Tomorrow, I’m giving a Member Webinar for the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, called How to Write a Better Thesis Faster: Learning the Craft of Writing. (Want to attend? You can join today and get the link tomorrow. Look, I’ll be honest: I’m not worth the price of membership. But you should join anyway – it’s a fabulous society with a great annual meeting and members who are brilliant, engaged, and kind.*
My talk** is a rather whirlwind compendium of advice for early-career folk wanting to learn to write more easily. One piece of advice – one I wish someone had given me early in my own career – is that it’s worth reading books on writing. Books plural. There are quite a few good ones (and yes, it’s true, also quite a few bad ones). Here are the ones I’m going to mention, with capsule summaries – provided mostly as a sort of online appendix to my talk, but this way you can see the list too. (It overlaps only in part with this older list.
Here we go:
Little, Brown Handbook (or link for Canada) (Fowler and Aaron). This is a reference book, to consult when you need to know how to use a semicolon or the subjunctive, or how to effectively sequence points in an argument. Yes, it’s a little dull; but you won’t be reading it with your feet up by the fire. New editions are quite expensive but older editions are just fine; the content you need doesn’t change much. There are other writers’ guidebooks and they’re reasonably interchangeable, so you don’t have to have access to this one; for example, DiYanni and Hoy’s Scribner Handbook for Writers is also good.
Writing Science in Plain English (or link for Canada) (Anne Greene). I wish people did. If we scientists have one overarching flaw as writers, it’s our penchant for writing turgid and tedious prose laden with jargon, acronyms, and other sins against readability. In this short and very readable book, Greene argues that we should, and can, write more simply. Amen to that.
Stylish Academic Writing (or link for Canada) (Helen Sword). With a take that’s not quite the same as Greene’s, but very much complementary, Sword guides writers towards academic writing that’s more vivid, passionate, and elegant. This is a short, engaging book, and if we all read it our literature would be a lot less dull. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (or link for Canada) (Joseph Williams). A classic that, like Sword’s book, is about constructing elegant prose. There are many editions, recent ones being more expensive but not any better. This, by the way, isn’t about scientific writing – Williams is in the humanities, and concerns himself mostly with writing in that sphere – but the principles are very much the same.
The Sense of Style (or link for Canada) (Steven Pinker). A psychologist explains how to construct prose that takes advantage of the way readers think. Whatever you think of Pinker as a person, that’s a valuable perspective. The Sense of Style is entertaining to boot. Well, maybe not Chapter 3, which diagrams sentences with more enthusiasm than many of us will be able to muster – although even there, there are worthwhile lessons to those who stick with it.
How to Write a Lot (or link for Canada) (Paul Silvia). This short book isn’t about what you’re writing, but about how to make sure you actually write it. I felt seen on every page, and you probably will too. The behavioural tips are solid gold, and can help with the discipline that every writer needs to be productive. Silvia has a companion book, Write it Up!, which is more of a conventional writing guide and isalso very good.
Writing Science: How to Write Paper That Get Published and Proposals That Get Funded (or link for Canada) (Josh Schimel). Maybe I shouldn’t promote this book, as it’s probably the most direct competitor to my own, but it’s really good. Schimel is especially strong on narrative – how to make your paper tell a compelling and clear story. As an aside, I’ll mention that I had a thoroughly enjoyable lunch with Josh a few years ago. I was worried that he’d resent the fact I’d written a book that might cut into the market for his. He was, instead, nothing but kind and complimentary. This is how science should be.
On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft (or link for Canada) (Stephen King). You wouldn’t think Stephen King would have much to teach a writer of scientific papers. You would be wrong. You needn’t pay much attention to the details of King’s life, if you’d rather not, but his message about taking writing seriously is crucial. It’s amazing how many writing tips generalize from horror fiction to scientific papers.
The Scientist’s Guide to Writing (or link for Canada) (Stephen Heard). Come on, you didn’t think I’d skip an opportunity to plug my own book? It’s cheaper than Schimel, more relevant than King, more engaging than Fowler and Aaron, less ego-inflated than Pinker, and… beiger than Williams. And I think it can really help. (You can find table of content, reviews, and more here.)
I don’t expect every grad student or early-career researcher to own all nine of these books – that’s unrealistic. But you know what is realistic? For every PI in the sciences to have a shelf in the lab with at least half a dozen of these.
What writing books do you love that aren’t on this list?
© Stephen Heard November 18, 2020
Image: Part (only part) of my collection of writing books. Oh, wait, what’s that doing there? That’s not a writing book… You caught me. I slipped a copy of Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider in there, just for kicks. CC BY 4.0
*^It’s true, I have to say that, I’m currently the Society’s President. But I thought so beforehand, too, which is why I was willing to run for the office.
**^It hurt enough to type “webinar” once. I can’t bring myself to do it again.