Matthew G. Kirschenbaum

University of Maryland

On Tradecraft and Track Changes (An Update)

Nobody teaches you how to write a book. Yes, in graduate school, you may get “feedback” on your dissertation to a greater or lesser extent from mentors and peers. But that typically has very little do with the process of executing on a marketable book project (and even scholarly monographs have to be marketable, all the more so in the current publishing climate). So writing—making—a book is something most of us figure out on our own, as an assistant professor, on the tenure clock. In my case my first book, Mechanisms, had relatively little in common with my dissertation—really only a single chapter (some of the work on Afternoon if you’re wondering). But even though I had an advance contract for it, I didn’t really know what I was doing. It was very much a process of feeling my way, stepping along from one passage, paragraph, section, and chapter to the next. I often refer to Mechanisms as my “kitchen sink” book, meaning I thought I had to get every interesting thing I ever knew about computers and textuality into it or it would somehow be less than it should have been.

The backend of the project, meanwhile, was a mess. I wasn’t using citation management software. I kept drafts in bloated Word files with titles like “chapt 3 notes and fragments” that I would occasionally pick through to make sure I wasn’t overlooking anything worthwhile. I didn’t use an outliner. I didn’t use Zotero or EverNote. Online sources? PDFs sat in folders alongside of HTML scraped from the Web using my browser’s Save As function. Somehow, though, I found my footing along the way and worked through to completing the text as a manuscript (which subsequently underwent review, revision, and copy-editing). At the last minute I sent frantic emails soliciting permissions for images. Luckily my publisher took care of the index.

Track Changes, the book I started a year ago, is different. Like all of my projects I began with questions, questions that I honestly couldn’t answer for myself. I genuinely wanted to know who was the first author to write a novel with a word processor. (And now I believe that I do.) But I also began with a fairly complete sense of the topic space I wanted to cover, namely the literary history of word processing. I knew there would be a beginning, or a series of beginnings, as I covered the early adopters. I knew the arc of the project would conclude in the present day, with emergence of tools like Scrivener and the dissolution of desktop software into the so-called cloud. I knew there would be interesting stories and personalities along the way, though I didn’t yet know what most of those were or who they would turn out to be. But still: I could see the shape of the whole as a “book,” and I mean that quite literally: I could (and can) visualize it as an object in the world, something that I was only able to do with Mechanisms much later in the process.

Unlike many newly-promoted associate professors, I didn’t immediately begin work on “the next project.” Or to put it more accurately, I didn’t immediately begin work on the next book project. I did do lots of writing though, including this and this and this. And I also helped plan, launch, and run this for two years. By the time I was getting ready to start work on Track Changes in earnest, with the support of a year’s research leave on a fellowship, I felt I had gotten some healthy distance from the experience of writing Mechanisms. I was also, of course, working without the immediate pressure of a tenure committee, and believe me, that makes a huge difference in one’s attitude towards a major writing project. One choice I immediately made was to reach out for a more general audience, and I was happy to sign a contract that would bring the book out on the well-regarded trade list of an excellent university press.

I also knew that I would have to do a different kind of work and a different kind of writing. Whereas Mechanisms was primarily concerned with producing interventions in certain ongoing scholarly conversations, this is a book where I wanted to answer questions and tell some important stories. I knew I would have to talk to people, namely the writers and technologists who were my subjects. I also knew that I would have to do some archival work, and so I began making plans to go places, including the Microsoft campus. I knew I would need to spend time going through trade literature (publications like Writer’s Digest) as well as popular computer journalism (Byte, PC World) and venues like The Paris Review. And finally I knew I wanted there to be a hands-on experiential component to the research, actually acquiring and working on some of the antiquated systems I was going to be writing about. So I planned to expand my collection of vintage computers.

