Scientific Writing = Thinking in Words
By David Lindsay
CSIRO Publishing, Melbourne. 2011
The opening sentence to this book is ‘If you haven’t written it, you haven’t done it’. Such can be the dilemma of many a scientist who has done the hard yards in carrying out the experimental side of their research but come unstuck at the writing stage.
If this resonates, then this book could be for you.
Lindsay’s aim is to demystify the art of good scientific writing and he has achieved it brilliantly in this little book. At only 128 pages long, the book is divided into two main sections. The first section, which is approximately two-thirds of the book, is devoted to the scientific article itself. The second section, the last third of the book, is about other forms of scientific writing, i.e. oral presentations, posters, the review, writing for non-scientists and the thesis.
He introduces the first section of the book by emphasising the importance of the written word in science. He gives us the fundamentals for building the scientific article and exposes the seven myths of scientific writing. After this introduction, Lindsay then dissects the scientific article into its constituent parts (Title, Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, Discussion, Summary and Abstract) explaining the function of each part and how to get the best from each. He has also included a short section at the end on ‘the other bits’ including authorship, acknowledgements and bibliography.
The layout of the book is almost magazine-like, with quotes taken from the main text and placed in the margin in a larger font as a teaser for those who may have a tendency to skim a book when reading. Some readers of this book may find this very distracting but on the other hand they may find it enticing them to read in more detail.
Lindsay’s style of writing is almost conversational and is therefore very readable. I did not find myself having to read and re-read his sentences to extract what it was the author was trying to get at (and which is something he warns the scientific writer to avoid too when constructing their own papers). His observations or statements are frequently quite candid and down to earth. For example, on making your writing understandable, “Readers of scientific literature expect to understand and, you hope, be influenced at their first pass – not to indulge in an exercise in deciphering. When they want to do that, they take up solving cryptic crosswords or Sudoku puzzles.” Lindsay is not a dry writer!
I found this book extremely well written (what else would you expect?) with many practical tips and examples to follow throughout the book. For example he lists seven verbal stumbling blocks which often characterise scientific articles and how to overcome them. Lindsay also uses analogies to great affect when explaining the impact of your writing on the reader. The best was drawing the analogy of a subeditor choosing which stories to run on the front page of a newspaper with the structure and content of your Discussion section in a scientific paper. In other words, what are the most important arguments in your discussion and how to prioritise them?
This is not a huge book and could easily be read in a day or two, but the content is such that you would refer back to it time and time again.
The last third of the book which devoted itself to other forms of scientific communication I also found very useful. Tips on oral presentations made sense as did those on posters. A visual example of a bad poster transformed into an eye-catching, readable, interesting poster brought home Lindsay’s over-riding take home message: scientific writing should be precise, clear and brief. And he emphasises this throughout the book as the over-riding aim for any scientific paper or article.
And it has not just been written with the native-English speaker in mind, he has also written it for those whom English is their second language. The book is not only for non-native speakers to improve their written English, but for native speakers to think of their non-native English audience in their own writings.
I enjoyed reading this book very much and found that it was just what I was looking for to improve my own science writing skills and I can recommend it highly.