New Beginnings: Using Keystroke Logging For Literary Writing

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Lamyk Bekius

    Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands (Huygens ING) - Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), Universität Antwerpen (University of Antwerp)

  2. 2. Floor Buschenhenke

    Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands (Huygens ING) - Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), Universität Antwerpen (University of Antwerp)

Work text
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In this poster presentation we will report on a first collaborative pilot study within the ongoing five-year project
Track Changes: Textual scholarship and the challenge of digital literary writing (2018-2023). The larger project aims to discover what the creative processes of present-day literary writers look like, and what the implications of their largely digital practices are for textual scholarship's theories and methodologies. There have been a few trailblazers studying born-digital literary materials (Kirschenbaum, 2008; Ries 2010; 2018; Vauthier, 2016; Fiormonte and Pusceddu, 2006; Richle. 2007, Crombez and Cassiers, 2017). But despite passionate pleas from them and others (Alamargot and Lebrave, 2010; Lebrave, 2013; Van Hulle, 2011), the field as a whole has yet to embrace born-digital textual materials as research subject. None have so far used keystroke logging to investigate the literary process, which makes our project quite innovative. The aim of this poster presentation is to show and discuss our methodology and data, and to present a small-scale example of the insights we could gain.

Although born-digital processes leave traces, the conventions of word processing programmes are such that immediate corrections have become invisible. Versioning has become a matter of personal preferences; which in some cases leads to a further decrease in evidence of the writing process (Mathijsen, 2009). Related to this issue of changes in the type of traces a writing process generates, is the way in which the medium affects the process. From studies into non-literary texts, we know that digital writing processes differ from paper-based work processes – one difference is that there is more rewriting during composition (Van Waes and Schellens, 2003; Goldberg, 2003).

We chose to work with the keystroke logger Inputlog (Van Waes and Leijten, 2013) because of its seamless integration into a 'normal' writing experience. Once switched on, it logs writing activities performed in Word. Using keystroke logging, we are thus able to catch all traces of digital writing and editing processes, including immediate corrections, and including a separate version of the Word document at the end of every writing session.

Project data
This poster presents a pilot study that focusses on nine writing sessions of the Dutch author Walter van den Berg, which encompasses all his writing for one short story. This story was – together with three other stories – commissioned during our small-scale precursory study. The writing process of these stories was logged in Inputlog. In
Track Changes we will analyse the writing process of the novel
Roosevelt by the Flemish author Gie Bogaert – which contains 446 writing sessions – as well as 8 newly commissioned stories.

Pilot study
The pilot study shows how the logging data can help interpret revisions made during the writing process. By both focussing on small revisions and on the incipit of the story – the beginning of the story in the published text – we will try to examine if and how these small revisions can be related to the genesis of the incipit.

Deletions and substitutions will be manually labelled and interpreted. Van den Berg deleted quite a bit of his freshly produced materials, sometimes 'iterating' over multiple possibilities before settling. The deletions and substitutions within each writing session present a chronological story that does not follow a linear path through the unfolding text. Thematically connected passages, distributed through the text, are connected in chronological revision patterns.

Incipits are paradoxical as they are random but always decisive and primordial for the story's development (Debray Genette, 2004). Looking at the drafts of the story, what do the revisions tell us about the composition of the incipit? During the writing sessions, Van den Berg made extensive revisions to the incipit. In the first draft of the story, he starts with introducing the neighbour of the main character, but in the finished story, this neighbour is reduced to 'someone'.

As this is a work-in-progress, we cannot yet provide results. We hope to reconstruct the genesis of the incipit through studying both the versions of the text and the process data from Inputlog; we cannot only see
which revisions were made to create the ultimate incipit but also
when – in the complete writing process. Revisions in the incipit could thus perhaps be linked with additions or revisions elsewhere in the text. We wish to elucidate parts of the writing processes we will study through visualisations based on TEI-XML.


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