25 March 2010

Review: A Short Guide to Writing About Biology (Seventh Edition)

I was discussing this blog and our classes in scientific communication to a visiting textbook rep. And she said, “I happen to have a copy of our new edition of our book on biological writing in my bag.” I asked if it had any materials on posters, flipped through the index to find that it did, and said, “I shall blog about the poster chapter!” For that is what I do here.

This is the seventh edition of the book, and the section on poster presentations is one of the things that is called out as being changed from previous editions. The poster section has been combined with a chapter on oral presentations, I’m not sure if this is good or bad, since the task and problems each poses are very different. On the other hand, many of the skills required for both are similar (i.e., thinking about your story, type, graphs, colour choices, and so on).

There are 6 pages out of 288 devoted to poster presentations in this book. In fact, this is a page shorter than the previous edition (though the text is largely the same). As is often the case, the information is sound, but very basic. Make sure all your stuff fits in your allotted space; use few words and big print.

There is also one example layout. It is a little unusual because it shows sections running horizontally in rows. Columns on posters are much more typical, because most posters are wider than tall. Pechenik explicitly says the example isn’t a template, and it’s there to show general principles, but it’s so sparse that a lot of general principles are missing. My favourite points for fast improvement – alignment and grids – do not appear.

Pechenik advocates using flowcharts for Methods sections on posters rather than text. I have mixed feelings about this. Yes, it’s great when you can use pictures to tell the story. But I’ve seen too flowcharts that could have been very simple, like the one on the left, fall victim to wedding cake syndrome and end up looking like the one on the right.

I do love this quote from the book, though, which nicely sums up part of the poster presentation experience:

Poster sessions are like flea markets, complete with all the noise and crowds.

It’s a very good way to remind yourself that you are competing for attention. Plus, you can’t get desperate or mad if people go elsewhere. Not everyone is going to stop at every shop in the market.

There are many other A Short Guide to Writing About [Academic Discipline] books, all by different authors, from this publisher. I normally don’t come across those, being a biologist myself. If any of those have sections on posters, please email me so I can track down a copy and check out what it has to say!


Pechenik JA. 2009. A Short Guide to Writing About Biology (Seventh Edition). New York: Longman. Publisher’s website | Amazon

Picture of Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market from Mike the Mountain on FLickr, user under a Creative Commons license.


Allan Tulchin said...

what software to people recommend for constructing posters?

Zen Faulkes said...

I’ve done a little discussion of software programs on the blog:


More software reviews are coming over the next few weeks.

You can get good results with most software programs if you understand design principles. A quick recap of other materials on the blog:

Slideware (e.g., KeyNote, PowerPoint) almost always causes problems, unless you know what you’re doing and are very careful.

Serious graphics programs (e.g., Adobe Illustrator, Corel Draw!) do a great job, but require a commitment to learning how to use them.

There are relatively few programs between those two extremes, but one many people already have on their computers is Microsoft Publisher.