The Work of Writing in the Age of Technological Reproducibility

The tools for writing are constantly evolving. They may seem straightforward to us — what could be more banal than a typewriter, or pen and paper. But that banal image comes only after a long period of consolidation — typewriter was a new tool introduced in 1870s.

Typewriter’s mass adoption came several decades later, where the device was perfected for reliability and portability. Since then, its place in the image of writer’s work has been firmly established.

The biggest advantage of typewriter, as compared to the previous generation of writing technology, is that it is always immaculately presented. However, the clean sheet seems to have an alienating effect, to the point of driving people crazy. There is something inhuman in the relentless rhythm of typewriter churning out one word after another.

The Importance of Being Messy

The advent of computer initially only duplicated what the typewriter can do and just made it more flexible — you can easily maintain the immaculate look of your work no matter how many times you have gone back to change the words. We normally think of this as an advantage , but it also eliminates many important ways we can transfer our thinking into words.

Our thoughts are not cleanly delineated. They are a tangled, messy network of interconnected ideas. Writing is about shaping this tangled mess, or to put it in more accurate terms, about helping this mess to take shape by itself. The messy look of a manuscript therefore is a faithful picture of our mental work. It may be less presentable, but it shows the work, with its many traces; it is a living proof of the work, which is not the end result but the process. In addition, it does have this satisfying effect: the messiness serves as a reminder that I have done work.

Even a typed manuscript seems to convey more work than the printouts from a word processing software. A few years ago in my research I sometimes have to read PhD dissertations published in the 1970s. These are all typed manuscripts and looked very different from what came after: pages with varied fonts and elegant layout. But a typed manuscript seems to beg me to hear the relentless clicking sound, and to feel the excitement and frustration behind these monotonous looking pages.

Converting a sheet of paper to digital bits that can be manipulated by algorithms has many advantages. It is precise; and it is infinitely duplicable. This is why nobody is using a typewriter anymore. However, we seems to swallow all too easily the negative aspects of this progression — most of us are not even remotely aware of the loss, for the simple reason that this may be the only writing tool you’ve ever used.

Tools are not transparent: they allow us to do some things more efficiently, but these things also serve as constrains to our imagination.

Take Photoshop as an example. Tons of filters and plugins allow you to transform the look of images so you can achieve certain effects effortlessly: a well balanced, vivid image with good detail and contrast. But you will grow into relying those effects and forget about what it feels like to explore color, shape, composition in the most primitive manner.

You will end up doing what is easy for the tool, instead of what is interesting artistically speaking.

Writing tools are not exception to this rule.

Writing in the Internet Age

Fast-forward to recent decades and another big change since the invention of typewriter is coming. The rise of Internet finally pushed writers into a self-publishing heaven where you can publish anything you want, censor free, but you are also responsible for everything from content, layout, graphics, typography, navigation, marketing and distribution.

If you regularly write in long form and make them accessible online, you are doing what traditionally a whole team of publishing house’s work: getting the manuscript done, typesetting, illustrating the text, paginating, finding the best distribution channels, advertising, etc.

If you are among the lucky few who still write on your moleskin notepad, the back of used envelopes, and then hand your exceedingly beautiful manuscript over to your publisher, congratulations! I am very jealous of you because you can still focus on writing itself. But honestly that seems to be a luxury for the rest of us!

It is hard to say how this change impacts the work of writers of our generation, as a lot of these changes are still happening. But needless to say, the more you spend time on things other than writing, the less you spend on actually writing.

This article is not about the art of writing, of which I am but a novice. It is about the under-acknowledged fact that our tools for writing have become so complicated for the wrong reasons.

Is Minimalist Writing the Answer?

One idea that has achieved immense popularity in recent years is that of “minimalistic” writing tools. The list of apps that claim to offer a “distract-free” writing experience keeps changing, so I won’t give any name here. But the basic idea is simple: display nothing but the text you are currently typing on, all with beautiful typography.

