Reading About Writing: 7 Books You Should Have

Have you ever run a search for ‘Academic Writing’ books on Amazon?

I just have! And there are well over 15000 titles in the Paperback section alone!

No wonder you may get a little overwhelmed in case you want to buy one to improve your writing skills (a great idea, by the way, which I totally support).

So, I thought I’d give you a quick list of some of my favourite books on the topic.

I hope you’ll find the book that suits your needs. And if you have other titles to recommend, just post them in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.

Here is my list:

glasman-deal

 

H Glasman-Deal: Science Research Writing for Non-Native Speakers of English, Imperial College Press (2010)

A very clear and well-designed book that will take you step by step into the process of structuring the various sections of chapters in your research paper of thesis. Lots of useful tables with frequently used phrases of academic writing.

 

greene

 

A Greene: Writing Science in Plain English. The University of Chicago Press (2013)

A little gem of a book! A must-read for all (students and staff) who want to improve their writing by applying some simple and practical strategies. Plenty of examples (and ‘solutions’) for you to practice your skills.

 

goodson

 

P Goodson: Becoming an Academic Writer – 50 Exercises for Paced, Productive, and Powerful, Writing. SAGE Publishing Ltd (2013)

If you are short on ideas of practical things you can to to improve your writing, here you’ll find plenty of suggestions and examples.

 

sword

 

H Sword: The Writer’s Diet. Pearson New Zealand Ltd. (2007)

I just love the analogy between writing and eating! If you take the Writer’s Diet Test, but don’t get too disappointed with the results… It’s good fun to see at once where your writing is going wrong.

 

 

koerner

 

AM Koerner: Guide to publishing a scientific paper. Routledge (2008)

If you are new to publishing a research paper, this book will take you through every step in the process from choice of journal, to manuscript submission, to response to reviewers’ comments. Excellent advice even if you are not new to publishing!

 

strunk

 

W Strunk: Elements of Style. Dover Publications Inc. (2006)

A classic that never seems to go amiss. Some advice is probably outdated, but plenty is still valid today as it was almost hundred years ago, when the book first came out.

 

 

atkinson

 

I Atkinson: Copy. Righter. LID Publishing Ltd (2011)

Not exactly a book on academic writing. But there’s nothing wrong about borrowing some of the best tactics that highly successful copywriters use to hook their readers!

 

 

Effective, Easy, and Enjoyable: The Best Way I Know to Improve Your Academic Critical Skills

I’m sure you have heard this before!

If you want to write a good literature review you need to develop your critical skills.

‘But how?!’ – you may ask.

extending17_lg

Physics Journal Club Presentation, R. T. Birge Lecturing seated at left: Lawrence and Oppenheimer [UARC PIC 04:268]

Simple: Join a Journal Club!

(and if you don’t have one to join, create your own – keep reading and I’ll tell you how)

A journal club is a group of people who meet regularly to critically evaluate recent articles in the academic literature and to discuss in detail a specific research paper.

The members of the club can range from PhD students and post-docs, to more experienced researchers and highly accomplished professors. A mix of people at different stages in their careers is a blessing to further stimulate discussion (even though it may feel slightly intimidating to the inexperienced student).

Regardless of its composition, a journal club will help you to:

  • Keep up-to-date with the latest literature in your field
  • Become a more careful reader (and therefore a better writer!)
  • Learn and practice your critical skills
  • Improve your presentation skills
  • Build your confidence and ability to evaluate the work of others
  • Promote your sense of belonging (to your research group or department)
  • Turn a social occasion into an enjoyable educational treat.

Of course, you may be in the unfortunate position of not having a journal club to join.

If so, just start one yourself!

Ideally, you should aim for a group of four or five members, but again don’t let this stop you dead in your tracks. All you need to make a start is just one more person. So, ask a fellow PhD student or an early-career post-doctoral fellow from your own discipline.

And if you are still complaining that you can’t (I know… you are the only student in your group!), then consider creating a virtual Journal Club that meets online.

Once you have found and assembled your buddies, here is what you need to do:

  • Schedule your meetings to take place regularly (ideally once a week, for about one hour)
  • Design a facilitator before each meeting (make sure this role is taken in turn by all members of the group)
  • The facilitator chooses a paper for discussion and distributes it to all members a few days before the meeting
  • The facilitator circulates a few questions about the paper (this is optional, but may prove useful to focus people’s minds to specific issues, especially if the paper is very long)
  • Each member commits to reading the paper before the meeting and to think about the questions posed
  • At the meeting, the facilitator presents a brief overview of the paper. Keep this informal: no need to prepare slides or anything. A piece of chalk and a blackboard is all you need to write down key points if necessary
  • The facilitator initiates the discussion and encourages everyone to take part (see below for suggestions of possible topics)
  • Before the meeting ends, agree on the date, time and facilitator for the following meeting
  • Make sure you start and finish at the agreed times. 

