Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Do we save versions on Word?

Ruth Franklin, in a recent short essay in The New Republic -- in turn a reaction to Sam Tanenhaus' essay on John Updike's archives -- makes this strange remark:
But the computer discourages the keeping of archives, at least in their traditional form. If Updike had been working in Word, he might have left no trace of the numerous emendations to the opening airport scene of Rabbit at Rest, which Tanenhaus carefully chronicles.
What on earth is she talking about? Is this how essayists write in Word? With one single file that is endlessly written in again and again until the final draft is ready? Because that's not how my papers get written, at any rate. Each paper that I have submitted to any conference is composed in a series of drafts -- sometimes up to 25 drafts -- all of which are numbered. And I don't think I am alone in this.

My guess is that writing stories on the computer will end up giving us far more drafts than writing on paper ever could.

So -- again -- what on earth is she talking about?


Alan Jacobs said...

I also take pains to have a version control system, but I do not know a single other academic in the humanities who does. I have asked several people about this, and they work in single files that they write over and over again. This is totally anecdotal, of course, but maybe enough to suggest that the problem is real.

scritic said...

Thanks, Alan, I didn't know this. But now that you mention it, I can think of a couple of reasons why this happens:

(1) Versions vs. Drafts: When I said I have up to 25 versions of some documents, these are usually not finished documents of any kind. Rather, the 1st version is a bare-bones outline, the 2nd one is the outline with some sections filled in, the 3rd is the one with a revised outline with some other sections filled in and so on. As we get closer and closer to the final version, the document starts to fill up. But these are not drafts in the sense, say, that fiction writers use the word "draft."

(2) Text, figures and graphs: One reason for this kind of "version" system could be because in engineering papers are hardly ever just text. Instead the text is accompanied with graphs, figures and equations. Plus let's not forget all the complex formatting that is sometimes required to integrate all 3 into the template. So it's just not okay if there's a lot of extraneous text lying around in the document since it doesn't give an idea of whether the document is actually shaping up as per the specifications. Hence the versions -- and this also means that should you want a piece of text that you deleted, you could always go back to a previous version with that text. I presume that if a paper is all text, it's okay to keep all the text in the same document.

(3) Co-authorship: One other reason for the version control could be that computer science or engineering, papers are generally co-authored. So it's much easier to make a version, have your co-author modify it, and then make another one and so on. Makes it easier to see who made what changes. Also this makes it easier to work on separate parts of the document at the same time.

What do you think?

Tony Comstock said...

My habit is to start my work day by 1) opening what ever document I'm working on (usually a NLE timeline) 2) saving it with a numerically sequencial suffix; sometimes .01, .02, .03.., often .dd/mm/yy

I also do this when I think I'm about to take the work past a "can't unfry the egg" point, so that I can get the unfried egg back if I need to.

This has saved my bacon on many occasions; which I then fry along side the eggs and enjoy.

Alan Jacobs said...

I think all your points are right, scritic, but I imagine that number 3 does more than the others to build a "culture of versioning," so to speak.

There may also be one other little thing, which I'm probably over-rating. I'm very unusual among humanists in that I write a lot in LaTeX, which means (for me, not being very skilled) that I fiddle around a lot with formatting options when it's time to print something out. And often I find that I liked better what I had tried a while back — which makes it nice to be able to retrieve earlier versions easily. The more I use LaTeX, the more important it is for me to have good version control.

But I love LaTeX and would use it for everything, except that my publishers have no idea what to do with LaTeX files — I have to submit my work as .doc files, which I despise.