Writing is a huge part of any career in science, and for many writers – no, for most writers – it’s a daunting challenge. But it’s not a challenge that you have to tackle alone. That’s a lesson I wish I’d learned earlier in my career; but I’ve learned it now. If you want to be a better writer, or a faster and more efficient one, there are many resources you can lean on. I’ll assemble some recommendations here; and please use the Replies to add your own go-to resources, for everyone’s benefit!
Yes, you expected me to go there first. My own book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, is now in its 2nd edition, and you’ll forgive me if I think everyone should own a copy. It covers a lot of ground, including both the behaviour of the human producing writing, and the content, format, and style of the writing itself. Only with attention to both can you master your craft of scientific writing!
But you shouldn’t stop with my book. There are lots of good books out there, and they differ in content and perspective.
A core set
Let’s start with a small set of books that I think makes a great core library. Should you own every one of these? Probably not! But the seven books I list here (plus mine!) would make a great set for every research PI to buy for a lab “writing bookshelf”. Alternatively, you can see this as a reading list for your occasional trips to the library. I’ve found each of these helpful in my own writing.
Writing Science (Josh Schimel). If I had to recommend another really good guidebook to complement The Scientist’s Guide, this would be it. There’s a fair bit of overlap between Josh’s book and mine, but Writing Science is especially strong on narrative (turning your results into a story).
How to Write a Lot (Paul Silvia). This is a book about writing (the verb), not writing (the noun). That is, that is, it’s concerned with how a writer can tackle time management and the psychology of productivity, in order to accomplish the huge amount of writing that comes with almost any academic career. I think I have maybe met two or three people who don’t need to read this book. It’s hard to recommend it too highly. Silvia has another book, by the way: Write it Up!, which is less distinct from Writing Science or The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.
Writing Science in Plain English (Anne Greene). One of our biggest challenges as scientific writers has to be overcoming the temptation to write jargon-written and impenetrable complexity. This short book offers help (including exercises). Everyone – yes, everyone – should take advantage.
Stylish Academic Writing (Helen Sword). Sword argues that (much) academic writing is horrible, and that it can and should be more vivid, passionate, and elegant. She gives examples of elegant writing from many disciplines, and breaks down ways that any writer can emulate them. Some are ordinary (use less jargon); others are more exotic to the average scientific writer (opening “hooks”, or creativity and humour). This is a short and engaging book aimed at those who can write basic, functional papers, but who aspire to more.
Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (Joseph Williams and Joseph Bizup). Williams’ classic book could perhaps be thought of as a longer, less dated, and less crotchety version of Strunk and White. This book aims to help writers produce text (in any genre) that’s coherent and clear, but that also that has the ill-defined property of “grace” (closely related to what Sword would call “stylishness”. We’re not used to thinking of scientific writing as potentially graceful, but we should be. By the way: cheap older editions are just as good.
Better Posters: Plan, Design and Present an Academic Poster (Zen Faulkes). The conference poster is a specialized form of writing/presentation that appears to baffle many of its practitioners – which is why I include Better Posters in my core set. If you ever present a poster, or even consider doing so, don’t do it without Faulkes’ advice (here and in his blog). My more thorough review of Better Posters is here.
The Little, Brown Handbook (Fowler and Aaron). This is the only boring book on my list. Boring – but crucial. It’s a reference manual to grammar, composition, and rhetoric. Do your coauthors constantly change your punctuation? Do you have trouble keeping “which” and “that” straight? Do you worry about when and how to use the subjunctive mood? (Or for that matter, do you wonder what the heck the subjunctive mood is?) All writers have issues like this at some point, and having a reference manual on your shelf is the cure. There are several; but this one is comprehensive, well organized, and straightforward to use. By the way: cheap older editions are just as good.
Some “extras”, many of them filling more specialist niches
The books in this set needn’t be in every lab, but I’ve found each of the valuable – sometimes in more niche ways. If you have particular writing interests or challenges, one or more of theses may be worth consulting.
Scientific Writing and Communication: Papers, Proposals, and Presentations (Angelika Hoffmann). This is more of a textbook than a book to pick up and read; and it barely touches issues of writing behaviour. However, it’s more encyclopedic than other guides, including substantial coverage of grant-writing, oral presentations, even curricula vitae. Worth having as a reference volume, even if not the first book I’d read.
