Computers & Texts No. 16/17
Table of Contents
Winter 1998

Digital Variants and the Writing Process

Analysing Literary Texts on the Web

Domenico Fiormonte
Luana Babini

Department of Italian
University of Edinburgh,

At the University of Edinburgh students in the Italian Department are introduced to drafts and authorial variants of published writers, aiding their understanding of the process by which a creative work goes from idea to publication. The students reflect on the development of written style and the influences of the word-processor.

Digital Variants: What it is, how we use it

Digital Variants (DV) is a digital archive project of contemporary authors promoted by the Italian Department at the University of Edinburgh. At the beginning, the aim of the project was essentially the preservation of original materials (drafts, manuscripts, variants, etc.) collected from Italian and Spanish literary writers between 1991 and 1996. Yet, after a few months we realised the potential of such an archive for the study of the written language, and we decided to use it for a Second Language Acquisition (SLA) experiment.

At present, the DV archive holds, and will soon make available, variants by Vincenzo Cerami, Angel García Galiáno, Antonio Millán, Francesca Sanvitale, Francisco Solano, Manuel Rico, and Roberto Vacca. All these authors are well-known and established professional writers in their own countries, with at least two books of fiction published. In the near future the site (see will provide a wide range of information and material, such as bio-bibliographies, photographs, books covers, original interviews (where possible both in text and audio formats), critical essays, etc. Meanwhile, we are exploring the possibility of making the site more interactive, encouraging the authors to take an active part in the scholarly discussion as well as in the teaching process.

One of our final aims is to allow the reader 'to navigate' through the author's variants via a multiple frames system. Online at the moment are seven versions of Sanvitale's short story Orient-Express (1997, and a downloadable critical 'printed' edition of this work which can be read with MS-Word. In the near future the three versions will be all directly readable on screen, thanks to a system of frames/columns with inter-textual and intra-textual links between the different passages (see for an example of variant texts). In order to achieve this, we are experimenting, in conjunction with Lars Holmquist and Staffan Björk (Viktoria Institute, Göteborg), with the application of a 'zoom browsing' technique for the visualisation of the variants (for details see This method allows the reader to 'zoom' in and out of a document on the screen, and to keep more textual objects within the same space, increasing the reader's powers of visual control over the document structure.

An Online Experiment

As mentioned above, DV represented a good opportunity for learners of Italian to monitor and analyse pieces of contemporary Italian fiction during the process in which they are composed and written. To this end we designed a textual analysis exercise to be carried out on the variants of Sanvitale's short story Orient-Express ( The first drafts of Sanvitale's story are of course 'work in progress', and it was exactly this aspect that made the difference in teaching Italian as a second language. Literary products are normally presented to the student in their final form - i.e. novels, stories, essays, poetry, etc. Students usually do not have the possibility to observe how real authors actually work. Students frequently assumed that writers, struck by some sort of Romantic illumination, instantly produce perfectly polished and finished pieces of writing. This experiment showed, on the contrary, that a text is a flowing and dynamic source, a never-ending process of word-balancing and shifting which leads - eventually, but not necessarily - to a 'final' product: the text as we read it in its printed form. So students discovered, to their big surprise (and probably relief) odd grammatical mistakes and painful stylistic struggles in prestigious literary works. In other words, as a student pointed out, they discovered that 'even gods sweat'.

But what happens when writing enters a new dimension? This was one of the big questions underlying our research - and perhaps any research dealing with the electronic space. We believe that the tools developed in Web-based textual environments constitute an important advance for studying the writing process. This new vehicle, creating links between versions, lines and words across the writing corpora, can account for virtually every changing aspect of the new - and old - 'writing net'. As we will see, students were pushed to view and to analyse texts in a new way, and the granularity and the mobility of these texts helped them to make very original and detailed observations.

Specific objectives in SLA

The first application involved a group of twelve advanced learners of Italian in their first year of study. Participants in this group had a very good understanding of the language in various styles, and had worked with a word processor regularly for at least six months. However, no one was an experienced user of the Internet. The experiment was organised and run by two tutors, and took place over a period of 5 weeks during the summer term of the previous academic year, with five sessions of 1 hour each. Three sessions were held in the University's microlabs, and two sessions in a seminar room. Self-access to the computers continued to be granted in the laboratory outside formal classes for the entire duration of the experiment.

Apart from the 'side effects' on electronic literacy and textual criticism, the experiment was mainly aimed at the development of critical skills and writing ability through a series of activities which focused on both the process and the product of reading and writing. The production of written language was stimulated and organised in a three-part questionnaire specifically designed to guide the students through the reading and analysis of the variants. Section I of the questionnaire tackles the linguistic aspects of the texts, section II deals with the style and narration techniques, whilst in section III students edit a new version of the passage, and eventually comment on the influence of the electronic medium on writing.


Paragraphs of the Orient-Express were collated to form one single passage of about thirty lines. There were seven versions of each passage, kept in chronological order, and identified with the letters A, B, C, D, E, F, H (the author introduced G later on). To make the texts more accessible and readable, each version has been reorganised in one column, and paired with the subsequent version on one single page (a MS-Word version of this document is available from the Project Web site). As in the original versions, lines were numbered for students' reference.

