A reading list for academic writers: Five essential books
Updated: Apr 5
If you're serious about improving your academic writing, these five books are worth having on your shelf.
Finding good advice on academic writing can be challenging because the choices are overwhelming. A recent search for "academic writing" on Amazon yielded over 10,000 hits. Here are five books to have on your shelf when you're working on your next journal article or proposal.
Writing for peer reviewed journals: Strategies for getting published
Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler
This book is one of the few I've come across that addresses an existential challenge of academic writing that few people talk about: the identity work required to become a confident academic writer. As Thomson and Kamler write, "the vast majority of researchers are very good at reporting and describing a set of findings. They can tell you what they did, what they found, and what the research site looked like...But they lack the confidence to argue and package what they have to say in the kind of format and language that a journal will find acceptable." To be authoritative is a stance that many early-stage researchers are not comfortable with, and Thomson and Kamler provide advice on what it takes to make that transition.
They go on to list questions that researchers have to answer before they can get published, offer strategies for doing the writing, provide excellent advice and questions about how to choose the right journal, explain the realities and layers of academic publishing, and provide valuable before-and-after examples. They also focus on developing and refining an argument, explain why writing an abstract first is an efficient way to start writing a paper, tell readers how to identify and explicitly state the contribution, and explain why you should have a publication plan and how to create one. The most valuable part of this book for me is their focus on the writer and the difficult and sometimes painful work of developing an academic identity. As someone who edits journal articles almost daily, I can confirm that identity work (or lack of it) is an intrinsic and palpable element of writing that comes across clearly in a text. Half the work of writing is being confident that you have something worth saying.
"[T]he vast majority of researchers...lack the confidence to argue and package what they have to say in the kind of format and language that a journal will find acceptable." - Pat Thomson and Barbara Kamler, Writing for peer reviewed reviewed journals: Strategies for getting published
They say, I say: The moves that matter in academic writing
Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein
While the focus of Writing for peer reviewed journals (above) is on the important work of developing the academic identity needed to engage with peers in academic journals, Graff and Birkenstein focus on positioning one's research in the context of academic discussions and debates within a field. The incredibly easy-to-use, thought-provoking templates in this book are designed to help researchers position their work by having them consider how it relates to the work of other researchers. Graff and Birkenstein make it easy for researchers to think about how other readers will (or might) respond to their work.
This book provides one of the most-accessible and relevant entry points on academic writing that I've found. I've used it with a number of clients who have fallen in love with the "Readings" section, which shows how the template formats they provide appear over and over in published articles in the natural and social sciences. In addition, this book helps researchers identify the significance of their research and – even more important – discover what it is they want to say in the first place. If you've ever heard advice that you should answer the "So what?" question in your academic writing and that you should anticipate reader responses, but haven't been able to figure out how to apply this advice to your own writing, this book will help you do both.
"...if you are doing cutting-edge work, you are not always going to be right" - Joshua Schimel, Writing Science
Writing science: How to write papers that get cited and proposals that get funded
While this book has excellent advice for researchers in all fields, its target audience is researchers in the natural sciences, which fills a much-needed gap. Throughout the book, Schimel works in excellent advice for academic writers – for example, that the writer's job is to make the reader's job easy – and he provides a lot of concrete advice on how to do exactly that. I also appreciate how he addresses misguided researcher assumptions head-on: for example, most researchers believe that simply presenting their findings in a journal article is enough. Not so.
Schimel advises researchers to find a story in the data, for which he provides key questions that will help them get to an answer. I like this approach – and use it myself in my work – because it's writing that doesn't actually feel like writing. I also appreciate that he reveals the model structures of journal articles and proposals and recommends when to use them (i.e., in which specific types of journals); that he focuses on specific sections, such as openings and resolutions; that he provides many examples – of poor writing and how to improve it; and that he offers advice on how to stress and emphasize. I find Schimel's directness refreshing. He exhorts researchers to take an assertive stance: In an example in which authors were being too tepid, he writes, "...by trying too hard and doing it badly, they ended up being confusing." But my favorite part of this book is his advice to researchers that it's okay to be wrong: "[Y]ou are a scientist—your job is not to be right. It is your job to be thoughtful, careful, and analytical; it is your job to challenge your ideas and to try to falsify your hypotheses; it is your job to be open and honest about the uncertainties in your data and conclusions. But if you are doing cutting-edge work, you are not always going to be right."
Writing your journal article in twelve weeks (second edition)
Wendy Laura Belcher
This is the most-comprehensive book on writing journal articles that I've found, and it's an invaluable reference to have on your shelf. From what an argument is to how to test whether what you have is really an argument and how to turn it into one if it isn't, to the essential advice on how and why to write an argument-driven article (rather than an evidence-driven one), this book covers all the bases. Belcher has scoured the research on academic writing and bases her practical advice on it, confronting researchers' fears of writing and identifying why you don't write as much as you should, as well as advising you on how to create a realistic writing schedule and what daily and weekly tasks you should be accomplishing. She also drills down to specifics about managing your works cited and the process of submitting and revising-and-resubmitting. I use this book in all aspects of my work, from developmental editing projects to workshop modules and individual writing-coaching sessions, especially the sections on crafting the all-important claims for significance. My paperback copy is dog-eared and marked throughout, and my e-book version has yellow highlighting from top to bottom. I especially like Belcher's comprehensive list of references, which I've used to track down excellent sources. Even if you don't manage to stick to the twelve-week schedule, you can easily jump around in this book to focus in on the aspect of your writing you most need help with now.
Style: Lessons in clarity and grace
Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup
When I first started doing developmental editing – the kind of intense text work that goes beyond mere proofreading to restructure sentences and paragraphs so they communicate ideas more clearly – this book opened my eyes to an entirely new way of thinking about writing. Before reading it, I could easily tell when something about a text was not working, but I didn't know why it wasn't working or how to fix it. After reading it (and re-reading it!), I became enamored by Williams and Bizup's diagnoses of writing problems and their solutions for fixing them. I continue to use their principles when working on developmental editing projects, in workshops, and in writing-coaching sessions. Specifically, their concepts of actions, characters, cohesion and coherence, emphasis, and concision have been the foundation of the developmental text work I do every day. The concepts they outline are based on research about writing and how readers process information. It's one of those books that will change the way you approach writing and help you enormously as you edit your own work.
Getting the help you need (plus, a bonus)
I'm always amazed at how much PhD students and early-stage researchers have to cope with and juggle, often without a sufficient support system to help guide them and manage their publications. Since writing and publishing are so essential to career success, the books I've listed here are excellent starting points and resources to help you become a more confident and independent writer.
If you need more help, book a 45-minute get-to-know-each-other session to see if I'm the right person to help you with your next writing project. You can also download the book recommendations in this blog as a PDF, which includes a bonus book recommendation.