Norman Ramsey's Resources for Writers
These resources will help you improve your writing in general and
your scientific writing in particular.
You should own a dictionary, a thesaurus, and a
You should read some style guides but not necessarily own one.
While you can get quite far with a collegiate dictionary, serious
writers (and serious readers) will want an unabridged dictionary.
Among modern dictionaries, I like the American
Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.
(There was and may still be a free version online
The great classic American unabridged is the Webster's Second
International, but it's expensive and old.
Avoid the permissive Third International.
Revised Unabridged from 1913 is surprisingly useful.
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary has great entertainment value,
but I find it less useful as a resource for the working writer, though
the examples can sometimes be helpful to find out how words are used,
e.g., with what prepositions.
A thesaurus is an essential tool to help you find the right word.
Get Roget form; a dictionary-form thesaurus is
You can get an ancient but
still useful Roget thesaurus from ARTFL.
This kind of reference tells you what kind of English is correct and
The best books in this category, like Fowler or Strunk and White, also
tell you what is good style.
The Dictionary of Modern English Usage, written by Henry
W. Fowler and revised by Sir Ernest Gowers, is the classic by which
all other such manuals are measured.
Although ostensibly in dictionary format, so you can look up
particular points of usage, it is best read cover to cover (a good
Try looking up Elegant Variation.
You can see reviews
You want the second edition, revised around 1956.
Avoid the evil third edition, which is a disgrace and
Fowler must be spinning.
If you want a comprehensive usage guide but you feel that a
50-year-old guide to British English is not for you, try
Bryan Gardner's guide.
I own a copy, and it looks good, but I haven't perused it in
(I own two copies of Fowler: one for home and one for
William Strunk and E. B. White,
The elements of style,
New York, Macmillan, c1979.
The famous ``little book'' combines information on usage and style.
It deserves its popularity.
Lyn Dupre, BUGS
in Writing: A Guide to Debugging Your Prose is a highly quirky
but also useful guide.
It's a collection of short segments, each about 3 to 10 pages, that
are not otherwise organized, so it's easy to digest.
I'm not that wild about this book, but many people love it
passionately, and she does do a very good job pointing out errors that
computer people commonly make.
This kind of reference tells you not so much how to write technically
correct prose as how to write good prose.
Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers,
2nd. Edition, Harper and Row, New York, circa 1985.
A classic. If you own just one book on writing, this should be it.
Joseph M. Williams
Style: Toward Clarity and Grace,
University of Chicago Press, 1995.
An excellent book focusing on algorithms for writing good
prose and improving existing prose.
Also explains how when and why to use such deprecated constructs as
George D. Gopen and Judith A. Swan
The Science of Scientific Writing,
American Scientist,78:550-558, 1990.
Nice short paper on writing.
Especially good on word order.
Approaching your writing
Three helpful sources (in alphabetical order):
- Robert Boice,
for New Faculty Members.
Not for faculty only; anyone who writes can benefit from this book.
Do you subscribe to the myth that the only way to write is to set
aside large blocks of uninterrupted time?
Boice shows how to write in brief daily sessions of 45--90 minutes.
He has gathered convincing data showing that writers who work in
breif daily sessions are roughly twice as productive as binge writers
(number of pages written, manuscripts published, etc) and also report
themselves to be happier. This idea changed my professional life.
- Joan Bolker,
Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day.
Some more good advice about how to succeed in working in brief daily
sessions, as well as other hints for living through the dissertation process.
- John V. Carlis, Design: The Key
to Writing (and Advising) a One-Draft PhD Thesis.
The title is a bit misleading, but the goal is a good one: Avoid
wasting time reorganizing your thesis or (worse) writing stuff you
have to throw away.
What is really good is the collection of small hints to use along the
For example, focus on your contributions and work
Web sites and blogs
The Thesis Whisperer is
a blog with general resources for graduate students, but focused on
to write 1000 words a day (and not go bat shit crazy).
(I think that particular post pushes people to write too much. I find
myself more in the 200 words camp.)
Hacker has a Writers’
Boot Camp tag, and a post on tracking your writing.
750words.com can help you track your progress visually.
Jorge Cham knows that writing is hard.
Avoid Common Mistakes
- Hyphenate compound adjectives.
- Avoid future tense. Proper relative terms for locations in your manuscript are
space terms (``above'' and ``below'') not time terms
(``earlier'' and ``later'').
- Use singular for clarity.
- Avoid dangling ``this.''
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Norman Ramsey's home page.