Category Archives: scientific writing

Why I write the Introduction last

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked. “Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Don’t listen to the King.

At least, not when writing a scientific paper. Continue reading

Getting past writer’s block

All writers know the awful feeling: stuck, stonewalled, stymied, stumped. You just can’t find that next sentence, you have a terrible suspicion that your last one sucked, and you’ve a sense of existential dread that you’ll never again write coherent text. “Writer’s block,” we call it.

I put “writer’s block” in scare quotes, because the key to getting past it is realizing that it’s terribly misnamed. Continue reading

Yes, good writing matters: empirical evidence!

I’ve devoted a lot of time and effort, over the last decade or so, to writing about good writing. There’s The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, of course; there’s our recent preprint on the construction of good titles; there are dozens of posts here on Scientist Sees Squirrel; and I can neither confirm nor deny rumours of another currently-super-top-secret book project. And this doesn’t even count the innumerable hours I spend toiling to improve my own writing, and to mentor my students towards improving their own.

Does any of this matter? Continue reading

How to talk with your mentor about writing (and why)

All of us write, and all of us learn to write; but virtually none of us do so alone. Which is a good thing, both for the doing and the learning! For that latter part: there’s an early-career phase in which you work closely with a mentor. Most often, that mentor will be an honours or graduate supervisor, and you’ll be working together while you write a thesis, or perhaps a manuscript for publication derived from a thesis. This kind of close collaboration can be extremely helpful as you learn the craft of scientific writing; but it can also be frustrating for both parties.

Before going further, it’s worth acknowledging just how much can be involved – on both sides. For the developing writer: writing the thesis is an enormous project that consumes many months (if not years). For most, it’s also a time of rapid learning. And the stakes are high, because the entire graduate program culminates in the thesis, and the first few publications have outsize weight on an early career CV. For the mentor, it’s also a big deal and extremely time-consuming. A mentor might read and comment on three or four drafts, or maybe a dozen, of each of your thesis chapters – and they aren’t likely to have a single mentee, so you can multiply that by the population of a lab.

So if the collaboration can be either helpful or frustrating, it’s very much worth trying to push the needle towards the former and away from the latter. Here are some ways you can do that. Continue reading

Effective grant proposals, Part 2: Feasibility

Today, the second part in my series on writing effective grant proposals. I’ve pointed out the importance of careful thought about what a grant proposal is for. In brief, the function of any grant proposal is to convince its readers of three things:

  • that the work you’re proposing is worth doing;
  • that the work you’re proposing can be done;
  • and that the work you’re proposing can be done by you.

Or (in order): novelty and significance; feasibility; and qualifications.

Having dealt with the first bullet, it’s now time to think about the second: feasibility. A funding agency will want return on its investment in the work, which means that they’ll want to be convinced that the work can actually be done. Continue reading

I’m on the “Scholarly Communication” podcast, talking about (what else) scientific writing

Perhaps you’ve noticed that I have the occasional thought about scientific writing. I recently had the pleasure of expressing a bunch of those thoughts in a wide-ranging conversation with Daniel Shea, one of the hosts of the Scholarly Communication podcast series from the New Books Network. You can listen to the episode here.

The interview was spurred by the recent release of the second edition of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, but our conversation wasn’t limited to that. Continue reading

Do funny titles increase or decrease the impact of scientific papers? New preprint!

Is science a laughing matter? That could mean a lot of things, I guess, but one place the question gets raised is around the construction of titles for scientific papers. Is it OK for a title to be funny?

I’ve had a longstanding (but admittedly weird) interest in the issue of humour and beauty in scientific writing. Not much gets written about that (except by me), but one place there’s just a little bit of literature is where humour intersects with the construction of titles. That’s in part because titles are important, and in part because the availability of easily-extracted data connecting titles with citation rates has given birth to something of a cottage industry in trying to associate features of titles with high or low citation fates of the papers in question. For title features suitable for automated scoring, like length, lots of data and analyses are available. But humour isn’t like that. This lack of data doesn’t stop authors of writing guides from advising against humour in titles (not mine, of course, but this one, and this one, and this one, for instance). How good is this advice? Continue reading

A shelf of writing books

A new compendium of resources for scientific writers

Writing (as you’ve certainly noticed) is hard; and scientists (as you’ve even more certainly noticed) need to do a lot of it. In hindsight, one of the more revolutionary moments in my career was when I figured out that writing isn’t just something that magically happens whenever a research project gets finished. Instead, I figured out, writing is a craft I can learn and practice – just like statistics, or cooking, or tennis.  Over the years since this earthshaking (not sarcasm!) realization, I’ve learned a lot, and if I’m not a writing genius, I’m at least a lot better and a lot more efficient than I once was.

Much of what I’ve learned found its way into The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, and I hope you’ll pick up a copy – your library will have it, or can get it, if you don’t want to buy it. But no single book can cover everything, or suit everyone’s preferences.* Fortunately, there are many, many resources out there for scientific writers – those just starting out, or those (like me) who realize that even decades into a career, there’s still more to learn.

So: I’ve set up a curated list of writing resources. I intend to expand and refine it, and I’ll invite readers (there, not here) to drop their own favourites in the Replies. I hope you’ll find the list useful, and please share it widely if you do.

© Stephen Heard  February 15, 2022

*^You, for example, may hate writers who put amusing asides into footnotes. If so, you might want to avoid The Scientist’s Guide to Writing – although you’ll miss my references to Agatha Christie and Alan Greenspan naked (not together!) and to Gloria Gaynor’s Best Disco Recording Grammy. Although, come to think of it, if you hate footnotes like that, what are you doing reading this one?


It’s out today! The 2nd edition “Scientist’s Guide to Writing”

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. Continue reading

Two reasons I haven’t started writing yet

That title was true when I thought of it, but no longer was once I’d typed it. How meta-ironic!

I’ve been thinking a lot about writing lately – partly because I’ve actually been doing some (hooray sabbatical!), and partly because I’m excited about the 2nd edition of The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, which will be released in just a few days time. One thread that runs through the book is that “writing” is both a noun and a verb, and thinking about the verb form is really important to a career in science. Are you writing? When, and how? Narrowing that down a little: I can’t tell you how many times over my career I’ve asked someone how their writing is going, and been told that they haven’t started yet.* But I think that’s a mistake. If there’s a project advanced enough that it exists to be asked about, you probably should have started writing about it. Let me explain.

There are actually two very different reasons why, for a particular project, I might not have started writing yet. Continue reading