NYU Langone Medical Center

Scientific Writing

How to Write a Scientific Paper: A Reading List
Tung-Tien Sun, NYU School of Medicine

If given an identical set of data, different investigator will write papers that can be drastically different in their effectiveness in delivering the messages. A good scientific writer can explain his data more clearly and effectively, and make it easier for the readers to appreciate the importance of his findings. What are the tricks? Here is a reading list containing several books and websites that deal with effective scientific writing.

A.     Books:

The Elements of Style
by William Strunk, Jr and E.B.
Publisher: Longman; 4th edition (1999)
Avg Customer Rating: 4.5 (out of 5; 350 reviews)
Price: ~$10 (new).

Editorial Reviews:
White is a marvelous little book that you must have. Now in its fourth edition, this small book has become a classic. Postive reveiws include: “A masterpiece in the art of clear and concise writing.” (Amazon.com Review). "No book in shorter space, with fewer words, will help any writer more than this persistent little volume." (The Boston Globe). "Buy it, study it, enjoy it. It's as timeless as a book can be in our age of volubility." (The New York Times). "Should be the daily companion of anyone who writes for a living, and for that matter, anyone who writes at all." (Greensboro, N.C., Daily News). Readers’ comments include, “I read it again whenever I am about to begin a large writing project.” “Many professional writers advise reading this book cover-to-cover once a year.” “The book begins with eleven "Elementary Rules of Usage," and then continues with eleven more "Elementary Rules of Composition," and eleven "Matters of Form." Each is presented as a brief statement followed by another sentence or two of explanation and a few clarifying examples. This amazing compilation fills only thirty-eight pages, yet covers ninety percent of good writing fundamentals. My favorite section is Chapter IV, a twenty-seven-page, alphabetical listing of commonly misused words and expressions. Here's a trade secret: when my manuscript is "done," I then turn to this chapter and use my word processor's Find function to study every instance of all these problematic words and phrases. I never fail to find errors this way. Many great writers are so only because they've learned to make use of the best available tools. The end of the book contains an essay on "An Approach to Style" with a list of twenty-one "Reminders." Those who fight the apparently-natural tendency to go against these recommendations succeed as writers. Those who don't, fail. It's that simple.” Personally I think this little book covers some exceeding important and effective rules, that are unfortunately ignored too often in scientific writing, such as “As a rule, begin each paragraph with a topic sentence” (rule no. 9); “A participal phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject” (rule no. 7); or “use the active voice” (rule no. 11). Although this book is available free in its entirety online, I strongly encourage you to purchase a hardcopy from Amazon.com or other sources.

How To Write & Publish a Scientific Paper: 5th Edition
by Robert A. Day and Barbara Gastel
Paperback - 320 pages 5th edition (June 18, 1998)
Cambridge University Press; 6th edition (2006)
Avg. Customer Rating: 4.5 (out of 5; 14 reviews)
Price: $34 (new)

Editorial Reviews:

"a valuable information source for everybody working in natural sciences...this is one of the best books on writing and publishing in science: buy it!" (The publisher, Oryx Press, info@oryxpress.com, October 30, 1998)
Positive readers’ comments include: This book is a treasure for all scientists, particularly graduate students. The author covers each detail of writing a paper in its own chapter in a consise, clear and sometimes funny way.  “Written with humor, this amazing how-to book breaks down all of the components of writing any scientific product, be it thesis or manuscript, and gives practical instructions on what to include and what to avoid. I especially enjoyed the grammar sections, with its real-world examples, such as "lying on top of the intestines, you will perhaps make out a small transparent thread," which is a somewhat gooey spot for observation”. “I refer to this book every time I write, and find new advice to keep me on track--and published!” “This book is a treasure for all scientists, particularly graduate students. The author covers each detail of writing a paper in its own chapter in a consise, clear and sometimes funny way.” Check Amazon.com for additional comments before you make a purchase decision.

Essentials of Writing Biomedical Research Papers
By Mimi Zeiger
Paperback: 440 pages
Publisher: McGraw-Hill Professional; 2 edition (September 30, 1999)
Avg. Customer Rating: 5 (out of 5; 11 reviews)
Price: $51 (new)

Editorial Reviews

"In summary, Zeiger's thoroughness, combined with the clarity of the examples used to illustrate each principle of clear writing, are the book's strengths. We recommend Essentials of Writing Biomedical Research Papers to students, editors, and writers at all levels who want to master IMRAD format or learn techniques that will improve their writing."-- American Medical Writers Association (American Medical Writers Association)

Product Description
Provides immediate help for anyone preparing a biomedical paper by givin specific advice on organizing the components of the paper, effective writing techniques, writing an effective results sections, documentation issues, sentence structure and much more. The new edition includes new examples from the current literature including many involving molecular biology, expanded exercises at the end of the book, revised explanations on linking key terms, transition clauses, uses of subheads, and emphases. If you plan to do any medical writing, read this book first and get an immediate advantage.

From the Back Cover
provides writers with specific, clear guidelines on word choice, sentence structure, and paragraph structure. In addition, it explains how to construct each section of a research paper, so that, ultimately, the paper as a whole tells a clear story and sends a clear message. New to This Edition! New examples from the current literature, including many involving molecular biology; Expanded exercises at the end of the book; Revised explanations on linking key terms, transitions clauses, uses of subheads, and emphases. The specific principles of effective biomedical writing are presented and explained, and then summarized in handy chapter checklists. Each section of the prototypical biomedical research paper is then systematically analyzed in terms of its function, content, organization, detail, and length. This section-by-section analysis covers the following: the introduction, materials and methods, results, discussion, figures and tables, references, abstract, and title. Of special note: The book contains a full-length paper for readers to evaluate and revise in accordance with the book; book's principles and guidelines.

