Forgive me for being very excited today: it’s the official release date for the second edition of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing. It’s been a long time in the works, but now it’s for real: you can have your very own copy! (US evil corporate behemoth; publisher; more ordering links).
I hope you’ll like the new edition. It has two new chapters (on strategies for reading, and on preprinting and choice of journals), and a whole slew of other additions and improvements. You can read more about what’s new here.
I thought today I’d use the book’s release as a hook to answer a question I get asked a lot, in various forms. It came up most recently after a talk I gave about my other book. How, a grad student asked, can I manage to do all the things I do? Teaching, research, service, and on top of it all, writing books?
The simplest answer, and something I’ve gradually come to terms with, is that it isn’t “on top of it all”. Writing books takes time (loads of it); and since I took up that rather strange pursuit, that time has come at the expense of other things. Sometimes, I’ll admit, at the expense of leisure; but mostly, at the expense of research. Yes, I’m still doing research (check out the most recent paper from my lab, and stay tuned for a preprint soon on the use of humour in paper titles). But not as much as I might have done, without The Scientist’s Guide to Writing and Charles Darwin’s Barnacle.
I’m OK with that, but it’s taken me some time to get there. I realized the other day that I’ve given about two dozen talks over the last 3 years or so – and exactly one of them has been about my primary research. Nearly always, now, I talk about either writing or species naming, because that’s what most people are interested in hearing from me. It’s not that my research is unimportant; it’s just that in a typical university department a handful of people will care about plant-insect interactions, but everyone cares about writing! And increasingly, that’s what I’m known for.
For a while I found the transition from “plant-insect interactions Steve” to “scientific writing Steve” really odd. Ever since grad school, I’ve been conditioned to think of my primary research papers as the output that matters. That, I thought, was where my career’s contribution to science would be. Each of my papers – just like each of yours – pushes back just a little the veil of mystery at the edges of what we know about our universe. Doing that is pretty exciting, actually – but I’ve come to realize that my own veil-pushing, through my own papers, may be my least important contribution to science. It’s the indirect contributions that will matter more, in the long run: the students I’ve trained to do their own veil-pushing; the colleagues I’ve helped in my service roles; and yes (in case you were worried I’d lost the thread), The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.
There’s a calculation I often trot out when people ask about this. It’s one of those Drake equation-style guesstimates: what kind of indirect contribution might The Scientist’s Guide have made to our literature? Since publication, the 1st edition has sold about 17,000 copies.* Imagine that half of those copies were plunked on bookshelves and never read (admit it, you have that shelf, just like I do). Imagine that just one person read each of the other 8,500 copies.** Now imagine that half of those people find the book absolutely no help at all; but the other half (4,250 people) got something out of it. Let’s imagine it made each of them a little bit better, faster, more efficient writer – say, by just 1%. If an average scientist publishes 50 papers over their career,*** that’s half an extra paper per person – and over 2,000 extra papers that will exist because of The Scientist’s Guide.
I know, that calculation seems improbable to me too; but I tried pretty hard to keep it conservative. And ultimately, it’s why I’m OK with the notion that I do less of my own research because I write books. Those extra 2,000 papers are many, many times more than I could ever have produced; they’ll contribute to many more fields; and some of them – it’s inevitable, statistically – will be better than any paper I’d have written.
So, if nobody really wants to hear about my research, and I’m doing less of it anyway, that’s OK. I’ll admit to being fairly proud of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing. I’m thrilled whenever I hear that it’s helped someone, and if my guesstimate is even close to correct, it was the right choice to sacrifice (some) research for the book.
Here’s hoping the second edition improves on the work of the first. Check it out!
© Stephen Heard February 8, 2022
*^Which is astonishing. Stacked up, they’d be comfortably taller than the Eiffel tower. Although you wouldn’t want to be there when the stack, inevitably, toppled.
**^This assumes that library copies don’t circulate and that people don’t share their own copies. I hope both of these assumptions are false!
***^This is the squishiest part of this very squishy thought exercise. Many scientists publish many more; but also, many readers will go on to other kinds of careers and publish many fewer. But writing skills are transferable, so I hope those folks will be helped anyway, and will write more legal opinions, or recipe blog posts, or conservation assessments, or Regency romance novels, than they might otherwise have done. If my 50-papers average is too high, I’ll fall back on those other indirect contributions!