How I wrote my scientific book

January 24, 2017 § 4 Comments

TL;DR: I wrote a 600 pages, 150k words scientific book. Took me almost 3 years. Tools: 11’’MBA, LaTex, SublimeText, Jupyter notebook, Illustrator, coffee. I wrote 1k word per day for many months.

(Estimated reading time: 15 min)

598 pages. 147 000 words. 365 figures. Over a thousand papers read, analysed, and distilled. Many pounds of chocolate. Litres of ice cream. Thousands of espressos. After more than 3 years of work, my book is finally out. This is obviously my biggest writing project ever and I gave it a lot of thoughts before getting started. Carefully chose my tools. Decided on a strategy to make sure I could focus on the content and finish on time. I also followed my progress throughout the writing. Now that it is over, here is the story behind the making to this book. If you are curious about my tools, strategy, and progress, sit down, grab a cup of coffee and go ahead.

The idea

For the past 10 years or so, my research interests have mostly revolved around the following question: what happens when you freeze a suspension of particles, and more generally, objects? This seemingly simple question turned out to be very complex and corresponds to phenomena encountered in situations as diverse as the growth of sea ice, the cryopreservation of cells, the freezing of soils, or the solidification of some metallic alloys, to name but a few. It has thus resulted in developments in many directions over the past century or so. My take on it, for many years, has been to use it to template porosity in materials, a process called ice-templating or freeze-casting. Although all these disparate phenomena share the same underlying principles, little attempts have been made to make connections between the fields.

A few years ago, I passed my habilitation. This French diploma is required to independently supervise PhD students (don’t ask). The habilitation includes both a manuscript, reflecting on your research so far, and a defense. I took advantage of it to begin a long reflexion an analysis of my research and the corresponding domains.

The habilitation took me about a full year to prepare. After the habilitation, I had thus an 30k words long manuscript, mostly focused on my research, and the idea of expanding it into a much larger project started to crystallise (pun intended). My work on freezing was becoming more multidisciplinary at this time and the idea of making connections between vastly different fields was very tempting. My last review paper was getting a bit outdated —the field had been very active these last couple of years.

At this point I received an email from a Springer editor asking if I had any book project in mind. The timing was just right and without thinking too much about it, I prepared a book proposal including a detailed outline and sent it to Springer.
My project was very positively evaluated by two external reviewers and we signed a publishing agreement on December 15, 2014. Publishing a scientific book is different from a regular book: you sign a contract before you even start to write the book. Which is both nice and scary, but I guess force you to finish the project in a given timing. I promised at this time 200 pages and approximately 180 figures. I was really far from what I would deliver two years later.

The strategy

The most important decision I made was, without any doubt, the strategy I adopted to write the book. Like many others, I practiced this approach for many years already: write everyday, no matter what. Adopting this writing routine was absolutely critical for a project of this size. This was clearly not going to be a 2 weeks/5000 words writing effort.

My routine was thus to write daily, no matter what, first thing in the morning—after coffee, though—and to write at least 1k word per day. If I hadn’t met my objective by 10AM, I would resume until the evening, as I was also very busy in the lab at this period, with my ERC starting grant going full blast.

In the evening, after the kids went to bed, I would do everything else: reading and analysing papers, collecting data, making figures, and so on. Unlike writing, I did not do this everyday. There were days where I was just too tired or had better things to do.

Home office with my Wacom tablet

Home office with my Wacom tablet

The second part of the strategy is the number one rule of writing: write first, edit later. I wrote about 70% of the book before I started to edit it. I also only started to work on figures after the manuscript was fairly advanced, otherwise I would spend too much time on them (I love preparing figures) at the expense of writing.

I was quickly comforted this strategy was good. Setting into a routine was absolutely essential to make steady progress. If you write 1k words/day, you already have 5 to 7k words at the end of the week. Let that sink in.

