Cognitive Daily

How NOT to write a science book

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.


  1. #1 Sam
    April 10, 2007

    So, uh, what’s the book?

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    April 10, 2007

    Under the principle of “any publicity is good publicity,” I’m not going to say. I don’t want to give this book publicity. But if you really want to know, send me an email.

  3. #3 coturnix
    April 10, 2007

    Hey, sounds like some of my blog-posts!

  4. #4 Dave Munger
    April 10, 2007

    Your blog is a lot of things, Bora, but “empty” isn’t one of them….

  5. #5 Jenny
    April 10, 2007

    Is it _Godless_ by Ann Coulter?

  6. #6 Dave Munger
    April 10, 2007

    It’s not THAT bad. For the most part, what little scientific information presented is true (other than that referenced in metaphors). It’s just poorly written.

  7. #7 David Kellogg
    April 10, 2007

    Great. Now I have to go to the Barnes and Noble, bloggy printout in hand, and conduct a scavenger hunt.

    Actually, this fantastic post is like a DSM entry for diagnosing crappy science writing. “Must exhibit 7 of 9 symptoms for 200 pages.”

  8. #8 Dave Munger
    April 10, 2007

    Now I have to go to the Barnes and Noble, bloggy printout in hand, and conduct a scavenger hunt.

    You’ll definitely find many books that fit the bill. Unfortunately this book isn’t all that unique.

  9. #9 acm
    April 10, 2007

    I think if you’re going to trash a book, you deserve to create a stink around a specific title. Hard to imagine it could possibly be a benefit to them! (Better yet, write your thoughts at their Amazon site, to warn off anybody who might stumble onto it and consider it a possibly worthwhile investment…)

  10. #10 Dramenbnejs
    April 10, 2007

    For what reason was it painful to read the book?

    You consider the book poor or is it just reminding you the bad quality of other “science” books?

  11. #11 Miso
    April 10, 2007

    Just for the record I think that you should recognize the fact that Godless:The Church of Liberalism is not a book about science. The book is about religion in the United States, politics, and about presenting some outrageous opinions to gain publicity. When she does present anecdotal stories about science she cites the original source and encourages the reader to look at the facts. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with encouraging people to look at both sides of an argument. Isn’t that what science is about, objectively looking at something and making a decision based on all information, as opposed to blindly accepting one theory. Just my two cents, don’t criticize it just because you disagree with it.

  12. #12 NJ
    April 10, 2007

    When she does present anecdotal stories about science she cites the original source and encourages the reader to look at the facts.

    Uh-huh. Except that careful examination of her texts and their sources has found that she has misrepresented them. Always. Coulter writes for an uneducated, incurious audience. People who cannot “objectively look at something” and who virtually always “blindly accept one theory”.

    It seems your two cents is actually worth vastly less than you believe…

  13. #13 greensmile
    April 10, 2007

    But I never metaphor I didn’t like! My science writing career is doomed! [And you only thought you’d spare me the pain of reading something bad…if only you knew:]

  14. #14 ompus
    April 10, 2007

    life is like a box of chocolates… eventually the sun will grow to many times its size and melt life on earth like smores over a camp-fire.

  15. #15 "Q" the Enchanter
    April 10, 2007

    Similes are like Swiss cheese: They’re ineffective.

  16. #16 nbm
    April 10, 2007

    Except for #5 (illustrations), you’ve given the recipe for writing non-fiction for children. Add a point
    10. Design a front cover which gives entirely the wrong impression of what the book purports to be about.

  17. #17 Kapitano
    April 10, 2007

    A few other possible points, in no particular order:

    * End lots of your sentences with cheery exclamation marks!

    * Mention god in the final chapter.

    * Give potted biographies of scientists, but don’t describe their work. If they may or may not have had an affair with a famous non-scientist, mention it.

    * Begin chapter one with a familiar funny story that doesn’t illustrate any point at all. The “turtles all the way down” story is generally reliable.

