Exciting news: I’m (co-)writing another book!

I’ve been itching to share this news, and now I can: I’m writing another book! Actually, even better: I’m co-writing this one, with Bethann Garramon Merkle. It’s been hard to keep this quiet for so long, but we’ve just signed a contract (with the University of Chicago Press), so now it’s official. Hooray!

What’s it about, you ask? Well, our working title is Helping Students Write in the Sciences: Strategies for Efficient and Effective Mentoring of Developing Writers. Writing is a huge part of the job of a scientist, and it’s hard – but teaching and mentoring writing is too, and it’s harder.

Do you work with grad students, undergrad researchers, postdocs, or other early-career colleagues that you’d like to help write better? Do you use (and, likely, grade) writing assignments in lecture or lab courses? Do you teach a unit or a course in scientific writing or communication? If you do any of those things, you’ve probably discovered that helping students (or other developing writers) write better is difficult, and time-consuming, and frustrating. And you’d probably like help; and that’s where our book comes in.

It’s awfully ironic that while scientific writing is a huge part of what we do as scientists, almost none of us have any formal training in it. Well, even fewer of us have any training in helping others learn scientific writing.

If you want to learn to write better and more easily, your lack of formal training needn’t be fatal – there are books (cough cough, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing), blogs, courses, you name it. But if you want to learn to teach or mentor writers better or more easily, you’ll have a much tougher time finding resources. That’s not because there aren’t effective and efficient ways to mentor/teach developing writers. In fact, there are whole academic disciplines concerned with exactly this challenge (rhetoric, composition, and writing studies; and the scholarship of teaching and learning). These fields have an enormous literature, written by experts and packed with evidence-based best practices. Scientists, though, by and large don’t read that literature. When they try, they find themselves up against two problems:

  1. They find much of this literature inaccessible, thick with disciplinary jargon.
  2. They find little of it specific to teaching/mentoring writing in the sciences

Even if much of what works is universal, there’s a lot to be gained by considering best practices in a familiar context. Bethann and I think we can help, with Helping Students Write. We can offer concrete, actionable, evidence-based* advice, couched in language and contexts that scientists will understand. If you follow this advice, you’ll spend less time working with student writing while seeing better results. We know, that’s a big claim. But each of us has been thinking about this kind of thing for a long time.**

We’ve come to our interests in teaching and mentoring writing from very different directions, though. I’m just like (we suspect) most of you. I came to teaching/mentoring scientific writers from necessity, without any training or expertise; I struggle with the jargon of the writing-pedagogy literature; and for many years I’ve been frustrated by how difficult and time-consuming it is to help the writers I want to help. Bethann is trained in writing studies, writing pedagogy, literature and creative writing, and the science of science communication. For years she’s been looking for (and developing) solutions to the clear disconnect between writing frustration in the sciences and the expertise that exists on the other side of most campuses.  We’ve written a couple of chapters already and we’re convinced that, as a team, we can offer what you need to bridge the gaps.

Now the bad news: you can’t read Helping Students Write just yet. We’ve committed to delivering the manuscript in March 2024, and the book should be available by the end of that year. But while you’re waiting (for two whole years!), we’ll have some appetizers for you. Watch this space (and Bethann’s blog too) for related thoughts, excerpts, and other teasers.

And tell us, please: if you were reading Helping Students Write, what would you most like to find it in? We’ll see what we can do.

© Stephen Heard and Bethann Merkle  November 8, 2022

 

Image: breaking news, © Jernej Furman CC BY 2.0 via flickr.com


*^If you’ve been reading Scientist Sees Squirrel for a while, you’ll know that I have something of a fondness for footnotes. Turns out Bethann does, too! In Helping Students Write, we’ll take advantage of that. The main text will present our advice, in accessible language pinned directly to contexts in science. Then, we’ll use endnotes to back that advice up with evidence from the literature on writing pedagogy. If you’re willing to take our word for what’s in that literature, great – you can ignore the endnotes. But if you’d like to know more, our endnotes will be there for you as an entry point to a literature that, while extensive and sometimes dense, has a lot to offer.

