Fetishizing the Text

by Kieran Healy on April 27, 2005

A post over at the Valve asks, inter alia, “Do you compose on the computer? Why or why not? … Do you have a stationary and/or a pen fetish?” Scott McLemee at Inside Higher Ed chimes in with a column about his own writing habits:

The reading notes, the rough outline, the first draft or two … all will be written there, in longhand. … My friends and colleagues are occasionally nonplussed to learn that someone trying to make a living as a writer actually spends the better part of his workday with pen in hand. … In my own experience, though, writing is … a matter of laboriously unknotting the thread of any given idea. And the only way to do that is by hand. … So the penchant for haunting stationary stores (and otherwise indulging a fetish for writing supplies) has the endorsement of distinguished authorities. But my efficiency-cramping distaste for the computer keyboard is somewhat more difficult to rationalize.

The implication is that, unlike the printed page and the ink-filled pen (or mechanical pencil), composing prose on a computer is different—perhaps efficiency-enhancing but somehow also inferior—and, more importantly, not subject to fetishization in the way that the pen-and-ink method is. But a moment’s reflection shows this to be wrong. Or, in my case, far too much time spent getting manuscripts (scholarly apparatus, tables, figures, indexes and all) to produce themselves automatically and beautifully shows this to be wrong.

You can fetishize the computer as a writing instrument in two ways. The first springs from the efficiency impulse, as we might expect. The idea is that a lot of the tedium of composition can be automated, which leads one to spend far too much time figuring out ways to enhance your productivity, installing software to that end, upgrading it, resolving conflicts with other, very nearly compatible productivity-enhancing applications and so pleasanty whiling away the afternoon or week. In a clearer frame of mind I’ve pointed out that

You can do productive, maintainable and reproducible work with all kinds of different software set-ups. … There are many ways of implementing these principles. You could use Microsoft Word, Endnote and SPSS. Or Textpad and Stata. Or a pile of legal pads, a calculator, a pair of scissors and a box of file folders. It’s the principles that matter.

But the reverse is also true: any compositional medium is subject to fetishism. A fixation on being well-organized is not confined to computer users. The pen-and-paper method has had plenty of time to refine its objects of desire. Moleskine notebooks, hanging file folders with accordion pockets, Avery tabs, Post-its of just the right size and any number of other office products are the tangible manifestation of the mirage scientific self-management in the pen-and-paper world.

Efficiency aside, though, you might think that when it comes to sheer loveliness and aesthetic appeal, computers have nothing to compare to Mont Blanc pens and heavy cream paper and mahogany bureaus. The computer, in comparison, seems to bring only alienation from one’s own hand. Scott McLemee cites Roland Barthes in support of this idea:

“First comes the moment when desire is invested in a graphic impulse,” said Barthes. It was a phase of copying down “certain passages, moments, even words which have the power to move me,” and of working out “the rhythm of a sentence” that gives shape to his own ideas. Only much later can the text be “prepared for the anonymous and collective consumption of others through transformation of into a typographical object” – a moment, according to Barthes, when the writing “is already beginning its commercialization.”

But this, too, is a mistake. The other way that the computer-as-writing-instrument can be fetishized is in its role as producer of the printed page. People who love pens and paper also tend to love beautiful books and well-designed type. But over at the Valve they are all English professors or Comp Lit grad students or what have you, so they use Microsoft Word for everything. Now, Word does have some virtues (Daniel will show up in the comments momentarily to enumerate them), but at bottom its main role is to produce ugly-looking text in a stupid and inefficient way. No wonder the literati abhor the clockwork muse, with the schlock they have to work with. They are unaware of the fact that computers can typeset text properly, and for cheap. Once you find this out—and see your own work treated by typesetting software with the immense respect it of course deserves—the door opens to a world of time-wasting fun that is at least as rewarding as hanging around in stationery and pen shops.

For instance, take this snippet from the first few pages [pdf] of my book, which I’m currently revising for publication. It’s just a draft, but I think that’s some pretty tasty typesetting and design, despite being the work of a complete amateur. (The layout, I mean: I do know something about the content.) At one level, taking the trouble to typeset your drafts like this is kind of a waste of time, in the same way as investing in an expensive pen rather than a biro is kind of a waste of money. You could get the job done more directly. But it wouldn’t look as good. Moreover, the scholarly apparatus you see in that snippet—such as the formatted references in the footnotes—basically generates itself. These features count for a lot when you’re working on something for a long time: they make you more willing both to keep looking at the damn thing, and more likely to make revisions to it. That’s a good thing if you ever want to get it finished.

The fancy pens and fine paper serve the same function, in the end. You like to use them, so you get in the habit. Some people don’t need these crutches. Give them a scrap of waste paper and a stubby HB pencil, or a twenty-year-old IBM PC Jr and WordStar, and they’re off and writing. Their existence proves that one doesn’t really need the Montblanc Meisterstuck Solitaie Doue (in your case) or the latest version of AUCTeX (in mine). We can all be jealous of those people and secretly hope that they desperately need something quite harmful instead, like gin. But us mere mortals all face the same empty page, whether it’s on a sheet of paper or a screen. Technological distinctions between us are invidious. It’s the added dimension the tools bring to writing, in whatever form, that help us produce anything at all.

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LaTeX: the pain, the pleasure | Airminded
11.17.05 at 11:43 am



Stu 04.27.05 at 12:41 am

I think you skipped over the point entirely. I’m a writer, of sorts, and I prefer to use pen and paper because it takes longer to write individual words. I think that’s what your quote was referring to. You have to labor a little bit longer just to get the thought in your head down on paper than on the computer screen, so you’re running through it a bit longer, rather than just spitting out the words that come to you. Now, when you’re inspired, a computer is a beautiful thing, because you can write quickly and the words just flow. But there’s something to be said for sitting down and ekeing it out longhand that really helps mediocre writing get better. Possibly.

