Writing a popular science book; links and writers’ warnings

By Grant Jacobs 25/03/2010

I had been meaning to write about the series of articles in Nature on science writing for some time, hoping to tack Laelaps & colleagues series about popular science book writing on to this. Unfortunately just as I was to start it I was scooped! What I get for procrastinating…

In it’s place I will present a slightly longer list of popular science book writing links and some thoughts juggled into some sort of order.

(If you just want the main list of posts without the writers’s warnings pre-amble, skip down to Anyway, that list… There’s good links before then though…)

David Winter mentions Cornelia Dean’s advice not to write unless you can’t help yourself. I’ve seen that advice before. It seems it’s often repeated!

I had no luck relocating the source, but I first saw it an anthology of writers thoughts’ on writing. The guy’s piece started along the lines of asking if the reader wanted to write, then saying ’Don’t.’ It asked the same question again, with the same reply. And a third time, answering with words to the effect of ’well, go ahead, you’re beyond helping.’

Likewise, in October I quoted from the introduction to Best American Science Writing 2009. In it editor Natalie Angier offers a response to enquiries from inspiring science writers:

Dear Reader, you want to be a science writer? Have you lost your carbon-based buckeyballs? […]

Although she is writing about science writing more in the sense of magazines and newspapers, and in the light of the rounds of redundancies, I imagine she’d be just as forceful if a correspondent mentioned book writing.

The point seems to be that you have to recognise the reality, that writing a book rarely makes money, not enough to justify the effort put in conventional terms of pay-for-time. Stoat offers some rather depressing statistics. There are rare exceptions; I suspect Rebecca Skloot may be one, but her book is the end product of ten years at it. My impression is that you have to take it on as a journey, with an understanding of the work involved. I’m not trying to be negative; I’m trying to be realistic. (Book authors are welcome to make comments in the comments section…)

Alternatively, you could approach it with the blind ignorance of the naïve.

Vikram Seth in Writers on Writing suggests a writer needs four things: ignorance (of the reality or you’d never start, he says); curiosity, persistence and a patron. Note the last. I vote for many more patrons of science writing!

If you need a more positive spin to lift yourself out of the gloom you could try Dava Sobel’s account of her career. (Dava is a very successful popular science writer with Longitude, Galileo’s Daughter among others to her credit.)

The history of science writing is something that I’ve become interested in. Thomas Levenson adds his thoughts on the origin of science writing while reviewing a biography of early popular science book author Joseph Preistley (1733-1804), which serves to remind us that popular science book writing is not a new enterprise. Time Online offers an alternative in shorter form. (I’ve previously pre-viewed a more detailed examination of the earlier history of science popularization.)

Anyway, that list…

There’s Nature editor Henry Gee on book proposals (which I previously blogged). The comments are worth reading, too.

The series on popular science book writing that David Winter refers to is a nine articles hosted on three popular science writer’s blogs.

At Laelaps (Brian Switek, whose Written in Stone will be published in November):

Brian has previously written about transiting from a blogger to a book writer.

At Stories in Stone (David Williams, geologist and author of several books, the latest being Stories in Stone: Travels Through Urban Geology):

Finally, at Through the Sandglass (Michael Welland, a geologist and author of Sand: The Never Ending Story):

Michael Welland in his pre-series post points out that a popular science book, Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, won the general non-fiction section of the National Book Critics award.

how_to_teach_your_dog_physicsNot part of this series, Chad Orzel, author of How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, tries to get it all in one post, particularly making the point not to consider the editor as your enemy, taking his lead from Lilith Saintcrow.

According to those that attended ScienceOnline2010, one of the most popular sessions was Writing for more than glory: Proposals and Pitches that Pay hosted by Rebecca Skloot, with the aid of David Dobbs, Ivan Oransky, and Cliff Wiens.

As I’ve blogged previously, Janet Stemwedel did an excellent job of providing a live tweet summary of this session. This is worth reading as a sort of live bullet point list of writing advice.

