One of our PhD students recently became silent and withdrawn. I couldn’t understand why: he is getting a lot of results, has many friends and a popular and easy-going person in general. Then I’ve heard that our PI had told him to write a draft of his first paper and had an idea why he became unhappy.
Many a PhD student was overjoyed to hear that their results were to be published, only to realise that despite all ‘mock paper’ style assays, (s)he doesn’t know how. It is usually done “show me the first draft and I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it”. This is especially daunting if English is not your first language., but there are books to help you with this.
One of them is ‘How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper’ (HWPSP – I love an abbreviation as much as the next biologist and the book recommends using an abbreviation if the item is mentioned more than 3 times in an article). I have access to the 6th edition of HWPSP and the 7th exists already, so it must be one of the better ones. And it should be, as it is written by two Professors – Robert A Day who taught courses in scientific writing to under- and postgraduate students at the University of Delaware and Barbara Gastel who teaches several subjects including Biotechnology at Texas A&M University.
Some titles oversell a book, ‘How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper’ undersells it. The book is not only a comprehensive guide written in very clear language to the usual sections – Introduction, Methods, Results, Discussion (according to the book authors it has a handy mnemonics IMRAD). HWPSP also gives an overview of almost all writing occasions a scientist could meet, starting with posters, conference communication, CV, cover letter, thesis writing and finishing with book chapters, grants, and recommendation letters writing. There is also a valuable chapter on scientific style, including a sub-chapter on English as a foreign language. The wide coverage means that there are not many details and some of the content is just common sense, but rare person suffers from the surplus of the practicality.
The literature list at the back will help you to find more details about particular aspects of scientific writing. For example I read the relevant part of HWPSP and then found an article about how to write a book review. I don’t know if my review is better than the previous, but I feel more confident in writing them now.
Get your PI to buy the book for the lab – it will save a lot of student’s small embarrassments of starting letters with Dear Sir (Madame), which ruined countless chances for an interview and increase chances of your poster winning an award. Or you may like it so much that you buy it yourself and it’ll accompany you in your future career – no section on writing Nobel Prize speeches, but I think this is amply compensated by the great humour and pictures: I wish I knew where to get something like this for my articles.
And the sad PhD student? He is looks chirpier now, maybe the book has helped or maybe he just understood that it is easy to eat an elephant (or write a paper) – you divide it into small digestible pieces and do it.