Writing Science: How to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded – by Joshua Schimel

(by Dr Shibabrat NaikResearch Associate, School of Mathematics)

To an early career researcher, a well composed scientific article certainly seems like one of those things where “you know it when you see it done” rings true. Joshua Schimel’s Writing Science demystifies this for the uninitiated by presenting actionable steps and breaking down the essential elements of a written scientific communication: maintaining structure and flow in the article, making an idea sticky, knowing the target audience, balancing jargon and technical terms. These steps and elements are illustrated using examples of texts on which appropriate corrective measures are taken which along with exercise problems make Writing Science a standout as a book on writing advice.

Very much like storytelling, the author emphasizes, a compelling scientific narrative’s lead actor is the research question where supporting role is played by the data, and the theme is the phenomena/mechanism under investigation. Schimel points out that the aim of a science writer is to go, and take the reader, from data to information to knowledge to understanding by listening to the data, while also paying close attention to the outliers and limitations of the methodology. In this sense, writing and doing science are complimentary acts, and rarely can deep thinking emerge without clear writing. I have come to see this in my own articles where arguments become crisper as I revise the prose. Of key importance is the author’s emphasis on revision, what he calls “prune the big limbs and then shake the dead leaves” approach, in going from the first draft to the submitted manuscript. Indeed, this happens in multiple rounds of back and forth changes in structure, content, flow, and language. To this end, the author points out, via corrections of example texts, what the revision process looks like.

Schimel goes further to unravel the practices that make an article page turner by keeping the audience engaged. This can be achieved by creating flow of concepts and logic, using active voice where possible, adopting action verbs, avoiding conversion of verb oradjective to noun. I would like to add here that a scientific communication benefits from careful graphics designed to aid the story, be it schematics that elucidate definitions or figures of main results that are intimately annotated and labelled. This is indeed captured in Joseph Pulitzer’s words in the opening of book’s chapter 20. I hope future editions include discussions on well composed graphics as an essential element of writing science.

Writing for peer reviewed journals: Strategies for getting published – by Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler

(by Sérgio Waitman, Research AssociateDepartment of Aerospace Engineering)

As I was midway through the book by Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler, it occurred to me that the choice of the subtitle “Strategies for getting published” might seem a bit misleading. Indeed, as the authors themselves emphasize throughout the text, the objective of the book is not to provide a set of writing guidelines with dos and don’ts and article recipes. Instead, they focus on more conceptual notions about the development of the writer identity and how the text should be seen as part of a conversation among members of a particular scientific community.

The book is mostly aimed towards PhD candidates and early career researchers. The first chapters are of particular interest, as they help inexperienced writers to understand the importance of locating their argument within the body of literature of a given journal as well as that of the scientific community in which it exists. The focus is then not on how to write a good report of results, but on how to put forward an argument that fills in a previously identified gap of knowledge.  The author is encouraged to present its paper as another brick in the ever growing research wall, building on previous results and theory, but with a distinctive new take that will allow the wall to keep going up.

The last chapters are more directly related to the writing work per se and provide some good insights into how to put all this in the paper, as well as how to deal with co-authoring duties and feedback from peer review.

My only criticism of the book is its insistent reliance on examples from the field of Education. Even though it is understandable, given the background of both authors and their active research in this area, I would have expected more variability, especially with the extensive experience of the authors in ministering writing workshops around the world. Even though most of what is being said should remain valid and helpful for the majority of academic researchers, it is sometimes hard to appreciate how some of the arguments would be translated to the specificities of different subjects. Nonetheless, I would recommend this book to anyone starting their academic career and struggling to find their voice in the scientific discussion.

Write no matter what – by Joli Jensen

(by Dr Anupratap TomarResearch Associate, School of Physiology, Pharmacology & Neuroscience)

Academic writing is stressful and can be frustrating especially in todays’ ‘publish or perish’ environment. Scholars often multitask, i.e., they research, teach, interact with students, and perform other academic duties, all while vying to publish their work.

If you are an overwhelmed academic suffering from writing blues, then “write no matter what”, by Prof. Joli Jensen is a book for you.  Jensen possesses over 30 years’ experience as a scholar and heads the faculty writing program at the University of Tulsa, United States.

This book deconstructs the psychology behind delays and procrastinations often ‘suffered’ by academics and provides useful practical solutions. While it demystifies the “how”, this book does not delve into “what” to write in scholarly publications.

The book is written in a conversational style using convincing and easy-to-follow language. The coherent arrangement of five sections into short (approx. 4-6 pages) well-structured chapters. The descriptive titles allow readers to identify specific sections/chapters in case they don’t intend to read the whole book.

