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The evolution of an article

How do writers produce their works? How does this vary by profession – journalist, academic, poet, etc. – and how do we induct students into that? A concern I’ve had for some time is that we (academics) don’t do enough to show students the work that goes into our own writing.

Track changes hell

As an academic, I rarely write anything alone. It’s also very unusual for me to do ‘one shot’ writing in which there aren’t rounds of revisions. Now I’m willing to accept that there will be differences across profession, and individual – journalists, for example, need to be able to pretty reliably produce solid copy on short notice. And of course, we do encourage our students to engage in editing and revision, and perhaps in (formal or informal) peer assessment. But certainly my experience of doing two masters was that I really wanted to be inducted into the kinds of academic practice that would help me succeed in the PhD I knew I was going to apply for, but I didn’t really understand what that might mean, and there wasn’t much opportunity for it.  I’m also pretty clear that my writing (and grades) got much better in the final two years of my undergrad. I think two big contributors to that were (1) that I started working with some very close friends to read their work, and have them read mine, and (2) I understood much better how to write across genres and navigate the constraints of various genres. My undergrad was a philosophy and psychology joint honours, which required me to write very sparsely cited analytic philosophy on the one side, and heavily cited empirical work on the other. In psychology, the school also put a lot of effort in final year into getting us writing different types of product, so rather than solely writing essays we produced proposals, experiment protocols, and (a piece I really remember well) a ‘new scientist’ style piece. This kind of genre crossing – crossing into lay-audience writing – is something I’m keen to develop more in myself (and my students), and that academics typically find hard (it is!).

So, I recently wrote a piece for The Psychologist on ‘Epistemic Cognition: A lens onto fake news’…which is a baby step outside of the academic audience (members of a professional society). I did a lot of the editing for that in google docs, with a lot of comments and feedback along the way. So I thought I’d see if I could use the data in that to illustrate the editing process….the answer is “eh, sort of” but it’s a step anyway. So, here’s the document history for that piece, displayed using a Chrome extension called draftback (fivethirtyeight piece describing it here). I wrote before about some tools for analysing collaborative writing histories, if anyone knows other tools to illustrate document revisions I’d love to hear about them.

In total I spent about 7 hours editing the document (although actually this is quite misleading, I did have some notes in another document before I moved them to this google doc, most of the material is based on work I’d done elsewhere, of course it doesn’t capture reading time, and I did eventually move into a word version). You can see where in the document most of the edits were and when, and how it grew and shrank over time. Below are the overview stats/visualisation, and then an actual playback of the extensive document evolution.

Writing sessions

This document was created over 29 distinct writing sessions (defined as periods where there wasn’t more than a 10-minute gap between revisions note: some of these may be inaccurate due to just leaving the doc open, and the times may be wrong, e.g. I don’t remember starting writing at 5:07am…although I may have, suspect it’s a timezone issue):

Span Duration User # Revisions
Sun, 3/5/2017, 5:14:06 PM – 5:30:46 PM 00:16:39s Simon Knight 232
Tue, 3/7/2017, 9:53:18 AM – 9:53:38 AM 00:00:20s Simon Knight 17
Fri, 3/10/2017, 5:07:54 AM – 5:54:30 AM 00:46:36s Simon Knight 1248
Fri, 3/10/2017, 8:07:28 AM – 8:51:25 AM 00:43:57s Simon Knight 1417
Fri, 3/10/2017, 9:16:41 AM – 9:59:16 AM 00:42:35s Simon Knight 1087
Fri, 3/10/2017, 10:09:32 AM – 10:17:49 AM 00:08:17s Simon Knight 73
Fri, 3/10/2017, 11:13:14 AM – 11:30:05 AM 00:16:50s Simon Knight 560
Sat, 3/11/2017, 2:09:19 AM – 2:18:30 AM 00:09:10s Simon Knight 475
Sat, 3/11/2017, 2:43:11 AM – 2:43:14 AM 00:00:03s Simon Knight 2
Sat, 3/11/2017, 3:05:44 AM – 3:07:44 AM 00:01:59s Simon Knight 89
Sat, 3/11/2017, 3:21:59 AM – 3:48:40 AM 00:26:41s Simon Knight 667
Sun, 3/19/2017, 1:03:44 AM – 1:04:55 AM 00:01:10s Simon Knight 42
Mon, 3/20/2017, 4:21:04 PM – 5:51:48 PM 01:30:44s Simon Knight 3750
Mon, 3/20/2017, 6:09:50 PM – 6:10:06 PM 00:00:15s Simon Knight 4
Mon, 3/20/2017, 7:12:49 PM – 7:12:49 PM 00:00:00s Simon Knight 1
Mon, 3/20/2017, 7:29:26 PM – 7:29:26 PM 00:00:00s Simon Knight 1
Tue, 3/21/2017, 10:24:44 AM – 10:25:01 AM 00:00:17s Simon Knight 7
Wed, 3/22/2017, 11:16:41 AM – 11:22:55 AM 00:06:14s Simon Knight 115
Thu, 3/23/2017, 10:53:54 AM – 11:26:10 AM 00:32:16s Simon Knight 380
Thu, 3/23/2017, 3:58:09 PM – 4:04:48 PM 00:06:39s Simon Knight 84
Thu, 3/23/2017, 5:06:56 PM – 5:12:12 PM 00:05:16s Simon Knight 243
Thu, 3/23/2017, 9:33:06 PM – 9:38:16 PM 00:05:09s Simon Knight 330
Fri, 3/24/2017, 9:58:20 AM – 10:04:11 AM 00:05:50s Simon Knight 60
Fri, 3/24/2017, 10:15:24 AM – 10:32:13 AM 00:16:48s Simon Knight 59
Fri, 3/24/2017, 10:42:59 AM – 10:43:05 AM 00:00:06s Simon Knight 33
Sun, 3/26/2017, 9:39:41 PM – 9:47:55 PM 00:08:13s Simon Knight 132
Tue, 3/28/2017, 9:27:41 AM – 10:00:56 AM 00:33:14s Simon Knight 168
Tue, 3/28/2017, 10:34:54 AM – 10:40:25 AM 00:05:31s Simon Knight 58
Tue, 3/28/2017, 11:40:35 AM – 11:40:52 AM 00:00:17s Simon Knight 7

This is a partial replay…it doesn’t seem to be quite working (it’s not capturing all edits, possibly an issue to do with having ‘suggest an edit’/track changes turned on) and I can’t get it to export all the edits…but it gives an idea (of how the tool works at least) anyway.


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