Application writing as example of stretchtext

I have been working on an ERC Starting Grant application over the last months. Besides the usual conceptual/practical challenges of writing funding applications, this particular application also posed the challenge of writing not only one proposal document, but two: one long (15 pages) and one short (5 pages). I am used to writing research papers and applications where you are dealing with three levels:

  • title
  • abstract
  • content

But for the ERC application I had to handle four levels:

  • Title
  • Summary (2000 characters)
  • Synopsis (5 pages)
  • Proposal (15 pages)

While working on the application, I started thinking about my old fascination of hypertext theory. One concept I found (and still find) interesting here is Ted Nelson’s idea of stretchtext. Stretchtext can be seen as text that can literally be “stretched” to any desired length (see, for example, this example). Conceptually this makes sense. After all, we as humans are able to do such stretching fairly easily, always trying to maximize our content to the limitations we may have. For example, I have no problems talking about my current research project for 1 minute, 5 minutes, 20 minutes or 45 minutes, it is just about “interpolating” the content over the required timeframe. The challenge, of course, is to balance the content in such a way that it makes sense for different durations or number of pages.

But how do you go about when having to write 5 and 15 pages about the same thing. Should you write 15 pages first, and then cut it down to 5? Or is it better to start with 5 pages and then “interpolate” it to 15? My approach this time was not particularly structured, and I constantly found myself moving back and forth between the two documents. This was perhaps not the most ideal solution, since I often found myself making the same changes twice.

The strategy I ended up with, and that I would probably start out with If I were to do such a thing again, was to use the commenting function of LaTeX more actively. In regular word processing software (MS Word, OpenOffice, etc.) there is no easy way to include or remove content from the document easily. The text in the document is there, and if you remove it, it is gone. In LaTeX it is possible to comment out blocks of text by just typing the % sign in front of the line. This makes it easy to “turn off” whole blocks of text. As such, my final 5 page synopsis document contained more or less the same stuff as the full 15 page document, but with large parts of the text commented out.

It would have been nice if LaTeX had had the opportunity to define levels of text. Then I could have chosen to write only one document, and defined which parts should be at level 1, 2, 3, etc. This could then have been used to output the different levels more or less automatically. Such an approach could perhaps be done done with a text outliner (e.g., OmniOutliner), and I am curious to test this out at some point.

However, the biggest challenge of writing a stretchtext is probably not the software being used. It is rather to figure out what content to include, and make it work linguistically at the different levels. In the end, you might end up with writing two separate documents after all…

Writing complex documents

I have been using LaTeX for most of my more advanced writing needs for so many years, that I tend to forget that there are so few other good options out there for writing what could be called “complex” documents, i.e. book-sized documents with a good portion of notes, pictures, links, etc.

I just had to help out in trying to create a large document based on 30+ individual documents in MS Word. Word offers the possibility of creating a ”master document” for embedding multiple individual documents. This (in theory) makes it possible to create one large table of contents, internal links, etc. However, in practice this turns out to be a nightmare of dimensions: styles change, links disappear or stop working, the table of contents finds most things, but with wrong styles, page numbers don’t get updated properly…

I’m glad I don’t rely on MS Word for such things, and I feel sorry for everyone that has to go through so much pain to create a large and complex document. Unfortunately, the rather steep learning curve of LaTeX makes it difficult to suggest it to people that are not inclined for writing code themselves. But what other options are there? OpenOffice might work a little better, but it is based on the same idea of mixing content and layout as Word. Layout programs are usually not particularly good for writing text, not to say footnotes, bibliography, etc. Scrivener is good for structuring large portions of text, but lacks most other thing required in scientific writing (and it is OSX only). Adobe FrameMaker could have been a solution, had it not been Windows only and fairly costly.

Any suggestions for other software would be welcome, and I will pass them on to the next unfortunate Word user I meet.