A shelf of writing books

Some OTHER good books on scientific writing

If you’ve been hanging around Scientist Sees Squirrel, you’ve surely notice that I’ve written a guidebook for scientific writers.  I’m biased, of course, but I think The Scientist’s Guide to Writing is pretty good – and if you write at all, I think reading it can help.  (Why not go buy yourself a copy?  I’ll wait.)  But if you’re serious about your writing craft, I hope The Scientist’s Guide won’t be alone on your shelf.  It isn’t alone on mine.

Here are a few books that I think could profitably keep The Scientist’s Guide to Writing company.  (UPDATED: see the Replies thread for reader suggestions!)  These aren’t guidebooks.  There are, of course, plenty of other guidebooks out there; they overlap to some extent with The Scientist’s Guide and hence are competitors of a sort*. Instead, the books I’m sharing with you today are those that are usefully different (from The Scientist’s Guide and from each other).  I’ve found each helpful in my own writing.  Few scientists are likely to read all these books, but any scientist can benefit from reading a few of them.  If you’re nerdy enough to put a writing book on your Christmas list, be assured, Santa will understand.

  • How to Write a Lot (Paul Silvia). (Deals with writing of any sort.) This is not a book about writing (the noun), but about writing (the verb) – that is, it’s concerned with the process of writing and the behaviour that lets someone do a lot of it (and oh boy, do we scientists have to do a lot of it). It’s a very short book that answers its own title with tips on time management and the psychology of productivity.  In my career I may have met two or three people who don’t need to read this book.  It’s hard to recommend it too highly.
  • On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft (Stephen King.) (Writing of any sort, plus some autobiography.) 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.  King has advice to give about both: behaviour that favours productivity, and composition that favours clarity.  Some of the latter is specific to fiction – but if you have an open mind, not nearly as much as you’d think.  The advice is interwoven with stories from King’s life.  Both are worth hearing**.  The book is conversational and easy to read (much like King’s fiction).  You might think a writer of mass-market horror would have little to say to a scientist writing for our scientific literature.  You would be wrong.

  • The Elements of Style (Strunk and White). (Writing of any sort.) This may be the most famous writing book there is. It has passionate fans and equally passionate despisers (I’m in the former camp). Its writing advice (largely on style) is simple and indispensable, and it’s delivered with wit and occasional cantankerousness.  It’s short enough to read in an hour or two, but insightful enough to read repeatedly.
  • The Sense of Style (Pinker). (Writing of any sort.) 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 remaining chapters are both useful and entertaining. Yes, entertaining – especially the final chapter, which dissects so-called “rules” of grammar that aren’t really rules, but are counterproductive.
  • Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (Williams and Bizup). (Writing of any sort.) Williams’ book is perhaps best thought of as a longer and less crotchety version of Strunk and White. It’s also a lot like Pinker’s book – only Pinker writes like a psychologist who’s discovered composition, while Williams writes like a scholar of composition who’s discovered psychology.  This book aims to help writers produce text that’s coherent and clear, but that also that has the ill-defined property of “grace”  (closely related to what Pinker (and Sword, below) would call “stylishness”.  We’re not used to thinking of scientific writing as potentially graceful, but we should be.  (By the way, the newest edition of this book, linked here, is ludicrously expensive.  Don’t buy it.  Any edition back to the original will be equally useful.)
  • Stylish Academic Writing (Sword). (Writing in all academic disciplines). Sword argues that (much) academic writing is horrible, even though we largely know how it ought to change.  Her goal is to make academic writing 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 that will be of special interest to someone who can write a basic, functional paper, but who aspires to writing one colleagues will admire.
  • Communicating Science (Gross et al.). (Writing in the sciences.) This is not a book about how to write – it’s a book about how we’ve written. Gross et al. trace the history of writing in the sciences – the history of structure, of style, of vocabulary, of grammatical choices, and much more.  It’s addressed more to the field of science studies than to practicing scientific writers, so it’s probably better grazed than devoured.  However, I think it’s very useful to know not just how scientists write, but how we’ve come to write the way we do.  It’s one way we can escape from the trap of simply modeling the last five years’ worth of papers, and thus perpetuating practices without thinking about them.  I wouldn’t dip back into this book often enough to own it, but I’m glad my library has a copy.
  • The Scientific Literature: A Guided Tour (Harmon and Gross). (Writing in the sciences.)  This follow-up to Communicating Science isn’t just more of the same.  The approach is again historical, but this book is more of a field guide crosspollinated by an anthology.  Where Communicating Science constructs figures and tables to analyze how usage has changed, A Guided Tour displays examples of figures and tables (and text) to show that change.  Just as interesting and 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 (including the humour and beauty I’ve written about elsewhere).  The examples are taken from a wide range of papers, from classics of early history to famous modern papers to the obscure but fascinating.  There’s a lot one can learn from the tour and from the tour guides.
  • The Little, Brown Handbook (Fowler and Aaron). (Writing of any sort.) This is the only boring book on this 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.