Is it an improvement for the cluttered tool that we have been using for writing? Yes it is!

The idea behind all these distract-free writing tools is simple: why bother with how we can format the words before we even write them down? Formatting is good, but only after we got some content; it is literally the last step and maybe should be done by somebody else than the writer!

However, is this the best we can do? Can the digital ink do no better than duplicating a blank sheet of paper? Is a blank sheet of paper the ultimate help for aspiring writers!

Augmenting Human Intellect

What should serve as a starting point is mistaken as the destination. Eliminate distractions is a good thing to do, but what about things that can actually help the aspiring writer? Can computer technology actually help the work of writing? Or it is best just to give them a blank sheet of paper and hope for the best?

Several visionaries paved the way of my thinking here. The first of these is Vannevar Bush, an engineer/scientist who wrote the famous “As We May Think” article in 1945 where he described an advanced technological system that can help people like him to do research. Doug Engelbart, known for the invention of computer mouse, carried the torch with his 1962 treatise “Augmenting Human Intellect”. Engelbart didn’t really tackle the problem of writing. But he did describe with lengthy detail about a system that can an architect do his/her work.

Let us consider an augmented architect at work. He sits at a working station that has a visual display screen some three feet on a side; this is his working surface, and is controlled by a computer (his “clerk”) with which he can communicate by means of a small keyboard and various other devices.

He is designing a building. He has already dreamed up several basic layouts and structural forms, and is trying them out on the screen. The surveying data for the layout he is working on now have already been entered, and he has just coaxed the clerk to show him a perspective view of the steep hillside building site with the roadway above, symbolic representations of the various trees that are to remain on the lot, and the service tie points for the different utilities. The view occupies the left two-thirds of the screen. With a “pointer,” he indicates two points of interest, moves his left hand rapidly over the keyboard, and the distance and elevation between the points indicated appear on the right-hand third of the screen.

Now he enters a reference line with his pointer, and the keyboard. Gradually the screen begins to show the work he is doing — a neat excavation appears in the hillside) revises itself slightly, and revises itself again. After a moment, the architect changes the scene on the screen to an overhead plan view of the site, still showing the excavation. A few minutes of study, and he enters on the keyboard a list of items, checking each one as it appears on the screen, to be studied later.

Ignoring the representation on the display, the architect next begins to enter a series of specifications and data — a six-inch slab floor, twelve-inch concrete walls eight feet high within the excavation, and so on. When he has finished, the revised scene appears on the screen. A structure is taking shape. He examines it, adjusts it, pauses long enough to ask for handbook or catalog information from the clerk at various points, and readjusts accordingly. He often recalls from the “clerk” his working lists of specifications and considerations to refer to them, modify them, or add to them. These lists grow into an evermore-detailed, interlinked structure, which represents the maturing thought behind the actual design.

Prescribing different planes here and there, curved surfaces occasionally, and moving the whole structure about five feet, he finally has the rough external form of the building balanced nicely with the setting and he is assured that this form is basically compatible with the materials to be used as well as with the function of the building.

Now he begins to enter detailed information about the interior. Here the capability of the clerk to show him any view he wants to examine (a slice of the interior, or how the structure would look from the roadway above) is important. He enters particular fixture designs, and examines them in a particular room. He checks to make sure that sun glare from the windows will not blind a driver on the roadway, and the “clerk” computes the information that one window will reflect strongly onto the roadway between 6 and 6:30 on midsummer mornings.

Next he begins a functional analysis. He has a list of the people who will occupy this building, and the daily sequences of their activities. The “clerk” allows him to follow each in turn, examining how doors swing, where special lighting might be needed. Finally he has the “clerk” combine all of these sequences of activity to indicate spots where traffic is heavy in the building, or where congestion might occur, and to determine what the severest drain on the utilities is likely to be.

A lot of what is being described is already a reality. Computer tools for business application, such as document collaboration, business communication and project management have experienced one boom after another since the 1980s. However, not so much happened for other domains of work. This is especially true for more creative and solitary works, such as writing.

