Category Archives: books

The 2nd edition “Scientist’s Guide to Writing” is available for pre-order!

I’m excited: the second edition of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing is now available for pre-order!

I’ve been working on this second edition for a year and a half now. While you can’t have it on your shelf just yet (it’s slated for publication January 11, 2022), you could in principle order a copy today.* For anyone who just can’t wait, here it is directly from the Princeton University Press, and here it is on Amazon (that’s the US link; here’s the Canadian one, and the UK one).

What’s in the second edition, and why might you be as excited as me?  Well, OK, I can pretty much guarantee you aren’t as excited as me. But I think folks will find that the new edition has some worthwhile additions. Quite a few of them, actually, but here are some highlights:

  • A new chapter, “Journals and Preprints”, provides advice on how to choose a journal to which to submit a paper. It considers things like journal scope, reputation (and how to judge it), speed, cost, publisher profit model, and access. It also covers preprint servers – a rather shocking omission from the 1st edition, I’d have to admit.
  • Another new chapter, “Three Kinds of Reading: Reference, Survey, and Deep”, expands on reading. We all need techniques for efficient and effective reading, because we’re all drowning in the literature. This chapter outlines ways to read to extract particular bits of information (reference reading), to assess a paper for possible closer attention (survey reading), or to thoroughly understand a paper (deep reading).
  • The chapter on “Writing for Speakers of English as an Additional Language” is expanded. This is an important chapter, because globally, most scientists aren’t native speakers of English – but nearly all publish in English. I’ve updated and expanded this chapter to give EAL speakers the best guidance I can. And importantly – native English speakers should be thinking about this guidance too, because all of us will mentor or collaborate with EAL speakers!
  • I’ve almost doubled the Exercises following the chapters. I’ve been surprised how valuable people find these – but I guess I shouldn’t be, or at least not any more, as I use them in my own Scientific Writing course and they work really well there.
  • The advice on writing Abstracts and titles is greatly expanded. I include coverage of recent literature on how features of titles may influence citation rates – a fascinating literature that’s (to me) quite counterintuitive.
  • I provide better guidance on how to frame discussion of study limitations. I’ve learned that many students need help in presenting limitations without rhyming off every possible thing that might have gone wrong, and thus leaving a reader convinced the study is worthless. It’s important to be transparent about limitations – but it’s also important to show how conclusions can be drawn despite those limitations.
  • I offer new advice about handling disagreement among reviewers, as well as the situation where an early-career writer disagrees with suggestions from a supervisor or mentor. We’ve all been there; and such disagreements can be either frustrating or very productive, depending on your approach to them.
  • I’ve greatly improved coverage of science communication (writing for the general public). It’s not at all the same thing as writing for our literature; and while we won’t all indulge in SciComm, it’s crucially important that some of us do, and do it well.
  • A new cover that doesn’t feature the unusual Z-structure for DNA. OK, this really doesn’t matter to most folks. But there’s a non-trivial number of people knowledgeable enough to notice the left-handed helix, but not knowledgeable enough to know that the Z-structure exists and is biologically fascinating. I will admit to having tired of such people.

Intrigued yet? I hope you are. While I’m proud of the 1st edition and stand behind everything in it, I’m sure you’ll find the 2nd edition is better.

Now excuse me while I spend the next six months fidgeting furiously with impatience, waiting for publication day. Maybe this isn’t really the hardest part of writing a book – but sometimes it feels that way.

© Stephen Heard  July 28, 2021

*^The “in principle” is because to be honest, I really don’t know why you would order a copy today, six months in advance of publication. Now, pre-orders are very important for trade books (those aimed at the general public), with pre-order data feeding bookstore placements, publisher investment in promotion, and the like. These things are less important with a more technical book like The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, and so I’m not going to wheedle, beg, or plead with you to order in advance. You can wait!  In the meantime, though, why not pick up a copy of Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider?  It’s a bargain these days, and I think it’s worth reading.


Butterflies, mustard seeds, and misplaced critical thinking

I’ve just read Graham Moore’s The Last Days of Night, a novel based on the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse over AC vs DC electrification in the 1880s. This was a fascinating story*, but I’m taking off from it on a tangent today. The epigraph for Chapter 23 is a quote attributed to the architect and futurist Buckminster Fuller: “There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly”. Now, given my cringeworthy memories of what I was like in high school, I should be 100% behind this quote. The problem: as an entomologist, Buckminster Fuller was an excellent architect.