How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper (Barbara Gastel & Robert Day). If you have and like my book, you probably don’t need this one; the overlap is larger than the complementarity. They do include three chapters on presentations (oral, poster, and conference report), which may make it worth borrowing this one from your library. (If you prefer this book to mine, don’t tell me. You’re being perfectly reasonable, but it will still make me sad.)
The Sense of Style (Stephen Pinker). This, despite its title, is largely a book about vocabulary and grammar. Don’t panic, though; it’s not an indigestible one. Pinker’s interest is in how writers can harness understanding of vocabulary, grammar, and psychology to write clearly. You could be forgiven for flipping quickly through Chapter 3, which diagrams sentences and dissects their syntax in more depth than you might want (although there are lessons to reward you if you stick with it). But the rest is both useful and entertaining – especially the final chapter, which dissects so-called “rules” of grammar that aren’t really rules, but are counterproductive. You may not think much of Pinker as a person, but The Sense of Style is very helpful.
The Scientific Literature: A Guided Tour (Joseph Harmon and Alan Gross). This is more of a field guide than a how-to book. The approach is historical, illustrating with examples how scientific writing has changed over three centuries. It’s useful, I think, to understand where our modern writing conventions came from. Perhaps even more useful, A Guided Tour examines the modern diversity of writing forms and styles – for instance, illustrating the use of nonstandard structures and nonstandard forms. The examples are taken from a wide range of papers, from classics of early history to famous modern papers to the obscure but fascinating.
On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft (Stephen King.) Yes, that Stephen King. King’s writing is enjoyed by many, and reviled by many more. It may not be your cup of tea, but there’s no denying he’s produced a lot of it, and that it’s never unclear – two things we’d all like to emulate in our scientific writing. You may want to skip through some of the more autobiographical material to focus on the writing advice. You might think a writer of mass-market horror would have little to say to a scientist writing for our scientific literature – but you would be wrong.
Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success (Wendy Belcher). This book has two features that differ from most of my list. First, it’s organized more as a workbook, breaking down the process of writing a paper into smaller tasks and scheduling them through the 12 weeks of the title. This may help those who find managing their own writing difficult. Second, it covers writing of qualitative research.
English for Writing Research Papers (Adrian Wallwork) and/or Science Research Writing for Non-Native Speakers of English (Hilary Glasman-Deal) There are a few books written explicitly to guide writers of English as an additional language (EAL). Most don’t seem that helpful to me (although I’m not their intended audience). Wallwork’s and Glasman-Deal’s are perhaps the best, and worth holding in any lab with a substantial EAL population. (I should probably point out that The Scientist’s Guide to Writing includes a chapter on this, substantially expanded in the 2nd edition.)
Writing Successful Science Proposals (Andrew Friedland, Carol Folt, & Jennifer Mercer). Grantwriting is a special craft with its own conventions and techniques. Because what’s needed varies so much among funding agencies, it’s difficult to produce universal advice, but this book makes an extremely valuable attempt. Consider its price a small investment paid back by the first grant you land.
The Writing Workshop: Write More, Write Better, Be Happier in Academia (Barbara Sarnecka) (Note: if you don’t need a print copy, free PDF download here.) This guide covers a lot of ground, but it’s unusual in paying special attention to the idea of writing groups as a way to encourage productivity. There are helpful suggestions for finding, structuring, running, and participating in such groups.
Several Short Sentences About Writing (Verlyn Klinkenborg). This is a book about writing in general, not about scientific writing. It’s a very odd book, but an insightful one if you can get past what can come off as a sarcastic and condescending attitude, and a weird choice to present long sections in what feels like blank verse. There’s a lot to be learned about crafting sentences that are both stylish and functional. Definitely not a book to start with, but an interesting one to grab from your library and dip into.
Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words: A Writer’s Guide to Getting It Right (Bill Bryson). This is a manual of usage and style at the level of words and phrases (general, not specific to scientific writing). If you once owned a well-thumbed copy of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, you might wish there was a similarly encyclopedic, but less dated and frumpy, version. There is, and it’s Bryson’s Dictionary. If you know Bryson’s travel books, you might wonder if the wit carries over to his writing about language. It does, so you can look up a point of usage like ‘which vs. that’ and know that you’ll enjoy the process.
