Short Guide to Writing about Biology, A: International Edition

Jan A. Pechenik  
August 2012
Related Titles


This best-selling writing guide by a prominent biologist teaches students to think as biologists and to express ideas clearly and concisely through their writing.


Providing students with the tools they'll need to be successful writers in college and their profession, A Short Guide to Writing about Biology emphasizes writing as a way of examining, evaluating, and sharing ideas. The text teaches students how to read critically, study, evaluate and report data, and how to communicate information clearly and logically.


Students are also given detailed advice on locating useful sources, interpreting the results of statistical tests, maintaining effective laboratory and field notebooks, writing effective research proposals and poster presentations, writing effective applications, and communicating information to both professional and general audiences.


  • Provides extensive guidance for all aspects of writing for biologists at all stages of training, including research reports, essay exams, term papers, research proposals, summaries, critiques, poster presentations, oral presentations, and letters of application for jobs and graduate programs.
  • Explains how biologists work, how they design studies, and how they think about the data they collect.
  • Provides detailed advice on working with data, presenting data, and interpreting the results of statistical analyses.
  • Offers detailed advice about locating useful sources of information, both in print and on the Web, and about avoiding plagiarism.
  • Includes extensive pedagogy in each chapter--helpful hints and end of chapter checklists and summaries, which can easily be used by students to facilitate peer review and by instructors to generate grading rubrics.
  • Guides students through the important process of creating  effective oral presentations and poster presentations.
  • Includes numerous “Technology Tips,” helping students to take better advantage of the computer technology available to them for writing, revising, graphing, calculating, and giving effective talks.

New to this Edition


  • Each chapter now begins with a brief overview of the main points to be covered in that chapter to let students know the key topics that are expected to learn.
  • The material on plagiarism has been  expanded and is now dealt with in the opening chapter.
  • Technology Tips have been updated as needed.
  • Information about conducting Web searches has been updated and now includes open access research journals (the DOAJ–Directory of Open Access Journals) as a new area to explore for research sources.
  • Specialized note-taking software, is now covered as well as how to narrow literature searches to particular domains and file types using Advanced Search functions in Web browsers such as Google and Scirus..
  • Chapters 7 and 8 from the previous edition have been combined into a single chapter dealing with the writing of summaries, critiques, essays, and review papers, to emphasize the connections among these assignments. and eliminate redundancy:Writing short critiques, for example, is excellent preparation for writing a meaningful review paper.
  •  The chapter on answering essay questions now relate it moreclearly to material concerning the writing of summaries and critiques. In addition, the chapter has been moved earlier in the book to clarify that connection.
  • The chapter on writing essay exams (Chapter 11) now follows this new combined chapter, to show students how the general skills involved in summarizing and synthesizingcan be applied to answering exam questions.
  • The  concluding chapter, Chapter 12, on writing letters of application, now emphasizes the importance of linking your research interests with the research activities of potential mentors when applying to graduate programs.


Table of Contents


General Advice about Writing and Reading ] Biology  

1—Introduction and General Rules  

What Do Biologists Write about, and Why?  

The Keys to Success  

Eleven Major Rules for Preparing a First Draft  

Seven Major Rules for Developing Your Final Draft  

Nine Finer Points: The Easy Stuff  

The Annoying but Essential Last Pass  

On Using Computers in Writing  

On Using Computers for Data Storage, Analysis, and Presentation  


             Technology Tip 1. Getting the Most from Your Word-Processing Program  


2—Locating Useful Sources  

Using Indexes  

Using Science Citation Index  

Using Current Contents Search  

Using Medline and Other Databases  

Prowling the Internet  

Conducting Web Searches: Developing Productive Search Strategies  

Final Thoughts about Efficient Searching: Technology Isn’t Everything  

Closing Thoughts  


             Technology Tip 2. Using Search Engines Effectively  


3—General Advice on Reading and Note-Taking  

Why Read and What to Read  

Effective Reading  

Reading Data: Plumbing the Depths of Figures and Tables  

Reading Text: Summarize as You Go  

Plagiarism and Note-Taking  


Take Notes in Your Own Words  

Split-Page Note-Taking: A Can’t-Fail System  

Final Thoughts on Note-Taking: Document Your Sources  



4—Reading and Writing About Statistical Analyses  

Statistical Essentials  

Variability and Its Representation  

When Is a Difference a Meaningful Difference? What You Need to Know about Tomatoes, Peas, and Random Events  

Establishing a Null Hypothesis  

Conducting the Analysis, and Interpreting the Results  

Degrees of Freedom  

Summary: Using Statistics to Test Hypotheses  

Moving Beyond p-Values  

Statistical Power  

Effect Magnitudes and Alternative Analyses  

Reading about Statistics  

Writing about Statistics  



5—Citing Sources and Listing References 

Citing Sources  

Summary of Citation Format Rules  

Preparing the Literature Cited Section  

Listing the References—General Rules  

Listing the References—Using the Correct Format  

A Sample Literature Cited Section  

             Technology TIP 3. Bibliographic Management Software  79 Technology Tip 4. Producing Hanging Indents  



