The British Library recorded every keystroke it took to write this novel - now the data is out

The British Library recorded every keystroke it took to write this novel - now the data is out

C M Taylor teaches on the Publishing Degree at Oxford International Centre for Publishing. He's also a freelance editor and an author who has been nominated for the British Science Fiction book of the year.

And over the past four years, Taylor has been working on a unique literary project. He teamed up with the digital curation team at the British Library, who installed spyware on his laptop to record every single keystroke he made in the process of writing his novel Staying On, published last month by Duckworth.

Why? How? And what are his plans for the data? I interviewed Taylor to get the full story on this unusual collaboration.

How did the project come about?

Well, there was a story to tell, but I couldn’t face telling it. I’d published back-to-back novels (Premiership Psycho and Group of Death, Corsair) but then bridled at starting again. The grating solipsism of long-form fiction – strapping yourself alone to the industrial word loom – felt too much.

I told my friend Mark about the lonely demands of writing. And also, because of starting to teach on the Publishing degree at Oxford Brookes University, I’d been thinking more about literary scholarship, specifically about how early drafts of contemporary books – once upon a time hand-written or typed – were now just being written over, dissolved into the rolling palimpsest of computerised text.

Mark solved both issues in a stroke. ‘Stick a bit of malware on it.’

‘What?’

‘Stick some spyware on your computer.’

He meant that if I put some malware, or spyware, on my computer to note everything I did, it would record all changes made to an evolving manuscript, plus it might offer a weird kind of company.

Good old Mark.

I contacted Nora MacGregor in the digital curation team at the British Library and she could not have been more receptive. But there was an issue. How could you monitor a writer's hard drive if they were writing and receiving email from multiple others from the same computer they were writing on, and writing on topics that might be of a personal sensitivity to one or more of the correspondents? Without complex legal initiatives and sensitive multiple consent, you just couldn’t.

But a solution was available. I would buy a separate machine on which I wrote only the novel. I bought a basic reconditioned laptop. After all, I was only going to write prose.

The curation team found a piece of keylogging software called, Spector Pro and off we went.

Among other things, the software recorded every keystroke made, and it took a still shot of the desktop every few seconds. You can see a film made of just a few of those shots below.

When I had chunk of work, I would arrange to come in to the British Library to download the data. I visited on eight separate occasions. My first visit was in October 2014, and my last was in March 2018.

By the time we had finished we had generated 222GB of date, captured across 108, 318 files.

What was the aim/ what were you and the researchers hoping to discover?

Personally, my aim was a combination of, as I say above, mitigating feelings of isolation via collaboration, but also open-ended experimentalism. I love the idea that I had no idea what was going to happen with the resulting data. During the writing I had no access to the software on my computer and I had no sense at all of the data being produced. I was flying blind and happy to do so.

As to the British Library curators, they wanted I think to get as complete a picture of the process of the creation of a fiction as they were able. But it’s pretty cutting-edge work and they weren’t sure how the software would function, or what it would yield. I was surprised how esoteric the capture process was. I’d expected some definite science-type thing with hard edges and sure knowledge but actually it was guessy and developing, basically because we were using employee surveillance software in a different way to its intended purpose, and in a way that it had not been used before.

You have to hand it to the British Library, this was a genuine experiment from them.

What were the technical challenges?

Very low. Just I had to back up my work in three different ways as often as I could face and go into the Library for a few hours while they milked the data. Easy.

(How) did being recorded change how you wrote?

At first, I was minding my Ps and Qs a bit, trying to seem like a more faultless writer than I was. I remember at one point I even looked up the spelling of a word on another computer so that I could type it correctly into the spyware computer. Ha!

But that didn’t last. I relaxed and soon I actually quite wanted my mistakes to show. It seemed like an act of solidarity with the writers I was teaching, to show them what I had often told them, that writing is born from repetition, that every writer has blind spots – shonky spelling, flimsy characters, poor plotting – and that only re-writing cures. It seemed generous to show the tottering beginnings of what most people would only consume as the finished article.

Taylor's workspace

But not only that. I forget about the keystroke software recording my every move because of the story itself. Staying On was a difficult novel to write, and that was because I aimed to write as simply and truthfully and compassionately as I was able. Aims I found to be not as readily available to me as I would have flattered myself to hope – compassion and truth not really having been the modus operandi of my younger self.

As I wrote, I forgot about the keylogging because the difficult writing became immersive – as I hope the reading of it will be – because my story and my characters – Tony and Laney, Jo and Nick – absorbed me, and in the end it was their story that cured me of my loneliness, the keylogging project was just the booster to get the journey started.

Did the data reveal any unexpected insights?

I hope it will. The data has only just been published on a Creative Commons BY licence. You can see it and download it here: https://data.bl.uk/cmtaylorkeylogging/.

Already, Alex Butterworth from Sussex Humanities Lab, and Thorsten Ries visiting Sussex from Ghent University, have started playing with the data. Alex applies data visualisation techniques to literature, and Thorsten has, I believe, cloned my laptop’s hard-drive in order to compare it to the data. This was what I wanted – people with skills I could not even imagine rearranging the dataset into new and unexpected forms of knowledge.

We just want people to play with the data, see what they can find and make.

As a lecturer in Publishing, what do you see as the chief challenges and opportunities for the future of the book trade?

Where to start? I wouldn’t bet against technology’s intersection with publishing producing a whole new genre of ghost stories. Tech does haunting very well – as Japhet Asher’s AR Ghostkeeper’s Journal and Kate Pullinger’s smartphone Breathe in different ways show.

But in terms of broadly manifesting opportunities right now, we have audiobooks capturing non-traditional readers; we have increasing respect shown to intelligent genre work; we have clusters of independent presses pushing out non-traditional work.

In terms of challenges, well it’s like an audit of the country’s broader malaises – Brexit; structural sexism; snobbery; elitism; London-centricity; under-representation along ethnic and class lines - not just in terms of employees, in turns of those stories allowed to be told.

My novel Staying On is set amongst the working-class expats of Spain and when I was writing it, I was told - by unnamed publishing grandees - that my book wouldn’t get published, that people didn’t want to read about working class characters, because they were ‘not aspirational’.

Personally, I’d like to see a big change in that attitude.