By Laura J. Falkenberg
One of the key activities scientists undertake is writing – for publication in peer-reviewed journals, blog posts such as this one, and even in Tweets. There is much advice out there on how to write, with many books published in the last year alone. These books cover everything from very broad issues (e.g. how to write confidently), to very specific details (e.g. how to structure a sentence more effectively). Here, I discuss some of these books and what they cover, to help you choose the one that will help you write more effectively.
Fearless writing: how to create boldly and write with confidence (William Kenower, 2017, Writer’s Digest Books, USA)
A book about finding the confidence to sit down and start writing
What it is: Stories about how writers feel while they are creating, including advice on how to write easily, quiet critics, use positive principles to guide your writing, and overcome obstacles that stifle creative writing. As the author says in the introduction, “This is a book about confidence.”
Read this if you want reassurance that other authors also struggle with writing confidently, and tips on how to overcome these issues to be a more confident, and creative, writer.
Must read chapters: Chapter 6. Critiques and workshopping, or why praise feels good and criticism feels bad – an interesting chapter highlighting that often criticism of our writing means we need to more clearly highlight the point we are making, and includes practical tips on how to run effective workshops.
Chapter 10. Finding time to write, why procrastination makes sense – a discussion as to why it is tempting to procrastinate rather than write, and how a shift in mindset about writing can help to overcome this impulse.
Writing voice: the complete guide to creating a presence on the page & engaging readers (The Editors of Writer’s Digest, Editor: Chris Freese, 2017, Writer’s Digest Books, USA)
A book about writing in a voice that is yours, and is also clear to the reader
What it is: A series of essays from authors and writing instructors about what an author’s voice is, how to create your own voice, and the specifics of voice in both fiction and non-fiction.
Read this if you want a guide rich with example passages of different writing ‘voices’, and broad tips on how to find a voice for your writing. It will be particularly useful for authors trying to refine different voices for various styles of writing such as academic articles, blog posts, and magazine pieces. The emphasis on creative writing may reduce relevance for some academics, but I found many of the lessons transferrable (with the exception of those in Part IV: Fiction-specific voice).
Must-read chapter: Chapter 11. Prefer the active voice – as a scientist often told to use the active voice, this was an interesting insight as to where, and how, the passive voice can enhance my writing.
The art of x-ray reading: how the secrets of 25 great works of literature will improve your writing (Roy Peter Clark, 2016, Little, Brown and Company, USA)
A guide to discover the strategies authors use to create the effects the reader experiences
What it is: A book full of examples of writing that the author then deconstructs to highlight the writing techniques used. Each chapter finishes with a series of ‘Writing Lessons’ which could be applied to your own writing.
Read this if you’ve been unsure as to how to work out what makes writing you like reading ‘good’.
Must read chapters: Great sentences from famous authors: an exercise in x-ray reading – samples of writing that you can practice x-ray reading, before comparing to what the author of this book, Roy Peter Clark, has noted about them.
Twelve steps to get started as an x-ray reader – practical tips on how to critically examine strong pieces of writing.
Do I make myself clear? Why writing well matters (Harold Evans, 2017, Little, Brown and Company, USA)
A book about how to write and edit for clarity
What it is: An entertaining read about how to write clearly; ranging from abstract ideas to more concrete tips. There are many worked examples of editing, showing exactly how editing can be used to improve a final text.
Read this if you want an in-depth read about what makes for clear writing.
Must-read chapter: Chapter 4. Ten shortcuts to making yourself clear – this is an overview chapter providing a brief introduction to many of the key pieces of advice covered in this book from ‘get moving’, to ‘be specific’, and ‘don’t be a bore’. In addition to providing a description of each tip, there are example passages that are then edited to show how it can be achieved. (This book is, in many ways the antithesis of the previous one – rather than highlight strong features of each passage considered, it focusses on how they could be improved.)
Write better right now: the reluctant writer’s guide to confident communication and self-assured style (Mary-Kate Mackey, 2017, Career Press, USA)
A book with tips and exercises to help overcome particular writing problems
What it is: A step-by-step manual to help address issues common to thinking about, structuring, and editing writing.
Read this if you want answers to specific writing issues. Each chapter is focussed on addressing a particular writing problem which makes it possible to choose just those of particular relevance.
Must-read chapters: Chapter 3. The dreaded theme statement – although I didn’t have a name for them, I’ve been using theme statements to guide me since I started writing for publication. In addition to re-affirming the use of this practice, the chapter also gave my ideas for additional details that could be included and provide more focus for my writing.
Chapter 11. The close-up edit – tips on how to identify and fix those small grammar/spelling/usage mistakes before they hit the desk of a colleague, editor, reviewer, or examiner.
So, there you have it, summaries of five books on writing I’ve been reading. If there are any that have particularly helped you, please leave these in the comments below or Tweet me @ljfalkenberg – it’ll help other people find them!