The good(?) old days of scientific writing

I recently read the first volume of Richard Dawkins’s memoirs An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist. It brought back a few memories for me.

The political and trade union battles of the early 1970s in the UK, for example. I was working in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1973-1975. That period saw 3 general elections and massive power cuts. I remember the problems of trying to do research, and even writing, when we only had power for 3 days in a week!

Dawkins took advantage of that time to begin writing the book which established him as a popular science writer – The Selfish Gene.

His description of what writing was like in those days  also brought back strong memories. We wrote and rewrote, with copious use of Sellotape and paste. A few, often considered eccentric, scientists had their own portable typewriters but most of us relied on the “typing pool.” That was an interesting social phenomenon – all female, it reminds me now of the way women were employed to do the tedious calculations for astronomers. They were called “calculators.”

I remember one stroppy typist who just could not understand why I kept rewriting manuscripts. She would often complain – but one had to keep on the good side of people like that otherwise your typing would go to the bottom of the pile.

Here’s how Dawkins described the process:

“I now find it quite hard to comprehend how we all used to tolerate the burden of writing in the age before computer word processors. Pretty much every sentence I write is revised, fiddled with, re-ordered, crossed out and reworked. I reread my work obsessively, subjecting the text to a kind of Darwinian sieving which, I hope and believe, improves it with every pass. Even as I type a sentence for the first time, at least half the words are deleted and changed before the sentence ends. I have always worked like this. But while a computer is naturally congenial to this way of working, and the text itself remains clean with every revision, on a typewriter the result was a mess. Scissors and sticky tape were tools of the trade as important as the typewriter itself. The growing typescript of The Selfish Gene was covered with xxxxxxx deletions, handwritten insertions, words ringed and moved with arrows to other places, strips of paper inelegantly taped to the margin or the bottom of the page. One would think it a necessary part of composition that one should be able to read one’s text fluently. This would seem to be impossible when working on paper. Yet, mysteriously, writing style does not seem to have shown any general improvement since the introduction of computer word processors. Why not?”

By the way, his book is a good read if you enjoy scientific biographies.

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7 responses to “The good(?) old days of scientific writing

  1. Were you at Aberdeen University Ken?


  2. No, I was doing post-doc research at the Macaulay Soil Research Institute.


  3. I know some people that used to work at Macaulay

    Small world eh?


  4. William Zinsser talks about this phenomenon is his book “On writing well”. The fact that we get to tinker around with words any way we want, without leaving a paper trail is marvelous, and has probably spurred writing among many who wouldn’t have otherwise pursued it.


  5. How interesting, in light of your regular criticism of anti- fluoridationists, that even back in the ‘good old days’ of writing you used ‘cut and paste’ techniques.


  6. Bojangles, “cut and paste” means taking a section of work (typically your own writing) and relocating it to elsewhere in a document. Routine behaviour if you want to rearrange the order of what you’ve said. It’s very easy nowadays, with word processors, but was markedly more difficult back in the days when everybody used typewriters.

    By contrast, “copy and paste” (which is actually what certain anti-fluoridation people have a habit of doing) refers to taking a chunk of existing text and replicating it. Acceptable enough, though fairly unusual within the same document.

    However, copying and pasting is open to abuse, for instance when somebody simply copies a large screed of material from somebody else’s website and posts it up in the comments section of a blog. This can be rather misleading, in that the poster may let readers believe it’s their own work (by posting without attribution), or indicative of the large amounts of research they have done on a topic.

    As you can imagine, people get rather annoyed if they’ve been trying to have a good faith discussion on a subject, only to find that the other participant is simply spamming them with material somebody else has written.

    There’s nothing wrong with referring to somebody else’s work, but a simple link and perhaps a short excerpt, supplemented by your own commentary on why you think it is relevant to the discussion, is a far better approach than simply copying and pasting screeds of another person’s work and expecting to be taken seriously.


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