If you are in doubt as to what to discuss about, here some pointers to get you started (feel free to add your own)

Description of the study:

  • What was the purpose of the research?
  • Why is the research important in the wider context?
  • Were the key objectives clearly stated?
  • What was the nature of the study (experimental, theoretical, computational)?

Literature evaluation

  • Was the literature review well presented and sufficiently up to date?
  • Was any major recent study left out? If so try to figure out why
  • Is the paper clear and well written?

Approach and Analysis

  • What was the method used in the study? Can you clearly identify it?
  • How were data obtained and analysed?
  • Is/was there any fault in the approach used?
  • Is the statistical analysis of the data appropriate and sound?

Results and Conclusions

  • What were the key findings of the study?
  • Were results clearly presented and properly discussed?
  • Did the author(s) offer an interpretation of their results?
  • Did the study suffer from any potential limitations? Were these discussed?
  • Could the study be replicated?
  • Was the study successful in solving the research gap(s) identified?
  • What additional questions does the study raise?

I hope this post serves you well.

A final secret for success?

Just take action now. Go talk to one of your colleagues or friends, share this post and arrange your first meeting.

I’ll wait to hear from you :)

The Productivity Code Video Series

woman_reseacher_at_microscope_istockphoto

Very often people think that being a researcher is all about excitement, discoveries, and success. And while some of this may eventually be achieved, the day-to-day reality of it is rather different.

We often struggle to keep up with running a lab, taking new data, analyzing them, writing papers, applying for grants. And all of this while also trying to have a full and fulfilled life!

Some of us may also constantly battle with negative thoughts:

“what if this is not good enough?”

“what if I don’t manage to make good progress?”

“why did I not do this earlier when I had more time?”

No wonder, we often feel exhausted, overwhelmed and just simply run down.

I have been there myself. And I have personally discovered what a huge difference it can make to just follow the advice and support of those who have been there and have found a way to succeed.

In fact, soon after becoming a mom, some years ago, I realized I needed to set new priorities both at work and in my private life. That’s when I started working with Olga Degtyareva, a friend and former colleague of mine.

Olga has become an expert on productivity and she has already helped many students and researchers all over the world to make huge progress in their careers without feeling hopeless, overwhelmed, or stressed out.

The good news is that Olga has now put together a great free training series to show you exactly how to overcome overwhelm, become more productive and stay productive for good!! Over 150 people from around the world have already joined in this training. You can still register to access the full training series at the link below:

FULL SERIES: The Productivity Code Video Series

(make sure you also download the handouts by clicking on the link below each video)

But that’s not all!

Olga emailed me the other day to let me know that she is going to release one more video today!

BONUS video #4… it’s all about you moving forward on your path. And she’ll be telling you about two biggest problems that most researchers come across.

Also, towards the end of the video, she’ll give you the details about the Productivity Code Quick Start Online Course and Coaching Program.

So, if you are struggling with making progress with your work, don’t miss out!

Registrations are opening up TODAY (11th of September) at 12:00pm London time.

Enjoy!
Marialuisa

PS Oh, and remember that the free training will remain available only until September 18th!

 

13 Effective Strategies to Sharpen Your Writing

pencil-sharpener

 

1. Write for your audience. If in doubt about your readers’ background, always write for the least informed.

2. Decide on the purpose of your writing. An essay, a thesis, or a grant application may have elements in common but vary greatly in purpose. Keep this in mind and write accordingly.

3. Nail down your message. What are you trying to say? and also: Are you saying it?

4. They say “Content is king”… but structure is the secret that holds it together. Fix the structure first. Only then start drafting your content.

5. Favour active voice over passive: it takes less time to process.

6. Keep subject and verb close together. Don’t make your reader hang out there in waiting.

7. Choose words carefully. Do they express the exact meeting you want them to convey?

8. Use verbs, not nouns. They are more powerful to carry your sentence forward.

9. Omit useless words. Sometimes, less is more.

10. Make lists parallel by keeping the same grammatical form for each of its items.

11. Vary the length of your sentences. It makes for more interesting reading.

12. Punctuation exists for a reason. Use it properly.

13. Grammar matters. Make sure its it’s correct!

 

Ready to put in practice some of these strategies? Let me know how it goes by leaving a comment below.

And if you liked this post, please share it.   

 

How I Wrote My PhD Thesis

Today’s post is by Anne Pawsey, who recently completed her PhD at the University of Edinburgh working on the behaviour of colloids dispersed in liquid crystals. She is currently a post-doc at the Rowett Institute of the University of Aberdeen, but based in Edinburgh. 

