“Read Strunk and White” is the near universal recommendation any student receives who needs to improve their writing. I have only two explanations for this frequent recommendation: 1. People have never actually read Strunk and White or don’t remember anything about it.1 2. People have never read any book on writing other than Strunk and White and hence have nothing better to recommend. To provide an alternative, here I would like to present my all-time favorite books on writing, covering three distinct topics: storytelling, copy editing, and writing productively. My recommendations are made from the perspective of the scientist as a writer. Nevertheless, the books I recommend are written for a broad audience and will likely be useful for anybody who is writing non-fiction documents.
Storytelling is probably the most important and least appreciated aspect of scientific writing. Every time you’re writing a scientific paper or a research grant, you need to tell a compelling story. Yet not many books on the market cover this aspect of writing. The one book that I’m aware of that does an outstanding job is Writing Science by Schimel:
Joshua Schimel. Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded. Oxford University Press, 2011.
Schimel explains what makes a story exciting and interesting, how to turn your scientific findings into a compelling story without compromising scientific accuracy, and how to structure sentences, paragraphs, sections, and entire documents such that your readers remain interested and engaged.
The best story arc doesn’t get you very far if your individual sentences are incoherent, awkward, or confusing. There are many books on the market that teach you how to write grammatically correct and clear English sentences. Most of them are quite good. My all-time favorite among them is Line by Line by Cook:
Claire Kehrwald Cook. Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1985.
This book does an amazing job of systematically covering the grammatical and stylistic issues every writer should be aware of, and all the while the book remains quite readable. Unlike most texts with an emphasis on grammar you can actually read the book cover to cover.
The last area where many writers struggle is productivity. Despite extensive knowledge of storytelling and grammar, your writing sessions may well consist of hours of staring at a blank piece of paper or an empty computer screen, with the occasional writing and subsequent deletion of a single awkward sentence. How to overcome this struggle is covered well in How to Write a Lot by Silvia:
Paul J. Silvia. How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. American Psychological Association, 2007.
It turns out that there isn’t that much to be said about how to write a lot, other than that you have to write a lot. Silvia’s book makes no pretense otherwise, and that’s why I like it. Silvia covers the key concepts in a few short and highly readable chapters.
As a bonus book, I want to recommend:
Richard L. Lanham. The Longman Guide to Revising Prose. Person Longman, 2006.
I have previously blogged about this book. While everything it contains is in some form also covered in Cook 1985 and in Schimel 2011, Lanham’s book shines in its brevity. It will teach you some key writing skills by laying out a small number of highly effective editing techniques.
I’ll challenge anybody to read Strunk and White cover-to-cover without falling asleep, and to summarize afterwards what they have learned. The book is available online in its entirety, so feel free to take this challenge right now.↩︎