The two books about writing that every grad student should read

Read these two books and graduate school will be much easier for you.

In my previous life, I was a pretty good linguist, although I was also a pretty crappy person. My name was John Peabody Harrington. In addition to be a crappy person (see here for details), I was also a crappy poet. This is because I avoided reading other poets, on the theory that doing so would contaminate my own innate style.

That was stupid of me. In fact, to become a good writer, the single most helpful thing that you can do is to read other writers. Read enough, and you will not only recognize the good ones and be able to take from them what works well, but you will also recognize bad ones, and can try to avoid doing what they do.

The second most important thing you can do: practice. Practice, practice, practice, and practice. In fact, this blog often serves as a place for me to find the rough spots in my writing techniques. For example, I think I’m OK at writing beginnings, but I suck at endings.

The third most important thing you can do: get feedback from other people. The most direct way to do this is to ask them to read, and to comment critically on, your stuff. The indirect way to do this is to read good discussions of writing by people who have done a lot of it. Having read a lot of that kind of stuff, I am going to suggest to you my favorites: two books that every grad student should read. I admire them so much that I keep multiple copies of both of them in my office, and if a student approaches me about doing a project in my group, I hand them a copy of each; part of the deal for me saying “yes” is that they commit to reading them. Ready? Here goes.

  1. They Say/I Say: a hugely popular guide to “argumentative writing,” now in its 5th edition for very good reason. Authors: Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein.

“Argumentative writing” is writing that tries to convince someone of something. In scientific writing, you are trying to convince your reader that (1) your topic is worth the trouble, (2) your data is appropriate for exploring it, (3) your methods could answer the question that your paper is asking, and (4) your results mean what you think they mean.

2. How to complete and survive a doctoral dissertation: this book is probably older than you are, and some of its technical aspects are charmingly out of date, but much of its advice is timeless: the pluses and minuses of choosing a dissertation advisor who is an internationally-known scholar, versus going with a freshly-minted PhD; how to demonstrate the novelty of your work even in what you believe to be the worst of circumstances; the worst thing you could possibly do in the midst of writing your dissertation; whose responsibility it actually is to get you through graduate school (spoiler alert: yours)… Author: David Sternberg.

Remember what I said about sucking at endings? This is what me sucking at an ending looks like. Read the books, and if you’re too poor to buy them, do a rotation in my lab–I hand them out like candy.

Picture source: the Hyperrhiz 21 blog.

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