The tools

I always pay attention to the tools I use and this project was no exception. Ok, people who know me will probably say I am a bit obsessive about it. My main writing machine was a 11’’Mac Book Air. Working in full screen, this was the perfect writing machine. Being light, it was perfect to take everywhere with me whenever I travel, which I do a lot (once a week, on average). A lot of this book was therefore written in trains, airplanes, and airports, and various random places.

The second most important tool was my blank notebook. Whenever I had to review a new domain, take notes, or draft figures, the notebook was the best tool.

My blank notebook. Writing at the airport.

My blank notebook. Writing at the airport.

I wrote the book in LaTeX. This was so obvious that I did not even thought about it. LaTex is absolutely unbeatable for large, complex (scientific) writing projects. Springer provided a template, which was of course more convenient for them, but also for me. Having the template gave me an idea of the final output, which I appreciated a lot coming towards the end of the book, when deciding on the figures. I did not have to do any tweaking—one less excuse to procrastinate.

I used Sublime Text to write and edit. I bought a license a few years ago and it has probably been one of my best software investment for a long time (I use the Monokai theme, if you’re curious about it). The time it saved me is absolutely incredible. A few packages turned out to be very useful: LaTeXing($), which includes many useful latex functions/snippets, and AlignTabs, a must-have if you write tables and need to align cells. I also used LatexTabs, which is terrific to make new tables by copy/pasting a table from a spreadsheet. In addition, I defined 5 to 10 snippets to insert figures, citations, tables, and so on. I thus never had to type a single LaTex command during the entire writing of the book (except when I prepared the index, at the very end). The final version of the book, with 600 page, 365 figures, and over a thousand references, took less than a minute to compile on the MBA. Not too shabby.

To keep track of the 1k+ papers I read and analysed, I built a long spreadsheet which helped me sort them out into various categories. This was extremely convenient when working on sections dedicated to specific materials.

My spreadsheet to sort papers

My spreadsheet to sort papers

I have used Mendeley for many years now to organise my library. This was again a very useful tool, if just to automatically generate the bib file for LaTeX. I also used folders to keep track of which papers I analysed or not yet, etc.

The analysis of the data (processing conditions, materials properties) contained in the papers and its combination into something useful was also an important target of the book. I digitised many plots (because the values were not provided in tables) using the terrific GraphClick (OSX only. The development is not active anymore but it works like a charm on macOS Sierra), and made two kinds of source files from them. For plots I just wanted to reproduce, to make sure all the plots were consistent in the book, I exported a text CSV file with the data. To combine data from many papers, I made a (huge) spreadsheet with all the values, which I lated filtered to extract the series of interest. I used this strategy before.

I then used a single Jupyter notebook to prepare all the plots of the paper. This ensured that all my plots were consistent.
For schematics and drawings (my favourite part), I used a large Wacom tablet hooked to Adobe Illustrator. This was such a joy. I had to restrain myself from spending to much time on figures. For a few 3D schematics, I relied on Sketchup.

I also subcontracted some of the figure making. This one didn't made it into the book, though

I also subcontracted some of the figure making. This one didn’t made it into the book, though (close call)

Finally, all the files were stored in a Dropbox folder, which provided me a permanent backup (in addition to my external backups to hard drives). Again, a no brainer. It also allowed me to work from multiple computers: my work laptop and my home computer (a 27’’ iMac), which was very comfortable for pretty much everything. Dropbox saved me several times during the writing of the book. Mendeley is also installed on my two machines and all my papers are synced.

Last but no least: coffee, chocolate, and ice cream. And coffee. Did I mention coffee? I have an outstanding espresso machine at home (Sylvia Rancilio) with a professional grinder, which ensures me an excellent and consistent quality of coffee (I have not upgraded it yet with a thermocouple and PID, though). I am particularly keen of the Lucie Royale.

My coffee rig at home

My coffee rig at home

That’s about it for the tools.

The progress

Sticking to my strategy ensured that I made steady progress. Below is my progress during the entire preparation of the book. I started to write in June 2015 and wrote until October 18, 2016, (the day I sent the first version to Springer).