I’ve just finished a PhD in soft matter physics and I’m now working as a post doc. Now that the dust has settled on the thesis I can begin to reflect on the writing process. I wrote up in three and a half months.

thesis-anne

Because of an internship, the process of writing my thesis was entirely separate in time from the experimental period and had a hard deadline as I had to submit before starting a post-doc. Despite beign told to “write as you go along” I hadn’t in any meaningful way, so I started with a very rough thesis outline and two published papers. What follows is a collection of things that I learnt along the way. These are simply things which worked for me, there is a lot of advice out there from people more experienced than me (e.g. this blog, The Thesis Whisperer, and others). I read quite a lot of the advice given, mainly as a means of procrastination if I’m honest, and then used the bits which worked for me. I’ll group the things I learnt loosely into practicalities and the writing process and software tricks.

Practicalities

I wrote most of my thesis at home to avoid the distractions of colleagues and to have access to a ready supply of coffee. I took over a small corner of my living room with a desk, desktop computer and a good chair. This was my office. I typically worked there from 8:30am to about 5pm every week day whilst writing up. One of the most important things for me was to treat writing as a job, as such I did not work on my thesis in my pyjamas. I also did not work weekends, I tried to use them to get some fresh air, take a break and see other people.

This approach has downsides, although I kept up some hobbies, there were days when I would not see another human being as I live alone. I wish I’d built more regular excercise and socialising into my days as there were times when I was extremely lonely.

The writing process

I worked 8:30am to ~5pm on my thesis during week days with coffee and lunch breaks. I did not use any specific productivity techniques other than blocking time-wasting sites on the internet but often made bread which requires attention at regular (~30min) intervals. I did not spend the entire day writing, I also revised text, reviewed results or read background material in preparation for writing the next section. I aimed to write a minimum of 500 words a day, this is acheivable and gave a sense of process. I decided that complete figures with a caption and all the correct formatting and cross referencing were the equivalent of 1000 words. Keeping to a regular schedule and having acheivable goals were the best way for me to stay motivated.

I started my thesis with a rough outline, essentially just the chapter headings. I then agreed a timetable with my supervisor about when he could expect each chapter and when he would give me feedback. This was really important for keeping me on track as I work best with fixed deadlines. On the other hand this was really hard work, I think I might have been happier with a slightly more relaxed schedule as there was no let up.

anne-scripts

I structured each chapter into sections and then began to fill them in. I tended to write out the opening paragraghs of each section long hand in a notebook and then type them up editing as I went. Once I had got started on a section it was then easier to keep going, typing straight in. I would then do a full edit once the section was complete. I handed each chapter to my supervisor for feedback and started the next chapter whilst I waited for his comments.

Once I had all the chapters and comments back I made the suggested corrections and sent the revised chapters to a small army of proof readers, one per chapter. Finally, I gave a final copy to my supervisor to check over before printing. With the exception of the first chapter I wrote, I only made one set of major revisions to each chapter prior to submission as this was all there was time for. This resulted in quite a lot of pressure to make the work as complete as possible before my supervisor saw it and required me to spend a time editing and tidying my own work, something which I intensly dislike doing.

Would I do it like this again? I think I would, although, maybe I’d allow myself slightly longer to write or have written more during the PhD. However, the process was hard work but not painfully so. I’m glad I had the support of my supervisor to write in this way as without promt feedback this would have been impossible.

Software

There were three distinct types of software I found useful: LaTeX and associated packages, referencing software, and “productivity software”.

The latter was I’m ashamed to say the most useful. These plugins for your web browser (I used leechblock) block your access to the distracting parts of the internet (facebook, twitter et al) during the working day and crucially do not allow you to alter the settings during this time. I allowed myself 5 minutes access in every hour.

For referencing I used a combination of Mendeley and Jabref. I found that whilst Mendeley was great for searching papers and adding notes, its bibtex output left something to be desired, so I exported these to Jabref before inserting. I have Mendeley set up to watch and sort my random papers folder, I save all papers here and Mendeley sorts them and makes them searchable.

Finally, I wrote my thesis using LaTeX, which I recommend. LaTeX has a steepish learning curve so if you are in the early stages of a PhD I recommend using it early on to get the hang of it. One of the good things is that there are add-on packages which will probably solve the problem you are having. On the downside, you can waste a huge amount of time looking for them and getting them to work. Three hours spent getting a package to work properly does not increase your word count but does function as a very efficient form of procrastination.

This aside, I found there were a few packages which I wish I’d known how to use before I started.
First, the short caption option. To avoid a table of figures sixteen pages long use:
”\caption[short caption for table of figures]{Full caption with all the details}”
Second, the fancy reference package. I’m not a perfectionist and frequently fail to format cross references consistently; this does it for you. The SI package does the same thing for units.
Finally, the subfigure package and all its options, to lay out multipart figures. This page explains all the of the options well. When writing in LaTeX it is useful to be able to count words, I used texcount.

And what about you? How did you write your thesis? Any advice or tip you wish to share with us? Let us know by leaving a comment below.