Why is writing the only profession untouched by its tools? Larry Kunz strikes a familiar note in his recent blog post, Tools come and go. I’m still a writer.
I’m a writer. Once I used a typewriter. Now I use XML editors. If I stay at this long enough, other tools will come and I’ll learn to embrace them.
My old typewriter is gone. But I’m the same writer I’ve always been.
The same refrain is sounded over and over again wherever writers gather. It seems almost a badge of honor among writers to proclaim that your work and the essence of what you do is unaffected by the tools you use.
But it is a very strange claim, and I cannot think of another profession that would make it.
Architecture has been profoundly affected by the advent of new building materials and building techniques, allowing architects to design and build structures that would have been impossible with traditional materials.
In engineering, the use of computer simulation and computer aided design has revolutionized how things are designed and build. Calculation and computer modeling have replace physical prototyping and allowed for strong yet light designs based on stress calculations that could never have been made by hand.The software development community is constantly developing new tools and new languages, and it is commonplace for a programmer who has learned a new language to write about how that language has changed the way they think about how they program and how they design systems.
Artists and musicians too have had their work profoundly altered by digital imaging and digital and electronic instruments. They produce radically different work using radically different tools, and I have never heard one assert that they are unchanged as an artist or musician by their new tools and instruments. (Those who want to be unchanged continue to use the old tools; they don’t adopt the new and assert that their work is unaffected by them.)
The practice of medicine has certainly been changed profoundly not only by new drugs, but by new diagnostic and imaging procedures and by new communication technologies that allow doctors to consult remotely. Work is now underway to turn IBM’s Watson supercomputer into a diagnostic aid.
In fact, I think it would be difficult to find any profession today that would reject the notion that the practice and products of that profession have been essentially untouched by the technological revolutions of the last couple of centuries and the last couple of decades — any, that is, except writers, who apparently wish to claim that whether it is done with a quill or an XML editor, writing itself has not changed.
In part it may be a tools issue. Word processors set out to be a tool for writing itself — cutting and pasting, spell checking, outlining, and many other features were designed to make the act of writing easier. But with the advent of the laser printer, development of writing tools seemed to stop. From that point on it was all about publishing. Desktop publishing tools like FrameMaker and PageMaker were not about writing but publishing. To this day, FrameMaker still lacks some of the word processing features that were standard in Word Processors by the early 90s.
The Web provides a profoundly different media which allows for communication to be structured and accessed in profoundly different ways. Structured writing provides enormous capacity to change how we write, and what we produce. But standardized structured writing systems like DocBook and DITA are all about publishing and, in the case of DITA, content management.
Perhaps it is little wonder then that many writers feel that tools may come and tools may go, but writing remains the same. It is because they have not been using writing tools, they have been using publishing and content management tools that make little or no attempt to change the writing process, and, in some cases, deliberately boast about how little they change it.
This is all profoundly baffling to me. Since I first encountered structured writing, I have seen it as a means to change how I write and the kinds of information products I can produce. Since I first encountered the Web, I have seen it as a media that both allows and demands a profoundly different way of presenting, organizing, and linking content in ways that affect not merely the publishing process, but the writing and information design processes as well.
Structured writing and the Web should profoundly change who we are and what we do as writers, and we should be celebrating the difference, not denying it.
Perhaps it is this difference in perspective that leads to many people being baffled by some of the things I talk about. When I say that we need a structured authoring system that does away with maps, I am looking at it from the perspective of how structured authoring could change the whole writing process. When I say that we need to look at ways for reducing the amount of revision we do, I am looking at it from the same perspective. I am rejecting what seems to be the received opinion across the profession that content must be organized statically from the top down, and that revision, often in multiple rounds, is an inescapable and virtuous part of the writing process. If you believe that the writing process and its products are and should be untouched by modern tools and media, these assertions probably make very little sense.
We have brand new tools now, in structured writing and the Web, that profoundly change how content is consumed, which make top-down organization passe, and which allow for a great deal more rigor and discipline in the writing process, which can, in turn, improve productivity, quality, and timeliness significantly, and allow us to produce new information products that simply were not possible before.
So here’s my question: Do you believe that writing as a profession has been untouched by the revolutions in media and tools of the last two decades? And, if so, do you think that’s a good thing?