Language of the laboratory

How to Write about Biology
June 16, 1995

This is not a crash-course in how to become the next Steven Gould or Richard Dawkins. It is a compilation of advice about the best way to handle the various dialects of scientific English, especially those spoken in the life sciences.

A better title might be "How to be a biology student", as this joint Anglo-American effort covers reading, lecturing and note-taking, as well as the more obvious topics of composing lab reports, essays, theses and papers.

This might be padding - there are not that many basic things to say about clear writing, after all - but is not. Rather, it stems from the authors' emphasis that the struggle to understand is an essential prelude to the struggle to explain.

Any students who keep it by them will be well served by the book, which is nicely structured around biological examples, and full of sound advice about process and product. Those whose grasp of English is weak might be directed to study the chapter on punctuation, word choice, spelling and grammar, and there is an excellent chapter on revising - a stage many students have never heard of.

The book's success I suspect will be limited by the nature of the subject. It tends to assume an implausibly virtuous reader. Hard-pressed students want handbooks that offer tips, short-cuts and bluffer's guides. In writing, there are few short-cuts. It is the time it takes to get it right that defeats most undergraduates up against a string of essay and report deadlines. And they are unlikely to be encouraged by a slight earnestness of tone throughout. The authors treat the subject clearly, to be sure, but extremely seriously. There are no jokes, nor even any hint that writing might be fun. Most science students, and most of their teachers, regard moving the cursor across the screen one word at a time as a bit of a chore. They would almost certainly do it more effectively after studying this book, but it would still be a chore.

Jon Turney teaches science communication at University College, London.

How to Write about Biology

Author - Jan A. Pechenik and Bernard C. Lamb
ISBN - 0 00 499000 5
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £6.99
Pages - 262

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