Burgess Laughlin

Writing a heavily documented draft

9 posts in this topic

Here is a problem I have encountered frequently. I still have not found a completely satisfying solution. I suspect that anyone who writes technical or scientific papers in just about any field -- from law to economics to astronomy to political science -- faces this issue.

First, for context, here are my usual priorities for finished, publishable text, from more important values to less important: accuracy (objectivity), clarity, conciseness, and a flowing style (that is, one that pulls the reader forward).

USUAL SITUATION. I have done the preliminary steps for an essay on a topic that I have researched in a specialized area (history):

I. Deciding what to say -- Defining the subject and theme of the essay, and doing the research and the thinking required.

II. Deciding how to say it -- developing a detailed outline.

III. Preparing to say it -- for one particular section at a time, stoking my subconscious until it is ready to flow directly through the keyboard.

PROBLEM. How do I manage to write the draft the way effective writing should be done, in a flowing manner that emerges directly from a fully informed, fully programmed subconscious -- all while managing to insert the right footnotes, which are often complex in their citations and in the qualifying comments I must add for clarity, all at the right places?

Note that the problem here is not the presence of footnotes in the final draft, but the need to insert and keep track of footnotes while composing the draft in a flowing style.

PARTIAL SOLUTIONS. One solution I have used is to develop an outline that is so detailed that it specifies documentation. The extreme form of this solution, a form I have occasionally used with sections of the most difficult material, is to outline right down to the sentence level and include a footnote with each sentence. Then I simply string the sentences together with copy-and-paste.

With this approach, the documentation is correct in placement and content, but often the sentences don't flow well -- without a lot of editing. I am always willing to edit heavily, but the results stylistically still aren't the best, even if my other priorities have been met.

Another solution is to write an outline containing all the information for the main text, plus footnotes citing sources and providing other secondary information; stoke my subconscious; and then write a whole paragraph or section straight from my subconscious without worrying about inserting notes as I go. This way, the style is much more flowing. After finishing the draft of that section, I can then go back and insert the footnotes, once I have figured out how the draft correlates to the guiding outline which contains the footnotes.

A problem emerges in that I sometimes lose track of where I got the information -- especially when my subconscious comes up with new integrations or new arrangements while I am typing. The most exasperating issue here is that I occasionally write something from my subconscious that is an intriguing insight -- but I can't figure out where I got the information. Then I must either spend a lot of time hunting it down, or, if I can't find it, sadly delete the insight as being unsupported.

I have used both of these solutions. Both work, but either way the process is bumpy. I would like to find a more efficient as well as more effective solution than this muddling-through approach. It seems to require a lot of editing to fix problems rather than relying on more effective draft-writing to begin with. Alternatives?

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Here's how I do it.

When doing research, I write down the book data at the top of a set of notes and, when I find information I might want to use, I write the page number and a summary of the information.

Here's how I would write up my notes for a book that I will assign the code of "A" to:

A-Title, author, publisher, date

2 - introduction of the hero
7 - introduction of the villain
9 - 13 - villain and his mother plan a crime
18- 30 - street fight
58 - 59 - discussion of free will
....

When I do my outline, I include the code numbers thusly:

....


B.  Literary style

    1. Character description (A2) (A7)
    2. Action description (A18)
    3. Dialog (A9) (A58)

....

Then I write directly from my outline, referring to the original source only when necessary and ignoring it if not. It is only when I am doing the final editing that I put in the footnotes using the book/page codes from my outline.

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When doing research, I write down the book data at the top of a set of notes and, when I find information I might want to use, I write the page number and a summary of the information. 

Here's how I would write up my notes for a book that I will assign the code of "A" to: [...]

When I do my outline, I include the code numbers [...]

Then I write directly from my outline, referring to the original source only when necessary and ignoring it if not.  It is only when I am doing the final editing that I put in the footnotes using the book/page codes from my outline.

