From notes to books

Writing words is easy. Writing books, or writing essays, is hard. Steven Johnson writes about how he hops that gap by using software that helps him plagiarise his research notes when he’s writing essays. (via Joho)

A lot of good things over the past decade have worked on lowering the barriers – practical, financial, social – between rough and polished. Blogs let you publish thoughts that are too lightweight to do anything else with. National Novel Writing Month forces participants to focus on quantity rather than quality. And the internet itself removes most of the barriers (money, minimum audience, and the approval of others) that stop people publishing on paper. Each one has its own angle on quality vs. quantity:

  1. The NaNoWriMo lesson: Writing is a good thing in itself, even if nobody reads it
  2. The blog lesson: Niche audiences can justify anything
  3. The internet lesson: Write it, release it, and when someone needs it they’ll find it

Johnson (who updates his argument here and here) is talking about a fourth lesson:

  1. The Johnson lesson: Write it as it comes; you’ll find a use for it later

That makes sense. Some notes just aren’t ready to do anything with, no matter how far you can lower inhibitions by blogging, or by putting out essays as food for google. Over the past year, my computer has gathered 120,000 words of notes. Blosxom lets me give them some minimal ordering and viewability, but it’s still a pretty dire state. And yet, I can often chain a few of them together into something worth reading.

Which is where the software Johnson mentions comes in:

Consider how I used the tool in writing my last book, which revolved around the latest developments in brain science. I would write a paragraph that addressed the human brain’s remarkable facility for interpreting facial expressions. I’d then plug that paragraph into the software, and ask it to find other, similar passages in my archive. Instantly, a list of quotes would be returned: some on the neural architecture that triggers facial expressions, others on the evolutionary history of the smile, still others that dealt with the expressiveness of our near relatives, the chimpanzees. Invariably, one or two of these would trigger a new association in my head — I’d forgotten about the chimpanzee connection — and I’d select that quote, and ask the software to find a new batch of documents similar to it. Before long a larger idea had taken shape in my head, built out of the trail of associations the machine had assembled for me.

More to follow later on exactly what I’d like to see this kind of software do. For now, I’ll stick with a big I like it!