I love computers, but my cheap Cost-Co pens and the reporters notebooks I stole from the school newspaper as my last act as Editor…those are my true writing tools. The computer is just so other people don’t have to try to figure out my awful handwriting.


john b 04.27.05 at 1:11 am

I prefer stationary shops to moving ones. Although if the moving ones were like the moving ones in Discworld, that might be cool (also, don’t academic magazines have proofreaders?)

Word is a fine tool for composing: it has more powerful outlining and document structuring tools than any text editor I’ve used or am aware of. The linked article is written about some kind of straw-word-processor…


john b 04.27.05 at 1:12 am

(also, while your PDF does indeed look mighty fine, it could be replicated unproblematically in Word. I’d do it myself if I had Joanna installed on this PC…)


Doug 04.27.05 at 2:03 am

If it’s a keyboard, I can write with it. On the other hand, I appear to need about half a dozen blog comments to get the writing gears in motion. Is that as harmful as gin?


Barry Freed 04.27.05 at 2:51 am



Ohhh, p3n and p4p3r. BFD

how 1337 4 teh ID10T


IMAO: SM 8==> or FOAD

Current Mood: 9_9, _I_


Maynard Handley 04.27.05 at 2:52 am

Am I the only one who finds this debate (and the fact that it is still active what, 25 years after 1980) absolutely bizarre.

I write computer programs using the editor of my choice. I then (sometimes) revise the code in the same editor. And sometimes I print out and revise on paper.
When I write/think physics, I (sometimes) write it in TeX and I (sometimes) scrawl it out over paper.

Computers have the great advantage of malleability and, for some of us, the result is more legible. Paper has the great advantage of allowing ad hoc annotations/diagrams/arrows and improvised notation, and one can (if necessary, and sometime it is) spread lots of pages over the floor and take in a much larger view of the problem.

For gods sake — no-one is proposing banning either medium, and I expect all normal people use both as appropriate. So what keeps this issue alive?


Andrew Brown 04.27.05 at 3:19 am

What keeps the issue alive? Procrastination. I do find that the look of handwriting on a page seems to remind me of more of the thoughts I had when I wrote it down than the apearance of typed words on screen. So there is one good reason for making notes in longhand.


des von bladet 04.27.05 at 3:25 am

The pen thing, among literati, is Just Another Authenticity Fetish.

At the moment, my work-flow as an OU student starts with two (2) drafts in pen (the cheapest plastic Sheaffer fountain pen there is), then typing up in Emacs and setting in LaTeX.

But Kieran, if your reading, do you have a BibTeX package that could reasonably be said not to suck donkey cock in Hell?

Trying to cite newspapers, or trying to include dates for two (2) editions (the original American and the UK edition at hand, say) or that something was translated, or pretty much anything else that isn’t citing a journal paper appears to blow the tiny proxied minds of the perpetrators.

I was reduced to hand-hacking the .bbl file, which I can of course do because I am so vair vair l33t, but really.


bad Jim 04.27.05 at 4:16 am

Edsger Dijkstra penned an article, “On the Cruelty of Really Teaching Computing Science”, in the Communications of the ACM, December 1989, in which he advocated teaching programming as primarily a mathematical pencil-and-paper exercise, to which violent exception was taken, as one might expect from the readers of such a publication.

The brief biographical note mentioned that Dijkstra disdained the use of a word processor, preferring his collection of fountain pens, for which he ground his own ink.

One letter to the editor began “I, Joe Sixpack, take word-processor in hand…” (in homage to Art Hoppe, certainly).

(Dijkstra was already notorious for his earlier article “GOTO considered harmful”, not least for his inadvertent disparagement of a fairly common Japanese surname.)


nick 04.27.05 at 4:20 am

over at the Valve they are all English professors or Comp Lit grad students or what have you, so they use Microsoft Word for everything.

As an EngLiterati, I resemble that remark, sir! As I mentioned in that earlier thread, I abandoned Word for LaTeX and persuaded others of my kind to do the same. Those ‘powerful outlining and document structuring tools’ in Word come back to bite you on the arse at submission time. Once bitten, twice shy.

[Des Von B: Jens Berger’s wonderful jurabib package is highly recommended for more complex citations: I provided Jens with a wee fascicle (PDF) to show what could be done.]

That said, I think Kieran glosses over many real problems of composing long works to computer — and by long I mean anything longer than a scholarly article:

1. You lose context and/or focus. You’re surrounded by a few paragraphs, whereas writing in a notebook or on sheets of paper gives you a fuller sense of what’s been written and what needs to be written. It’s far too easy to repeat yourself.

2. You micro-edit. The corollary to 1. You’ll tweak sentences, or shift paragraphs around in a limited area, because it’s easy; but you’re less likely to see faults that need radical alterations.

3. You lose your deletions unless you employ a revision control system, and even then, it’s not as fine-grained, because some hand-scribbled deletions are more final than others.

4. Typing imposes a different mental flow from writing. It varies depending upon whether you’re a trained typist or a hunt-and-peck one, but you still appreciate it.

5. The on-screen, fontified, typeset word has a different status to words in your own handwriting. They’re more finished, because for better or worse we associate them with books, magazines and other published works. On the one hand, it makes it easier to gauge if they’re up to snuff, but that’s can work against you when you’re drafting.

Ted Hughes once wrote about editing an annual children’s story contest, where the entries got longer and more diffuse over time: the kiddiwinks were writing to the screen rather than on the page. He wondered whether the blank page and pencil recall the earliest memories of wrestling with words.