    * Talk arily about magnitude of infinities, wavefront theory and (always) quantum physics, without saying what these things are. It gives the impression you know a lot more than you’re saying.

    * Say something about how science isn’t anti-religion because religion is concerned only with morals.

  18. #18 Kaolin Fire
    April 10, 2007

    Thank you for the (wincing) chuckle. 🙂

  19. #19 Dave Munger
    April 11, 2007

    I think if you’re going to trash a book, you deserve to create a stink around a specific title. Hard to imagine it could possibly be a benefit to them! (Better yet, write your thoughts at their Amazon site, to warn off anybody who might stumble onto it and consider it a possibly worthwhile investment…)

    First off, I haven’t even read the whole book. I think it would be unfair to the author to offer up a bad review when I haven’t read the whole thing. Maybe things get better later on. I doubt it, but it’s possible.

    Second, my main problem with the book is that it’s poorly written. It’s just a lot of work to get through to the information. But this isn’t really cause for blanket condemnation. If you could manage to get through the horrendous writing, you might find something worthwhile there.

    That said, all these things are red flags; my suspicion is that there are deeper problems with the book. I’m just not going to waste my time trying to figure out what they are. This book is like dozens of others out there — they’ve got a germ of an idea, but they simply don’t follow through with it. I suspect part of the problem is the way the book business is structured: the people who can successfully pitch books are not necessarily the people you want writing them.

  20. #20 Elizabeth Pyatt
    April 11, 2007

    I feel your pain, but I think you missed an important “tip” (although you alluded to it).

    Tip: Focus on the travelogue, not the science.

    After all, what’s science without colorful scientists located in exotic labs/field stations? No one really wants to see the data after a long flight!

  21. #21 theo
    April 11, 2007

    Tip: make sure to include lengthy personal descriptions of the scientists you meet. Your readers, who also secretly wish they were Jane Austen, will identify and thank you for it.

    In particular, describe their office doors copiously. In a world where so many professors have sterile office doors, a lengthy description of someone’s posted “Far Side” cartoon goes a long way towards personifying their unique sense of humor.

    (I learned this secret from John Horgan. Thanks, John!)

  22. #22 bhp
    April 11, 2007

    A simile is like a metaphor that shows a bit of modesty.

    A metaphor is a simile with a spine.

  23. #23 kemibe
    April 12, 2007

    I hope people keep sending you crappy books, because your panning of this one was thoroughly enjoyable. It was also original; like me, you avoid cliches like the plague. Hell, I don’t even need to know the name of book; I feel like I was right there with you throughout your cleverly understated, tumultous, catch-as-catch-can, profane, apocalyptic, soothing, brash, hysterically funny, droll, pointless, economically described (which I like; digressions [though they serve a purpose {albeit a trite one at times}] should be used judiciously) literary journey.

  24. #24 Dr Vector
    April 12, 2007

    First off, I haven’t even read the whole book. I think it would be unfair to the author to offer up a bad review when I haven’t read the whole thing.

    Hey, in the words of Orson Scott Card, you don’t have to eat the whole turd to know that it’s not an eclaire. Valuable reviews don’t just say whether a book is good or bad, they say why it’s good or bad. You have a whole list of reasons why this is a bad book, even though you haven’t read the whole thing. Flame on!

  25. #25 Sam W
    April 18, 2007

    OK, so you don’t want to tell us who the offender is. How about the converse: can you name books that successfully avoid these pitfalls? For instance, does Q.E.D. by Richard Feynman avoid these problems? What about Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond?

  26. #26 Dave Munger
    April 19, 2007

    I haven’t read either of those books, but I’ve read other books by Feynman and I think he’s a great writer.

    I’m planning to write a very favorable review of Daniel Levitin’s book This Is Your Brain on Music, but I haven’t finished reading it yet. See also my post yesterday about Madam Fathom, who’s an amazing writer but doesn’t have a book!

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