Review: Successful Scientific Writing, by Janice R. Matthews and Robert W. Matthews

matthewsMatthews, Janice R. and Robert W. Successful Scientific Writing: A Step-by-Step Guide for the Biological and Medical Sciences. 4th ed. Cambridge, UP, 2008.

In a few weeks, I will resume my teaching responsibilities with Eight Weeks to Writing with Clarity, an eight-week online course that gives environmental scientists clarity, focus, and insight into the process of writing technical and regulatory documents. We cover the writing process from brainstorming to revision in weekly, online sessions and with an online forum.

It is one of my favorite classes to teach because I get to watch students make some longer-term progress than they can in a few days. And the web environment is both challenging in the way it forces me to re-think my teaching methods and rewarding in the ways it allows me to connect with students who are recovering from surgery, home on maternity leave, or located on remote refuges.

In preparation for my fourth year teaching the class, I spent a library day last week researching several books on scientific writing, just to make sure that I’m still on top of my game. Nobody wants a stale instructor who spends all of her time in the classroom and none in the field! All of the books that I read had strengths unique to their authors, and a short bibliography follows this blog post so you can review the titles and judge for yourself if any of them interest you.

However, all of the books I studied, including the one I’m reviewing today, took the scientific article as the topic of their instruction. Granted, scientists need training in this mode of discourse, but the environmental scientists with whom I work write much more than that. Their documents include everything from brochures to comprehensive conservation plans. They write grant proposals, respond to listing petitions, create newsletters, and define best management practices. A “how-to” for the scientific journal article simply does not meet all of their writing needs.

environmental scientists

That’s why I was particularly impressed with Matthews and Matthews’ Successful Scientific Writing. It does, obviously, teach the scientific journal article, but it does so by focusing on the processes of researching, drafting, revising, and refining, thereby making it much more useful to environmental scientists who are publishing in many different modes.

The text is organized in eight sections, each of which addresses one aspect of the writing process. The book is filled with eminently practical advice, such as staple your notes to your literature review, use frequent subheadings, or gauge the size of your PowerPoint text by the length of the room. Matthews and Matthews also include diagrams illustrating the techniques they describe, as well as tables with research and writing prompts, databases, and other useful information. The regular use of cartoons, quips, and other humorous elements, as well as the extensive use of subheadings, keep the book lively.

The authors realize that conference presentations are as much a part of scientific communication as the journal article and that visual elements play a role in both. So they include two chapters on providing visual support, one for the journal article and one for the presentation.

The chapter on grammar, numbers, and other mechanics is noteworthy. This is a field in which most authors are either scientists who write well but are not trained English instructors, or English instructors who expect scientists to write like Hemingway. Matthews and Matthews bridge the gap beautifully. They provide thorough English instruction in language that a scientist can use.


The library in which I was working had the 3rd edition, in a spiral binding, which I loved! I think the binding is an overlooked feature in reference works, because so often we need to keep them open while we work. I see that the 4th edition is now available and that it has updated information about digital resources and plagiarism, information that I’m sure will be as practical and useful as the advice I saw in the 3rd.

In short, I highly recommend Matthews and Matthews’ Successful Scientific Writing to librarians, students, and environmental scientists. You can use the book as a self-study guide or as a reference work to improve your writing skills for not only the scientific journal article but other forms of scientific communication as well.

And if you are a Department of the Interior employee, I would love to see you in class (online) starting January 7. Send me an email, or give me a call, and I will give you all the details!

Selected Bibliography – Guides to Scientific Writing

Alley, Michael. The Craft of Scientific Writing. 3rd ed. Springer, 1996.

Cargill, Margaret and Patrick O’Connor. Writing Scientific Research Articles. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Day, Robert A. and Barbara Gastel. How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper. 6th ed. Cambridge UP, 2006.

Harmon, Joseph E. and Alan G. Gross. The Craft of Scientific Communication. U of Chicago P, 2010.

Hofmann, Angelika. Scientific Writing and Communication: Papers, Proposals, and Presentations. NY: Oxford UP, 2010.

Katz, Michael Jay. From Research to Manuscript. 2nd ed. Springer, 2009.

Matthews, Janice R. and Robert W. Matthews. Successful Scientific Writing: A Step-by-Step Guide for the Biological and Medical Sciences. 3rd ed. Cambridge UP, 2008.

Montgomery, Scott L. The Chicago Guide to Communicating Science. Chicago UP, 2003.

Schimel, Joshua. Writing Science: How to Write Papers that Get Cited and Proposals that Get Funded. NY, Oxford UP, 2012 

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