I do much of my writing straight to screen these days, but when I get stuck, or need inspiration, I go for the pen. (Or rather, a pen. I do fetishise fountain pens: current fave is the oversize 1930s Sheaffer Balance, contending with the Pelikan M650. Mont Blanc? Pshaw.)

When I edit, it’s from printed pages, and again, in pen. And I should really get a font made from my handwriting for first drafts; use a typewriter font for second drafts; and only then deploy the 12-point Caslon.

By the way, Mac users may find a program named ‘Ulysses’ worth a look. It offers a stripped-down full-screen mode that’s the most satisfying way to compose to screen I’ve yet to find. Outputs to LaTeX or RTF, too.


Simstim 04.27.05 at 4:39 am

In the department that I currently work in, the possibility was discussed briefly that we require the students to submit their coursework *handwritten*. Two advantages were put forward for this, it eliminates the copy’n’paste element of plagiarism and it also gives them some practice in handwriting ready for essay writing in exams (it being felt that the incidence of illegible exam scripts had increased).


des von bladet 04.27.05 at 4:42 am

Nick: Sold! Thanks!


bad Jim 04.27.05 at 4:42 am

Programmers do fetishize their text editors, and how could they otherwise? With what or whom else could they be so intimate? Such editors are, of course, infinitely programmable themselves. I used to ask myself, should I do this in the editor (that is, compose a macro, C-like in recent manifestations, but originally an approximation to TECO) or write a standalone tool? (Both, usually.)

For all that, I too have many fine fountain pens, odd bottles of ink (I love the encre Café des Isles, but it isn’t waterproof – Levenger makes excellent ink) but I actually use mechanical pencils. The love of my life is clear plastic, with a soft rubber grip and a yellow eraser, made by Kokuyo in Japan, it seems. (I found it at Sterling Art in Irvine.) But in a stationery store in Madrid, buying a box in which to ship books home, I found a more proper Stabilo pencil, completely black, to whose allure I succumbed.

Apart from the color, they were identical. Same extrusions, same soft rubber grip, same pocket clip. Best pencil in the world (second would be the Sanford Logo 3).


sharon 04.27.05 at 6:19 am

I type first, almost always. That hardly prevents printing out for editing afterwards… (in fact there’s a vast pile of paper across the room from me that testifies to this). It occurred to me that perhaps being a trained typist does make a difference. It’s physically easier and much faster for me to type than to hand write. I can get down a few more of the thoughts that are spilling out before they vanish into my addled brain pit again. Writing for any length of time gives me cramp and makes that writer’s knobble on my middle finger really sore, to remind me of all the years when I did write reams of stuff by hand. Painfully. Bugger that for a game of soldiers.


Iron Lungfish 04.27.05 at 6:52 am

I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t write in pen or pencil, only on computer. I can jot down (fairly nonlinear) notes in a spiral notebook, which I have to commit to Word or a Gmail draft as quickly as possible, but to actually write out a complete draft on paper is pretty much unbearable for me now.

This is clearly a fetishization of the computer. I appreciate the fluidity, the ability to change the text without messily erasing or scratching things out, and the lack of having to deal with thick, clumsy pens and the scrape of paper, which I’ve come to loathe as base matter.


John Quiggin 04.27.05 at 7:36 am

I only write to sign my name. If I need to use a pen and paper in other circumstances, I revert to the crude but serviceable printing I learned at age 5.

I think of it like this. C-A-T. First draw a picture of the C, then a picture of the A, then picture of the T. Put them all together, and you have CAT.


Kieran Healy 04.27.05 at 8:14 am

_For gods sake—- no-one is proposing banning either medium, and I expect all normal people use both as appropriate. So what keeps this issue alive?_

Um, yeah … I think that was my point. See the concluding sentences about technological distintions being invidious.


CKR 04.27.05 at 8:45 am

I find that I am much bolder about revising when I compose, and, more important, revise on the computer. It’s easier to haul paragraphs and sentences around, or to space the whole draft down and start from (almost) scratch, pulling mere ideas from the old and deleting as I use the old draft up.

On preserving deletions, when I am working on something lengthy, I just copy the file for the next revisions if I think I may have second thoughts later.

I carry a notebook, usually associated with something memorable like a trip to Paris or a scientific conference. I also have a diary with a lovely tooled leather cover.

I have my serious preference as to Zebra rollerball pens, which I buy by the boxful and constantly worry will go off the market so I will have to find another. But I haven’t used a fountain pen in years. Do you think the fountain pen is more desired by men?


cleek 04.27.05 at 8:52 am

the only time i write these days is when filling out checks to pay the bills (odd, since i work for the company that pioneered electronic bill payment in the US). and even then, my writing is barely legible.

my signature is barely more than two squiggly lines – some electronic signature pads refuse to accept it, since it looks “too linear”. and today i was signing a credit card receipt and the cashier asked “is that your signature?” i affirmed. he asked me to print my name underneath the signature, “just in case”.

i’m nearly completely a keyboard person.

why aren’t there a wide variety of keyboards to choose from? seems like there would be a nice market for keyboards with not just different colors, but with different key actions, size, sound, etc..


Russell Arben Fox 04.27.05 at 9:07 am

I have no idea if it’s a fetish, or laziness, or some combination thereof, but I never do any serious, scholarly writing if I can’t do it on WordPerfect. I just don’t. Someday Microsoft or someone else will crush the remaining, flickering life out of Corel, and then I’ll be rendered mute.