Progress of my writing. You can easily spot the holidays breaks.

Progress of my writing. You can easily spot the holidays breaks.

We can best see my progress when removing the days where I did not write from the plot.

Progress of my writing, removing days where I did not write

Progress of my writing, removing days where I did not write

I guess you noticed straightaway three stages here. The first period, where I wrote 2k to 5k words per day, is when I turned my habilitation into the first scaffold of the book and jotted down tons of notes and a very detailed outline of the book. Progress was therefore very rapid. I wrote 31k words in 9 writing days.

After this first stage, I let the manuscript rest for a while. There was 3 months period where I read and analysed hundreds of papers, made sense of them, and elaborated a more detailed structure of the book. No writing whatsoever (also: summer break), but a critical phase for the rest of the book.

The second stage, the longest, was when I wrote most of the book. One thousand words a day. Everyday. For months. You can notice that I really sticked to the plan. The only exceptions were holiday breaks, where I stopped writing, because family life and work/life balance. The book went from 34k to 110k words during this period.

The final book has approximately 147k words (without the bibliography). That’s a lot of words. This is equivalent to 10 to 15 review papers, or 30 regular papers. I wrote on average 4 papers per year in the last 10 years, so this was a lot more than my average. Again, this write-everyday strategy was absolutely necessary to complete this project on time.

The third stage, which corresponds roughly to one-third of the book, was the most difficult. I was too advanced in the writing to stick to my initial plan of 1k words per day.

My writing strategy: write first, edit later

My writing strategy: write first, edit later

I started to edit the text, prepare figures, reorganise sections, etc. This was essential to improve and polish both the structure and the content. I also updated the book with the most recent papers published during this period, which was easy as the structure was finalised, but a bit tedious, as many papers were published in this period. I had thus to redo a lot of reading and analysis at this time. Progress was slower during this period. The last few days on the plots are the days were I included all the permission-related text in the captions of the figures I reused. There are at least 2000 words in the book just to properly cite the source and copyright of these figures (more below on this).

Overall, I did much less editing than I thought (wished) I would. I removed approximately 16k words from the book (this is a rough estimate, see plot below), which is about 10%. On my standards, this is really not a lot. When I write the paper, 16% is probably the amount of text from the first version that is left in the final one. I could not do such an extensive rewriting here, or it would have taken another 2 years. Not an option.

Editing progress

Editing progress

The initial deadline to send the manuscript to Springer was June 2016. I could not meet the deadline. It took a bit longer and I eventually sent the final version at the end of October. The book is also three times longer than I initially estimated, so I guess it was a fair delay. The book is much more comprehensive than I initially envisioned. Although I did not asked, I wonder how many authors exceeds the initial deadline, and by how much? If anyone has any idea, please let me know.

The cool bits

Some things I more specifically enjoyed when writing the book. First and most important: learning about new domains and making new connections ! The idea was to cover many different domains where objects interact with a solidification interface, so I learned a lot while preparing the book. And yet, I still feel that I just cover the absolute basics of many domains. Overall, the book is still 60% materials science, 40% other than materials science (give or take).

I absolutely loved preparing the figures and in particular the drawings. I love the Wacom/Illustrator combo and spent way too much time polishing some of the figures (I am a bit obsessive when it comes to figures). I specifically enjoyed adapting old figures of crappy quality.

The original figure

The original figure


My new version of the map

My new version of the map

Rewinding the history of ideas (the opening of chapter 4) was terrific and instructive. Seeing how these ideas appeared and developed in very different domains and with radically different perspectives and methods was absolutely fascinating. I am sure that I missed important papers, though (please let me know). Reading old papers is fun. I wish I could write (and draw) like many of these people. When Stephen Taber explains in his paper that he did his experiments in the cold nights of winter 1914/1915 because he had no cooling device in his lab, and then had to give up for a few years because it was not cold enough, I ended up looking up the weather records in Northern Carolina at the beginning of the 20th century to determine when he actually did the experiments (I am still not sure). I am not certain about the reliability of the records I found, either, so I did not included them in the book.

