Idea du Jour: Watching Writers Write

Here’s my useless idea of the day. What if we could watch live or recorded screencasts of a writer’s screen as they write? The writer–from Stephen King to your favourite local blogger–installs some software on their computer, and it broadcasts the activity in their word processor (or authoring tool of choice) in real time to the web.

Here’s a quick example of what I’m talking about, courtesy of Victor Hugo:

It kind of combines Webex and RobotReplay with the popular notion of radical transparency. It sounds banal, but so does Twitter, and people seem to like that.

The technology for this obviously already exists. There’d be a little work in building plugins for MS Word, NotePad,browser forms and whatever else people write in. But other than that it would be simple.

If you’re Stephen King, maybe you offer some kind of premium subscription that enables people to spy on your writing. Hardcore fans, knowing that King usually writes in the morning, would log in to watch him putter away on his latest novel.

Of course, no writer that I know would permit this. As the saying goes, “there are two things you never want to see made, sausage and legislation”. I’d add most forms of writing to that list.


  1. I had the same idea some years ago, except with watching programmers write code. I was planning to have it as a bit in a short film (probably displayed at faster then real-time speed with music playing). Thought it would be interesting to watch.

  2. Interesting idea, but I think writing is more about the final product than the process. There isn’t too much to gain from watching a writer write, apart from the fanboy aspect.

    The same idea with drawing or painting, seeing how an artist creates a piece, is better suited for screencasting, such as what Penny Arcade is doing with their PA TV.

  3. I would hate having someone watch me write. It would also involve a lot of watching me walk around my house.

  4. I’m not sure about other newsrooms, but the one I worked in for a really short amount of time allowed the editors to electronically read over the reporters’ shoulders. It was creepy to be working on a story and hear from across the room, “Second graph is weak. Punch it up!”

  5. It’s been done in the skit Novel Writing with Thomas Hardy by Monty Python.

    I know how novelists write and it isn’t as interesting as it seems. However, annotated drafts exist for several authors who worked by typewriter.

    It’s not the keystrokes, its the thoughtfulness in revisions that are frequently months apart.

  6. Back in 2001, I interviewed Robert Olen Butler, an American writer (and college professor) who did just what you are describing, but as a short term experiment. He was teaching creative writing and thought that this would be a good teaching tool. I followed him over the course of a few nights and found it quite fascinating. He was using RealVideo at the time:

    The article I wrote on the subject for a Swiss magazine is still online (in French):

  7. There are a LOT of websites and podcasts out there for and about writers. I think you learn more from interviews with writers than from watching the actual words being typed — you wouldn’t be able to see the big lines, all the words would get in the way.

    Same thing with programming; pair programming works (when it works) because the two programmers talk _about_ the code, not when there’s “an observer-programmer” sitting next to “a typing programmer”.

    That said, when I was in academia I really, really missed resources for how to write scientific articles. You read lots and lots of articles and you can tell which ones are good and which ones are bad, but it’s rare that you get the chance to learn how a good article became good, the various phases and versions the article went through.

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