Ted K 04.27.05 at 9:36 am

As someone who regularly struggles with writers blocks (often a sign that something is wrong with the argument – but what?) I find that writing by hand, and certainly brainstorming by hand, is very unlike writing into the computer.

My fetish is for Pilot rollerball pens and lots and lots of yellow pads; for me what matters is that the mechanical movements of writing are just enough different that it helps me write – just as the trick of dictating to yourself can help get through a tricky paragraph.


Keith 04.27.05 at 9:37 am

I’ve found recently that if I have a handwritten rough draft I do a lot less rewriting on the screen. The ideas are worked out enough on paper before hand that i can adapt as I type and so it actually ends up being more effcient to have a longand draft before I sit down to type. Weird, huh?


kevin 04.27.05 at 10:16 am

I have liteally been typing almost everything I do since about the 5th grade. Since that point in school, all of my papers have been typed, and any notes that didn’t include mathematics got typed into a word or some such as quick as possible. To this day, I prefer to take notes on a computer.

Part of that stems form the fact that my hadnwriting has always been bad. Its so bad that I even have a hard time reading it myself, at this point. It took me forever to do a written test, simply becasue I had to slow waaaaaaaay down to make my handwriting legible. It literally takes me three or four times as long to write a piece on paper as it does on a computer.

I wonder how many other people my age and younger had their school requirements push them away from pen and paper?


des von bladet 04.27.05 at 10:29 am

I wonder how many other people my age and younger had their school requirements push them away from pen and paper?

Since you do not mention your age, you have thrust rhetoricity on your own question.

Personally, I use much pen because:

a) There isn’t always a computer at hand, but there is always a notebook in my back pocket
b) I work in maths (“math”) and computers are totally the suck for equations
c) I also write in Foreign, which can be a pain on computers. (Not as much as it once was, granted.)
d) I am so very old (34): I did all the coursework (but not the dissertation) for my MSc with a pen in 1994/5.


David Salmanson 04.27.05 at 10:34 am

I am so with you. Handwritten assignments were often returned as illegible. Neat copies were missing letters or sometimes whole words as I focussed on legibility rather than ideas. I compose almost exclusively on the computer and edit by hand. I don’t have a hard time with the repition thing that some folks pointed out, but my chapter outlines (by hand) and evidentiary organization (mix of by hand and computer depending on whether notes were on laptop or photocopies) pretty much ensured that I knew where I was going. If I want my editing to be productive, I have to do it by hand on my own work. I have tried having students submit text in Word and then using the comment function to make comments. I don’t like this as much as my numbered notations that refer to typed textual comments with summary at end.


LogicGuru 04.27.05 at 11:10 am

I compose on the computer. I read articles and, when available, books on the computer–left half of the screen for the pdf file I’m reading, which I can highlight, bookmark and mark with notes, right side for taking notes. I haven’t looked at a hard-copy journal in about 4 years. I can sit here with 20 journal articles open, reading notes with links, rough draft of a paper, dictionary (dictionary.com), and encyclopedia of philosophy (Stanford), bibliographies (with links), all instantly retrievable and searchable–functionally equivalent to the piles of books and papers, index cards, scissors, stapler and scotch tape I used when writing my dissertation. Whether I’m doing research or preparing a lecture I can get anything I want from the internet instantly.

How could it get any better?

The only thing I can’t do on the computer effectively is compose problems for logic tests. Somewhere there has got to be software that generates natural deduction derivations, classifies them by degree of difficulty so I’m not tied up doing it myself and trying to figure out how subjectively hard they seem to students.


kevin 04.27.05 at 11:22 am

“Since you do not mention your age, you have thrust rhetoricity on your own question.”

oops. 32, for the record.


RSA 04.27.05 at 11:24 am

I’ve always thought that it’s odd we’ve moved backward in personal computing regarding versioning. I used to work in an operating system called VMS (from DEC, RIP), which created a new version of a file *every time you saved it.* As I recall, Unix systems can be set up to do the same thing, at least on a per-application basis. Back in the old days, it was reasonable to think, “How wasteful! You’d run out of disk space in a few days!” But nowadays, the 100 backup versions of a paper I write would take up only a tiny corner of my 80GB hard drive. Wouldn’t it be useful to have a high-level versioning system in the background so that old files could be examined? (Journaling hard disk changes is too low-level, and I’ve found the recovery mechanisms in various word processors extremely unreliable.) I expect someone will probably tell me, “Why don’t you just put X on your system, you idiot?” which advice I would definitely take.


R.Porrofatto 04.27.05 at 11:39 am

Pen, pencil, computer, typewriter, whatever works for you. Rationalizing one’s personal writing preferences as better, practically, scientifically or aesthetically, is nonsense. The finished product is paramount, and no amount of ink-grinding will make a jot of difference to the reader. Speaking of which, the most effective writing tool I can think of is a well-honed set of critical reading skills.


Andrew C. 04.27.05 at 11:52 am

Cleek – I wholeheartedly agree that the world needs more keyboard variety. Personally I’d like something with the tactile feedback of the old IBM PC keyboards, but without the annoying click.

Also, the mouse/trackpad sucks as an input method unless you aren’t typing text at all. The constant movement of the hand from keyboard to mouse is a disruption of the natural flow of thought. My one gripe about OS X is that it doesn’t leverage the keyboard enough. For example, when a window pops up with multiple buttons to select from it ought to be possible to navigate between buttons with the arrow keys instead of having to find the cursor wherever you left it (in my case usually off to the side of the screen), move to the button you want, and click. Not only does it require moving your hand off the keyboard, but it also requires a mental shift from the natural flow of what you are doing, since you have to visually acquire the little arrow dealy bopper. Not a huge deal, but a break in flow nonetheless.

