Scientists writing about writing science

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At the author’s urging, I just began composing a review of Stephen Heard’s brilliant new book The Scientist’s Guide to Writing. It got me thinking about where it fits in the science writing ecosystem. So, rather than a review of just that book, this turns out to be a comparison of my favourite three books on the topic. Which of three you’ll benefit from reading the most depends I think on your level of prior experience…

For advanced undergrads and early postgrads learning the nuts and bolts of a how a scientific paper is put together, in a crowded field I particularly like:

Writing Scientific Research Articles: Strategy & Steps
by Margaret Cargill & Patrick O’Connor
2nd edition, 2013, Wiley-Blackwell

The book has clearly been assembled with the beginning researcher in mind, and perhaps especially the non-native English speaker. It is very well suited to both individual study and for use in a teaching context. Each chapter takes a section of a research article (introduction, methods, results etc.), or a part of the process of writing a research article (submission, peer review, responding to reviewers…), providing both essential background information as well as suggesting strategies and exercises to develop the relevant skills. It’s a very practical approach, with an emphasis throughout on learning about these different aspects by analysing real, published examples in the reader’s own field.

[Aside: For German speakers, a special mention here for my colleague Nils Cordes’ new book also pitched at (biology) undergrads: Schreiben im Biologiestudium (2016, UTB).]

For PhD students who already have some experience with writing and with reading the scientific literature, but who now need to learn the craft of turning their own data into papers that effectively communicate their findings to others, I would throughly recommend Heard’s book:

The Scientist’s Guide to Writing:
How to Write More Easily and Effectively Throughout Your Scientific Career
by Stephen B. Heard
2016, Princeton University Press

The tone of the book is much more conversational. Rather than laying down just ‘the facts’ as clearly as possible, one instead gets the impression of someone’s experiences being shared; of accumulated wisdom being imparted. There are many more personal anecdotes and diverting asides, especially on the historical development of scientific writing and the etiquette of publishing. I liked those elements, but to an absolute beginner, I can see how they might actually hinder the uptake of the main messages. Overall, though, I think the balance is just right for a PhD student, which is of course a crucial niche. There’s enough of the basics to make sure everything is covered, but plenty of “professional advice” beyond the strict focus on the actual writing itself. I particularly liked the early chapters on learning to become a professional writer, developing strategies and processes to help get into the writing habit. Not everyone will come to the same solution, but Heard does a good job of making you think about the importance of writing to a scientific career and on the practical steps one might take to become better at it.

Finally, for postdocs and more experienced writers looking to hone their writing skills, my last recommendation would be:

Writing Science:
How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded
by Joshua Schimel
2012, Oxford University Press

Here the focus is more squarely on the actual words on the page; how the language we use and the way we structure it affects the clarity and force of the story we want to tell. It’s definitely not for beginners, and doesn’t claim to be. Rather, what Schimel achieves I think better than any other book I’ve read on writing is to make the reader really think (or re-think) about the fundamental goal of any piece of (scientific) writing, and – by analysing many real examples – to learn to pay close attention to how language choices really matter. Early in the book he introduces the key concept of making a story ‘sticky’ (an idea he borrows from Heath & Heath’s book Made to Stick). Now, that might sound a bit like marketing, and that might make some readers uneasy – surely the aims of marketing and science are diametrically opposed ? – but I think he convincingly argues that the concept of stickiness transcends the details of how one might use stickiness to, say, get more customers to buy your products, or to sell more newspapers, or whatever, and speaks to a larger truth about how we can argue and convince each other by using all the linguistic tools available to us. It’s just that historically marketing people or journalists have done a better job of using those tools than have scientists (a situation Schimel aims to correct).

Looking back, I think the book titles reflect these differing target audiences quite well. For Cargill and O’Connor, the focus is on the scientific research article, dissecting it up into its component parts in order to understand what exactly it is and how one might assemble one. For Heard, the focus is rather on the individual scientist, learning the craft of writing as part of the daily routine of actually being a professional researcher tasked with regularly producing scientific articles. For Schimel, the science itself takes centre stage: how do we come to gain new insights from writing about our research, and how can we most effectively convey those to others?

Phrased like that, there’s a natural progression from one book to the next, and correspondingly, I think I gained most personally from reading Schimel (which likely just reflects my own career stage). Not least among the insights in Writing Science was that, although research articles are full of strange conventions and unwritten rules, it’s worth always remembering that there’s nothing particularly special about their underlying aim: to locate the story and tell it effectively. Reading Schimel will help you do that. Heard’s book was packed with insights too, and could certainly profitably be read by more experienced researchers looking to improve their writing and perhaps especially their writing routines; I will be enthusiastically recommending it to all of my students from now on, with Schimel a perfect complement once they have mastered the basics.

 

Photo credit: Thomas Lefebvre, via Unsplash.

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