There was (?) a video of this session. (If anyone has a clue as to where it’s hiding or if this doesn’t in fact exist, let me know.)

Finally, Nature has a Web Focus, as they call them, How to write science books. This is a round up of a short series of interviews hosted over five editions at Nature covering, in order, textbooks, popular science, science fiction, biography and science books for children.

There. This should keep you lot busy for a bit?


The video of the Writing for more than glory ScienceOnline2010 session is now available.

Older articles on books and writing at Code for life:

Science book suggestions for Christmas

Book review: Victorian Popularizers of Science

Scratching open your brain in your sleep and other stories (Best American Science Writing 2009)

Explore ancient science books on-line

Three kinds of knowledge about science and journalism

0 Responses to “Writing a popular science book; links and writers’ warnings”

  • Some rather more general advice (all from the Guardian):

    Writing for a living: a joy or a chore?, in which Al Kennedy, Amit Chaudhuri etc muse on the act,


    Ten rules for writing fiction – part one and part two. Ignore the fact they’re talking about fiction, most the advice applies to non-fiction too, especially Dianna Athill’s first point:
    Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK (prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out – they can be got right only by ear).
    Roddy Doyle’s on the money:
    Do not place a photograph of your favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.

    And be sure to do everything Elmore Leonard says. Less is more.

  • Gareth,

    Thanks for the contribution. More from anyone is welcome!

    For what it’s worth, I didn’t list general writing advice to keep the size of the post in check… My excuse (!) is that I took my lead from a book I had been reading about writing science fiction that focused only what made sci-fi different, leaving the general stuff for other books. (I had to return it having only read the first half; some sod has taken it out and I it seems to be the only copy in town so I can’t get back to it… frustrating.)

    I do want want general stuff too (it’s all good): as you say you do need to know how to write, “period.” It kind-of underlies everything…

    Your avatar shows, you’re an author, so really I ought to be taking more notice… 🙂

    Final thought: my writing on this blog stinks and I know it, which I can’t stand. I can write a lot better. The main problem I find is that with blog posts I rarely have the chance to put the words aside to re-read them later as a reader might. The up-shot is that my articles aren’t even “first draft”; they’re more like “brain fart.” Smelly and ugly.

    (More technically, the small font of the WordPress editor isn’t helping my self-editing. Sometime I want to find a better way of getting it up. Currently I write the notes in an editor (TextWrangler) then move to the WP editor. For proofing I’m forced to Preview (zoomed so it’s readable) and juggle between that and the WP editor, which makes editing/proofing messy and a bit hit-and-miss.)

  • Reading the lists of writers’ tips was great. I think the first 6 of Elmore Leonard’s points come to one thing: show don’t tell. They remind me of being the 10 millionth person trying to figure out what makes JK Rowling’s Potter series work so well; some of the conclusions I came to were the same as her suggestions.

    Some of the more practical advice is a curious mix.

  • Sometime I want to find a better way of getting it up.

    I find my spam filter contains plenty of advice…

    Agreed about Elmore. Keep stripping things back. The story (even with non-fiction) is the thing.

    I use an off-line editor for all my posts (Mars Edit, a Mac OS programme). Allows me to get everything ready without having to use the clunky WP on-line interface. It will work with WP-MU, I think.

  • I find my spam filter contains plenty of advice…

    Well, yes. That wasn’t quite the meaning I was intending… 🙂 (I get a fair bit of spam too, as unlike the others on the site my comments don’t require registration. Hope your approach to comments is working out for that matter.)

    I get lazy writing on the blog as I generally have to shove it out in the wee hours; haven’t the time to edit it to death, etc.

    I’ve downloaded MarEdit, but haven’t had time to install it and fool around. (Too busy with work for a client, etc.) The blurbs look good though. If it doesn’t work with MU, it’ll just be one more excuse to syndicate 😉