Revised. I was thinking about the way I write research papers, it involves a lot of revising to even get a "first draft," and subsequently I do a lot of revising also. Presumably this is fairly common nowadays, as computers have made revising papers easy.

However, in days of yore, before TeX/word processing, these revisions were not so easy, so I wonder:

Has TeX/word processing qualitatively changed the way we write papers? Specifically: (i) did people do significantly less revising (or make fewer passes) before computers? (ii) did people have different approaches to writing first drafts?

My understanding is that, in the past, faculty typically had assistants/secretaries to type up hand-written notes, and sometimes special symbols/figures would be drawn in by hand (by faculty? or assistant?). Then I presume the faculty would go through and edit by hand, and necessary parts would be retyped. Possibly there would be another pass of this, but I can't imagine that many more revised typings were made. Did this mean less revising was done?

If so, did this force people to plan out their first drafts at the handwritten stages differently than now? At least for me, I usually have a basic outline in mind and then just start writing and go back to revise earlier parts while writing later parts (apart from the intro, which is sometimes written last). However, I guess this style is not so practical when writing by hand?

(Originally, my question was if word processing has changed the quality of papers, but that was deemed too opinion-based. Hopefully, this is something people can answer semi-objectively from their first or second hand experience.)

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    This question is difficult to answer, since there were many changes in academic publishing beyond the typesetting. Arguably the most significant is that academia is much larger these days and more easily accessible. Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 17:19
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    I don't know about research papers, but people definitely write better plays these days. Have you seen Shakespeare's spelling? Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 18:20
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    I think the effect of word processing, if there is any, is going to be minuscule in comparison with the other factors affecting the 'quality' of the published papers. (As a side note, some academics have such a poor knowledge of how to use these softwares that they would almost be better off using a typewriter).
    – Cape Code
    Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 18:24
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    @ff524: I'm not sure if it's a "good" subjective question either, but it's something I thought people with a better sense of the history of their field than me might have an insightful opinion on. Wow, that sentence turned out horribly. Maybe I should've planned it out first before writing it. Or revised it.
    – Kimball
    Commented Jul 19, 2014 at 0:00
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    I think the question is answerable after revisions, at least anecdotally, assuming we have sufficiently many people here who remember writing papers 30+ years ago versus nowadays. Commented Jul 20, 2014 at 15:45

3 Answers 3


Making an answer out of some amplified comments, which I deleted...:

Prior to slightly-modern typewriters such as IBM's "Selectric" and some proto-computerized typewriters, mostly too expensive for individuals to buy, staff typists did not "add value" much (except for faculty who could not type), because they could not literally type special characters, which then had to be drawn in by hand by the author, by reference to the original hand-written thing. The typist would leave approximately the right amount of space to draw the characters. As you can imagine, making a boo-boo drawing characters onto an already-typed page was both all-too-easy and very annoying. In principle, one could make photocopies, but (let's say early 1970s) photocopies were much more expensive than now, and were typically much, much worse quality than a directly-typed page. (One could also type onto "mimeo masters", and draw characters on them, but this was incredibly messy, smelly, crazy. Mimeos were the closest thing to "private publication", but one could only make 30 or so copies before the "master" wore out...) The "white-out" of the time was not very good, either: it would often fall off the page.

For submission for publication, the hand-drawn Greek letters were typically to be underlined or circled in red, Fraktur with green, stuff like that.

Yes, the revise-and-retype cycle was burdensome. In effect, errors could easily be introduced by typists, and new/different errors the next time, after the author proof-read.

Since there was usually only a handful of typists per department, even the people with some seniority would have to wait a week or two or three for re-typing, adding another delay. But most people were reconciled to these delays, especially since learning to (genuinely!) "type" was not so typical in those days! That is, in high school in the U.S., people studying "business/secretarial" stuff, not planning to go to college, would learn touch-typing and shorthand. People "going to college" often did not learn to type at all, and possibly did not possess typewriters at all. For such people, there was no real choice but to give hand-written manuscripts to typists, even if the whole process was slow and crazy-making.

With the advent of the Selectric and such, and especially proto-word-processors that could treat non-Roman characters and do corrections and remember things, typists did add value, even for those who could type, because they'd have those machines, which were too expensive for typical individuals to afford. Serge Lang was an exception: prior to 1977 he had his own Selectric, and was an excellent typist (unsurprisingly). The hitch in using those things was "changing the balls", because not all characters could be available at one time. So this slowed things down quite a lot. The usual trick was to leave spaces for exotic characters, and go back and fill in by ball-swapping... which lent itself to the same annoying boo-boos as with hand-drawing characters into blank spots on a page. And not all characters were available... And any diagrams would still have to be drawn by hand.

With the advent of widely-available desktop computing either provided by math depts, or, eventually, cheap enough for individuals, again staff typists no longer added much value except for those who couldn't really typ, and the possibility of revising-without-completely-retyping changed everything. I note that pre-word-processing, seniority determined access to and priority with the limited staff typists, and wait-times for typing or retyping could be weeks. And as recently as 2005 I observed a senior colleague giving dictation to one of the few staff who could take shorthand, to type up a letter, and the person giving the dictation would make the now-almost-forgotten editorial marks on the typed copy, send it back for retyping. There was/is "status" in giving dictation or having typing done by others?

