthen their writing and produce prose with greater focus and conviction. Users are invited to make thoughtful decisions about the responses offered, and the program learns from the choices writers make.

A Teacher-Driven Project

Both McQuade and Ramirez make it clear that WriteLab cannot replace teachers. It is a product intended to clear the way for teachers and students to have more constructive and substantive conversations about an essay. Teachers both inside and outside the NWP have been heavily involved in developing the product. Ramirez explained that actual student writing and teacher responses served to code the software so that multiple styles and genres would be captured in the program. NWP teachers have been field-testing the software and offering invaluable critiques of its strengths and weaknesses.

Teacher collaboration is why Richard Sterling, former NWP executive director, became involved in the project. "The fact that Don and Matthew were both educators who came from the humanities, and not from a testing organization, attracted me immediately," he said.

Sterling spearheaded WriteLab's beta program which involved about 5,000 students and teachers engaging with developing the product and providing feedback, many of them NWP directors and teacher-consultants. "NWP teachers and directors provide our sharpest feedback," he said. "They ask a lot of tough questions, but they also express enthusiasm about the software."

Taking Writing Out of the Margins

College as well as high school students in the upper grades are the principal audience for WriteLab, especially students who are anxious about writing. Many of these students have conditioned themselves to write to avoid making mistakes rather than to express themselves. WriteLab established numerous beta sites, including working with community colleges where students often face significant challenges related to writing. WriteLab developers seek to reduce the high dropout rate by putting a tool in the hands of students to help them produce successful writing. "What we are trying to do is to enable them to explore the possibilities of language and to communicate effectively," said McQuade.

WriteLab is already working with writing centers in colleges and universities as well as with high school students. Many instructors have expressed appreciation that this digital tool follows their model of coaching writers to reflect and revise. Another potential audience for the software is composition programs, often marginalized in university hierarchy. Ramirez and McQuade have designed WriteLab to demystify and democratize writing skills and to call attention to its important position in education as a "fundamental enabling skill that everyone should be practicing continuously and effectively."

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