Sample Readers’ comments
“This is an exceptional book. It walks the reader through all stages of writing a biomedical paper, and exemplifies the saying that "clear writing means clear thinking". Even after having written or co-written perhaps 40 biomedical papers and grants, I found this book an eye-opener. I've worked with some excellent writers and re-writers on biomed papers, but Zeiger's book lays out for all of us what some top writers may do by instinct. She starts with word choice, sentence structure, then alternative paragraph structures. She practically shows you the nature of language and thought. She goes through the right way to produce biomed papers - if you ever thought the great, efficient writers had a rule book -you- never got, THIS is the rule book. If you ever had an introduction that sounded like the abstract, or a results sections that was unwieldy, or a discussion section that seemed to repeat the introduction - Zeiger lays out the hidden rules that most people would want to follow. Following her rules, from sentence to paragraph to section, creates a paper that invokes an instinctive sense of clarity in the reader. Many times I had the "Aha!" feeling. The book should be very useful for all kinds of clear writing, including research grants. I never took one of those "scientific writing" classes because I felt smart and fluent and the classes seemed pedestrian. If those classes had used this book, I would have been way ahead to have discovered this information twenty years ago.”
Click here for a preview of the book. Check Amazon.com for additional comments before you make a purchase decision.

Successful Scientific Writing: A Step-by-Step Guide for the Biological and Medical Sciences
By Janice R. Matthews and Janice R. Matthews
Spiral-bound: 256 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 3 edition (November 5, 2007)
Avg. Customer Rating: 4.5 (out of 5; 9 reviews)
Price: $33 (new)

Editorial Review
'This book is beyond reproach and should be regarded as compulsory reading for all biomedical and science undergraduate and postgraduate students and all others likely to have to write or edit scientific reports.' Times Higher Education Supplement

'... very well organized and easy to scan for useful tips ... will soon become one of the more well-thumbed volumes on our laboratory bookshelf.' Trends in Neuroscience

'... pragmatic, well-written and comprehensive ... each stage - from marshalling ideas through bashing out a first draft, revising it, honing it for publication and correcting it in proof - is demystified with exercises and examples.' New Scientist

'...does not disappoint. It is everything a 'How to' book needs to be, stuffed with plain common sense and sprinkled with useful tips.' The Biologist

Product Description
The detailed, practical, step-by-step advice in this user-friendly guide will help students and researchers to communicate their work more effectively through the written word. Covering all aspects of the writing process, this concise, accessible resource is critically acclaimed, well-structured, comprehensive, and entertaining. Self-help exercises and abundant examples from actual typescripts draw on the authors' extensive experience working both as researchers and with them. Whilst retaining the user-friendly and pragmatic style of earlier editions, this third edition has been updated and broadened to incorporate such timely topics as guidelines for successful international publication, ethical and legal issues including plagiarism and falsified data, electronic publication, and text-based talks and poster presentations. With advice applicable to many writing contexts in the majority of scientific disciplines, this book is a powerful tool for improving individual skills and an eminently suitable text for classroom courses or seminars.

Sample Reader Comments
“This is a funny, well-written, thorough, and authoritative book that goes through every step in the process of creating a journal article, including some topics unique to this process, like how to deal with multi-author editing, peer review, and lit searches. Lots of great advice about how to overcome writer's block. Although the book is written with biomedical science in mind, the advice on grammar, style, structure, and process management is useful to all technical writers. No scientist should be without it.”

“In my view, the crux of the book appears in chapters 5, 6 and 7 in which extraordinarily lucid and practical instructions and exercises are presented for improving one's ability to write scientifically.”

“The exercises provided would be great student assignments. Additionally the exercises are fun and enhance points made in the text. Matthews, et al have given us a guide that is appropriate for advanced writers as well. Virtually every page has gems of wisdom or insights that will enhance the end result of scientific communication. This book may be especially helpful for those that are "stuck" in trying to get started writing or have complete "writers block".”

Click here for a preview, and check Amazon.com for additional Readers’ Comments before you make a purchase decision.

Successful Dissertations and Theses : A Guide to Graduate Student Research from Proposal to Completion (Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series)
by David Madsen

Paperback - 216 pages 2nd edition (November 1991)
Jossey-Bass; ISBN: 1555423892 ;
Avg. Customer Rating:  5 (out of 5)
Price: $27.00

A comprehensive guide to the dissertation!, April 12, 1999
Reviewer: Sharon Bear from Los Angeles, California
As someone who works privately with students, helping them with dissertations and theses, I highly recommend this book. When students call me in regard to assistance with their dissertation or thesis, I recommend that they buy this book and use it as an ongoing reference. As the title states, the information contained in this book anticipates and answers many of the questions that students have about the dissertation process, from proposal to completion. It is the most comprehensive guideline that I have come across in recent years.

B.     Useful Websites:

•   The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper
Rationale | Sections | Section Headings | Title | Authors and Affiliation | Abstract | Introduction | Methods | Results| Discussion | Acknowledgments | Literature Cited | Appendices
This provides an excellent discussion about how to write different sections ofa paper including the title, introduction, methods, results, discussion and references. It addresses the proper use of tense and voice, and provides examples of problematic writing and how to improve it.