In most situations other than drafting or drawing there are a modest number of active screen areas (i.e. spots where a mouse click will initiate some action) it seems to me that it ought to be fairly straightforward to set up the OS so that you can navigate between them with the arrow keys, and select with the return key. You’d need an escape key to switch from navigating the text area to navigating buttons and menus, but that ought to be no big deal. Also, get rid of Caps Lock, and replace it with an escape sequence (-shift would make sense). And give everyone a pony.


jkh 04.27.05 at 1:09 pm

i have a pen fetish and think my handwriting rocks, so i love seeing my own penmanship on a college-ruled piece of notebook paper… but i’ll be hanged, esp. when writing stuff for grad school, if i’m going to write something down on paper and then do it all over again typing it on the computer. what a waste of precious time. well, mainly because my typing sucks and i can’t type more than 20 words minute…


ben wolfson 04.27.05 at 1:19 pm

(Dijkstra was already notorious for his earlier article “GOTO considered harmful”, not least for his inadvertent disparagement of a fairly common Japanese surname.)

Dijkstra didn’t give his letter (not article) that title; an editor did.


slolernr 04.27.05 at 2:16 pm

You know, I love me some LaTeX. But it cannot, jurabib notwithstanding Nick, produce proper Chicago Manual citations. So those of us who want commas inside quotation marks and so forth are up a crick. LaTeX is elegant, cheap, and anti-American. I’m well aware that to many of you this will sound like a set of virtues….


ben wolfson 04.27.05 at 3:08 pm

Those of you who want commas inside quotation marks should be shot, no foolin’.


Suresh 04.27.05 at 3:12 pm

what i was impressed by were the fonts. How, how how can one get any reasonable fonts to work with latex ? and I don’t mean metafont stuff: I mean the real deal: type1 or truetype even.
I’m tired of times and computer modern, but for the life of me I can’t even get trebuchet (for slides) working


slolernr 04.27.05 at 3:26 pm

“shot”? Wolfson, why do you hate America?


nick 04.27.05 at 4:00 pm

Have you tried the ‘chicago’ style and BibTeX package, slolernr? (And try this or this for your slides…)

How, how how can one get any reasonable fonts to work with latex ?

Kieran mentioned it briefly in the earlier thread. It’s not plug-and-play, but it’s certainly not horrifically difficult if you follow the instructions, since it’s a case of running a few commands, then putting the right files in the right directories . And once set up, LaTeX makes it easier to use expert font sets (proper small caps, swashes etc).

It’s certainly no more difficult than using the kind of DTP software you’d need for proper font control otherwise. Now, Apple’s Pages looks like it has some kind of LaTeX engine, but it’s currently rubbish with long documents.


slolernr 04.27.05 at 4:01 pm

It’s my recollection — I tried all this back in the fall of last year — that the ‘chicago’ style only does Chicago B, i.e., parenthetical notation and not footnotes. Jurabib used to support a variant of Chicago-style footnotes but now apparently does not.


arthur 04.27.05 at 4:03 pm

There are more ways to produce text than writing or typing. In my law firm, several of the older hands fetisihze the dictaphone, claiming that the spoken word is the only way to properly compose one’s thoughts without the distractions of physical action. One legend, recently retired, considered the dictaphone the devil’s tool, and stuck with dicatiton to a living shorthand transcriber.


bza 04.27.05 at 4:03 pm

Kieran, that’s Jenson, right? You might want to consider springing for the optical sizes, since the chapter heads look heavy, in a way that kind of ruins the Renaissance effect of the font. (I realize this is a ms., so it probably doesn’t matter, but this discussion seems to be predicated on the assumption that we care about that which we need not care about.)

You know, I love me some LaTeX. But it cannot, jurabib notwithstanding Nick, produce proper Chicago Manual citations.

I’m with you, here. It should be noted that, an old and unsupported version notwithstanding, Jurabib doesn’t actually try to implement CMS style (I know, because I’m supposed to write the specs for that implementation, and I haven’t done so yet). But even then, it will only be capable of satisfying a subset of CMS rules–and this will be because of limitations inherent in BibTeX itself. It’s pretty clear that Patashnik wasn’t very familiar with what bibliographic information looked like for non-technical sources.

I used to think that was a shame, but I’ve be sceptical that the program could be fixed. Even within one citations style such as CMS, humantistic sources requires so many different forms of citations that you’d a couple of dozen variations on the \cite command to accomodate them all (the present variety of \cite commands in natbib and jurabib is bush-league in comparison–I once figured out that the ideal case would require about thirty different commands). Input efficiency plummets under those conditions. (And, probably even more problematically, .bib files would require dozens more fields than they currently have, and the time spent preparing proper .bib entries would outstrip any time saved though automatic generation of citations.)

Better not to try to make everything automatic. The ideal solution would rather do simple citations automatically but allow manual adjustment or even entirely manual entry for more esoteric citations. This would need to be a mechanism that worked in the editor, though, instead of being part of the LaTeX run.


Kieran Healy 04.27.05 at 4:04 pm

How, how how can one get any reasonable fonts to work with latex ?

Do you have a Mac? If so, you want “XeTeX”:http://scripts.sil.org/cms/scripts/page.php?site_id=nrsi&item_id=xetex in conjunction with Will Robertson’s brillian “fontspec”:http://www.mecheng.adelaide.edu.au/~will/tex/ package. Presto, transparent access to all the TrueType and OpenType fonts in your Library! This is what I used.