Preparing the Draft for Surgery: Plotting Idea Maps  

Revising for Content  

Revising for Clarity  

Taming Disobedient Sentences—Sentences That Don’t Say What the Author Means  

The Dangers of It  

Problems with And  

Headache by Acronym  

Revising for Completeness  

Revising for Conciseness  

First Commandment: Eliminate Unnecessary Prepositions  

Second Commandment: Avoid Weak Verbs  

Third Commandment: Do Not Overuse the Passive Voice  

Fourth Commandment: Make the Organism the Agent of the Action  

Fifth Commandment: Incorporate Definitions into Your Sentences  

Revising for Flow  

A Short Exercise in Establishing Coherence  

Improving Flow Using Punctuation  

Revising for Teleology and Anthropomorphism  

Revising for Spelling Errors  

Revising for Grammar and Proper Word Usage 

A Grammatical Aside: Rules-That-Are-Not-Rules  

A Strategy for Revising: Pass by Pass by Pass  

Becoming a Good Reviewer 

Receiving Criticism  


Sentences in Need of Revision  


             Technology Tip 5. Tracking Changes Made to Documents  




Guidelines for Specific Tasks  

                Prelude: Why are you writing papers and giving talks?


7—Writing Summaries, Critiques, Essays, and Review Papers 

 Writing Essays and Critiques

Writing the First Draft  

Writing the Summary  

Sample Student Summary  

Analysis of Student Summary  

Writing the Critique  

The Critique  

Analysis of Student Critique  

Writing Essays and Review Papers

Getting Started  

Researching Your Topic  

Developing a Thesis Statement  

Writing the Paper  

Getting Underway: Taking and Organizing Your Notes  

The Crucial First Paragraph  

Supporting Your Argument  

The Closing Paragraph  

Citing Sources  

Creating a Title  


Checklist  for essays and review papers 


8— Answering Essay Questions 

Basic Principles  

Applying the Principles  



9—Writing Laboratory and Other Research Reports  

Why Are You Doing This?  

The Purpose of Laboratory and Field Notebooks  

Taking Notes  

Making Drawings  

Components of the Research Report  

Where to Start  

When to Start  

Writing the Materials and Methods Section  

Determining the Correct Level of Detail  

Giving Rationales  

Describing Data Analysis  

Use of Subheadings  

A Model Materials and Methods Section  

Writing the Results Section  

Summarizing Data Using Tables and Graphs  

Constructing a Summary Table  

To Graph or Not to Graph  

Preparing Graphs  

(Not) Falsifying Data  

The Question: To Connect or Not to Connect the Dots?  

Making Bar Graphs and Histograms  

Learning to Love Logarithms  

Preparing Tables  

Making Your Graphs and Tables Self-Sufficient  

Putting Your Graphs and Tables in Order  

Incorporating Figures and Tables into Your Report (or Not)  

Verbalizing Results: General Principles  

Verbalizing Results: Turning Principles into Action  

What Is a “Figure”?  

Writing about Negative Results  

Writing about Numbers  

In Anticipation—Preparing in Advance for Data Collection  

Citing Sources  

What to Do Next?  

Writing the Discussion Section  


Explaining Unexpected Results  

Analysis of Specific Examples  

Writing the Introduction Section  

Stating the Question  

An Aside: Studies Versus Experiments  

Providing the Background  

A Sample Introduction  

Talking about Your Study Organism or Field Site 

Deciding on a Title  

Writing an Abstract  

Preparing an Acknowledgments Section  

Preparing the Literature Cited Section  

Preparing a Paper for Formal Publication  

Checklist for the Final Draft  

             Technology Tip 6. Using Computer Spreadsheets for Data Collection  193 Technology Tip 7. Graphing with Excel  


10—Writing Research Proposals  

What Are Reviewers Looking For?  

Researching Your Topic 

What Makes a Good Research Question? 

Writing the Proposal  



Proposed Research  

Citing References and Preparing the Literature Cited Section  

Tightening the Logic  

The Life of a Real Research Proposal  



11—Presenting Research Findings: preparing Talks and Poster Presentations  

Oral Presentations  

Talking about Published Research Papers  

Talking about Original Research  

Talking about Proposed Research  

The Listener’s Responsibility  

Preparing Effective Visuals  

Using PowerPoint  

Checklist for Being Judged  

Poster Presentations  

Layout of the Poster  

Making the Poster  

Checklist for Making Posters  


12—Writing Letters of Application  

Before You Start 

Preparing the Résumé  

Preparing the Cover Letter  

Recruiting Effective Letters of Recommendation  

Appendix A Revised Sample Sentences  

Appendix B Commonly Used Abbreviations

Appendix C Recommended Resources

Appendix E Sample Form for Peer Review  

Appendix F Some Useful Web Sites 



 Jan A. Pechenik is Professor of Biology at Tufts University, where he has been teaching and doing research since 1978. He obtained his B.A. in Zoology from Duke University and his Ph.D. in Biological Oceanography from the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. To date he has published more than a hundred papers on the development and metamorphosis of marine invertebrate animals, including snails, blue mussels, crabs, barnacles, polychaetes, bryozoans, and parasitic flatworms. Professor Pechenik has also published a successful textbook on invertebrate biology, currently in its 3rd edition, and chairs the Division of Invertebrate Zoology within the Society for Comparative and Integrative Biology (formerly the American Society of Zoologists). Committed to teaching as well as research, his highly praised book on this subject, AShort Guide to Writing About Biology, will publish in its eighth edition in January 2012.