Jensen has a knack for identifying toxic thought patterns that frequently mar academic writing and debunks the various myths underlying them. She emphasizes that we should avoid must-know-everything attitudes and advocates for acquiring a “craftsmen” approach i.e. learning and improving from every experience throughout life. Indeed, such advice can be applied to many other aspects of scholarly life.

A key message that I found compelling was about prioritizing projects using a front-burner/back-burner system. The suggestion is that when our main (front-burner) project is becoming overwhelming or we are stalled and frustrated, we should take a small break and collect material for our other (back-burner) project. This approach will likely ensure that we feel productive even while experiencing writer’s block.

In the last section, this book advises creating “faculty writing groups” where members find a supportive and motivating environment – which, according to Jensen, is lacking in current university setups. Such writing groups are a fantastic idea. Though Jensen clearly discourages egoistic attitudes, I am slightly sceptical that this will be a very successful forum at those universities where multiple faculty members may be vying for a few promotion spots.

There were a couple of typos, but they can be ignored since this book is a treasure trove of good advice. Overall, I found the book very useful and recommend that you grab a copy if you are stalled in your writing or seeking inspiration for productive writing under minimal stress.

Writing for academic journals – by Rowena Murray

(by Dr Alice Baillie, Research AssociateSchool of Biological Sciences)

‘Writing for academic journals’ presents sound advice in an easy-to-read format for those looking to improve the quality and quantity of their academic publications. I imagine that this book would be of greatest benefit to those who struggle for the motivation or confidence to write, and particularly for those with no prior experience of publishing. Having co-authored a few papers, and naturally enjoying writing, I found much of the advice familiar and affirming rather than revolutionary. Nonetheless, I gleaned some useful tips which I intend to put into practice in my ongoing writing.

The cover of this third edition proudly claims to help you ‘get to grips with using social media’. I felt that this was a bit of an overstatement, with a mere two pages devoted to a brief and rather theoretical discussion of this topic. Aside from that, the book is true to its promise of offering practical approaches to help you to make time for writing and to write productively for publication. I thought that the chapter entitled ‘Responding to reviewers’ feedback’ was particularly good and a bit of a must-read for anyone going it alone with their first publication or two. The chapter on targeting your writing to your chosen journal would, I think, also be particularly useful to newcomers to the world of publication.

While some of the approaches suggested might not suit everyone, I think that the vast majority of ideas in this book could be useful to more-or-less all academic writers, even if they don’t initially like the sound of some of them! Murray is a particular advocate of regular writing, even if much of the output is not directly destined for a draft. This may strike some as a waste of time when writing time often seems at such a premium, but I suspect that taking an open-minded approach to such advice could help all writers to establish productive habits.

My overall verdict: a useful read for any writer or would-be-writer, and especially for those just starting out trying to publish their work.

Writing Science: How to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded – by Joshua Schimel.

(by Dr Charlotte Lloyd, Postdoctoral Research AssociateSchool of Chemistry)

If you are looking for an easy to read guide to science writing, then this could be the book you have been waiting for. I have started reading many a book about how to improve your scientific writing, how to design robust science experiments etc etc, however usually I only manage to wade through the first couple of chapters before I give up and decide I shouldn’t waste any more precious time and just get on with the work in question! This book however was different. It was incredibly easy to read, and I comfortably made it through the 206 pages in a few sittings (actually, the times while my baby was napping during a week’s canal boating holiday!).  While I think this book is useful and the advice would hold for writing across different disciplines, I think it is extremely useful for anyone who is involved in science research, particularly the environmental sciences.  The author provides numerous examples in each section to really bring the advice to life and uses extracts from actual science writing, whether it be journal papers or grant proposals, explaining why the text does a good or bad job, and importantly in the case of the latter, how the piece could be improved. This technique for teaching I found extremely useful and allowed me to reflect on my own and colleagues writing and as a result enabled me to rapidly provide constructive suggestions to improve text I have been involved with writing.

The book has a logical structure (perhaps the very least you might expect given the subject matter of the book!!), beginning with the fundamentals of how to tell your story and what makes a story compelling, before focusing in on individual aspects of the writing itself. The author covers the designing of the structure of a piece, how to plan paragraphs and even how to think about each individual sentence and making sure each and every line of text plays an integral role – this is invaluable when writing something like a grant proposal where tight space restrictions often apply. The chapters of the book are to a certain extent self-contained, so it is very easy to dip in and out of the book to gain advice about a specific aspect of writing you may be struggling with. For anybody who finds writing a challenge or feels daunted by the prospect of editing and refining their work, I would highly recommend reading this book. It has made writing a much more enjoyable experience for me, and this is fundamental because as the author points out, as research scientists we are in fact professional writers!