If you don’t have a Mac, you have to go the long way around and digest this “very clear guide”:http://www.ctan.org/tex-archive/info/Type1fonts/fontinstallationguide/fontinstallationguide.pdf to using Type 1 fonts with Latex. I used to use this, before XeTeX came along.


lalala 04.27.05 at 4:05 pm

I learned to write papers on computers. My thought processes have developed in conjunction with computer use. While my handwriting is legible, I have never done well on hand-written exams because my hand can’t keep up with my mind, I can’t re-write, etc. It just doesn’t work for me. I print drafts and write myself notes on them. I take the occasional handwritten note. But for any serious, organized writing, I need to be typing.


bza 04.27.05 at 4:05 pm

I wish I could preview comments.


Kieran Healy 04.27.05 at 4:07 pm

Kieran, that’s Jenson, right? You might want to consider springing for the optical sizes,

Yeah, I know. But buying Jenson Pro used up my font budget. I’ll cough up for the opticals in future, probably.

You know, I love me some LaTeX. But it cannot, jurabib notwithstanding Nick, produce proper Chicago Manual citations.

Yes, sad but true. I use Jurabib in my book manuscript but not for articles (don’t need the complexity). Like Nick, I’m prepared to put up with the comma issue.


Ficus 04.27.05 at 4:18 pm

As a working mathematician, I solidly echo the clarion call about the joys of TeX. While computers used to entirely suck for mathematical writing, TeX changed that. It has the precision and flexibility to meet the unusual typesetting needs of mathematics. It has become such a de facto standard in my field that scholarly articles, and sometimes entire manuscripts, are submitted to the publishers as a .tex file. (We occasionally use different flavors of TeX – AMSTeX and LaTeX are two prominent examples – but it is the way math is produced electronically.)

Kieran, I don’t think anyone is disputing your idea that we fetishize our creative media. It is pretty universal … musicians name their instruments, and I litter my domicile with chalkboards. It’s what we do.


Colin Danby 04.27.05 at 4:56 pm

I was amused by Nick’s suggestion of a font made from one’s own handwriting. My handwriting now has maybe ten distinct characters, most of which make do for several different letters. After a lag of a few weeks I have difficulty interpreting it because I’ve forgotten what I might have meant. I remember the physical pain of doing comprehensive exams more than a decade back in grad school, because I was completely out of practice doing sustained handwriting.

In his memoir _The Motion of Light in Water_ Samuel Delany sometimes talks of a draft story needing another “pass through the typewriter” and I do miss that — the discipline of having to think about every single word again, in sequence, of having to say OK, do I really want to say *that*. This discipline is lifted by the computer so there’s more temptation to retain paragraphs and whole pages of mediocre text from draft to draft. You have to force yourself to read it aloud or find some other exercise with that effect.


ben wolfson 04.27.05 at 4:59 pm

What do you people use for preparing BibTeX entries? I have never had to bother, but I don’t imagine y’all are writing the files by hand.


bza 04.27.05 at 5:17 pm

A lot of people swap files, and some fields seem to have central-ish repositories, but I think most entries do originally come into being through manual labor. Some econ grad students at Berkeley wrote a Perl script to convert the output from Silver PLatter database searches (i.e., lit searches in Medline, EconLit, Philosopher’s Index), but it’s pretty basic. I have an emacs package that aims to do better, but it’s still pre-alpha (look for it in the fall). Automatic methods are always going to be stymied by the fact that few of the databases one could usefully pull stuff from manage to be very consistent in their format. (Or at least, Silver Platter is atrocious.)


Suresh 04.27.05 at 5:51 pm

actually I have a linux box, and have no problem getting the type1 (or truetype) fonts into the right format. my main problem is getting latex to “see” them: it invariable complains that it can’t find the fonts that I know are there. the ref you link to is great though: I hadn’t seen it before and will see if I can get something working using it.


ozoid 04.27.05 at 6:39 pm

In college during the late ’60s I was encouraged to “compose at the keyboard” rather than write first drafts in longhand. I miss the sensuousness of ink flowing from nib to paper, and, more important I think, I’ve never found an outlining program that can duplicate the infinitely flexible visual structures I often need as I’m sketching out a concept.

For me at least, it’s a long and twisty road from the idea of a sentence to its realization. Revising on a word processor was only a dream as I retyped entire unchanged paragraphs and pages that followed revisions.

It took a while to adjust from a standard keyboard to the PowerBook’s flat layout.

Two stories:
Graphic designer David Carson was laying out a tedious profile of a rock band. After he flowed the text, he began experimenting with different fonts, couldn’t resist Dingbats, and left it that way. The article ran in a more conventional font in a subsequent issue, but I suspect the writer was never the same again.

After Thurber lost his sight, he didn’t know when his fingers became disoriented on the keyboard. The New Yorker, however, found someone who could make sense of the gibberish.


Jeremy Osner 04.27.05 at 7:50 pm

Hey maybe the two camps could meet: You can compose by hand direct to a text file if you have a stylus and a good handwriting-recognition program (okay, maybe that’s still a year or two distant.) And/or, compose in handwriting on paper and scan it in — I think the handwriting-recognition programs do a little better with images. Though still granted, far from perfect.

For the record — I am not a writer nor was meant to be, but when I fancy myself one I write on paper with a pen or occasionally pencil. Probably vainly seeking authenticity, I’m not sure. When composing code I use text editors — Visual Studio, VI, TextPad, NotePad. I occasionally write pseudocode out longhand. (Actually come to think of it I hardly ever write pseudocode on a computer — if I do it it is longhand.)


ben wolfson 04.27.05 at 9:24 pm

I imagine that if you signed up for amazon’s developer services (as I just did), you could use a script to query for a lot of information automatically–it’s returned as XML, natch. Wouldn’t work for articles but it would probably make entering books a lot easier; just type in the ISBN and get publisher, date, authors, title, and a lot of other info automatically (I don’t know what fields are called for in a typical BibTeX entry).


