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developmental and stem cell biologists

#DevBiolWriteClub, Post #3

Posted by , on 22 December 2020

For other posts in this series click here

Welcome back to #DevBiolWriteClub.  Let’s review the rules:

  1. Do the work.
  2. Do the work.
  3. Revise and edit.  Again, and again, and again.
  4. Read with intent.
  5. You can’t do it alone.

Last time, I hammered away at Rule #4, Read with Intent.  Today, I’ll return to Rule #4, and I’ll make some preliminary comments on Rule #5.  Rule #5 is mostly about being brave enough to show your writing to your peers, and even your mentors.  But it’s also about taking advice where you can get it.

Thankfully, you are not alone in your struggles with writing.  I’m right there with you, and so are hordes of other aspirants.  So many, in fact, that there’s a brisk market in books about writing.  So, let’s look at this:  If you take the time to carefully read a book (or two, or three) about writing, you are hitting rules #1, #2, #4, and #5. Wow.

So, because books are always the best Christmas presents, here are #DevBiolWriteClub’s favorite books about writing.

If you’re only going to read one book about writing, read:  The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, by Stephen Heard.  This is unquestionably the best book for science writing.  Stephen is a biologist, and he’s a delightful presence on Twitter (@StephenBHeard).  He also has an awesome blog, where he frequently writes about writing.  His book has everything:  A brief and fun history of science writing, some big picture psychology at the start, then excellent “brass tacks” advice on writing scientific papers.  I recommend this one especially to anyone following #DevBiolWriteClub and looking for new ways to “do the work.”  Each chapter ends by suggesting helpful exercises.

If you write, but don’t really like what you write, read: Writing Science in Plain English, by Anne Greene, also a biologist.  This very slim book (the core of it is 85 short pages) will likely do more to improve the sentences and paragraphs you write over the short term than any other book I’ve read.  It’s a straight-up style manual focused on how to turn your scientific writing into simple prose and thus to communicate more effectively.  Not surprisingly, this book’s simple, actionable advice is crystal clear.  It also provides a series of short exercises to drive home the key points.

If you have trouble getting that first draft written, read: How to Write a Lot, by Paul Silvia.  This is another little book, but it’s all about the big picture.  Silvia is an academic psychologist, and his book is aimed at fixing bad habits of mind and creating new ones.  Since scientist’s intellectual lives are complex enough already, an important asset is that while Silvia’s book attacks very high level issues, it offers remarkably simple and practical advice on improving your practice as a writer, the core goal of #DevBiolWriteClub.  One of the best aspects of this book is an explicit description of various types of writing groups that help to address subtly different hurdles that writers may face.  This really helps with Rule #5.  This one is also just a fun read.

Ok, those are the Big Three, and any scientist wanting to improve their writing should read all three of these books.

Of course, we can always improve more, so here are some more recommendations:

The Sense of Style, by Steven Pinker.  I read somewhere -possibly in this book- that every writer should read a style manual once per year, whether they need to or not.  If you’re a working scientist, that book probably should be Writing Science in Plain English, above.  But if you want to dive in a little deeper, there are tons of great style books.  The canonical style manual is Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, but with apologies to essentially all of my mentors, I find it too stuffy and rather boring. Pinker’s book, which he freely offers as an update to that classic, is far more fun to read.  This quip from the prologue really spoke to me:  “You can write with clarity and with flair, too.”

The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield.  Ok, this one is really just a self-help book.  But if you’ve read How to Write a Lot, above, and you still have trouble sitting down and doing the work, read this.

Writing Your Journal article in Twelve Weeks, by Wendy Laura Belcher.  Ok, it’s hard to say I “like,” this 400+ page book, but it does offer something none of the others do:  Step-by-step instructions on writing a paper in a reasonable, totally defined time frame.  It presents clear goals each day and each week.  If you are serious about a 12-week, self-taught crash course in writing a scientific paper, pick this one up.

Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott.  This gem of a book is really targeted for aspiring poets and novelists, but since poets and novelists are often good writers (duh), there’s a lot here for us scientists.  Chapter Three is entitled “Shitty First Drafts.”  Need I say more?

On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft, by Stephen King.  Yes, that Stephen King.  Writing advice from one of the most successful authors in history?  Of course, you should read it.  If you’re in a hurry, you can skip the autobiography and go right to the writing advice about 100 pages in.  But then you’d miss learning about his hardscrabble upbringing and the depth of his struggles even as a successful writer.  Writing is hard, reading this book will help you really know that.

The Joy of Drinking by Barbara Holland.  Ok, not a writing book.  But, c’mon!  It’s an hilarious history of drinking written by one of America’s best writers.  If drinking is not your thing, read her equally excellent, They Went Whistling, Women Wayfarers, Warriors, Runaways and Renegades.  Or her fantastic, Gentleman’s Blood, A History of Dueling.  Anyway, read some Barbara Holland.

So, that’s it: If you’re serious about becoming a better writer, go buy some books about writing and read them.

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