Category Archives: scientific writing

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.


How long is a manuscript? All answers are wrong.

This week I got to do one of my favourite things: shorten a manuscript.* This one we’re targeting for a journal that has a 30 page limit on manuscript length. We started at 37 pages, and I was immensely pleased to hit about 29.7 (giving my coauthors just a little wiggle room to reject one or two of my cuts).

But it was a little weird.

The thing is, Goodhart’s Law exists. If you set up a metric and reward people for using it (in this case, for limboing just under the 30 page limit), they’ll do just exactly what you’re rewarding them for – and there will be unexpected, and maybe undesired, consequences. Continue reading

Blogging, writing practice, and self-discovery

I’ve been writing Scientist Sees Squirrel for almost 6½ years now – something on the order of 450 posts. With blogging being (supposedly) a dying form, and with a non-trivial amount of effort involved, you might wonder why I persist. There are lots of reasons, actually, but today I’m going to mention two: writing practice, and self-discovery.*

First, writing practice. As scientists, we write a shocking amount; in fact, being a writer is as much, maybe more, a part of our jobs as stats or teaching or experimental design. It’s not just papers – I write grant proposals, reports, administrative documents, and as you may have noticed, I’ve also written two books. So it might seem odd that I spend some of my time doing more writing. Continue reading

Why write well?

Writing is hard; writing well is even harder. It’s easy to find advice, as a result, not to work too hard to polish what you’ve written. You’ll see people arguing that an imperfect-but-submitted paper is better than the perfect one you might finish next week, or that writing something just good enough to be accepted lets you move on to the next paper.

At some point, of course, these thing become true. It would be a bad idea to spend your entire career endlessly polishing one paper that you publish, on your deathbed, perfect and deserving of a (nonexistent) award for literary merit in the scientific literature. But the state of that literature – to a considerable degree turgid, tedious, and impenetrable – suggests that nobody much is making that mistake. Continue reading

Don’t use your Discussion to shred your own work

The Discussion of a scientific paper is, I think, the hardest part to write. That’s because every other section has a fairly well-defined purpose and thus a set of standard contents: the Methods communicates how you did the work, the Results shows what you found, and the Introduction sets the work in context while foreshadowing what’s to come in the Discussion. But the Discussion is a challenge because the writer has considerable freedom in both content and organization. What goes in a Discussion? Almost anything, it seems.

Actually, Discussions aren’t quite as free-form as that. Continue reading

Jargon hurts our science – but we just can’t help ourselves

It’s rare that the appearance of a new scientific paper makes me snort and say “Ha, I told you so!” out loud, but it happened last week. Alejandro Martínez and Stefano Mammola’s paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, asks the simple and obvious question: does using jargon* in a paper’s title or abstract affect the citation impact of that paper?  The answer is “yes”: papers (in cave science**) with more jargon in their titles and abstracts get cited less.

We already knew, of course, that jargon hurts science communication. Continue reading

What jigsaw puzzles could have taught me about writing – if I’d listened

This (pictured above) is a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Except that it isn’t – and that’s a lesson about writing I wish I’d learned many years before I did.

My puzzle is a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle, in the sense that there are 1,000 pieces in the box. But on the dining-room table, it’s ten 100-piece jigsaw puzzles: I did the frame, then the boat, then the chairs, then started on the cottage mansion. Nobody (I think) starts a jigsaw puzzle at the upper left corner and tries to put pieces in one at a time until they reach the lower right.

I used to try writing papers that way: starting with the Abstract, and writing until I got to the end of the Discussion. That’s the way I’d written undergraduate essays and lab reports, so that’s how I figured I’d write papers too. It didn’t work, of course. Continue reading

Strong opinions, weak effects: What makes a good title?

If you want your scientific papers to be read and cited, you have to give them good titles. Right? This statement seems utterly uncontroversial – after all, the entire function of a title is to inform and attract readers; and the title is the first piece of your paper a prospective reader will see. It’s not uncommon for someone to make a decision to read a paper (or, more likely, not to read it) based on just a few seconds spent skimming a title or a long list of titles. So good titles matter. Right?

It’s not hard to find strong opinions about what makes a title “good”. 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

Barf-and-buff writing, and cherry-picking citations

I’m a big fan of a writing strategy that, in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, I call “storming the beach” – but that’s sometimes more vividly termed “barf and buff”.  The idea is simple: early in a writing project, don’t stop to make things perfect. Instead, charge ahead with getting something – anything – on the page. Rough, awkward, incomplete – it doesn’t matter, you can fix it later. Did you write some crap? That’s OK: you can fix crap much more easily than you can fix a blank page. So barf out something terrible, and buff it later.

Like most good advice, “barf and buff” has a few dangers lurking in it. Continue reading