Writing: Tools of the Trade

A Facebook conversation started by Tara Rodgers got me thinking about the tools we use as writers.  Obviously, the creative process is highly idiosyncratic and personal at some level even though none of us are as unique as we think we are.  Try everything; select what works.  The proliferation of new tools is exciting but it can also overwhelm, or worse, tempt people to contort their working practices to fit new tools when the old ones worked just as well.

There are tons of alternatives to MS Word now, and of course also lots of alternatives for bibliographic software.  There are also programs like Evernote and Scrivener which academics find incredibly useful.  My time with Scrivener was a disaster.  Part of it was impatience.  I’ve been using Word since sometime in the early 1990s (how long? Before Word, I wrote my BA thesis in the Leading Edge Word Processor, which lacked footnote functionality).  So the idea of trying to write while learning the quirks of a new program would have to lead to a massive payoff for me.  For me, writing is at its most essential a creative and synthetic process.  For me, the goal of writing technology is therefore to get into the “zone” as fast as possible (where I’m thinking about the writing and not the tool) and that means a high level of instrumental comfort with the tools.  The organizational powers of something like Scrivener are not only unnecessary for me, I think they get in the way of my practice as a writer.

That’s not to say Word is without its problems.  I think I mostly manage it by ignoring most of its functions and compartmentalizing the interface as much as possible.  It’s customized for nobody, instead manifesting itself as distended bloatware.  After not bothering to look and discovering that the Audible Past clocked in over 160,000 words right before final submission, I foolishly wrote MP3 as a single file, thinking it would help me keep track of the text’s size.  It didn’t make it any smaller, and Word did not like a 140,000 word file (I eventually got back down around 120,000 words).  Neither did Endnote, my bibliographic software.

A lot of the extant writing advice online seems to advocate more teching up.  In Tara’s conversation, Jentery Sayers offered a link to some “how to” advice from Bill Turkel.  The advice about backup and digitizing as much as possible is absolutely great.  I use Apple’s Time Machine, which isn’t an awesome backup but it’s sufficient.  Every few months I take an extra hard drive, clone the time machine drive, and take it to school.  I also use Dropbox (any cloud service is fine) and pay for extra storage space.  My music collection isn’t up there, but there’s lots of room for pretty much everything I write as well as the large set of “incidental writings” we do as academics ranging from course materials to letters of rec.  Basically, everything that goes in a “Documents” folder goes in Dropbox instead, which is organized inside as a “documents” folder would be–by type of project/task and by date.

Audible Past was a file cabinet full of stuff I had to reorganize on my floor, over and over again.  In grad school I had nightmares about house fires from time to time, and a friend even gave me a metal lockbox with a copy of his dissertation field notes.  MP3 was a few folders, plus a labyrinth of digital files, many of which were searchable.  I still printed things out to mark them up (like the oral historical interviews) but the physical copies were incidental to the process.  The archival copy is digital, and backed up in multiple ways.

That said, I’m not convinced like Turkel is that everyone and her sister needs to know how to program to do research.  A lot of what we do isn’t about making things but rather interpreting, synthesizing, and representing.  Programming can help with that but it is not the only or necessarily the best path for everyone.  It certainly won’t make your writing better, easier to read or more interesting, though it may lead you down different research paths.  It’s like making original music.  Some musicians are great and distinguished by their customized tools.  Others are amazing with off-the shelf technology.

The other thing that struck me about Turkel’s page is his suggestion to write in the smallest increments possible.  As is clear from the above, I prefer to write in the largest increments possible.  My best thinking and revising happens when I have several thousand words together in hand and can begin to actually behold the relations that are only latent in early drafts.  I also spend a lot of time talking with people about my work and trying out ideas in public presentations before publishing (again the opposite of his approach).  I would never dream of doing a book in secret because I can’t imagine what advantage it would give me as a thinker or a writer.  Again, different strokes for different folks, but don’t assume your working practice needs to fit a tool your are handed or told to like.

Bibliographic software has been another challenge.   None of it is that great, but to me it’s so much better than nothing (Carrie still types her bibs manually, so that does date us).  I tried to love Zotero because of its politics but it has several problems: 1) you can’t edit output styles very easily, a must for someone in my position where every publication I submit to seems to have its own idiosyncratic bibliographic style; 2) the web functionality is great except pretty much every book that gets sucked in from Worldcat or whatever has its information in wrong–semicolons where they don’t belong, translators in the author field, etc.  It takes me less time to type a new entry than to correct one I’ve gotten off the web; 3) tech support is quite limited in my experience; and 4) I HATE the social networking function.   I don’t want a public bibliography.  I want to quietly go about my business as a scholar and not have to worry about maintaining or sharing or managing yet another persona online.

Endnote, meanwhile, is ugly, clumsy and performs poorly on very large documents (and frequently seizes up in cite while you write, which I have turned off).  BUT Endnote has the following things going for it from my perspective: 1) same (low) quality of importing as Zotero; 2) easy to edit output styles; 3) quite decent phone technical support for when I’m customizing; 4) lots of web functionality if I want it, which I don’t.  Also I’ve used it for awhile so I have a big bibliography in there and lots of hours logged with its quirky workflow.

As with music or cooking, too much attention to the tools at the wrong time can take you away from the task at hand.  Even if it’s imperfect, settling on something that works for you (and that you don’t have to attend to much) for the duration of a project–or many projects–is better than switching frequently, especially mid-project.  There’s this thing in the digital humanities where people come across tools and say “look, you can _______.”  That’s like the logic of consumer electronics, with each new gadget trumpeting “new, enhanced functionality.”  Sure, you can.  But the question is what you actually do.  (And that is a subject for another post entirely.)

PS — Tara posted some other great links in the thread.  Miriam Posner’s “Managing Research Assets” has lots of suggestions and this HASTAC thread is also a good read.

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