These days, it seems like everyone’s got a science book. Not a small number of them end up on my desk — apparently Cognitive Daily is “important” enough that publicists feel a review from us is worth the cost of printing and mailing me a book. But just because they send me the book doesn’t mean I have to review it. Often I simply ignore these books, putting them on my shelf or throwing them away. The most recent book I’ve received, however, is so bad that I couldn’t just ignore it: this book is actually instructive — of how NOT to write a science book. Reading just a few chapters of this book was intensely painful to me, so to spare you that displeasure I’ve distilled its lessons to a few handy bullet points.
- 1. Use lots of anecdotes. A good writer should tell a story, right? Keeping a thread of a plot will help perk up a reader’s interest through dense scientific information. Even better, you might think: string together thirty or forty unrelated stories per chapter, each making the exact same point. Your readers are stupid, so you must repeatedly pummel them with the same information over and over again, in nonscientific anecdotal fashion. After all, who would read a science book to get scientific information? Not your readers, that’s for sure. This tactic also shows off the important scientific goal of demonstrating that you have lots of friends who are willing to tell you stories that you can then write about in your books.
- 2. Don’t scrimp on metaphors. Writing a science book is like flying through a cloud while juggling plates. A metaphor is an excellent way to obfuscate a difficult concept by comparing it to another difficult concept. Don’t understand what I’m talking about? Then perhaps another metaphor won’t help. Remember, you’ve got to stay on that bucking bronco and keep your ducks in a row. Now do you understand? I didn’t think so. It’s like decanting a fine wine: the more metaphors you use, the less clear your writing will be, thus demonstrating your superior knowledge of the complex problem you’re writing about.
- 3. Don’t worry about scientific accuracy when employing metaphors. If you’re writing a book about physics, it doesn’t matter if you get your biology right. After all, it’s just a metaphor! What better way to demonstrate the theory of relativity than to compare it to how humans evolved from beluga whales?
- 4. Take a long time to make your point. Paper is cheap, and no one likes a thin book. This is a perfect time to tell your readers about your trip to Barbados. You probably have a contract that specifies a certain number of words, so there’s no sense getting to the point quickly. If people just wanted concise, accurate information, they’d look it up in Wikipedia.
- 5. Use few or no illustrations. It’s a scientific fact that the ink used to print illustrations is more expensive than ink used on words. Therefore, it’s better to describe something in words than to include a picture. Think about it this way: often a simple diagram will demonstrate a concept much more clearly than trying to explain it in words. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then avoiding pictures is a sure-fire way to bump up your word count. You’re a writer, not a drawer. And drawers are for clothes.
- 6. Avoid mentioning scientists or experiments. You’re a journalist, so it’s your job to explain things to people in ways they can understand. You always found science class difficult, and that class was taught by a scientist and involved experiments. Therefore no one can understand scientists and experiments. If you must mention a study, do it in a footnote. But don’t put any footnote numbers in the actual text of the book — just place a list of references at the end. This serves the dual purpose of making you look smart and offering no utility to your readers.
- 7. Conduct your research by reading other books. There is no better way to figure out what to put in a book than reading another book. After all, if someone else put it in a book, then it must be book-worthy. Also, since books are not usually peer-reviewed, they’re much easier to read and less science-y than journal articles. What’s more, books take years to write and just as long to edit and print, so by the time they reach the shelves, the information in them is at least three years old. Science wasn’t as complicated three years ago, so this makes your job even easier.
- 8. Assume no one wants to learn about science. People don’t read science books to learn things, they read them to make their lives better. No one is interested in knowledge for knowledge’s sake, so you’ve got to show what’s in it for them. If you’re not writing about something that makes your readers sick or shows them how to get better, then you’re not doing your job. Thus, whatever concept you’re explaining, whether it’s a supernova or the Krebs cycle, must be related back to the personal health of your readers. Toss in a few more anecdotes, and you’ve got yourself a science book!
Free bonus bullet point: How not to publicize your book!
- 9. Don’t maintain the blog your publisher made for you. Publishers and publicists have figured out that a blog is a good way to generate “buzz” about a new book. Therefore every new book now has a web site, complete with a blog written by the book’s author. Whatever you do, don’t write anything in your blog. Did you realize that most bloggers don’t get paid for writing their blogs? Instead, you should email other bloggers and ask them to link to your blog. Since bloggers write for free, they’ll appreciate having something to write about. Nothing’s more exciting to fellow bloggers than the shell of an empty blog.