Anarch 04.27.05 at 9:27 pm

a) There isn’t always a computer at hand, but there is always a notebook in my back pocket
b) I work in maths (“math”) and computers are totally the suck for equations
c) I also write in Foreign, which can be a pain on computers. (Not as much as it once was, granted.)
d) I am so very old (34): I did all the coursework (but not the dissertation) for my MSc with a pen in 1994/5.

As a grad student in math (28), I completely agree with a), b) and d). There’s an exception, though: if the thing I’m writing needs to be either i) permanent or ii) repeatedly revised, writing by hand is teh suck. I used to have a system in my earlier graduate career: every problem set had to be submitted on a perfect page, no mistakes allowed. [I relaxed that to a couple of easily corrected mistakes, but that was it.] If I made too many mistakes on a page, or it became too messy… rip it out, start again from scratch. Went through up to seven or eight copies of a single page of work each problem set, but it was *powerfully* focussing and really forced me to learn.

Nowadays, though? TeX the damn thing up and revise as I go. I haven’t the time or the fortitude to keep doing that. I think what broke me was a “simple” problem from Kunen’s Set Theory (hi, boss!) which took 10 printed pages of LaTeX (a mere 453 lines of code) and went through some dozen revisions; I couldn’t bear to rewrite that damn thing one more time.

In short: think in pen or pencil. Seal in LaTeX. That’s my system nowadays and I’m sticking with it.

[PS: Changing topics, can we please get a preview button back? Pwetty pweeeeze?]


brainwidth 04.27.05 at 9:51 pm

I love the idea of being able to typeset legal documents–opinions, motions, briefs, memos–from structured text. A beefed up version of Textile or Markdown, for example, would be great. Unfortunately, I’ve never had any experience with TeX or its derivatives, and trying to figure it out is, well, opaque. Are there any good tutorials or sets of applications put together for doing this kind of thing for straightforward American legal documents, BlueBook style?


bza 04.27.05 at 10:27 pm

I imagine that if you signed up for amazon’s developer services (as I just did), you could use a script to query for a lot of information automatically—it’s returned as XML, natch. Wouldn’t work for articles but it would probably make entering books a lot easier.

Most of the problems are with parsing search results for articles that appear in edited collections (which don’t include the ISBN of the collection), so it sounds like this wouldn’t help. But it might be useful anyway. Thanks for pointing it out.


lago 04.27.05 at 10:45 pm

What do you people use for preparing BibTeX entries? I have never had to bother, but I don’t imagine y’all are writing the files by hand.

JabRef works nicely as a graphical BibTeX manager. It’s Java-based and therefore OS-portable, plus it has custom export filters to spit out your bibliography as, oh, valid XHTML with embedded links, should you want to generate web pages for others to use.


Robert Sexton 04.27.05 at 11:33 pm

What a wonderful cooincidence, and a wealth of good leads! I’ve just re-discovered latex, after a 15 year hiatius. Its a whole new world now, with a choice of fonts, and while you wait proofing. I’m working on my (Science) thesis, and wrestled with the issue of how: Word, Emacs, Quark? But in the end, all of those were a pale shadow of TeX and its kin, the system that was quite literally made to solve my very problem.

Which gets us back to the original thought, of the ‘fetishising’ of the text. There is something very seductive about TeX, that you can make something that looks better than word (or quark) would ever do, and with far, far less effort. While its tempting to fiddle and tweak, there are real limits, and before long you are back to actually writing. I’m surprised at how liberating it all is. The layout system knows a lot more than I do how things should work, and the end result is very satisfying.

The sample document looks wonderful. I could not have imagined making something so graceful when I first learned TeX all those years ago.


nick 04.28.05 at 1:53 am

Thanks for the XeTeX link. Having switched, and taking my hoary old LaTeX config with me, it might be scary trying to change it, but looking at some of those screenshots, I’m prepared to give it a go.

One final anecdote: a good friend of mine works in a law office, and some of the files from the earliest days of WYSIWYG word processors have the kind of typographical atrocities that you associate with little kids who get to play with fonts for the first time. You just know how much time was wasted on it…


des von bladet 04.28.05 at 3:21 am

Is there a BrE equivalent of the Chicago MoS does anyone know? (I am a cartoon Old Yoorpean and I really _do_ hate America.)

If so, based on the comments to this thread, I think it really is time to start work on a replacement for BibTeX. (Have you looked at the BibTeX langwidge itself, persons? Spastic baboons would weep hot hot tears of shame to have perpetrated such a something, and it is entirely to their credit that they did not.)


nick 04.28.05 at 4:59 am

From what I know, there’s no direct British parallel to the American style books, in part because there aren’t the same disciplinary cartels (cough, MLA, cough, APA) that make easy money on them. There are press style guides, but the general rule at Oxford was ‘be consistent, be thorough’.

And yes, BibTeX. Ugh.


Matt McGrattan 04.28.05 at 5:42 am

Emacs with AucTeX installed has an OK-ish Bibtext editing mode. I initially tried any number of specialist Bibtext editors but found that all of them had something about them I didn’t like.

Using Emacs gives me enough control to be useful but holds my hand enough to make it a lot easier than hand-rolling Bib files.

I had to write a paper in Word last year (for publication) and it was nightmarish to go back to using it after 5 years using LaTeX. Things that would have taken 5 minutes in LaTeX took half an hour in Word.

I have two monitors on my Mac which means I can have the preview of the LaTeX file open in one screen and Emacs open in another. It’s such a nice way to work.