Blogs and Podcasts
Books cost money, and while I think they’re worth some investment, blogs and podcasts are (usually) free! There are many that touch on writing from time to time; here I’ll mention a few that are particularly writing-focused and particularly good.
- Scientist Sees Squirrel. Yes, I know you’re already here, but I thought it would be useful to include a link to all my posts tagged “scientific writing”.
- Brushing Up Science. Blog from Ken Hughes, a blog that covers writing but also data visualization, talks, posters, and more. I almost always agree with Ken!
- Better Posters. As you might guess from the title, this is Zen Faulke’s blog about poster design. Not everything Zen knows or thinks about would fit in his book!
- Writing Science. Also you might guess from the title, this is Josh Schimel’s blog, a companion to his excellent book. Josh posts rather infrequently but he’s always worth reading.
- Raul Pachecho-Vega’s blog covers more than just writing: research design, other sorts of communication, and more. Raul is a human geographer and political scientist and provides perspectives on qualitative research that will be very helpful for anyone dipping a toe into that research style. This blog also frequently reviews and recommends other writing resources.
- The Thesis Whisperer – blog from Inger Mewburn, Director of Researcher Development at the Australian National University.
- Academic Writing Amplified – podcast from Cathy Mazak. Look to older episodes for more about writing, but there’s all kinds of other career advice here too.
- Scholarly Communication – podcast on the New Books Network, with Daniel Shea, William Domnarksi, Avi Staiman, and others. Listen to Daniel Shea interview me about the 2nd edition of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, here!
Webinars and Courses
There are many ways to learn about writing through courses. Your own university (or other institution) may have courses of all sorts. There are also many courses available online – some free, some not. I’ll caution here that I have little direct knowledge of these, so do your homework (before you take a course that involves doing your homework).
- Ana Pineda’s “I Focus and Write”. OK, I know something about I Focus and Write, because it offers regular free online Masterclasses, and I’ve given two of them. There are also paid options; but if all you want is to take advantage of the free Masterclasses, Ana will welcome you anyway.
- Coursera’s list of scientific writing courses. I know nothing about any of these beyond their existence.
- Nature Masterclass in Scientific Writing. If you’re looking for yet another way to give the Nature publishing empire a bunch of your money, this way is faster than trying to publish with them. Is the course good? Who knows; I’m not giving them my money. But if anyone has tried it, please let us know!
- Duke University’s Graduate Science Writing guide. This isn’t quite a guide, and isn’t quite a course, so I wasn’t quite sure where to put it. But it’s nominally organized into “lessons”, so here it is!
Resources for Teaching Writing
- The syllabus, course outline, and workshop exercises for my own writing course are here – and I make lecture slides available by request, too!
- The Writer’s Diet. An online tool and a Word plugin to diagnose ‘flab’ in writing, from Helen Sword (author of Stylish Academic Writing, above).
- Hemingway App. Similar to The Writer’s Diet: an online tool for assessing readability of draft text. Just please don’t use it to write about drunken louts bullfighting.
- Your own lab or peer group. Here’s a suggestion: why not organize a group reading session for one of the books I recommend here? Read a couple of chapters together each week, with one person appointed to present highlights from each chapter to spark discussion. Either The Scientist’s Guide to Writing or Writing Science works well in this format; I’ve had fun dropping in (via Zoom) on a couple of lab groups reading my own book this way.
- Your university’s Writing Centre. Most universities have them, although the services they provide vary a lot. They may have online resources or tutorials, or they may sponsor webinars or offer courses. They may do one-on-one consulting about a draft piece of writing (although sometimes, only for undergraduates; and they may or may not have expertise in your discipline). It’s always worth finding out what they have to offer.
- Shut Up and Write! If you have trouble maintaining writing discipline, Shut Up and Write might be for you. It organizes writing meet-ups, online or in person, where writers support each other. Worth a try!
There’s much, much more of course – please leave your own favourite resources in the Comments.
Dr. Stephen Heard is an evolutionary ecologist and Professor of Biology at the University of New Brunswick in Canada. He is the author of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing and of Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider. He blogs about academia, science and many other things at Scientist Sees Squirrel, or you can find him on Twitter as @StephenBHeard.
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