Writing is the most important academic skill. It is what helps the paper get accepted, the CV secure the job, and the proposal win the funding. But it is a skill that is neglected, often seen as an inherent attribute that cannot be significantly improved. However, it is a skill that can – and should – be developed through regular learning and practice.
I decided I wanted to improve my writing during the later stages of my PhD because I knew I was substandard and I wanted to be better. I attended a writing course at university that set me on the path of improved writing. And after this I turned to books. There are a lot of books on writing: even narrowing the scope to those for graduates writing specifically science leaves many choices. The list below are the five books that have resonated with me while I tried to develop my writing. I found useful tips, but, more importantly, they often contained exercises: practices that can be done to hone this skill.
Scientific Writing and Communication by Angelika Hofmann
This is my favourite book for improving writing, and it is essential for any scientist. It is packed with details on every aspect writing, stuffed into 700 dense pages. Each part is brilliant, but my personal favourites are parts two and three. In these the plans for the structure of a scientific paper are laid out. These plans are useful when struggling to start a manuscript. They explain how to start by organising all the ideas of what you want to write, how to then group these ideas into paragraphs, and then how to link the ideas in sentences within the paragraphs.
Further it has detailed help for writing papers (include review papers), grant proposals, posters, presentations, figures, and even job applications. There is also a chapter on helping English as a Second Language (ESL) learners.
Academic Writing for Graduate Students by Swales and Feak
This is an excellent book for practice. It is almost a work book. It is full of great tasks, picking apart individual sentences to understand the learning point. The book also contains structures for many writing scenarios below the section level. They outline what they think is the ideal way to write a certain passage. For example, data commentaries (describing a figure): start with its location and a summary of it; highlight the bit you think is most important; then interpret and discuss the implications. These structures are useful when writer’s block is in the way of getting started. You just lay out the structure, and start filling in the ideas.
I also learned here about the flow from old to new information, how details show your expertise, and the situation-problem-solution-evaluation construction for an abstract/introduction.
Elements of Style by Strunk and White
This book is very short and concise, which makes it a great revision book to be reread frequently. Essential tips are laid out individually under succinct headings. My favourite example: 17. Omit needless words.
There is also a lot of discussion on style. For example, there is discussion of Thomas Paine’s opening sentence “These are the times that try men’s souls”. It explains how any rearrangement of this sentence dulls its effect “It is times like these that try men’s souls” etc. This is an eye-opening discussion of style that can be used to make scientific writing more enjoyable to read and more memorable.
Writing for Science by Robert Goldbort
This book is less of a work book, and includes more prose on why and how to improve writing skills. There are lots of small pieces of information that can help in many different areas. One thing this book has that the others don’t is that it covers a larger scope: there are sections on writing laboratory notes, workplace writing (like emails), and some mention of undergraduate writing.
Penguin Writer’s Manual
As the title says, it is a manual. First part contains rules on grammar and vocabulary. A good section in here where I learned quite a bit is the usage section. Getting the right word is quite important in science. A mistake I made was with simple (meaning uncomplicated), and simplistic (overly simplified). The second part has a little bit on style and application, and communication. This book contains quality, concise general writing advice.