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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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