Exciting news: I’m (co-)writing a book!

Hand holding a megaphone. Text reads BREAKING NEWS in all caps
Image: breaking news, © Jernej Furman CC BY 2.0 via flickr.com

I’ve been itching to share this news, and now I can: I’m writing a book I’ve been wanting to write for nearly a decade!!

I’m co-writing it with Stephen Heard. It’s been hard to keep this quiet for so long, but we’ve just signed a contract with the University of Chicago Press (UCP), so now it’s official. Hooray! 🥳

What’s the book about, you ask? Well, it’s not (technically) about science communication, and it’s not about art-science integration. (Maybe, 🤞🤞 I’ll write books on those topics someday!) Instead, this book is something I’ve been working on in the background, just not writing much about here on CommNatural.

The CommNatural audience (that’s you!) is pretty omnivorous in its interests, and many of you may not even be academics or involved with science. That’s okay. The key thing to know is that I work with, coach, teach, and consult with a lot of folks who find helping students (or other developing writers) write better is difficult, time-consuming, and frustrating. And Steve and I know these folks want help – they ask us for it. That’s where our book comes in.

Ever since I started training in writing pedagogy, I’ve recognized an opportunity to help folks deal with something our book tackles head-on. Our working title is Helping Students Write in the Sciences: Strategies for Efficient and Effective Mentoring of Developing Writers. Writing is a huge part of the job of a scientist, and it’s hard – but teaching and mentoring writing is too, and it’s harder.

This book is for folks who answer yes to at least one of the following questions:

  • Do you work with grad students, undergrad researchers, postdocs, or other early-career colleagues that you’d like to help write better?
  • Do you use (and, likely, grade) writing assignments in lecture or lab courses?
  • Do you teach a unit or a course in scientific writing or communication?

Why do those questions drive the book’s audience? Well, we’ve made a central observation that inspired and informed our book proposal to UCP. Scientific writing is a huge part of what we do as scientists, but almost no scientists have any formal training in it. And then, even fewer have any training in helping others learn scientific writing. Of course, if someone wants to learn to write better and more easily in science, a lack of formal training needn’t be fatal. There are books (cough cough, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing – another of Steve’s books!), blogs, courses, you name it.

But if you trained in science, and you want to learn to teach or mentor writers better or more easily, you’ll have a much tougher time finding resources.

That’s not because there aren’t effective and efficient ways to mentor/teach developing writers. In fact, there are whole academic disciplines concerned with exactly this challenge (rhetoric, composition, and writing studies; and the scholarship of teaching and learning). These fields have an enormous base of knowledge, written by experts and packed with evidence-based good practices. But, in our experience, scientists generally don’t read that literature. When they try, they find themselves up against two problems.

  1. They find much of this research inaccessible, thick with disciplinary jargon.
  2. They find little of it specific to teaching/mentoring writing in the sciences.

Even if much of what works is universal, there’s a lot to be gained by considering it in a familiar context. We are confident we can help, with Helping Students Write. We can offer concrete, actionable, evidence-based* advice, couched in language and contexts that scientists will understand. If you follow this advice, you’ll spend less time working with student writing while seeing better results. We know, that’s a big claim. But each of us has been thinking about this kind of thing for a long time**.

We’ve come to this book project and our overlapping interests from very different directions, though. Steve is just like (we suspect) most of the folks we hope will read our book. He came to teaching/mentoring scientific writers from necessity, without any training or expertise. He admits that he struggles with the jargon of the writing-pedagogy literature; and for many years he’s been frustrated by how difficult and time-consuming it is to help the writers he wants to help. On the other hand, I’m is trained in writing studies, writing pedagogy, literature and creative writing, and the science of science communication. For years I’ve been looking for (and developing) solutions to the clear disconnect between writing frustration in the sciences and the expertise that exists on the other side of most campuses.  We’ve written a couple of chapters already and we’re convinced that, as a team, we can offer what you need to bridge the gaps.

Now the bad news: you can’t read Helping Students Write just yet. We’ve committed to delivering the manuscript in March 2024, and the book should be available by the end of that year. But while you’re waiting (for two whole years!), we’ll have some appetizers for you. Watch this space (and Steve’s blog too) for related thoughts, excerpts, and other teasers.