The quote, you see, is nonsense. Continue reading

Fictional species, fictional names

For as long as humans have been telling stories, they’ve been making up creatures to populate them. Orcs and ents; snallygasters and golden snidgets; and many thousands more. Some stories give us only fleeting glimpses, while others paint their creatures in more detail. Only a few, though, give their creatures Latin (scientific) names. As you may have noticed, I’m fascinated by names and naming. So here are a few examples of fictional species that bear fictional Latin names. There’s no database of such things, so this is a quasirandom set I’ve run across recently. Do you know of more? Please add them, in the Replies! Continue reading

A year in the life of Charles Darwin’s Barnacle

Warning: navel-gazing

Charles Darwin’s Barnacle is a year old! Not the species – that’s probably a few million years old, or at least that’s a guess given the average lifespan of a species. And not the name “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle”, which is 138 years old (the deep-sea barnacle species Regioscalpellum darwini was originally described by Hoek in 1883 as Trianguloscalpellum darwini). It’s my book: my book Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider is a year old.* It’s a little hard to believe.

People often ask me how the book has sold. I don’t really know (because other than Amazon sales rankings, I have no data), although I can tell you that it spent exactly zero weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Continue reading

The Scientist’s Guide to Writing will have a 2nd edition

The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, my guidebook for scientific writers, will soon have its fifth birthday. I’ll probably bake it a cake, because any excuse for cake is a good excuse, right? But I’ll also be looking forward to a bigger cake, about a year from now, to celebrate the launch of its second edition. Just last week, I sent the manuscript off to my editor, to go through that mysterious process that is book production.*

People sometimes grouse about books that have new editions (I know, because I’m one of those people, especially when it’s a textbook.) Sometimes, no doubt, it’s a cynical ploy to sabotage the used-book market and sell more new copies. So I’ll forgive you if you’re a bit skeptical. Why does the world need The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, 2nd Edition? Continue reading

No two people see a book the same way (or, Canadians CAN TOO be funny)

No two people ever see a book quite the same way (as many folks noticed during my long, dull #AYearOfBooks post series). If you want a great illustration, consider this:

I know, you’re not supposed to read your reviews.* I can’t help it, and there are rewards. Continue reading

Is “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle” political? Sure, and I’m unrepentant.

They say you shouldn’t read your (book/album/movie) reviews, and I suppose they have a point.*

Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider, my book about eponymous scientific names and what they reveal about science and society, has been out long enough to have accumulated half a dozen Amazon reviews. (Incidentally, one easy thing you can do that really helps a small-time author out is to leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Here are some more easy things you can do.)  I’m happy that overall, people have enjoyed the book (and I think you’d enjoy it to, so stop reading this post and get to your nearest public library or bookstore).  But I’m intrigued by one theme that crops up a few times: the book is “political”.

It really is a theme. Continue reading

A year of books comes to an end

This is it: the last instalment of #AYearInBooks (in which I’ve been tracking the non-academic reading I do).  Here’s why I decided to do this. After I report on my year’s last few books, I’ll wrap up with a few comments on the experience.

The Chrysalids (John Wyndham, 1955). There’s a certain feeling of dread when you pick up a book you loved 30 years ago and haven’t opened since. Will it hold up, or will you lose that happy memory? (Rewatching the first few seasons of M*A*S*H had this problem; as much as I loved the show, the early episodes, at least, didn’t age well.) I’m happy to say that The Chrysalids really is that good. It’s post-apocalyptic building-new-society science fiction, with a strong message of tolerance for the different – a message that hasn’t lost any importance in the 65 years since The Chrysalids was written.. I’m encouraged now to re-read Chocky, which was always my favourite of Wyndham’s books. One more thing. Usually I use the current book covers to illustrate – but check out the lurid cover of my Penguin edition! Remember when science-fiction book design boiled down to “paint me something alien, and if it’s totally unrelated to the book, that’s a bonus”? My Penguin edition does. Continue reading

Art and science in “This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart”

Read any good books lately? I have.

CP Snow famously argued, in the 1950s, that science and the arts/humanities were “two cultures”, with a gulf between them that was far too seldom bridged. While there’s been pushback against Snow’s portrayal,* it’s surely true that there’s more separation between the two than there ought to be (just as an example, I’ve commented here on the relative dearth of scientists as characters in novels). After all, if points of contact between science and the arts were commonplace, people (including me) wouldn’t be so fascinated with them when they do occur. Continue reading

How to make an author happy: Pandemic holiday edition

The Covid-19 pandemic has (you’ve probably noticed) changed everything. Some changes have been seismic; others have been more subtle. Along the more subtle end (and admittedly, along the less important end) of the continuum has been the impact on book publishing. In particular, the pandemic may have boosted reading, but books published this year have had a really hard time finding their way to readers. Launches and readings were cancelled; media attention was elsewhere; libraries were closed; publishers’ warehouses struggled to ship. I don’t know that this affected the John Grishams or the Stephenie Meyers all that much; and Barack Obama’s memoir has set sales records.* But for books from university and other small presses, books from new authors, and books that aren’t thrillers, vampire romances, or biographies of the famous, it’s been rough.

Do you care about this? Continue reading