**^I’ve taught Scientific Writing, and I’ve posted (for example) about teaching writing across our curricula, about strategies for faculty editing graduate-student writing, and about the distinction between grading writing and mentoring writers. Bethann lived former lives as a science journalist, science communication consultant for research groups, and an academic editor. More recently, she has co-developed curriculum and a program-specific textbook for the University of Wyoming freshman composition program, co-developed and runs an annual academic writing mindset program around scholarly writing practices, and launched a Writing Science column and Communicating Science section in The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. Bottom line: she teaches and studies effective approaches to writing and communication. And, she coaches faculty, postdocs, and non-academic researchers to better support undergraduate and graduate students’ scientific writing and science communication.

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11 thoughts on “Exciting news: I’m (co-)writing another book!

  1. Caroline

    That is exciting news! I will buy the book as soon as it comes out. Some topics that jump to mind: helping students to learn to be good peer editors, working with students for whom English is not a first language, and teaching use of scientific ‘voice’ versus informal ‘voice’.

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  2. meirabengad

    I’m not a scientist … but I’m a copy editor who edits many scientific papers, most of them for non-native English speakers. The only area where I struggle is with statistical procedures, especially where the client clearly has only a vague idea how to express the purpose of the procedure and the nature of the results. It would be amazing if your book could include a chapter on how to write about common statistical analyses in clear, simple, straightforward, and accurate language – language that would be accessible and meaningful to students, to scientists who are not native English speakers, and most important – to educated laymen like me. 🙂

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  3. CommNatural

    I’m jumping in to re-iterate what Steve said – thank you in advance for any suggestions about material to include in the book! And yes, supporting good student peer review is something we can absolutely address. 🙂

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  4. anapinedagomez

    This book is so needed! Can’t wait to read it 😍 here some things that the more senior scientists ask often in my courses: how to give constructive criticism, how to let go of the need of changing everything, how to motivate the students when they’ve lost that motivation. I’ll keep my ears open for more common questions 😜

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  5. debfinn71

    This is fantastic news! I love teaching scientific writing, but I’ve mostly just been winging it (which is a lot easier with The Scientist’s Guide to Writing in-hand, so thanks for that too!) Each new semester, I think I have come up with a better way to streamline the “grading” (which is primarily written feedback) of various writing projects and exercises, but I still end up spending way too many precious hours, even with only 15-16 students at a time. I want to provide at least the most crucial, personalized feedback to each student, and I also want to have time for my own writing and research. There must be an answer that is better than “oh, just work 70 hours a week”.

    That’s it. Just a plea for help. Thanks for your dedication to this topic! This is a Biology grad student class, btw.

    Liked by 1 person

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  6. jacquelinehoppenreijs

    Very exciting news, looking forward to the book!

    One of the things that I’d be interested in touches on something said in the above, about students for whom English is not their first language. What about teachers that are not teaching in their first language, in classrooms with students that may or may not be learning in their first languages either?

    And maybe it’s irrelevant in much of the North-American context, but is there a scientific discourse about students getting the choice between their first language or English? Depending on which phase of studying and life they’re in, they themselves, their future employers and society might benefit more from on or the other.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Thanks – that last bit is particularly interesting, because those on a “conventional academic” path will benefit from learning to write in English, while those pursuing SciComm careers (for example) may benefit more from learning to write in the first language. So how much “teaching how to write” is language-dependent, and how much is not??

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      1. jacquelinehoppenreijs

        The goal is quite important indeed! That can be a career path, but I think BSc students (in a context where virtually everyone does a MSc afterwards) can profit from writing their undergrad assignments and/or thesis in their native language to facilitate development of their ways of thinking, structuring their reasoning etc. Can, in that stage, be more important than thinking of a specific audience or career path at all. Highly personal, but very interesting to think about even on just this level/platform!

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