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Two book reviews: Successful Scientific Writing and How to Write and Illustrate a Scientific Paper

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2009. Two book reviews: Successful scientific writing and How to write and edit a scientific paper. Technical Communication 56(3):298–299.

Matthews, J.R.; Matthews. R.W. 2008. Successful Scientific Writing: A Step-by-Step Guide for the Biological and Medical Sciences. 3rd ed. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY. [ISBN 978-0-521-69927-3. 240 p., including index. $34.99 USD (spiral-bound).]

Gustavii, B. 2008. How to Write and Illustrate a Scientific Paper. 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, New York, NY. [ISBN 978-0-521-87890-6. 168 p., including index. $75.00 USD.]

Successful Scientific Writing provides an excellent introduction to the rich, complex topic of scientific writing. It’s clearly and often elegantly written, full of wisdom and wit, and for such a short book, nicely covers all the key aspects of the subject. The authors provide abundant examples and illustrations, supplemented by exercises plus answers to help beginning writers think through what they’re doing before and throughout the writing. This makes the book an excellent learning resource, whether in the classroom or for self-study. Their advice is sound, though it often sacrifices comprehensiveness for concision. Unusual but important points are salted throughout the text, such as an explanation of the difference between brainstorming and outlining (organizing your thoughts and your words, respectively) and the suggestion that oral presentations to colleagues provide a strong reality check before writing your paper. I had many quibbles with their often overly conservative and prescriptive advice, but found no outright errors.

Negatives include a weak layout with uncomfortably tiny type and poor distinctions between heading levels. Exercises (never cited) and tables are simply dropped into the text rather than positioned to support it. The index is inadequate, and the book has not been carefully updated since its first edition: Few Internet resources are cited, and those that are lack URLs. Occasional anachronisms include the fact that the author's don't mention the increasing use of online supplemental material. The statement that illustrations and equations cost more to reproduce than text was true only when authors submitted camera-ready copy for such things, but I don’t recall the last journal I worked with that accepted only hard-copy submissions. The proofreading also needs work; though the writing is impeccable, amateurish errors appear, such as the wrong content being presented in Table 1.2. Though the process-oriented sequence the authors propose is sound and effective, discussing graphics and tables in Chapter 3, only after the first draft has already been written based on the previous chapter’s advice, misses a key point (ironically, one discussed in Chapter 3): creating this material provides key insights into what should be written and how.

These quibbles notwithstanding, Successful Scientific Writing is a strong choice for anyone who wants to learn the basics of writing for science journals.

Gustavii’s book has a more attractive, clearer, and more readable layout, with adequate type size and good use of white space and graphics. The text is chattier and less conservative than the Matthews book—more like Strunk and White than the Chicago Manual of Style. Reading the book is like attending a graduate seminar with a well-loved professor sharing his hard-won wisdom. Unfortunately, this makes the text even shorter than the Matthews book, with even shallower coverage.

The book takes a profoundly different approach from that of the Matthews book. Initially, it struck me as rambling and ineffective until I understood the author’s goal, which is hinted at in the well-designed graphic on table construction: a central image of a table is surrounded by callouts that describe and provide advice on each individual component. The approach is repeated for typescripts. As in the graphics, so in the text: for each component of a scientific paper, Gustavii has provided a short descriptive “callout” chapter. This would have been more effective had he stated this intention in the first chapter rather than leaving us to infer it as we read.

Some readers will prefer this over the strongly process-based Matthews approach, but particularly for beginners, it provides insufficient structure and forces readers to create this structure themselves. Despite many good examples of problems and their solutions, there are no exercises that encourage readers to apply their new knowledge. This makes it poorly suited to classroom use. More seriously, the absence of an overall structure for the writing process leads to some misleading advice. For example, the advice to create a “working” abstract early ignores the fact that writing journal articles is a journey of discovery: only as you assess, assemble, and try to describe your results do you fully understand what you discovered. Many authors who create their abstract first grow so exhausted by the time they finish writing that they forget to revise the abstract to match the body of the paper.

I found several gems amidst the rest of the sound advice; I particularly liked the discussion of the difference between “inventory” graphics, which show all the data, and summary graphics, which sometimes bowdlerize the dataset and conceal important findings. Gustavii nicely summarizes Edward Tufte’s graphical insights. Like the Matthews book, How to Write seems in need of a more thorough update: it cites few Internet resources (but does provide URLs), doesn’t discuss online publishing, and includes some dated references (such as the 1994 CBE style guide rather than the 2006 edition).

Gustavii’s book, though a pleasant and easy read, is insufficiently detailed to stand alone. But it makes a fine addition to a library that contains more comprehensive books, such as the Matthews book.

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