Creative writing, technically

A number of recent conversations, combined with topics-of-interest in both ECE2524 and VTCLI, followed by a chance encounter with an unfamiliar (to me) blogger’s post have all led me to believe I should write a bit about interface design and various tools available to aid in writing workflow.No matter our field, I’m willing to bet we all do some writing. Our writing workflow has undergon some changes since transitioning to the digital era, most notably for my interests is this quote from the aforementioned blog post:

…prior to the computerized era, writers produced a series complete drafts on the way to publications, complete with erasures, annotations, and so on. These are archival gold, since they illuminate the creative process in a way that often reveals the hidden stories behind the books we care about.

The author then introduces a set of scripts a colleague wrote as the response to a question on how to integrate version control into his writing process. The scripts are essentially a wrapper around git, a popular version control system used by software developers and originally designed to meet the needs of a massively distributed collaborative projects, namely the Linux kernel.

What’s really great about this (aside from the clear awesomeness of a sci-fi author collaborating with a techie blogger/podcaster to create a tool that is useful and usable by writers using tools that that are useful and usable by software developers) is that it brings into clear focus some thoughts I wanted to get out last semester about the benefits of writing in a plain text format.

This gets back to one of the recent conversations that also ties into all of this: I was talking to a friend of mine, another grad student in a STEM field, and we were discussing the unfortunate prevalence of the use of MS Word for scientific papers. I don’t want to get into a long discussion of the demerits of MS Word in general, but suffice it to say, if you are interested in producing a professional quality paper, and enjoy the experience of shooting yourself in both foot followed by running a marathon, then by all means, use MS Word. There are also a number of excuses of questionable validity that people use to defend their MS Word usage in scientific writing. The ones that are often brought up often involve the need to collaborate with other authors who are also using MS Word.

Now run that marathon backwards while juggling flaming torches.

I should point out I don’t want to just pick on MS Word here, the same goes for Apple’s Pages or any large software package that tries to be the solution to all your writing needs. I will hence forth refer to this problematic piece of software generically as a “Word Processor”, capitalized to reinforce the idea that I am indeed referring to a number of specific widely used tools.

The conversation led to user interfaces, and the alleged intuitiveness of a modern Word Processor, compared to simple, yet powerful text editor such as emacs or vim. Out of that, my friend discovered a post on a neuroscience blog about user friendly user interfaces that did a nice job putting into writing thoughts that I had been trying to verbalize during our discussion. Namely that the supposed intuitiveness of a Word Processor to “new” users is largely a factor of familiarity rather than any innate intuitiveness to the interface. Once your learn what the symbols mean and where the numerous menu items are that you need to access then it all seems just dandy. Until they go and change the interface on you.

I could and probably should write an entire post on ALL the benefits of adopting a plain-text workflow, and the benefits of using one text editor that you know well for all your writing needs, from scientific papers, to blog, presentations and emails (how many people ever stop to think why it is acceptable and normal to have to learn a new user interface for each different writing task, even though fundamentally the actual work is all the same?). The key benefit I want to highlight here is the one that made it possible for the collaborative effort I mentioned towards the top to take place. By writing in a plain text format, you immediately have the ability to use the enormous wealth of tools that have been developed throughout the history of computing that work with plain text. If our earlier mentioned hero had been doing his writing in a Word Processor, it would have been nearly impossible for his friend to piece together a tool for him that allows him to regain something that was lost with the transition away from a paper workflow, a tool that can “illuminate the creative process in a way that often reveals the hidden stories”, and in many ways goes beyond what was possible or convenient with the paper workflow.

What tools do you use to track your writing process? Do they allow you to go back to any earlier revision, or allow you to easily discover what recent blog’s you had read, what your mood and what the weather was when you wrote a particular passage? Do you use a tool with an interface that is a constant distraction, or one that is hardly noticeable and lets you focus on what actually matters: the words on the page. If not, then why?