Archive for Research
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.
Greetings. As described in Jennifer Schuessler’s New York Times story “The Muses of Insert, Delete and Execute,” I am in the midst of researching and writing a book entitled Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing. The book is under contract to Harvard University Press, and should be out in late 2013. You can listen to a talk I recently gave at the New York Public Library based on the first chapter, “Stephen King’s Wang,” here.
The book documents the moment at which large numbers of literary writers began making the transition from typewriters to word processors and personal computers (late 1970s, early 1980s). I want to know who the early adopters were, and how they thought about the new digital technology in relation to their writing practice. I am interested in both “highbrow” and popular authors alike, fiction and non-fiction. I am also following the story through to the present day: many writers now have platforms on social media like blogs, Facebook, and Twitter.
Some of my best information so far has come from word of mouth. That’s where I need your help. I would be very interested in hearing from:
- authors who were early adopters of computing and word prcocessing and/or social media (also authors who made a deliberate decision not to switch to a computer);
- editors, publishers, agents, and others in the business with relevant insights to contribute;
- technologists who worked on early word processing programs;
- anyone with relevant primary source materials to loan, share, or contribute;
- anyone who knows of interesting fictional renditions of computers and word processing (for example, King’s short story “Word Processor of the Gods”).
If you would like to offer information, anecdotes, corrections, or tips about things to look at or persons to contact, please write to me at mkirschenbaum at gmail dot com. Thank you for reading.
My plenary lecture at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute at the University of Victoria, June 2011. The talk, which runs about 50 minutes with questions, attempts to present a framework and rationale for more closely integrating the activities of the digital humanities with the work of those archivists now beginning the formidable task of processing born-digital cultural heritage collections.
I will be on leave with a Guggenheim fellowship from August 2011 to August 2012, working on my new book project. During this period I will be adopting the following policies to protect the research time with which I have been entrusted.
For students and colleagues here at Maryland:
- My commitment to current and former students or employees for whom I am or have been their primary adviser or supervisor continues, and I will be available to them for job-related letters of recommendation, reading work in progress, research consultations, and thesis defenses or exams. I will not, however, be able to take on new students during my fellowship year, neither graduate nor undergraduate. Nor will I be able to write letters of recommendation or offer consultations for students with whom I have not had a previous advising relationship.
- I will be keeping my time on campus to a minimum. Generally Tuesdays will be the best days to make an appointment.
- I will not be available for class visits or for hosting groups or classes at MITH.
- I will not be accepting new committee assignments.
- As of May 2011 I have concluded my term as director of the Digital Cultures and Creativity honors program. Hasan Elahi is the new director. Inquiries may be sent to dcc-honors at umd dot edu.
For the rest of the world:
- I will be keeping new travel and speaking commitments to a minimum. Please feel free to contact me with your invitation—I am always genuinely appreciative—but please understand if I ask you to keep me in mind for the future instead. The same goes for invitations to contribute chapters and essays. I will, of course, be honoring previously arranged commitments.
- I will not be taking on manuscript reviews or reports for presses and journals. (If you truly think I would have exceptional interest in a particular item you can try me.)
- I will not be available to write letters of support for grant applications and the like.
- I will not be taking on external project evaluations.
- I will not be taking on external tenure evaluations.
- I do anticipate teaching at Rare Book School in summer 2012, pending, of course, the needs of the RBS curriculum.
In short, for the next twelve months,
Give me, kind Heaven, a private [work]station,
A mind serene for contemplation!
Thank you in advance for your attention and understanding. (With apologies to John Gay.)
UPDATE: NYT readers, you may wish to have a look at a more recent post in which I’m specifically requesting research assistance on documenting the early history of literary word processing. Thanks.
In its eighty-seventh annual competition for the United States and Canada the Foundation has awarded 180 Fellowships to artists, scientists, and scholars. The successful candidates were chosen from a group of some 3,000 applicants.
Congratulations have been coming in from all over. Thank you once again to everyone who has written. The highlight was receiving a text message from my ten-year old niece who saw my name in the New York Times.
The project I will be working on is entitled “Track Changes: Authorship, Archives, and Literary Culture After Word Processing.” Unlike my first book, Mechanisms (2008), where I was primarily interested in experimental instances of electronic literature, here I will be looking at the impact of digital media throughout all sectors of contemporary literary composition, publishing, reception, and archival preservation. I intend to argue that the full parameters of computers as what electronic publishing pioneer Ted Nelson three decades ago called “literary machines” have not yet been fully delineated, and that as a consequence we conceive of print and the digital as rival or successive forms rather than as elements of a process wherein relations between the two media (at the level of both individual and collective practice) are considerably more dynamic and contingent. Ted Striphas’s work in the already-indispensable The Late Age of Print (2009) probably comes closest to the kind of study I am looking to accomplish, but whereas he focuses primarily on the commerce and commodity status of books in the present day, my interests lie in the material conditions of authorship and today’s technologies of the literary. (The “Track Changes” of my title was first introduced as the “Mark Revisions” feature in Word 95, where it was derivative of the Redline functionality in WordPerfect, then Word’s major industry competitor.) The methodology will be a hybrid of software studies and book history. The writing I do will build on the work I’ve done in the projects I’ve taken on since finishing Mechanisms, including “Approaches to Managing and Collecting Born-Digital Literary Materials for Scholarly Use,” Preserving Virtual Worlds, and Digital Forensics and Born-Digital Content in Cultural Heritage Collections.
I will, of course, use this space to share occasional work in progress and otherwise offer updates on progress. In the meantime, I will be at TILTS at UT Austin at the end of May, the Digital Humanities Summer Institute and Digital Humanities 2011 conference in June, SHARP in DC in July, and then teaching once again at Rare Book School in Charlottesville. The fellowship period begins in August.