The Scientist’s Guide to Writing

Note: The Scientist’s Guide to Writing is now in its second edition. Read about the additions here.

While running experiments and collecting data are important things, they don’t contribute to science unless we write up the results and share them with our colleagues and the world.  This means that writing is arguably the most important thing we do as scientists—and it’s something for which most of us have little, if any, formal training.

Writing effectively and productively is a big challenge for most scientists (including me!), but it’s something we can learn to do faster and better.  I’ve written The Scientist’s Guide to Writing (Princeton University press, April 2016) to pass on some of what I’ve learned over the years, and I think the book can help almost any scientist become a better writer.

In The Scientist’s Guide I emphasize two things: (1) the importance of crystalline clarity to communication with your reader (and to being read in the first place!), and (2) the value of understanding your own behaviour when you write. I draw on the culture and history of scientific writing, the psychology of writing behaviour, and a lot of other things to help writers understand why we write the way we do and how we can write better, faster, and more easily.

Table of Contents

Part I: What Writing Is

    1. On Bacon, Hobbes, and Newton, and the selfishness of writing well
    2. Genius, craft, and what this book is about

Part II: Writing Behavior

    1. Reading
    2. Managing your writing behavior
    3. Getting started
    4. Momentum

Part III: Content and Structure

    1. Finding and telling your story
    2. The canonical structure of the scientific paper
    3. Front matter and Abstract
    4. The Introduction section
    5. The Methods section
    6. The Results section
    7. The Discussion section
    8. Back matter
    9. Citations
    10. Deviations from the IMRaD canon

Part IV. Style

    1. Paragraphs
    2. Sentences
    3. Words
    4. Brevity

Part V. Revision

    1. Self-revision
    2. “Friendly” review
    3. Formal review
    4. Revision and the “response to reviews”

Part VI. Some loose threads

    1. Journals and preprints
    2. The diversity of writing forms.
    3. Managing co-authorships
    4. Three kinds of reading: reference, survey, and deep
    5. Writing in English for non-native speakers

Part VII. Final thoughts

    1. 30. On whimsy, jokes, and beauty in scientific writing

You can read more about the book, and see some sample content, using any of the Amazon links below (click “Look Inside”).

Some reviews (of the 1st edition)

Other materials

Using the book in teaching

If you’re interested in using the book to teach a course, it can be a standalone text for a full scientific writing course or a companion book for a writing-intensive course.  (It’s pretty inexpensive).  There are Exercises at the end of most chapters that can be used as in-class activities or assignments.

I’ve used the book to teach a course for Honours undergrad and grad students.  You can find my syllabus, and notes on the course, in this post.  I also have Powerpoint slides available by email request.

Ordering links

Interested?  You can order the book through any of these links, or of course through your favourite local bookseller.

Canada Canada: The Scientist’s Guide via, or via

United_States USA: The Scientist’s Guide via, or via Indiebound

australian-flag-small Australia: The Scientist’s Guide via

brazilian-flag-small Brazil: The Scientist’s Guide via

China China: The Scientist’s Guide via (NB: a Chinese translation is currently in preparation!)

dane-flag-small Denmark: The Scientist’s Guide via

french-flag-small France: The Scientist’s Guide via

german-flag-small Germany: The Scientist’s Guide via

indian-flag-small India: The Scientist’s Guide via

swedish-flag-small Sweden: The Scientist’s Guide via

swiss-flag-small Switzerland: The Scientist’s Guide via

british-flag-small United Kingdom: The Scientist’s Guide via

(Or you can order directly from Princeton University Press.)

Know of a retailer you’d like to see here?  Send me a link!