A Case Study: Scrivener

It might be helpful, at this point, to look at an example, Scrivener, which has made some nice gestures toward being a sophisticated technological writing aid. It is primarily marketed in certain areas such as movie script or novel. But it has been used for many other long form writing. I used the tool a few years ago for doctoral dissertation writing and here are some of my thoughts on how this software actually helped.

For dissertation, or any kind of book-length argumentative writing, the main challenge is to shape your (hopefully) highly original idea (we like to call it argument, as it often is). This idea can be summarized in a few sentences (again, hopefully!) and then expanded, with substantial details and references, to the length of the entire book. Each chapter should contribute to the overall idea in a rigorous, logical and coherent way.

The above description says nothing about the subject matter, your writing style, or any word-level crafts you may or may not have. This is a good thing. Because a tool should be able to help everybody who wants to write a dissertation, regardless of the topic, style. So where is the challenge? The reality is that when you start, or when you are in the middle of research, all the topics and ideas that have come to occupy your mind can be best described as a shapeless mess: some are promising but not entirely convincing; some are vague; some are solid but do not seem to be highly relevant, etc. Writing a dissertation is not really about writing, but rather, about thinking through an issue with the help of writing things down.

Not everyone needs to write a doctoral dissertation, but the process is similar. If you want to write any decent length essay, the challenge is never crafting individual phrases, but rather, organizing small chunks of writings into a flow of ideas.

What Scrivener does is nothing super fancy. It simply gives you a folder like structure where you can organize these small chunks (rtf files). It makes it easy to split one chunk into two, or to merge two chunks into one. It also has the functionality of showing you all the separate chunks together in one continuous document, as if they are paragraphs in this one document — called scrivenings mode. Scrivener also has a lot of other features (such as setting target, tracking) that I find less useful to my case.

Can you start writing your dissertation with Microsoft Word? Yes you can, and I believe there are a lot of people who used nothing else. But the challenge is obvious. You need to carry a lot of intellectual processes in your mind, because as soon as your Word document goes beyond a certain length (20–30 pages) it becomes difficult to understand what is going on.

Towards Visualization in Writing

Caveat: the following is pure speculation, in the line of Engelbart’s “wild” speculation about an architect’s work. It may sound like science fiction, just as Engelbart’s description of a regular CAD software would seem to a 1960s audience.

In my mind, the key to assisting writing is visualization. By this I mean the same thing in today’s data analytics tools. You see numbers, but they are hard to understand. You see graphs, what numbers mean become easier. If you use dynamic and interactive graphs such as the ones used Bret Victor, everything becomes so meaningful.

Apply this concept to writing. I would like to picture each small chunk of writing as a small cell. If you work on this small cell and add more words to it, you are making it bigger. However, one small cell is designed to best contain one important idea. If you have multiple ideas within one small cell, it is best to separate them out. This process is almost like cell fission.

A different process happens when you try to concatenate two cells. To make a smooth connection it is not enough to simply append one after another. You need to make sometimes slight sometimes significant modifications where they contact.

In a large body of cells, different cells form congregations (we shall call them organs) that serve their unique purposes. Consider your writing as a body and one obvious thing is that different organs need to be correctly proportioned. This is something that the writer needs to have a constant grasp before it is too late. One thing I find in my own work is that I would spend too much work on a certain chapter and it would grow out of its designated proportion. This is not merely wasted time; it often produces a devastating effect for my mind, as if a piece of my mind is forever lost.

Also, different ideas not only vary in size; they also have different colors and luminance intensity. This allows me to see their significance in the overall work as well as my own eagerness to work on them.

This is of course a very vague and somewhat confusing description of how to visualize writing process. And it is definitely very far from concrete ways to implementation. But if it can get the brainstorming started, I would be very happy! Let me know your thoughts!

Reading, Writing, Parenting

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