Improving your technical writing

What you write determines the success of your report or paper. But writing well is hard, even for professional writers and scientists. If you have ever struggled to understand a paper, you probably know what I mean. The following are books and softwares that help to make writing clear and interesting.

  1. On writing well by William Zinsser. This book is hilarious, and full of great examples. They help to understand the common mistakes, how to avoid them, and how to keep the reader engaged.
  2. Style: Towards clarity and grace by Williams and Bizup. Slightly more advanced, and has good coverage of how to construct coherent sentences, paragraphs etc. An interesting read, with directly useable advice.

A classic book in this area is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. This is a famous and very good book, but a little condensed and terse; and less entertaining than Zinsser! So I suggest starting with the two above.

The next book adapts the principles of good writing to writing about science and technology:

  • Writing Science: How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Fundedby Joshua Schimel. The book explains scientific writing as a problem of writing stories! I read the first couple of chapters this week, and I am looking forward to the rest of it.

There are some softwares that give suggestions on your writing. Copy a paragraph of your text into one of these, and they can help sharpen it. But don’t trust them too much! Use your own analysis.

  1. Hemingway website: Nice interface, highlights issues with colour and hovering shows the tips. They also have offline apps, but these are paid.
  2. Angry reviewer website: Specifically for scientific writing. It finds common mistakes, but the interface is not so convenient.

Grammarly is of course a good app for fixing grammar and construction, but the more useful features beyond spelling and grammar are paid, and sometimes unreliable in technical topics. Using ChatGPT to fix your writing is not a good idea. ChatGPT knows grammar, but its writing is vague and repetitive, so it will look like you do not know your topic and are trying to fake it. Not to mention ChatGPT will confidently make dubious statements!

As you start learning from the books, pay attention whenever you write anything — reports, emails or even instant messages. Improve them based on what you have learned. Writing gets better only with constant monitoring and rewriting.