Betsy, I have been thinking about your suggestion for using code numbers to identify sources of information. At the stage of a first draft, I can see a definite advantage -- a sort of unit economy -- growing from using codes rather than reproducing whole footnotes. If your footnotes are straight-forward citations of sources only, I can see why your system works well for you.

However, where the footnotes provide more than citations of sources -- for example, providing comments evaluating those sources, comments adding additional insights from the author of the source, or comments pointing out pitfalls in using the source -- when would you write the footnotes? Would you still wait until a final draft of the main text?

Your example has been grist for the mill of my review of my own methods. I have tentatively concluded that the nature of the material I work with -- often from very complicated, confusingly written sources, and sometimes dealing with issues of interpretation of the sources themselves -- should lead me to doing more of what I have done in the past for complex passages of my own writing: Creating a final outline (one from which I will be writing) that, in some parts, is so detailed that it specifies each sentence of the draft to come and then attaches fully written-out footnotes to the outline itself.

Following is a relatively simple example from a final draft of The Aristotle Adventure. The number in parentheses is the endnote number, which was a superscript in the typeset version.

The next step for Andronicus of Rhodes was leading a network (and perhaps an informal school)) of Aristotelian scholars -- probably in Rome, not in Athens. (5)

(5) I inferred "leading" from: During, AABT, 413, who says Strabo became interested in Aristotle's writings ("through Andronicus"), and Lynch, AS, 193, 203f.

In such cases, if I don't write out the footnotes in detail in the outline stage, I could not trust myself to remember until the final draft all that I wanted to say about the information I was citing.

In summary, I have decided that "form" should follow "function" here: The more elements involved in the content, the more detailed the outline. That means, in some cases, outlining even down to the individual sentence level and including fully written-out footnotes in the writing outline (especially where they are more complicated, and certainly much longer, than citations of sources).

This approach may make my initial drafts choppy -- that is, stylistically lacking "flow." However, I can correct that, to some extent, through editing.

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Here is a problem I have encountered frequently. I still have not found a completely satisfying solution. I suspect that anyone who writes technical or scientific papers in just about any field -- from law to economics to astronomy to political science -- faces this issue.

I have a technical solution that is completely satisfying. If you are using a PC-system (with Windows 98/Me/2000/XP) I can tell you more about it. Let me know if you are interested in such (technical) solutions, since it may take some time to explain. My solution is basically a combination of a textbased tree-structured and on-the-fly crosslinking editor (i.e. not database driven) and dtSearch (which searches terabytes of data within a second). Are you using dtSearch or similar software right now?

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I have a technical solution that is completely satisfying.

I am lost. I can't even begin to imagine how a "technical solution" would solve the problem I (and I assume others) face. Isn't the problem a cognitive and procedural problem, not a software problem?

Can you give me the essential steps of your solution-- say, three or four?

Assume that you have made notes in an organized fashion. Then you compose the writing-outline (the outline which will give you selected content, sequence, and sources). Now, how would the "technical solution" handle citations if you write the main text from your subconscious, especially if the draft is in a slightly different order or if the draft reveals integrations not present in the writing-outline?

New integrations, of course, would require either new citations or rearranged citations. How would software solve that problem? Doesn't a human mind have to intervene and rewrite the text, at least of the footnote?

Following is a real example item from a writing outline I began today. (I do not know how to indent for THE FORUM posts. The software rejects blank spaces at the beginning of a line.)

I put in bold the words which will appear in the main text of the draft. The footnote text, designated by the number in parens, is not bold. The other typing is just notes to myself -- for example, "INTRODUCTION TO CELSUS."

1. CELSUS

--------------------------- INTRODUCTION to CELSUS --------------------------

..... a. Celsus lived in Alexandria, Egypt, perhaps c. 130 - c. 200 CE. (1)

(1) For a brief overview of Celsus and a bibliography: David S. Potter, "Celsus," Oxford Classical Dictionary, third edition revised. For the probability of Celsus living in Alexandria, the possibility of Rome, and the possibility of both: Henry Chadwick, Contra Celsum, pp. xxviii-xxix. I have inferred life dates of Celsus by starting with the assumption that he wrote On The True Doctrine in c. 180 as suggested by Henry Chadwick, Contra Celsum, p. xxviii. I then assumed he was mature, about 50, when he wrote it, and lived another 20 years at most.

