The technical writer's toolbox - Books

If you're like many native English speakers, you're pretty comfortable speaking correctly, but writing correctly (with all those confusing "punctuation marks" and pronouns that need something called "antecedents") is a bigger challenge. What's worse is that there are so many conflicting opinions on writing. All you have to do is run a quick search for "style guide" on Amazon. The first six pages of search results return relevant products - manuals of style for writing. Where do you begin? Here are the four books I've found most helpful as a science writer.

1) The Elements of Style Strunk & White

This book is tiny but packed with nuggets of wisdom. It's been around for almost a century and has been updated to stay relevant without diluting the message. It's Amazon's #267 in books; if you consider the tens of thousands of books on Amazon that's kinda a big deal.


2) The ACS Style Guide - Coghill & Garson

I'm not recommending that you purchase this exact book, but every scientific discipline has a style to follow. For me, as a chemist, this style guide gave me the information I needed to "write like a chemist." Even if you're not pursuing publication, it's a good idea to write in the style of your field's publications. The more consistent you are with the norm, the easier it will be for fellow scientists to follow your writing. So maybe you need the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (link below) instead of The ACS Style Guide, but grab the book relevant to your industry.

3) The Little, Brown Handbook - Fowler & Aaron

The 13th edition of this book has "The MLA Update Edition" as the subtitle, which kind-of gagged me. Most of us learned MLA style for our high school research papers. Nowadays, you have those "newfangled" tools within word processors and Google Docs to help you with your citations, but back in my day, we had to do it all by hand. Every single period and quotation mark was a possible point gained or lost. Although MLA style isn't used in technical writing, we learned to follow a style guide, so it all worked out OK. Here, I've linked the 9th edition because it's SO much more cost-effective, and grammar doesn't really change that much across 14 years.

This little handbook (which isn't brown, by the way) is the best "quick reference" for grammar I've ever found. Does this period go inside or outside the quotation marks? When should I use "impact" vs. "affect" vs. "effect"? Get this book; you won't believe you ever wrote without it.

4) Technical Editing - Rude

As a science writer, your work will be reviewed and edited again and again (especially if you're following my 5 tips). As a member of the scientific community, if you prove you have good writing chops, you'll also be asked to review and edit others' work. Technical Editing isn't a quick reference like The Little, Brown Handbook; it's more like a textbook on editing. Still, don't be daunted by its comprehensive nature. If you use the table of contents well, you can find the chapter on your current dilemma. 

Now, get to writing!

Whatever books you have on your shelf, it's important for every writer to have the tools they need to succeed. We're well past the days of quill pens, ink pots, and parchment - there are more tools available to us than ever before. I hope this list helps you think through how to select the tools that are right for you and your discipline. Check back here every Wednesday for more ideas to help you grow as a science writer!

Are there any other books on your shelf you just can't write without? Have you ever struggled with how to use a style guide? Comment below and let me know!

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