Thanks to Bedford/St. Martin’s

These entries, written by Traci Gardner, are copied from TechNotes, a free newsletter for writing teachers from Bedford/St. Martin’s. For information about TechNotes, go to

Web Work in Progress

The AP reported this week that “Thirty-five years after computer scientists at UCLA linked two bulky computers using a 15-foot gray cable, testing a new way for exchanging data over networks, what would ultimately become the Internet remains a work in progress” in Web Turns 35, but Still Work in Progress.

While the article focuses on how the technology of the Web is still being finetuned, I'd like to ask that we think about how the Web has been our work as writers more of a work in progress. Publication on the Web has made the ability to change text and republish a much simpler process than it was in the days when we traded our words in the writing classroom almost solely with ink and paper.

If you want to demonstrate the ways that rethinking are a part of the writing process, the Web can provide all the texts you could ever need. Look at past images of the World Wide Web by taking your students to the WayBack Machine, which indexes billions of pages, showing how they have changed over the years. The pages you access can provide extensive discussion of the role of audience in published texts as well as how the technology that is available shapes the messages that are published.

Have your students brainstorm a few Web sites to explore, and then look at how they have changed by viewing older versions. In December 1996, for instance, the MTV homepage was a simple advertisement for Beavis and Butthead Do America. Compare that first page in the WayBack Machine to the current MTV page and students will easily see the differences. If you're not ready to compare MTV pages, consider looking at the archived pages for your school or for a government site (e.g., the Library of Congress).

Consider the following questions as you explore different versions of sites in the WayBack Machine:

  1. What is the purpose of the site? What specific information is included? Is the basic information the same for all of the versions you checked? What is someone able to do by visiting this site? Can you sign up for something? Does the site provide online shopping? Does the site provide information about something? How has the purpose of the site changed among the different versions that you check?
  2. Who is the audience of the site? Based on the information that you see on the site, who is the site hoping to attract? What are the demographics of those who would visit the site?
  3. Look at the text and other content on the site. How is the information placed on the page—is it static text, dynamic text, or a mix of the two? How big is the text? How does the layout of the text on the page change between the different versions that you check?
  4. Look at the graphics on the site. How are they different in terms of size and shape? How is the content of the images different (that is what is shown in the images)?
  5. What do you notice about the technology behind the pages? What are the technical requirements for the different versions? What kind of computer is required? What kind of network connection?
  6. What connections do you notice among the answers to the preceding questions? To what extent are the changes in the purpose, audience, and content of the site related to the changes in the technologies behind the site?
Asking students to consider different versions of the same basic site in this way can lead to classroom discussions about Web sites as texts that are always “works in progress.” Ask your students to explore rich interactions among what the audience expects of a text, what the author hopes a text will accomplish, and what the medium used to published the text can do. Discussion can also touch on how technology does (or does not) support the purpose of the author and the needs of the audience. Simply ask students if the technological bells and whistles being used on the sites that they examine are required to accomplish the goals of the site.

The Web sites archived in the WayBack Machine allow us to explore a range of drafts easily. Using these archived sites, students can find numerous examples that demonstrate how changing a text affects the message. After all, no one could look at the advertisement for December 1996 MTV page and the current MTV page and not notice a dramatic difference in what the audience expects and what the writer intends. Once students learn to articulate the ways changes in Web sites affect the message to the readers, they may find it easier to apply what they have learned to their own writing, observing the ways small changes in their own drafts affect the messages their readers receive.