Book Review: The Scientist’s Guide to Writing

It’s not uncommon to hear young, aspiring scientists say, “I hate writing. That’s why I’m going into science!” Plot twist: we do a lot of writing as scientists. Writing is pervasive in this field. We write to disseminate our research to the wider scientific community, to get funding, to get hired. It’s surprising that, as a community, we don’t devote much time to formally training students in the writing process.

Enter Stephen Heard, an evolutionary ecologist, who wrote “The Scientist’s Guide to Writing” to help address this gap in training. He draws from the scientific study of scientific writing, filling in the gaps with his own experiences with the writing process. The result is a book that not only advises readers on what to include in different written works, but also provides exercises that can be used to improve their use of the craft.

When scientists write about their research, the goal is mainly to convince other scientists that the body of work is important, and completely necessary, to the advancement of a particular scientific field. To do this, any arguments made need to be clear and well-founded, easily transferable from the page to the reader’s brain. Heard addresses this by offering his reader details about what writing actually is, beginning with the history of scientific writing and its unique evolution.

Throughout the book, Heard draws his reader to several conclusions, including three crucial tips: first, that any body of work must be crystal clear (in his words, it should “seem telepathic”); second that making note of things you like when you are reading can bolster your own writing; and third, that every word should be considered and removed if unnecessary. These conclusions apply across the board—not just to manuscripts, but also to grants and other types of scientific communication.

While a book on writing may not seem especially interesting, Heard’s advice is invaluable to the developing writer. Reading this, or a similar book, should be considered critical training for every student of the sciences.

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