And tell us, please: if you were reading Helping Students Write, what would you most like to find it in? We’ll see what we can do.

© Bethann Garramon Merkle and Stephen Heard, November 8, 2022

*If you’ve been reading CommNatural for a while, you’ll know that I am fond of footnotes. Turns out Steve is, too! In Helping Students Write, we’ll take advantage of that. The main text will present our advice, in accessible language pinned directly to contexts in science. Then, we’ll use endnotes to back that advice up with evidence from the literature on writing pedagogy. If you’re willing to take our word for what’s in that literature, great – you can ignore the endnotes. But if you’d like to know more, our endnotes will be there for you as an entry point to a literature that, while extensive and sometimes dense, has a lot to offer.

**As long-time readers here know, I’ve lived former lives as a science journalist, science communication consultant for research groups, and academic editor. More recently, I co-developed curriculum and a program-specific textbook for the University of Wyoming freshman composition program, co-developed and run an annual academic writing mindset program around scholarly writing practices, and launched a Writing Science column and Communicating Science section in The Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. Bottom line: I teach and study effective approaches to writing and communication. And, I coach faculty, postdocs, and non-academic researchers to better support undergraduate and graduate students’ scientific writing and science communication.

Steve has taught Scientific Writing, and he’s blogged a lot about teaching writing across our curricula, about strategies for faculty editing graduate-student writing, and about the distinction between grading writing and mentoring writers. He’s also a senior professor at the University of New Brunswick, and he’s spent a lot of his career supporting scientific writers at all career stages. And he had to learn to do that the hard way – trial and error, with little connection to writing studies and other disciplines that could’ve helped him.

Advice: Your grad school inquiry email better relate directly to the person you’re emailing

Photo of three people looking at a long table full of marine specimens
Approaching prospective faculty advisers can feel daunting (and random). But it doesn’t have to. (Image ©2018, BGMerkle)

I field a fair number of grad student inquiry emails.

I say no to every inquiry email I receive.

For most of these prospective students, I wouldn’t be the right adviser anyway: they write me with interest in animal behavior, reproductive physiology, and wildlife biology to name a few. These emails are fairly straightforward to reply to. I don’t do that kind of science.

The trickier ones are the emails from people who clearly took time to read my bio/webpage on our department website. These folks tend to be interested in intersections of the same things I am.

Their inquiries are harder to decline, in part because I know there aren’t that many grad school opportunities at these intersections. And, in part because it would be so fun (and yes, hard work!) to jam out with a lab full of people working together on these topics.

In every case, though, I say no.

Continue reading “Advice: Your grad school inquiry email better relate directly to the person you’re emailing”

Words Matter For Scientists—Here’s Why: Public Radio covers a paper I co-wrote

Decorative image: Screenshot of Wyoming Public Media webpage featuring article mentioned in this post. Follow links in the page to view original webpage.

In an audio interview and edited transcript, Wyoming Public Radio reporter Ashley Piccone interviewed me and Nell Smith (a student) about an article Nell led which discusses the importance of word choice for scientists.

In the edited article, Meaning-Making in Science Communication: A Case for Precision in Word Choice, we discuss how important it is to actually interpret results with nuance and attention to the different meanings one word can have to various people or interest groups.

Read the interview transcript here. Read the ‘Word choice matters’ paper here.

The tension and inspiration of place: a conversation about writing & learning

There is a great deal to learn about the work, craft, pleasure, and opportunity of writing by reflecting on what inspires us, what nuanced questions fascinate us. In these videos, two writers do just that.

These two videos were recorded in 2016, when I was an MFA candidate in the top-ranked University of Wyoming MFA program. Looking back at them several years later, the central fixations of these conversations still drive my musing and writing.

Public Radio covers poetry+science paper


In an audio interview and this edited transcript, Wyoming Public Radio reporter London Homer-Wambeam interviewed me about an art-science integration paper I co-authored.

In the peer-reviewed article, Poetry as a Creative Practice to Enhance Engagement and Learning in Conservation Science, co-authors and I point to evidence-based examples of how poetry can be a powerful learning, reflection, and creativity-enhancing tool in science classrooms and scientists’ regular practice.

Read the interview transcript here. Read the ‘poetry and science’ paper here.