Schimel vs. Heard: Comparing Two Guides to Scientific Writing

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This and last fall, I was a teaching assistant for a class taught by Andrew Richardson called Writing Scientific Papers, in which we workshopped papers that graduate students were writing. The textbook that Andrew has used for this class since its inception in 2012 is Josh Schimel’s Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded. But before this year’s class, we both read and really enjoyed Stephen Heard’s recently published The Scientist’s Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively Throughout your Scientific Career.

In a nutshell, the main difference between these two books is captured by their subtitles. While Schimel’s book is shorter, to the point, and very goal-oriented, Heard’s is longer, a bit more meandering, and more process-oriented. I think both books are worth reading if you work in science and write papers or grant proposals, and either could be a good textbook for the sort of class we were teaching. Below, I’ve listed some more comparisons between the two, with the caveat that I last read them back in September, and some points may be retrieved from a fuzzy memory:

  • Neither book is prescriptive, and both recommend following principles over rules. This makes sense for a writing guide, in my opinion, as there are a million ways to write something well.
  • Both books focus, at their core, on story telling. However, this emphasis is stronger and more present throughout Schimel than Heard. Schimel advocates for focussing on the story at every level of writing, from sentence to paragraph to whole paper. I personally find this a bit too much (I’m not sure I believe that every sentence has to tell a full story). However, it lends a coherence to the whole book that translates well into the classroom–whenever we got stuck in critiquing some writing in class, we could move forward by asking “what’s the story here?”
  • The discussion of narrative arcs and funnel- or hourglass-shaped stories (start and end broad, narrow in the middle) is very similar in both books.
  • While both books mix examples and principles, I learnt more from Schimel’s examples and Heard’s principles than the converse. I think this is an important way in which the two books complement one another.
  • In particular, Heard carefully thinks through all possible ways of approaching particular writing challenges. For example, he has a section titled “Three properties of good paragraphs,” in which one subsection titled “Making paragraphs coherent” has a list of seven possible ways in which to organize a paragraph. The whole book is peppered with such examples of comprehensive thought, which I really enjoyed.
  • Heard includes multiple chapters on the writing process, as well as the scientific authoring process. Schimel’s book doesn’t have equivalent chapters. We assigned chapters from Heard as supplemental reading, e.g. the chapters on outlines, tables and figures, and self-revision. With more planning, we would no doubt have added more, e.g. the chapters on coauthorship and review, both from colleagues and peer review.
  • I think this approach of mixing the two books is ideal for the classroom. A course taught entirely off of Heard’s book may become frustrating if students don’t care about the process of writing at all. With just Schimel’s advice, I think you could hate writing but still get the job done. Heard, however, is probably a bit more likely to get you to enjoy writing.
  • Whose advice you like better is going to be a matter of personal preference. I happen to like Heard’s choices and examples a  bit more than Schimel’s, because my style happens to match Heard’s a bit more closely. But again, there are a million ways to write something well, and both of these books are impeccable guides to writing. This is one of those choices where you can’t really go wrong.

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6 thoughts on “Schimel vs. Heard: Comparing Two Guides to Scientific Writing

  1. Pingback: Some OTHER good books on scientific writing | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  2. Thanks for the comparison! I really like the process of writing aspects of the Heard book, and imagine they will help many people. It sounds like I should add Schimel’s book to my reading list!

  3. Thank you very much for this comparison. I’ve got Schimel’s book on my shelf, and my fiance recently picked up Heard’s. This year is setting up to include a burst of scientific paper writing (a much needed burst from a career perspective, to be honest) and some motivation-boosting from these books should be useful.

    We’ll just ignore the fact that I’m procrastinating some actual paper-writing right now by reading blogs…

    • I think the time invested in reading these books will definitely pay off for when you get to the writing! Heard, especially, talks a lot about how difficult writing can be, and I think those sections may be inspiring 🙂

  4. Pingback: Friday links: Charles Darwin vs. Tom Wolfe, variance components vs. beer, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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