Much of the fall semester was spent laying this groundwork. Then, in December, at the invitation of Doug Reside and Ben Vershbow, I gave a talk at the New York Public Library, based on my first completed chapter on Stephen King and his well-publicized use of a Wang word processor (and yes, he beat all the rest of us to the jokes). There was a New York Times reporter in the audience who published an excellent story based on the talk, which came out on December 25th, Christmas Day (a slow news day, I was fond of reminding people). This immediately and irrevocably changed the character of the project, which was suddenly massively public—not only for the exposure in the Times, but for all of the syndicated papers and the aggregators that picked it up.

The next morning my inbox had over one hundred messages and in the days that followed they kept coming in, especially as other outlets picked up the story, requested interviews, and wrote their own stories. I will say unequivocally that Track Changes is a better, more complete, more accurate, and frankly more fun and interesting book than it ever would have been without this media exposure. People who I never would have had access to otherwise were eager to talk to me because they wanted their story included (and rightly so, in most cases). There was incredible generosity. References, source materials, and introductions all landed in my inbox. I began doing lots of oral history interviews. I also made the decision to commit to EverNote in a serious way, and began the process, after several false starts, of organizing my research materials, using a system of notebooks and tags that made sense to me.

Everything went into EverNote: PDFs, images, Web clippings, stray URLS, notes to myself,  audio files, interview transcripts, email (which EverNote can ingest automatically upon forwarding to a dedicated address)—everything. The great power of the software is, of course, that it is searchable, and so a simple string search on, say, “Asimov” (he has a particularly interesting word processing story) instantly put dozens of entries at my fingertips. I also made sure to keep up with another resource I had begun early on, a spreadsheet documenting information about individual writers and their first computer or word processing systems. For well over one hundred authors I now have data as to when they got their first computer, what it was, and what was the first thing they wrote and published on it (this will go into the book as an appendix). In LibraryThing I created a dedicated tag for trackchanges, allowing me to browse a virtual bookshelf of titles in my collection related to the project, as well as export a catalog (which subsequently went into EverNote). I started to regularly use the #trackchanges tag on Twitter, and also began a Tumblr blog (which I’ve kept up with in fits and spurts—something I wish I could be more diligent about).

All of this, I should emphasize, takes time, and there’s really no one who can show you how to do it—you just sort of have to hack out your own systems and workflows. The result of that investment, though, is a cloud-based cross-platform research infrastructure that keeps me organized and sane. For actual writing I spent some time with Scrivener, badly wanting to adopt it, but eventually reverted to Word, owing (mostly) to Scrivener’s limitations with citation management. By later in the spring, the publicity from the press exposure had slowed down. I had over two dozen oral histories in the bag; I had been to Microsoft; I purchased a 200-lbs. specimen of the first machine IBM ever marketed as a word processor on eBay and moved it into my campus office. My EverNote installation had swelled to nearly a thousand entries.

Track Changes is on track for delivery to my editor in early 2013. I will be giving some talks based on the work in progress at the University of Maryland this fall, as well as the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Ghent (last spring I gave talks at the University of Toronto and Western Ontario, which provided valuable occasions for early feedback, along with the NYPL). My point in writing this up, though, is two-fold. One, because a year ago I asked rather publicly to be left alone for a while—and everyone, colleagues, co-workers, friends near and far has been most accommodating—so I wanted to say something about what I’ve been up to. And second, to encourage others to talk more about their own workflows and systems and tools, the kind of thing we don’t do such a good job of teaching our graduate students or mentoring our younger colleagues about, as though the process of writing was devoid of material tradecraft.

The book I’m writing now is, of course, all about that tradecraft, and its impact on a generation of authors who were there at the transition between typewriters and notebooks and legal pads and the writing machines most of us also now use today. Its been a great ride for the last year. I have some great stories to tell, and I can’t wait to share them with the rest of you.

2 Comments»

  Kirschenbaum talks process and tools – TECHStyle wrote @

[...] as changed, from his dissertation to his first book to his current work. Interesting reflections! On Tradecraft and Track Changes (An Update). Tweet This [...]

[...] Reblogged from Matthew G. Kirschenbaum: [...]


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