What useful writing books have I missed? Please add your suggestions in the Replies.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) December 8, 2016


*^That doesn’t mean you should ignore them. The overlap is far from complete, and writing is too important for you to rely on a single guide.  If I had to recommend one other really good guidebook to complement The Scientist’s Guide, it would be Josh Schimel’s Writing Science.  UPDATE: Ambika Kamath has used both The Scientist’s Guide and Writing Science to teach writing, and compares the two books on her blog.

**^Although you may understand King’s need to write at length about the hit-and-run accident that nearly killed him, while also understanding your own desire not to read quite all of it.

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10 thoughts on “Some OTHER good books on scientific writing

  1. Nelson

    Great list! Thank you for compiling it!

    I would suggest adding “How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper”, by Robert A. Day (http://amzn.to/2i6FTh4). Easy to read, and full of Peanuts cartoons 🙂

    Also on my shelf: “Fine-tuning your Writing” by W.R. Luellen (http://amzn.to/2hMhoJw). The moto of this book is: “If writing is a requirement of your work you are a professional writer”. It helped me understanding some basic grammar rules (e.g. which vs that) that I’m still working hard to apply as a non-native English speaker.

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  2. Jeremy Fox

    Strunk & White? Is this some sort of misguided attempt at handicap signalling? “My book on writing is so good, I can recommend Strunk & White and my reputation as someone who knows a lot about writing will survive.” 🙂

    Ok, on a serious note: thoughts on Joan Strassmann’s argument that you can’t become a better writer by reading books about how to write well? https://sociobiology.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/why-you-wont-learn-to-write-from-steven-pinkers-the-sense-of-style/

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    1. Jeremy Fox

      In seriousness re: Strunk & White, my impression is that their stylistic advice is anodyne but fine (even if they don’t always follow their own advice), but that their grammatical advice is horrendous.

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    2. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Actually, I’d pretty much agree with Joan, but to be clear not with “Reading books on writing won’t teach you to write”, but instead with her actual argument – which (I think) is that just reading books on writing won’t teach you to write; you also need to practice, and read broadly. Absolutely! And abundantly acknowledged in my own book, BTW🙂.

      I like this from Joan’s post: “you can’t learn to write by learning a bunch of rules, or memorizing correct usage of words.” That’s true. That’s why the Little, Brown Guide is a useful reference but nobody has ever become a good writer by memorizing it.

      But it’s also valuable to think about writing; to reflect deliberately on how you’re writing (both behaviourally and stylistically). That’s where writing books really come into their own, I think – not as lists of rules to be followed, but as ways to help you think about what you’re doing as you write, and why, and what you might consider doing instead.

      Reading books on writing has definitely improved my writing. (Writing one helped even more, which perhaps I should have seen coming.) They are part of the way we master our writing craft, but of course they are not all of it.

      Related (to this comment/reply): How should grad students learn to write? https://scientistseessquirrel.wordpress.com/2015/04/21/how-should-grad-students-learn-to-write/

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  3. Tony Diamond

    My working list of books on writing has 11 items; the only one in common with those listed here is Stephen King’s. From my list I might suggest George Orwell’s Why I write (http://amzn.to/2h3kFEE), and for something completely different, Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: the Zero Tolerance approach to punctuation (http://amzn.to/2h2esau). A bit cheesy, perhaps, but grad students love it and it is a light-hearted entrance to the importance of punctuation (and some other things). Bill Bryson’s Troublesome Words (http://amzn.to/2h3oGsZ) is useful too, and more accessible than some.

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  4. Pingback: A capital dilemma: “western Australia” or “Western Australia”? | Scientist Sees Squirrel

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