Aiding the Art (and Science) of Writing

Each of us is first exposed to the art (and science) of writing at a young age. From our first letter to Santa at the holidays, to college application essays, term papers and job applications, these experiences play a part in our development as lifelong writers. In learning to write, we further refine our ability to express ourselves and reinforce our identities as individuals. Writing, as a process, challenges us to formulate ideas and express them in ways that readers will understand.

Success in the 21st-century workforce and in today’s society requires sound, articulately written communication for social and workplace application. Whether it is in the classroom or on the job site, competency in written communication skills are paramount. Identified as a critical competency by educators and employers alike as a key to 21st-century workforce advancement, written communication has become an important component to an individual’s success. The need for tools to help refine this ability can provide critical support — especially for developing writers or writers for whom English is not their first language.

Enter Writing Mentor™ —a Google Docs add-on designed as a revision tool for academic writing. Writing Mentor provides automatic feedback about a user’s writing that is related to writing quality.

The tool’s intention is to not only help users improve their writing skills, but give them more confidence when they write.

~ Jill Burstein

Developed by the Natural Language Processing (NLP) group in ETS Research, Writing Mentor’s approximately 5,000 users have installed and used the tool to work on academic writing assignments since its November 2017 launch.

“The tool’s intention is to not only help users improve their writing skills, but give them more confidence when they write,” said Jill Burstein, Research Director of the Natural Language Processing group within ETS’s Research division.

Using a writing guide named Sam, Writing Mentor provides suggestions and feedback to users. Feedback categories include features that help the user’s writing to be convincing, well-developed, coherent and well-edited. Within these larger categories, there are several sub-categories users can select in order to refine the advice given and obtain more specific writing feedback for which they feel they may need further assistance.

Using NLP technology, information that populates each of the suggested areas for revision in Writing Mentor is pulled from a bank of information ETS Research has captured over the years and implemented into the add-on to align with appropriate writing constructs.

“We are getting new submissions to Writing Mentor daily, and users appear to be making changes across submission revisions,” said Burstein. “This suggests that the app’s feedback may be helping users to review and revise their work.”

As users move through the app and select categories, the app highlights text in the submission for the user to review. This includes, for instance, grammatical errors, but the app is not limited to error detection. The feedback largely offers advice to users about how to make the submission more convincing, by, for instance, asking the user to check that there are credible sources associated with claims. Another example is that the app offers advice about making sure the text is coherent by suggesting that the user review if and how transition terms are used. The user can review Sam’s advice, and consider if the submission would be improved by a revision. Any revisions entered by the user can be saved in the Google Doc.

Writing Mentor collects user process data that can be used to understand how users engage with the tool — e.g., which features they have engaged with in the tool. Burstein explained further that, “in addition to seeing the number of revisions of work being submitted, we also have found that users are making changes across revisions, including adding or removing words, adding transition terms, altering sentences, and working on topic development. More research does need to be done, however, to understand the impact of tool feedback on users’ writing skills.”

True to ETS’s mission, Writing Mentor serves as an instructional support tool to help learners strengthen their writing skills. In addition, the tool leverages ETS’s research capabilities in order to build and deliver technology for those interested in further developing their writing skills for the future.