ChemBioChem, 2004, 5, 1302.
H. F. Ebel, C. Bliefert, W. E. Russey, The Art of Scientific Writing. From Student Reports to Professorial Publications in Chemistry and Related Fields. Wiley-VCH, 2nd ed., Weinheim, 2004, vi + 595 pp., ISBN 3-527-29829-0.
The title is a misnomer. To do justice to its contents, the book ought to have been named The Minutia of Scientific Publishing. For an accurate idea of the contents, imagine putting together « Instructions to Authors » from periodicals, from guides prepared by book publishers, etc. The chapters deal in succession with reports, such as laboratory notebooks ; dissertations ; journal articles ; books ; writing techniques, word processing primarily; equations and formulas ; figures ; tables ; and bibliographies.
The three authors bring considerable experience and complementary expertises to their task. Hans F. Ebel is a former senior editor and a director of Wiley-VCH. Claus Bliefert, a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Applied Sciences in Münster, has authored several books on science communication. William E. Russey, an emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Juniata College, in Pennsylvania, has performed numerous scientific translations, for Angewandte Chemie in particular.
To give the flavor of the book, I will quote from p. 198 :
Education is another area subject to enormous impact from modern technology, and the past can hardly be regarded as a reliable guide to the future. Our uncertainty with respect to the outlook for textbooks is of course related to possible alternative sources of information, including the Internet, but also rapid developments in the area of « distance learning. » Personal experience forces us (with considerable dismay, or is it mainly nostalgia ?) to take seriously as well the fact that student willingness and even ability to learn from the printed page has declined markedly in recent years. As a teacher, one must decide whether to do battle with this situation, or simply accept the consequences and move on.
Is this informative ? Or does it qualify as padding with stereotypes ? It smacks of a memo internal to a publishing house.
The authors fall over backwards in their adulation of the digital revolution. Their book is keyed to use of currently available software. Hence, it will become quickly outdated.
To return to the seductive if misleading title, there is indeed a real need for a book on science publishing, focussed on style, i.e., on the artistry. There are gems of science writing. Are they recipes or tricks to emulate them ? Can the skill be learned ?
Now to the oneupmanship. Having done my bit, having for more than 30 years written up for publication our teamwork in chemistry ; having gone on to becoming a solo science writer, I have a little experience. There is no reason I should not share here my ten cardinal rules :
- member you are telling a story. Presenting the evidence belongs in legal briefs ;
- science IS writing ;
- be fair : give credit to whom it is due ; quote only those references you have read and are familiar with ;
- competition is no excuse for sloppy writing ;
- writing-up the results is the best way to design your study and your experiments properly. Waiting until the investigation has been « completed » is a mistake. Start writing the paper from the outset ;
- the iconography will have to stand on its own. Make sure that it tells your story, that it provide the main steps of the argument and the take-home lesson ;
- avoid using la langue de bois, i.e. the stilted protective language which debases both the English language and science ;
- find your voice, establish a style ; good writing comes from imitation followed by emulation : pick a model, and try to come up with sentences which are your own ;
- read aloud what you have written, it is a good way to improve it ;
- edit : at re the first read, cull 20% of the copy ; during following reads, remove an additional 10%.
Coming back to the book under review, it might enjoy some use within publishing houses. For us scientists, it will be easily superseded by a combination of good, creative work and of good, creative writing. This book won’t give you a taste for the latter. You are much better off reading or rereading Conrad or Nabokov who, just like quite a few among us, were not native English writers.