Jeremy Osner 04.28.05 at 6:44 am

Have any of you used LyX? It claims to be “the first WYSIWYM document processor.” (What You See Is What You Meant)


alex 04.28.05 at 9:08 am

Montblanc makes jewelry that suitable for men to stick in their shirtpockets. If you want an actual pen, I would suggest you purchase a Pelikan. A lifetime warranty really is worth something if you’re planning on using a pen for a long while…like more than a year, which is all that Montblanc is willing to concede to.

To answer somebody’s question, there are women who use fountain pens; my partner is one of them. I would opine that the fetish aspect of fountain pens appeals to an almost exclusively male audience. Most of the female users of fountain pens that I know are primarily interested in writing more easily.


dca 04.28.05 at 1:44 pm

Just to strike an eccentric note in a very enjoyable and useful thread, I like to do drafts by hand (pen), then revise and tinker with the typography at the keyboard–though I compose anything other than papers there. The eccentric part: the pen is a number 00 Rapidograph, and the typesetting is troff (now groff). So I’ve been able to keep the same system (and reuse files) since 1979.


bza 04.28.05 at 3:34 pm

Is there a BrE equivalent of the Chicago MoS does anyone know?

There’s the Oxford Guide to Style, which I really wish hadn’t been retitled. It used to called something like Oxford Rules for Readers and Compositors, which was so English and plummy it’s a shame to have lost it.

Have you looked at the BibTeX langwidge itself, persons? Spastic baboons would weep hot hot tears of shame to have perpetrated such a something.

Amen. Although the problems go beyond the heinousness of a stack-based language. (For instance, you can’t reliably do multiple levels of inclusion, which prevents you from adequately representing, say, an essay contained in one volume of a multi-volume set. Or again: when processing one item you can’t access information in another item unless the latter contains the former. This prevents proper implementation of several Chicago rules.) But as I suggested above, I think the workflow model that BibTeX is based on is–for the humanitites–fundamentally flawed, so a successor shouldn’t just try to repair these sorts of defects.

A kind of pedantic point: People bringing up Emacs’s BibTeX mode and specialized BibTeX database managers are misunderstanding Ben Wolfson’s question. Those utilities don’t create the entries for you; they just help you manage information that you input manually.


ben wolfson 04.28.05 at 4:56 pm

It’s a partial misunderstanding–those answers are after all useful.

Based on des von bladet’s and your posts, bza, is BibTeX fundamentally separate from but integrated into the TeX system, or do BibTeX’s flaws stem from TeX flaws? Could one create an entirely separate bibliographic system that hooked into TeX/LaTeX?


bza 04.28.05 at 5:32 pm

It’s entirely separate; the problems are with BibTeX, not TeX itself. So it should be entirely possible to create a replacement for BibTeX that would do better. (I in fact use such a replacement, but it’s a jury-rigged mess that’s not suitable for anything other than my private use.)

As yet there’s been little clamor for a replacement: BibTeX is fine for the citation styles natural scientists and most social scientists use, and they still make up the overwhelming majority of TeX users. I’d conjecture that, as more and more humanists take up TeX, there will eventually emerge a new bibliographic system suited to their needs, while the scientists continue to use BibTeX.


lago 04.28.05 at 6:43 pm

A kind of pedantic point: People bringing up Emacs’s BibTeX mode and specialized BibTeX database managers are misunderstanding Ben Wolfson’s question. Those utilities don’t create the entries for you; they just help you manage information that you input manually.

Even more pedantic: they do create the BibTeX entries (by assembling existing elements in BibTeX format), but they do not conjure up the elements of information without manual intervention (eg typing or custom import).


ben wolfson 04.28.05 at 7:31 pm

Then my career path is laid out before me!
1. Go to grad school in a humanistic discipline, and learn what the natives require in bibliography management software.
2. Become a much better programmer
3. Write said software.
4. ?
5. Profit!


Jeremy Osner 04.28.05 at 7:44 pm

Say is there any TeX-y solution for legal footnotes? My sister (formerly a paralegal and now at law school) was indicating to me a little while back that she thought there was a crying need for a tool that would make them automatically.


brainwidth 04.28.05 at 8:52 pm

Jeremy, I asked a similar question above, but I think that the answer is probably no. The only product out there that comes close to automated citation management for legal documents is CiteIt, which the firm I work for is beta testing. It’s pretty clunky, and I don’t find it particularly useful.


chris lovell 04.28.05 at 9:53 pm

The jurabib LaTeX package that has been mentioned a couple of times in this thread was created to do German legal footnotes. I don’t know what American legal footnotes look like, but if they’re close to the German style, than perhaps jurabib will suit your needs.


agm 04.29.05 at 4:11 am

So where does that put tablet PCs?


Barry Ross 04.29.05 at 10:43 am

Jeez doesn’t anyone use Note Bene with its multitudinous variations of style, bibliography tools, footnotes etc.?


me2i81 04.30.05 at 10:55 am

This is rather late and probably nobody will read this, but if you’re using markup-based word processing (or not, but just want to capture text) be sure and look at the AlphaSmart. It’s a product designed for kids in schools. It has a keyboard, an LCD display, and a built-in, very minimal word processor. It’s quite dumb, but the advantages are (1) it runs on 2 or 3 AA batteries for 500 hours, (2) it only weighs 2 pounds, (3) it’s almost indestructable, (4) has complete instructions on the back label, so it’s that simple, and (5) is about $250. You upload using USB or infrared. If you’re tired of lugging around a fragile, expensive, battery-hungry laptop, it’s something to consider. You’ll look like you’re typing on a speak-and-spell. Alphasmart.com is the website. They also make a PalmOS version, but it’s more money and doesn’t have that 500-hour battery life.

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