Software cannot replace an author, but it can assist an author tremendously

“I do not fear computers. I fear lack of them.”
Isaac Asimov

Today was the second of the two-day course in teaching students how to write. There were a lot of exercises and I am still forming my impression of the course. But one thing really struck me — there was nothing on using software to facilitate the writing process.

Perhaps it’s a German phenomenon — that people who develop interventions or courses for writing are not that big on technology. I’ve worked now for 7,5 years at an institute that deals with media for knowledge exchange and learning — so affordances of technology are usually on my mind. Even prior to this job, I worked with computers a lot, I used them to create creative works, and in all this time, I tried out a lot of interesting software.

And some works beautifully — for me and others.

For example, in the course we worked by writing per hand. There was some side-talk about LaTeX, but I was the only one who recommended Scrivener — personally, the best writing software I ever encountered. Just brilliant. Made by an author for other authors. But it was not a topic.

Reference managers — nope, not the topic either.

Nor were digital outliners, which are only possible with computers as they allow you to fold in whole sections to quickly compare parts of the text pieces that are otherwise very far apart.

When I gave presentations/workshops on writing this and last year, the focus was mostly on these issues.

Of course, being able to write scientific texts requires a tremendous amount of skills — you cannot cover everything. But it makes me wonder — as software is an easy way to support writing.

And in the case of digital outliners like Circus Ponies Notebook or Scrivener — a damn good one.

I’ve written more about these topics in


  1. I, too, wonder why the writing course teachers don’t spend a thought on software. I’m a student advisor (learning, writing, and such) at Bielefeld University. Neither my colleagues of the bureau for teaching and learning assistance, nor comparable University institutions teach the students how to cope with organizing their writing project and the writing itself; crafting a long text poses unique challenges. Still, these folks focus on ‘creative’ techniques like Free Writing alone.

    The fact that fellow students struggle with writing and organizing knowledge (and creativity :)) is one reason I push my Zettelkasten project: there’s lots left to teach and learn, methodicly. We asked high graded professors how they cope with writing projects and reading notes: most don’t, really. Some use reference managers. The majority tries to stay organized in Word notes files. What’d you expect to learn from these guys concerning information management?

  2. Hmm, I get the impression that whenever technology is involved that requires electricity, it’s seen as the computing centers’ business (or at best, the library). They have courses how you *use* LaTeX, Citavi, whatever. The idea that it’s not only being able to use the technology, but to fuse it to one’s academic working methods does not seem to occur. It’s like TPCK — only from the learners/users side. Strange, if you treat this not as disparate but as synergizing aspects of work there are incredible gains possible.

    Perhaps time for a change in the way academic writing/work is taught … hmmm … I wonder whether there are any open positions …

  3. I wonder if this was a deliberate choice. By choosing not to focus on software, perhaps the teachers were making a decision to concentrate on “fundamentals”.

    I think this is the wrong choice. The most important part of scientific (or may be any) writing is understanding. The best path to understanding is being able to access your literature quickly (Devonthink, Papers, Sente, Bookends), creating an outline(circus ponies notebook, omnioutliner, mindmapping? etc..) with your proposed thoughts, and composing the paper in an environment that allows for non-linear writing and review (Scrivener, Ulysses).

    I think that once you move away from the confines of the “page”, you change the fundamentals of thinking and writing. To be fair cutting and pasting paragraphs, and using 3X5 cards can recreate the same process, but with much less elegance, fluidity and speed. This is where wordprocessor or any workflow meant to replicate the physical page fails.

    Our minds are only capable of juggling a few ideas at a time. If we confine our thoughts and writing to one sequential paragraph after the next,
    I think we are not giving our minds the space to link seemingly disparate ideas. I suspect that the complexity of writing, and the nuances of thought that could be gained with the assistance of writing software far outweighs any “advantage” of sticking to the “fundamentals”.

  4. Hoi Niran,

    totally agree. Would be interesting to find out why the focus is wrong — don’t they know what software can do? Or did they try it out and it did not work? I think the second explanation is unlikely, but I don’t know.

    Hmm, I think I have the ‘fundamental’ of a concept … would be interesting to try it out.

    All the best


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