Academic Writing Is Getting Better with New Tech

This is getting into the weeds even a little more than usual, but I’m sure some of you will be interested in these developments in academic writing. Everyone hacks together a system for researching, source management, word processing, and the like. None of it seems to work exceedingly well. It looks like we may have hope.

Michael Clarke: 2016 is shaping up to be the year of the authoring system, or “YAS” as future historians will undoubtedly call it. If you are an author that is fed up with writing your papers using ancient tools like Microsoft Word, at wits end wrestling with the genial and sleek but ultimately disappointing Google Docs, or are simply looking to master a new software package, your prayers have been answered. New authoring systems specializing in the workflows of researchers, scholars, and students are proliferating like drones over Silicon Valley. Organizations that have recently released or are developing authoring systems of one flavor or another include Overleaf, Manuscript.app, Dartmouth Journal Services, Authorea, River Valley, PLOS, and the American Psychological Association. Like new organisms exploiting a particular ecological niche in the midst of Cambrian explosion, these systems have different features and different aims. Overleaf was designed for mathematicians and other users of LaTeX. APA Style Central is designed to help students learn to write using APA style. Other systems are designed to export structured XML, thereby reducing (publisher) costs (presumably this savings will filter back to authors in the form of reduced page charges or APCs). Will more authoring systems join the field before the period drops in Times New Roman Square and the YAS reaches its full stop? It is hard to know. But I for one plan to order an extra supply of coffee pods, delete my SnapChat account, ground my fleet of recreational drones, put my Oculus Rift under lock and key, give the puppy an extra bone, hang a “do not disturb” sign on the door, and start writing.

Ask The Chefs: What Do You See On The Horizon For Scholarly Publishing In 2016?

Flowstate Screenshot

Writing in Flow

Yesterday I came across a new writing app called Flowstate. It is a minimalistic word processor with a twist. If you stop typing before the set timer is completed, it erases everything you wrote. It may sound torturous—and perhaps it is. The basic idea is to induce a state of flow by forcing you to concentrate and write from a deeper place without overthinking during the initial writing process.

Several months ago, I read a book by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on the psychological phenomena he calls “flow.” It was thoroughly fascinating. I fondly remember my days of coding when I would get “in the zone” with my work. It seemed as if time ceased to have any meaningful significance. I was absorbed in the work, thoroughly enjoying it. Sometimes after several hours I would snap out of it only to realize how much I accomplished in what seemed to be a few moments. Occasionally, I’ll experience a similar phenomena in writing, but those moments are less frequent than when coding. Any assistance in getting to that state while writing would be warmly welcomed.

Flowstate is billed as the “most dangerous app.” It’s hyperbole, of course, but there’s a grain of truth to it. The software is a writing and note-taking tool, and it’s a super clean, minimal, and beautiful way to jot down your thoughts, especially on mobile.

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Creating a Public

I found Corey Robin’s article “How Intellectuals Create a Public” provocative. It addresses the activity of public intellectuals not merely to reinforce existing ways of thinking, but to compel people to reckon with new ideas. They break current conceptual molds and force you to think about matters in a new way. They do not merely feed the public the ideas and rhetoric they expect; they challenge them. Thus, they create a public.

They turn us into a public.

That’s . . . how public intellectuals work. By virtue of the demands they make upon the reader, they force a reckoning. They summon a public into being — if nothing else a public conjured out of opposition to their writing. Democratic publics are always formed in opposition and conflict: “to form itself,” wrote Dewey, “the public has to break existing political forms.” So are reading publics. Sometimes they are formed in opposition to the targets identified by the writer: Think of the readers of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring or Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Sometimes they are formed in opposition to the writer: Think of the readers of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. Regardless of the fallout, the public intellectual forces a question, establishes a divide, and demands that her readers orient themselves around that divide.

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My (Re-)Writing Process

I’ve been gaining momentum writing my book on Karl Rahner for P&R Publishing’s Great Thinkers series. At this stage, I have been reworking my dissertation for this format. It will be a much shorter work and targeted to a different audience. The bulk of my present labors are in editing—or better yet, rewriting. Apparently, Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast that “the only kind of writing is rewriting.” I haven’t verified the quotation, but I agree with it regardless of who said it first, where, or when.

Text generation is one thing, but in my case good writing is the fruit of many, many rewrites. I work over passages myriad times. I continue to be amazed at how many improvements can still be made on the tenth or even twentieth pass. While it would seem that this would be most conducive to the word process, I find great difficulty in focusing on the screen in this stage. During my dissertation work, I began printing my chapters and editing them by hand with colored Pilot Hi-Tec-C 0.3mm gel tip pens (I’m particular about my writing implements.) I developed a system wherein I would encode my comments, make changes, write new sentences, etc. After working through the printed pages, I would open my word processor and begin making the changes to the electronic copy.

This worked extremely well for me, though the most annoying bit was working backwards. I found that if I made any substantial changes by adding significant amounts of text or rearranging passages, I would quickly lose my place; the updated electronic document became too far out of sync with the printed page. So I resorted to making the changes beginning with the end of the document and moving toward the beginning. While this would work most of the time, rearranging large passages would still sometimes still knock me out of whack. To solve this problem, I began marking insertion points on my document—both paper and electronic forms—with Greek letters. I would then highlight a passage and write a note to “move to alpha” or “move to beta,” etc.

Perhaps this process is inefficient; but it’s effective. And that’s the most important thing with intellectual work. Every writer—every thinker—must find his or her own process. At the end of the day, if something facilitates the formation, translation, and transition of deep and sustained thought from your mind to the page, that is where you must concentrate your energy.

Colossians 1:28–29

Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.

Books

No Uncertain Sound
Lamentations, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah: A 12-Week Study