Dear Buggy: Writing your first manuscript

Dear Buggy is the the alter-ego of Dr. Chris MacQuarrie, a research entomologist with the Canadian Forest Service. You can ask Buggy questions of your own on Twitter @CMacQuar.

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Hello all,

Writing your first manuscript can be difficult. I remember spending a ridiculous amount of time preparing the first draft of my first paper. I thought I had produced something pretty good. So imagine my surprise when the file came back from my supervisor dripping in red ink (digital red ink, that is).

I had two big problems. First, like many new students, I didn’t make a particularly convincing argument in my introduction, my methods were confusing, the results were a mess and the discussion was meandering. My second problem confounded the first. I wasn’t a good writer.

Solving the first problem was easy. I had two very patient supervisors who taught me how to write a scientific paper. Solving the second problem is taking a little longer, because the only way to become a better writer is to practice. That is, you need to write. I write as much as I can, but I still have a lot of work to do. I’m lucky that I’ve had the good fortune to work with good writers and good editors from whom I’ve managed to learn some good habits (and break some bad ones).

The rest of my education has come from books. I thought I’d share some of these with you.

Books about writing in science:

How to write and publish a scientific paper 6th ed. by RA Day and B. Gastel

This is an excellent primer on how to write a scientific paper and should be on the bookshelf of every grad student.The 6th edition is a bit pricey, but you might be able to pick up a copy of the 4th or 5th edition at a good used bookstore. I own the 4th edition, it’s a bit dated but more than adequate for everyday use.

Writing Papers in the Biological Sciences 5th ed. by V McMillan

I was introduced to this book during my undergrad where it was on the required reading list (in part, I think because the author is also an alumni of the University of Saskatchewan’s biology department) I’ve carried it with me ever since. McMillan focuses on writing term papers and lab reports with less attention paid to writing journal articles, so this might be a better choice for undergrads. That said, there are good sections on formatting and citing that also apply to graduate level work. The current edition also covers the formatting of posters.

Writing to Learn Biology by R Moore

A Short Guide to Writing about Biology 7th ed. by J Pechenik

These two were recommended to me by Cedric Gillot, editor of the Bulletin (Cedric is one of those good editors I mentioned earlier. He’s been editing my work, on and off, for over 15 years).

Moore’s book looks to be out of print but many copies are available from online used book stores (as are most of the books in this post).  Pechenik’s book is well reviewed on Amazon. I’ll track down a copy and report back. If you’ve read this book let me know what you thought.

Books on writing in general:

These three books are not about writing in science, but are all excellent guides on how to write well.

How to Speak and Write Correctly by J Devlin.

Perhaps the granddaddy of all grammar guides. While it’s a bit dated (Devlin goes into detail on the proper use of ‘shall’ and ‘thou’), writers should still find it relevant. In particular, those, like me, that were never taught the rules of english grammarl. One other plus, since it was published in 1910, the copyright has expired and it can be had for free!
The Elements of Style 4th ed. by W Stunk and E.B. White.

The classic guide to writing in english. Buy this. Read it. Then put it on your bookshelf and read it again every year for the rest of your life. The best $12 you can invest towards becoming a better writer.

On writing well by W Zinsser

Zinsser focuses on guiding the writer to telling a compelling story. A great resource if you fancy becoming a writer about science (in addition to a writer of science). Regardless, science is about telling stories and the advice in this book about constructing a narrative can be applied to writing in the peer-reviewed literature.
And two for the road…

These last two books are on the art and craft of writing. Both are fun reads and worth checking out.

On Writing by S King.

Yes, that ‘S King’. King has much good advice to offer to all writers. If you ever wondered how King could be such a prolific writer, consider this: he writes at least 1000 words a day, six days a week. Anyone who has spent that much of their life writing should have good advice to offer. Set any doubts that you may have about King as a fiction writer and read this book. Probably one of his best.

When you catch an adjective. Kill it. by B. Yagoda

cover photo [ http://covers.openlibrary.org/w/id/528568-M.jpg ]

A fun little book about exercising verbosity from your writing. Clearly, I need to read it again.

I’d also love to hear your recommendations. What books influenced you as a writer?

Cover images in this post are from the Open Library project. Links are to Amazon.ca, but you should be able to find many of these in your local used bookstore, university bookstore or library.

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