The getting-started chapter, where I expose all the tricks to get started with freezing in the lab, was a joy to write. This was probably the easiest chapter to write (I wrote 1100 words in 1hr, my record) and it was really fun to do. I would not be surprised if this turns out to be the most popular chapter. I receive many emails (mostly from students) asking me for basic, practical advices on how to freeze. I hope this chapter will be helpful for them. I believe we need more method papers, the methods sections are generally too short (IMHO) and I saw nice initiatives in this direction from Chemistry of Materials recently, for instance.

It is embarrassing, but I have to confess that the preparation of the index was very satisfying. It took me 2 or 3 days. I hope the readers will find it useful. I like indexes in book. I made a poll on Twitter and everyone wanted an index. So I complied.

Finally, I learned about some of my bad writing habits. I will not list them all here, but fixing them was super simple with Sublime Text.

The annoying bits

Two things. First: getting permissions and writing credits for figures. Although asking for permission is now automated for most publishers (through the Copyright Clearance Centre), each of them has a different requirements on how to write the credits in the caption. How to cite the paper. Some want you to reproduce exactly the figure caption. Others do not specify anything on this. It took me a few days to collect everything and write all the credits. I had to give up on a few figures (in particular old papers), for which I could not get permission (paying $100 or so per figure was not an option).

Second: Springer does not use the Oxford comma style. I should have been more careful before signing the contract.

The difficult bits

Writing this book was not an easy endeavour, but a few things were nevertheless particularly difficult.

Sticking to the write-everyday routine in some demanding periods of the year (e.g., grant writing, or summertime) was tough. It is much easier to write in winter when it is dark early, believe me. Overall, it felt like a marathon. I tried not to write too much on a given day, to make sure I would not be tempted to skip my next writing session and break my pace. Sticking to the timing while maintaining the work/life balance was tough.

Keeping an eye on the literature while writing the book was demanding. The solidification of suspensions is a very active field these days (in particular in materials science) and I receive many Google Scholar alerts every week. I wanted the book to be as much up to date as possible at the time of submission. The most recent paper was published the day before I sent the manuscript to Springer.

The last 2 months were tough. It felt like it was almost over and yet there were tons of stuff to do. Editing the text. Adding the permission. Fine-tuning the figures. Preparing the index. Checking the quality of figures. I also started to question some of the choices made before, in particular on the third chapter (I am still not very happy with it).

To print or not to print for reviewing and editing? I tried to do as much as I could on the computer, but at some point, I had to print one version. That was a lot of pages, but I am better at spotting mistakes on hard copies than on the screen. I proofread this hardcopy three times, took tons of notes, and found a scary number of grammatical mistakes. It was also very useful to get a feel of the figures size and appearance.

Hardcopies. Felt sorry for the trees, but I'm really better at proofreading like this

Hardcopies. Felt sorry for the dead trees, but I’m really better at proofreading like this


Proofreading was smooth. I received the proofs 2 days before Christmas, which clearly was not the best timing. I was not surprised by the final output, since the LaTex template gave me a really good idea of the final product. Springer just checked the grammar, which was a bit disappointing. They did not fixed or edit any of the style. There were almost no corrections, meaning I did not made too many grammatical mistakes, which was thus satisfying. I took me just a couple of days to read everything again (without printing). I found a few typos and last minute changes to make, but not many.

The final product

I love books. I have books everywhere at home. This one is 598 pages long—a bit more if you add the TOC, index, etc.— and has 365 figures (one for each day of the year, in case anyone wants to make a calendar with it). I am now looking forward to receive the hardcopy and hold the object in my hands. And yet it feels small, as there’s so much I wanted to touch upon. It will be a nice addition to my personal library.

Misc thoughts

I am still not perfectly happy with the final results, in particular chapter 3 (the mechanisms behind the phenomenon). I had to submit a final version at some point, however. So, here we are. Maybe there will be a second edition one day, I will have plenty of time to think about how to improve it by then.