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Burgess: unless I'm misunderstanding what you're saying, its pretty easy. What word processing software are you using? MS Word has footnote/endnote capabilities that store the note as an entity separate from its referring mark in the text; a footnote will follow its referring mark in the text no matter how much the text evolves. Is this what you're looking for?

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MS Word has footnote/endnote capabilities that store the note as an entity separate from its referring mark in the text; a footnote will follow its referring mark in the text no matter how much the text evolves.

I use MS Word. I am familiar with footnotes. That is what I showed in Post 5 (though the formatting doesn't survive when I import text into the draft box for THE FORUM. The footnote is tied into a particular sentence in my writing-outline, as shown in Post 5.

Now if you use the writing outline as a general guide, and write from your subconscious, you will sometimes get a different sentence than what appears in the outline. The new sentence may, for example, contain new information as a result of a new integration. Then you will need to look at your notes again to try to figure out where you got the information that has newly popped out of the subconscious. (Planning, which includes outlining to a great extent, is an act of the conscious mind; writing a draft is an act of the subconscious; and likewise editing is an act of the conscious mind mostly, as Ayn Rand explains in The Art of Nonfiction[/i.)

To keep from losing track of sources, the writer must stop writing the draft and begin the hunt for citations and then write them up. So the writing process becomes very jerky, starting and stopping, sentence after sentence. Consequently, stylistically, the writing doesn't "flow."

Other than the ways I have suggested, how would you address that problem?

Better yet, can you show me an example of your process of working from an outline (if you do) to a draft, with complex citations? Betsy and I have provided examples of our approaches.

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Here's how I do it.

When doing research, I write down the book data at the top of a set of notes and, when I find information I might want to use, I write the page number and a summary of the information. 

hi Burgess, and Betsy!

I agree this can be a hard problem. What I've done so far, which is not entirely satisfactory is sort of like Betsy's system.

I get a lot of papers as my sources [other types of sources are more difficult to arrange with this method] and I keep them in a drawer as printouts [i can't read easily online, and I mark them up]. Each article at the top I mark some things;

1.My id#, such as "mf001" might mean my "masc/fem paper, cite#1"

2.today's date [it's remarkable how often I care when I read xxx]

3.summary notes of the paper [33% domestic violence lifetime prevalence pg.335]

4.my comments pro/con [horrible paper, non-objective but some good facts. or Uses Gottman method in a novel way yyy]

I use Mellel [editor] on my Mac plus Bookends [database] for the mac. I put under an optional column my id#. One does have to data enter all the stuff once.

Then I can use my id# inline to reference items and then only when I need a final version, go back and substitute. It's amazingly easy to use this system. It doesn't interrupt my -writing- process practically at all. The DB has a search feature, so I can hunt for "what was that cite that used Gottman in a novel way?" The DB also links to medline which is way cool since all your citation data can be downloaded, not typed.

I've only done the process once through totally. I'm about to do it again, so I'll be sure to read the rest of this thread...

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I have a technical solution that is completely satisfying. If you are using a PC-system (with Windows 98/Me/2000/XP) I can tell you more about it. Let me know if you are interested in such (technical) solutions, since it may take some time to explain. My solution is basically a combination of a textbased tree-structured and on-the-fly crosslinking editor (i.e. not database driven) and dtSearch (which searches terabytes of data within a second). Are you using dtSearch or similar software right now?

hi Soulsurfer!

I'd love to read your tech solution, both the tree-editor and the dtSearch, despite my using a mac. All tech ideas would be appreciated, inc. links.

I agree with you that the search engine is the key. It's what makes it simple, not laborious, to find things. Then the editor has to support you by having cites be draggable or the like.

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