Reading about scientific writing

I’m gearing up to teach a seminar course for senior undergraduates, starting this week. The course has two main types of activities: a semester-long writing project and oral presentations about scientific findings relating to the course theme. I’ve already written a bit here about circadian rhythms—the topic I like to use in this course. But I realized recently that this year will mark the first time I’ve taught the course since I started my own experiment in scientific communication here on my blog. I’m hoping to use some things I’ve learned along the way to inject a few new ideas into my class.

Over the past two years of blogging, I’ve discovered a broad community of scientists, journalists, and other people who are promoting the value of clear and accessible science communication in various formats. Recommendations of people to follow, books and articles to read, podcasts to try, etc. have come from science news and blogs, individuals on Twitter, and conversations with colleagues, friends, and acquaintances. In our increasingly interconnected world, it’s fairly easy—though sometimes overwhelming—to find people enthusiastically promoting “scicomm” projects and strategies for all sorts of scientific communication goals. (I’ve explored a few ideas on this topic in previous blog posts, such as this one).

Through these channels, I recently learned of a book called The Scientist’s Guide to Scientific Writing, by ecologist Stephen B. Heard. Heard is a professor, journal editor, and science blogger at “Scientist Sees Squirrel“. (Like me, he also apparently likes playing the game Boggle. But that’s probably a topic for a different blog post.) As its title implies, Heard’s book is aimed at professional scientists/science trainees and focuses primarily on how to improve in various types of scientific writing. The book contains advice, examples, and practice activities that cover topics such as motivation and writing behavior, narrative structure in scientific writing, and revision and peer review.

I took some time to check out the book, curious whether it might include new activities to try with my students. As I read along, I also found myself considering the different contexts in which I have engaged with scientific writing over my own career. As a student, I learned the basics of how to report scientific findings (lab reports). Later, as a Ph.D. student researcher, I learned through immersion how to really write about scientific concepts. A book like Heard’s—and its extensive bibliography of additional readings!—would have been a welcome resource for me back then. While I learned how to read, analyze, and discuss scientific writing in great depth in my classes, the writing process was more… It was certainly less structured than reading about other people’s science, and mostly centered on my individual research project. I cared about this aspect of my training and was fortunate to have an advisor and colleagues who helped me hone my skills, but it was essentially trial by fire. These days, in my professional life, I write mostly about other people’s scientific pursuits and help my undergraduate students learn writing basics—from introductory biology courses through our senior-level writing projects. Heard’s book reminded me of the value of intentionally considering both our own writing habits and style and learning from examples of other people’s work. How can I as a scientist be clear, concise, and (hopefully) interesting? How can I better fit writing in among the other tasks I do in my professional and personal life? What aspects of my own writing would I like to improve? What pitfalls do I need to check for and edit carefully every time I write? I’ve always enjoyed the editing process; now I’m enjoying thinking more about the mechanics of writing.

Books about science writing are not actually a new concept, of course. But since I’ve started engaging with the discussion of broader issues related to science communication, I am starting to discover new resources. I’ll highlight two other books about writing that have made a recent impression on me. When I initially considered writing a science blog, I found some useful advice on getting started in the collection of essays of the book Science Blogging. This book gave me the confidence to take the leap in the first place and contains practical strategies for writing about science in a public, online space. More recently, I read Houston, We Have a Narrative, by filmmaker and former marine biologist Randy Olson. Olson proposes a specific writing strategy that he suggests can create a clear and interesting narrative structure for any type of scientific communication, from formal to informal. By incorporating the popular idea of intentionally using storytelling strategies in science writing, Olson argues that any type of writing can be clearer and more compelling. It’s been interesting to consider concrete strategies such as these for their applicability in my classes or in my own communication.

Reading books or articles and discussing these ideas with colleagues and other people has helped me to think more about different aspects of communicating science, and how to help my students become better writers and communicators themselves, whether they eventually have a job as a scientist or not. I’m looking forward to trying a few new writing activities with my students this term, some of which are inspired from books I’ve read. Like this blog, these activities will be a work in progress and likely not perfect. That’s okay. Teaching, like writing, is a process that is always under revision. It’s time to start a new semester and see where it leads! Thanks for reading.

Fingers at a computer keyboard.
It’s time to get writing! (Public domain (CC0).)

4 thoughts on “Reading about scientific writing

  1. I like Stephen’s book a lot. Aside from my own book “Writing Science” the other book that I think is overall outstanding and that is fairly comprehensive is David Schultz’ excellent book “Eloquent Science.” It covers a wide swath of issues in science communication and does so clearly and readably. It’s major failing is that it is published by the American Meteorological Society (and is subtitled “A Practical Guide to Becoming a Better Writer, Speaker and Atmospheric Scientist”) and so people are likely to assume that it is narrowly focused. They would be wrong. It applies broadly.


  2. Hi Erin, I have discovered your blog and really enjoying it. I started blogging about fungi as I found, despite its huge size, that there was almost nothing worth reading on the internet. What was there was academic, identification guides, cooking or hallucinogenic. There was nothing equivalent to what was being written about birds, insects or plants. And certainly nothing from my end of the planet. So I decided I would have to write it myself and wanted to include “microhistory, biographical history, history from below, and other kinds of what we might call “small” history”, as well as local natural history. I found that scientists are reluctant to do this kind of writing often claiming that it dumbs down science. I think that its more they simply don’t want to do it or don’t know how to do it. So, I congratulate you and encourage you to teach all who are coming through the system now to tell stories. Cheers


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