Formatting was not really possible either, except at publishers' houses. Sure, one could hand-draw, but they'd re-typeset everything, so any visual effects an author came up with were a waste of time. Perhaps the ugliness of mathematics manuscripts in those days (as in early SLN's) reinforced the quasi-Platonic mythology about the mathematics itself, since it sure didn't look so beautiful when clumsily drawn in by hand on the page!

The several years of the availability of desktop computers but without anything resembling TeX (mid 1980s) allowed much time to be wasted typing things up in file formats that were obsolete by the next year, etc. That was irritating. The desktop computers of the time had tiny memory, were literally slow, were unstable, and the daisy-wheel printers took a couple minutes to print a single page. And jammed. And...

Some faculty seemed not to mind demanding endless revisions from typing staff, but to me this was awkward, and just doing it myself was easier, since I had learned how to type. A significant number of the grad students at Princeton did type their own theses in the 1970s, but many did not. But the quality expected was really very low, so that lack of what nowadays would be minimum-allowed-quality was ignored.

All that effort expended to create even a crude document did distract from the content, yes. Cutting-and-pasting and moving things around and search-and-replace were really infeasible, not at all worth the trouble unless there'd be a major disaster otherwise. Just getting a reasonably correct thing onto the page was already a considerable accomplishment. Whatever had been more-or-less correctly typed so far was "frozen".

Thinking about it, it seems to me that there was much less self-critiquing done in those times, because it was so difficult to create an easily-readable document, typed or handwritten. That is, it was simply harder to subject one's own writing to careful scrutiny, because the typical copy would be (perhaps semi-legibly) handwritten, many cross-outs, pieces of paper taped on, white-out, ... In particular, the "notes" were much less an incarnation of mathematical ideas, I think, since they were inevitably a crappy version thereof. In contrast, nowadays it is possible to have "notes" that other human beings could read, etc. :)

Even before today's set-up, some people (including me) did try to skip the hand-writing step to the extent possible, exactly because hastily handwritten text was almost automatically not-really-readable by anyone else, and because typing prose could be much faster than hand-writing it, even with old typewriters.

A large difference seems to me to be in computations. "Long ago", of course all computations were first handwritten, and errors and revisions were a horrible mess. In contrast, nowadays one can typeset the first attempt to make it legible if not correct, and iteratively correct it, rather than repeatedly starting over, etc. This possibility, of iterative computation via typesetting, was absent in the dim past.

Also, getting other peoples' opinions was of course crazily slower: time-lag for typing-up, and then actual physical mail, further impeded by "campus mail" at both ends... in contrast to emailing a PDF. In fact, international mail ("air mail") often failed entirely... :)

So... "yes". :)

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    Thanks, Paul, for an informative and insightful answer. I guess I should be extra impressed with the old masterpieces like Zariski-Samuel then.
    – Kimball
    Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 1:06

Remark: The following answer was for the original version of the question (deemed too subjective) regarding the impact of word processing on quality of papers.

This question is really impossible to answer since it is impossible to compare new and old articles due to a lack of a fixed standard over time. Now in this case I think of now and then being a span of, say fifty years. The shorter the time span the more difficult any differences will be to identify.

First, the way articles are formulated has changed and the standards are in constant but slow change. Articles started out as letters (late 18th/early 19th century; usually directed to a person in a learned society) being publicly read to the society. These were very personal. Later, the more formalized writing started taking shape (late 19th/early 20th century). Second, the pressure to publish differs, which means articles are pushed through as quick as possible. We have gone from a situation where a paper every now and then has been replaced by n publications/yr rates to be acceptable (varies between disciplines). This can reduce the amount of time to be spent on each paper, on the other hand one can argue that one becomes more experienced. Third, the research community is growing larger and larger and although this is not directly affecting quality it means competition for resources and a necessity to write more and quicker. This will also feed back into the second point. As I see it it is not clear that we are going in any particular direction and part of the reason is that our reference as to what is good is also shifting.

So even if one considers the introduction of computers, it is difficult to assess changes because the reference with which to compare does not exist. In the same way it will be difficult to compare scientific research of the 18th or 19th century with research done today and state that modern research is somehow better by comparison. For a very good discussion on this topic I suggest reading Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientifc Revolutions, The University of Chicago Press.

  • Perhaps it's hopeless, but that doesn't mean I can't still hope for an interesting answer, does it? Still, even if people have no impressions of "word processing" (which I guess started around the '80s with TeX released in '78) making a difference in quality of writing, maybe that's an indication that there isn't much noticeable difference, and I can write my papers any way I please (which I do, of course).
    – Kimball
    Commented Jul 19, 2014 at 0:10
  • @paulgarrett I think your comments could be turned into an answer. Commented Jun 21, 2015 at 16:24

I saw somewhere some information on a mathematical paper by C. L. Dodgson (i.e. Lewis Carroll). He would hand write it, send it to a printer to have it typeset, then make hand-written corrections, send it back to the printer, and so on, several iterations.

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