When writing on writing, I feel an ambiguous pressure to wow you with clever metaphors and grammatical acrobatics. But let’s get past that straight away, okay? I’ll do my best to write clearly and concisely—especially considering that English might be your second (or third or fourth) language. Well-turned phrases can lead to neck cricks, and no one wants that.
In this post, I will simply draw your attention to three resources on scientific writing. In the posts that follow, I’ll highlight my favorite points from these resources filtered through my own experiences as reader and writer.
My freshman year, I took an advanced composition course from Dr. Doug Sonheim, and we used the text Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, 5th ed. by Joseph M. Williams. These lessons have affected every paper I’ve written (and reviewed) since. Arguably, they have influenced my professional career more than any particular scientific course I took in grad school. Why? Because ideas need communicating, and these lessons are about communicating clearly. It is not merely a list of grammar rules (thank heavens). The lessons are easy-to-implement principles, and the text is filled with concrete examples. There are several editions of this book to choose from; Williams seems to publish a new edition after each edit—and the book is all about editing! I own the 5th edition in paperback, and I bought the Kindle edition of Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace, 3rd ed. because I hate paper cuts. I typically recommend the latter to students and colleagues.
The second resource is Nick Higham’s text Handbook of Writing for the Mathematical Sciences, 2nd ed. In contrast to the first reference, this text is focused on mathematical writing. It functions more as a reference handbook than a principle-laden treatise on written communication. Unfortunately, it has no Kindle edition, but PDFs of chapters are available on SIAM’s website.
Last is SIAM’s Style Manual. It’s no page turner, but you should have it on your desktop for reference. For example, should you use the three-dash hyphen or the two-dash hyphen? Check the Style Manual. Do I need to write out “partial differential equation” or can I use the acronym “PDE?” Check the Style Manual. SIAM’s commitment to high standards of grammar and style, ensured by its copy editors, helps maintain the quality of SIAM publications—in marked contrast to some other publishers. (Nick Higham once said that blog posts should say something controversial, so there it is.)
In my opinion, these three resources provide a great foundation to start writing and editing journal papers. If you are my student, you will get all three on day one. If you ask me to informally review your manuscript, I might point you to these. Don’t be offended; it makes all of us better.
I’ll end with two warnings. First, once you learn and start practicing good style, bad style will jump off the page at you. Excessive passive voice will make your spine shiver, and lists that lack parallelism will furrow your brow. Second, the objective function for optimized style is not always well defined. Rules can be broken depending on the context and audience (e.g., this sentence’s passive voice). I recommend avoiding high horses.
With that said, if you think I should make any edits, leave your suggestions in the comments!