The first two sessions were held in a computer laboratory, where students were introduced to DV and Francesca Sanvitale's Scriptorium ( containing a critical essay, a bio-bibliography, an original interview with Francesca Sanvitale, and the course syllabus. In this session students also started to learn how to make a more personal use of the materials, e.g. obtaining additional information on the author, selecting passages and cutting and pasting them into a Word document, etc.

Linguistic analysis

The first passage of the story (approximately 30 lines) in its seven consecutive versions was introduced to students, who could individually download it from the Project site. Each pair of students chose a question and worked on it for about ten minutes, at the end of which answers were reported and discussed in turn by students. Relevant conclusions were reached by examining in a progressive sequence the structure and lexis of the seven passages: students noted how the writer tended to employ clause coordination rather than subordination, and to use shorter sentences. As for the lexis, in general terms the author seemed to rely more on nouns and verbs than on adjectives, practically ignoring the use of adverbs (fig. 1).

Fig. 1

Style and narration techniques

This second part dealt with style and narration techniques. Analysis and answers at this stage maintained strong links with the linguistic survey previously carried out. This allowed learners to become more aware of the linguistic components of style. Through the comparison of the seven variants, students successfully noted how Sanvitale developed her writing in a style that becomes more and more evocative: thematically, the narrator introduces memories from her past and philosophical thoughts which trigger emotions and a nostalgic atmosphere; linguistically, Sanvitale experiments with adding and subtracting on the nominal aspect, but in the last edition she goes back to the initial proportion of nouns and adjectives, whilst the verbal aspect tends to remain unmodified.

An interesting analysis on the rhythm of the passages explored the proportion between emphatic and non-emphatic syllables and the length of sentences. Two students used a system of symbols to indicate the rhythm (! = unstressed syllable; * = stressed syllable; / = comma; // = full stop): as fig. 2 demonstrates, there is a tendency, throughout the versions, to maintain the same rhythm of the sentence regardless of its length.

Fig. 2

Editing a new variant

The final part of the experiment was devoted to the students' production of a personal variant. To create their own variant of one selected passage, students navigated throughout the whole corpus, and worked chiefly with cut and paste on the seven versions. Grafting of a new part of text from the students was to be marked by square brackets and treated as emendationes (corrections). An explanation of the system of markers used in a philological context was given during this session. An HTML copy of the 'best edition' produced is now on DV, with a copy sent to the author, Francesca Sanvitale.

Computers and writing

All students, at the end of the textual analysis sessions, were stimulated to reflect on and discuss the influence of the word processor upon the process of writing. In their responses, students unanimously recognised how the word processor simplifies corrections and changes in texts, generally making writing easier and better organised ('It's easier, with a computer, to edit the text and change the answers', M. Roberts and T. Kerridge). Another student suggested that electronic writing-speed better matches the speed of thoughts and consequently allows rapid transfer of ideas into written words. A further element of influence, according to some, would be the screen with its inevitable and quite substantial visual impact on writers, not only when word order or page lay out are concerned, but also in the selection of single words, preferable to others for the way they look ('Here the choice of a word is more visual than mental: seeing the words in black and white could influence the writer's choice and order of words', A. James and S. Freeland).

The effectiveness of the electronic variants was also considered and positively evaluated, with DV recognised as a valid tool for research, enabling clearer and faster comparisons and a more incisive analysis.


The experiment in its first application gave quite positive results. From a pedagogical point of view, it is worth noting that the students were all native English speakers with some previous qualifications in Italian, and only three students were of Italian origin. The core of the questionnaire was concerned with textual criticism, with emphasis on the linguistic and stylistic analyses of the variants. This result was highly positive, considering that the language used in the questionnaire was fairly technical, and the authentic material rather difficult in both structure and style.

As mentioned above, the participants were not particularly skilled in the use of the Web. Some of them barely knew how to run an Internet browser, or a word processor: although they were all able to write with a computer, most of them did not know the basic functions of MS-Word (such as 'Find and Replace', 'Word Count', 'Revisions', etc). In other words, the IT literacy level of the students was unexpectedly low. This confirms the view that no previous knowledge may be taken for granted when experimenting in a technological environment even when dealing with a supposedly 'hot topic' such as the Internet. Therefore, it is always preferable, to run introductory tutorials in order to get the students rapidly focused on the real subjects of the course.

Plans for the future of DV include working to improve the presentation of the variants and the site in general, in order to bring about user-friendly and more effective ways of analysis. At present, most of our efforts are still devoted to the improvement of the Italian section, but we are also seeking collaborations for the Spanish part of the project.


Sanvitale (1997) 'Orient-Express' in Separazioni. Einaudi: Turin, 179-189.

[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]

Computers & Texts 16/17 (1998). Not to be republished in any form without the author's permission.

HTML Author: Michael Fraser
Document Created: 25 April 1998
Document Modified: 3 April 1999

The URL of this document is