The one book you need for academic writing

There are many books out there for PhD students and other academics seeking to improve their writing. My current favourite is ‘The Writing Workshop‘ by Barbara Sarnecka. It’s got everything, and you can even get a free copy from OSF.

Why this one rather than other books? I think it’s got the balance right, some 350 pages to cover everything. You’ll find the old classics like write often, structure your writing, get together to do some writing, but the book doesn’t stop there.

Don’t me mislead by the title, this is a book about writing; the workshop is in the title because this is how the book started. Yes, social accountability can be a great help for many, and planning (development plans, term plans) can be great. But the book really comes to life in the third chapter, where we learn about mining and gardening. Writing as mining regards ideas as resources that are forcibly extracted. You work harder, you extract more resources, and you extract those resources before your competitors. That’s a common mindset in academia, and also how many books on academic writing (that I know) seem to approach writing. Sarnecka proposes writing as gardening: weeding and pruning, watering the plants. We harvest the fruits of this garden. I think this is the right mindset to work in academia, and oddly enough, the mindset that probably allows you to write more and better papers.

The chapters on literature reviews and the IMRaD (introduction, methods, results, and discussion) structure of scientific papers are excellent, because they explain the whole business of academic writing. By providing the bigger picture, some academic conventions start to make sense. I really wish I had this spelled out so explicitly when I did my doctoral research. The book is really hands-on, with explicit examples, like how to write differently for different audiences, or why figures beat tables hands down. Sure, we all know this in principle, but this book actually shows what this means!

There’s a chapter on academic presentations (and posters), which gets to the point, like every chapter in the book. We get clear guidelines, an explanation why these guidelines make sense, and examples to show how this works in practice. We’ve probably all heard about the importance of telling stories or making slides accessible — this book shows you how. At the same time, it’s far from a simple (prescriptive) formula: there’s still room for you and your tastes.

We also get chapters on structuring paragraphs, sentences, and words. As everywhere, we get the why along with the how and plenty of examples to illustrate what is said.

I ordered print copies for the PhD students starting with us this autumn.

Sarnecka, Barbara W. 2021. The Writing Workshop: Write More, Write Better, Be Happier in Academia. OSF Preprints. https://osf.io/5qcdh/.

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