I wish I spent more time editing the text. I am obviously not a native English writer, and even though I think I can write something decent in (technical) English, I still have a huge margin of progress. My English is probably better today than when I started to write the book. I can tell, from reading, which parts I wrote first. As most readers will not be English/Americans, it’s probably fine. If the style upsets you, well, go write a 150000 words book in a foreign language and then we’ll talk. I just came across WriteFull and I wished I found this gem before.

Getting credits for figures was annoying, albeit mostly automated. Having to require permission to reuse my own figures was particularly frustrating. All publishers have different requirements for how to credit the original work and make reference to the copyright holder. A standard way of giving credits would be nice, but I don’t think this will happen any time soon.

The new figures I prepared for the book were all uploaded to Figshare first (except for the plots). I did this to ensure I retained the copyright, so that it will be easier for me and anyone else to reuse them. That’s a really neat idea that I stumbled upon a while ago (see also here) and I like it a lot. I also started to do this for papers too. Springer did not commented on this. That’s fine for them I guess, as the license is very clear, so it is not different form reprinting a figure from a previous paper. No visit to the Copyright Clearance Centre if you want to reuse these figures, thus.

I could not resist and placed a few Easter eggs throughout the books. Let see if someone sees them 😋.

I could not choose the cover, that’s a shame. It’s part of a book series, so it feels a bit bland and impersonal (I like the red color, though).

Wrap up

Overall, this was a really good experience. A bit exhausting, though, and I am really happy that the book is finally published. Had I to do it again, I would choose the same strategy and tools, except for the laptop. I just upgraded to the new 13″ MBP (2016) with a retina screen: I will never be able to come back to a regular screen. Ever. I would have chosen the 12’’MacBook (which is probably the ultimate writing machine) if all I needed was to write, but I need more horsepower. One thing I would do differently, though: I would probably try to go on sabbatical in a nice place to write the book and be able to concentrate full time on it. That would be less tiring (as well as a good excuse to take a break). But for now, there is too much exciting science going on in the lab!

I am now looking forward to see how the book is received and if I get any feedback from anyone (I hope so!). I wonder if anyone will send me chocolates, as skilfully suggested in the preface. Thanks for reading !

You can also follow me and send me comments on Twitter at @DevilleSy.

10 writing tips for academic papers

January 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’m currently wrapping up a long review paper (>10k words) that should hopefully be published this September. As usual, as a non-native speaker, I ran into many common grammar and style mistakes. Luckily, I have next door a native speaker, and he’s patient enough to correct most of my mistake. He’s my first secret weapon. The second one is this little gem, called The Elements of Style (4th Edition), by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. This book is probably the best money I’ve ever spend on a book.

So without further ado, here are my top ten mistakes, that I’ve learned to correct thanks to my two secret weapons:

  1. You should place a comma after abbreviations like i.e., e.g., etc.
  2. If you enumerate several terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term. Example: “… bla bla bla  in materials science, chemistry, and life science”. Same if you enumerate with “or”.
  3. Put statements in positive forms. It is much stronger.
  4. Omit needless words. For some reason, we french people seem to be using a lot of these. So here you go, go and mercilessly chase expressions like “the reason why is that”, “the question as to whether”, etc.
  5. “Due to” is synonym to “attributable to”. Avoid using it for “owing to” or “because of”.
  6. “Interesting”. It might be interesting to you, but not to everyone else. Remove it. Just remove it.
  7. “Type” is not a synonym for “kind of”. So get it straight.
  8. “While”. Just stick to it if you can replace it with “during the time that”.
  9. Don’t say “very unique”. “unique” is good enough.
  10. Split infinitive: when you put an adverb between “to” and the verb. I used this form a lot and thought it was cool. Apparently it’s not. Don’t say: “to thoroughly investigate”, say: “to investigate thoroughly”.

This is just the top ten. The entire book is full of stuff  like this. Go and get it. And don’t lend it to anyone, you’d never get it back. Do you have another one? Share it in the comments.

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