Book Review: The Craft of Scientific Writing (by Michael Alley)

Daniel B. Hier MD
European Scientific Journal, ESJ, Editor-in-Chief, Natural/Life/Medical Sciences

I am writing this book review of Michael Alley’s The Craft of Scientific Writing[1]  (Springer) to alert readers of the ESI Blog of this excellent resource to improve your writing.

Back in 1964, the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan  gained fame with his seminal essay The Medium is the Message[2] which argued that the medium of a message was just as important as its content.  McLuhan presaged the rapid movement of information and data from the printed page to the electronic screen.  When I wrote my first scientific paper in 1972, all scientific articles were printed; now most are viewed electronically.  My first paper was composed on a typewriter and submitted to the journal editors in triplicate; now all submissions are electronic.  My first literature searches used the printed Index Medicus[3] ; fifty years later, I search PubMed[4] electronically.

To its credit, the European Scientific Journal accepts submissions in English, French, and Spanish.  Nonetheless, the de facto twenty-first century language of science is British or American English.  Work that is widely read or widely cited is written in English.  Alley aims to improve the scientific writing of scientists and engineers who write in English.

This is a very good book that I highly recommend. It is in its fourth edition and has been improved since its original publication in 1987.  Alley states in his preface that “as an engineer or scientist, your writing affects not only how much credit you receive for your work but also how much influence your work has. (page vii)”.  Alley eloquently concludes his preface with a “… wish that this book would make your scientific writing easy.  Unfortunately, scientific writing is hard work. The best scientific writers struggle with every paragraph, every sentence, every phrase.  They write, then rewrite, then rewrite again….(page ix)”.

As editors and peer reviewers, we evaluate both the medium and the message of each submission.  The message of a submission reflects the quality of the research.  The medium reflects the quality of the scientific writing.  At the European Scientific Journal, we are committed to helping authors submit their best content combined with their best writing.

This book is filled with sage advice, illustrated by wonderful writing examples (what to do and what not to do). I recommend reading this book cover to cover including the superb appendices on grammar, punctuation, word usage, and document formatting. A few of Alley’s recommendations deserve emphasis.

Pick a descriptive title that engages the reader. The title should convey the main point of your article and give the reader a compelling reason to read it.  My very first paper published had a bland title “Studies on the mechanism of action of nerve growth factor”[5].  In retrospect, I could have used a more engaging title such as “Nerve growth factor stimulates the synthesis of microtubule protein”.

Avoid unprofessional informality.  Many, otherwise good submissions, are marred by excessive informality.  The use of contractions such as it’s, shouldn’t, wouldn’t, don’t, couldn’t do not belong in formal scientific writing. Alley is opposed to the use of & for and, the use of vs. for versus, and the use of et al. for and others.

Aim for both clarity and precision.  Scientific writing needs to be both precise and clear.  Precision means that you have conveyed your meaning without confusion or ambiguity.  Clarity means that the reader can grasp your meaning and intent without undo effort.

Avoid unnecessary complexity.  Alley quotes Einstein who wrote “In scientific writing, keep things as simple as possible, yet no simpler”[6].  In general, the complexity of writing increases with the number of words in a sentence and the length of the words used.  Complexity can be reduced by using smaller words, avoiding jargon, avoiding indecipherable abbreviations, and writing shorter sentences.  Reading level is calculated by the Flesch Kincaid metric which considers word length and sentence length.  Alley recommends aiming for a reading level of 10-13.  Microsoft Word will automatically calculate the Flesch Kincaid reading level[7].  Word calculates the reading level of this book review as 10.

Avoid ambiguity.  Ambiguity occurs when competing and incompatible interpretations of your writing is possible.  Alley gives an example of an ambiguous sentence such as “The proposed schedule is discussed below for the next four years.”  It is unclear whether the schedule is for four years, or whether the discussion is for four years.

Aesthetics matter.  Alley believes that good scientific writing  is precise, concise, and clear.  But it is also beautiful.  He finds aesthetically unpleasing writing distasteful.  He especially dislikes the use of TITLES OR SUBTITLES IN ALL CAPITALS hard to read and ugly.  He does not like the use of excessive abbreviations with periods.  He prefers CNS to C.N.S. (central nervous system), AMU to A.M.U. (atomic mass unit), and ICU to I.C.U. (intensive care unit).  He is always looking for more aesthetically pleasing phrasing such as arranged for made the arrangement for, decided for made the decision, and measured for made the measurement of.

Alley has useful lessons on moving from the familiar to the complex, optimal organization of content, methods for providing proper emphasis, and  tips for using your writing time efficiently. Finally, Alley concludes by distinguishing between the process of revising and the process of finishing a document. Revising is the iterative process of improving the document through repetitive edits to improve clarity, precision, and organization. Finishing is the final step of ensuring that the document is free of errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation just prior to submission.

On personal note, I found this book extremely helpful.  I recommend it without reservation.  Some non-primary English speaking writers may find it too difficult to grasp.  Although I engage in extensive revising and finishing of my own documents, I am always surprised to discover that some errors slip through my review process at the time of submission. Like Alley, I believe that reading aloud a document is important to catching errors. For those of you with Microsoft Word, this process can be automated with the Read Aloud option[8].  In Microsoft 365, the Editor function can be configured in 20 languages to find grammatical and spelling errors; assess for clarity, punctuation, and conciseness; check for plagiarism[9]; and calculate reading level[10].

[1] Michael Alley. The Craft of Scientific Writing. Fourth Edition. Springer, New York NY.

Softcover book USD $39.99.  eBook USD $29.99

[2] McLuhan, Marshall, and Quentin Fiore. The medium is the messageNew York 123, no. 1 (1967): 126-128.

[3] Greenberg, Stephen J., and Patricia E. Gallagher. The great contribution: Index medicus, index-catalogue, and IndexCat. Journal of the Medical Library Association: JMLA 97, no. 2 (2009): 108.

[4] Vastag, B., 2000. NIH launches PubMed centralJournal of the National Cancer Institute92(5), pp.374-374.

[5] Hier DB, Arnason BG, Young M. Studies on the mechanism of action of nerve growth factor. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1972 Aug;69(8):2268-72.




[9] The plagiarism check of this document in Microsoft 365 found 1% similarity to online sources.


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