Ever since Mnemosyne, the mother of the muses, gave the wax tablet to mortals,
memory, writing and technology have been interconnected.
—Carolyn Guertin

“Getting down to writing a paper for a scientific journal is like trying to start an old car on a frosty morning: the would-be driver is anxious, the car is cold and reluctant, and both man and machine suffer for a while.”

This gem is from an old book I found in the library stacks today called Writing Scientific Papers in English: An ELSE-Ciba Foundations Guide for Authors. It was written by Maeve O’Connor and F. Peter Woodford and was published in 1975. Don’t clamor around all at once. Everyone will get a turn.

Within its yellowing, almost completely outdated pages is advice for “inexperienced authors and for those who write with difficulty”. It’s concerned for those hapless writers whose need to publish scientific papers in English. Need to publish in Russian? You’re out of luck.

I gently ply the brittle spine, curious what the concerned scientists have to say. What opens is window on a bygone, Selectric-and-whiteout world. Take, for instance, the chapter dedicated to typing the manuscript. Here, O’Connor and Woodford advise: “You will probably have to retype the text of most papers several times. Do not be irritated or upset by this.”

Word processing? No such thing. Oh, how far we have come. In fifteen years, this poor little book has become almost completely obsolete.

Almost.

I’m merrily perusing the quaint advice when the pages freeze, fan-like in the air. Four little words jolt me to a stop, just like the cold engine of that reluctant car. The words seem to address me—and me, specifically:

“What not to write.”

I look over my shoulder. “Who, me?” Then, “How snotty! How presumptuous! What could this brittle, yellowing book have to say about my writing?”

Of course, the inevitable moment of self-doubt kicks in. Could the authors have some wisdom to impart? Do I judge too hastily? I wrinkle my brow and studiously turn back to the book.

  • “Before you go further in planning a paper, consider whether official secrecy acts will form a barrier to publication.”
  • “Do not write an article simply because you think it is time your name appeared in print.”
  • “Never publish for self-glorification. Your motives will be only too obvious to the experienced reader.”

I’m not Tom Clancy so I’m in the clear on that first point. As for those other warnings, what writer doesn’t publish—at least in part—for self-glorification?

Emboldened, I flip to the back, where an appendix lists words the writer should never use. Avoid anticipate. Prefer expect. Give up sacrifice in favor of kill. Instead of bright red in color, simply say, bright red. Eschew species in which the hairs are lacking. Use hairless species.

“Wooly words” include: area, character, conditions, field, level, nature, problem, process, situation, structure, system. Best to forgo these altogether. Leave them, like greasy hors d’ouevres untouched on the platter.

What not to write…. I try to brush them off, but the words finally take hold with their authoritative, insidious ring. My skin prickles with sudden self-consciousness. I feel I’m being watched. I’m not a scientific writer, but O’Connor and Woodford have transported to the future and they are now pouring over my drafts in the very messy throes of creation.

Understand, this is the equivalent of peeking in someone’s underwear drawer.

My associative mind doesn’t skip a beat. After all, is the sartorial closet so different from the rhetorical one?

Enter Trinny and Susannah, What Not to Wear’s snarky fashionistas. They shove the scientists aside, throw open my wardrobe, and tug aggressively at my attire.

Trinny: My God! Look at all these layers! Baggy prose hides the real you, darling.

Susannah: And your adjectives are too showy. Get rid of them.

Trinny: These dangling prepositions have got to go. Too distracting, too distasteful.

Trin and Suze move off the to side to confer with Peter and Maeve. This is making me nervous. What could the unlikely foursome be talking about? Perhaps there’s a clue in the book.

I turn back to it, where Maeve and Peter go on to proclaim,

A good way to write the first draft is in two stages: structural and stylistic. It is a waste of time trying to improve stylistic details before you are sure that the sections, paragraphs, and sentences are in the right order, that all the essential points have been included and any superfluous ones are removed, and that the argument runs logically from hypothesis to conclusions. Start with structure…

The group has quieted now. They’re staring at me.

Susannah [breaking away from the others and tearing at my clothes]: We’ve agreed. Your problem is foundation. What do you actually have on under there?

OK, I get it. Start with structure (or your bra and knickers). There is wisdom in that. But it chafes. The style police—whether they be Trinny and Susannah, or Strunk and White—can be tyrannical and homogenizing. Follow their rules too closely and you end up like the proverbial emperor, stripped of stylistic fashionings, strutting down the street with nothing on.

So Trin, Suze, Maeve, Peter:  I know you’ve got good intentions, but here are some verses for you:

Anticipate,

bright red in color,

species in which the hairs are lacking.

Stunned, the fashionistas and the scientists slink back into the shadows.

Both a sword and a shield, dressing can be a form of truth.