So you want to write a pop-sci book: Open thread


Earlier this week David Williams (Stories in Stone), Michael Welland (Sand), and I started a blog series about the details of publishing a popular science book (Parts 1, 2, and 3), but I have been a bit underwhelmed by the response. I had been hoping for some input from other published authors, questions or comments from aspiring book writers, and for the series to take the form of a conversation. Instead I feel like I am talking to myself. Is there anything anyone would like to know about the process of writing a pop-sci book? Or would you all prefer that I just get back to the science posts? Have your say in the comments (and thank you to the few who have commented on, linked to, and tweeted the series).

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A lot of people are probably interested in the process of pop-sci writing, but not in a place where they're ready to ask questions -- or know what questions they want to ask (myself included)! If I were to guess, I'd probably suspect that people will find your posts a valuable resource at time goes on.

For example, I intend to write a pop-sci book as my next project, and am planning to go through your posts in detail. Just having sent off my textbook to the publisher, however, I can't even think about book writing for a while! :)

gg; That is pretty much what I expected, although I was hoping for more engagement now due to the propensity for posts to disappear down the rabbit hole (the nature of the blogging beast is that posts are "old" a day or so after they appear). I wanted to avoid turning the series into a lecture, but I am afraid that is what is has become. I hope that some readers have found it helpful, though, or will when the time is right. :)

I'm saving your posts re: writing a pop-sci book as pdf files for future reference. I don't have any plans to write a book now (I'm just starting my Ph.D.) but certainly will as things move along.

I'm interested. I've found your posts helpful, but vague in specifics. I'd love to hear of examples in your decision process - the moments that reveal where the book's thread was exactly, for example. Or things that came in ways you didn't expect, from the cooperation with your publisher, etc.

I'm coming from animation/illustration and am actually considering a kid's book on the subject matter if only because I haven't yet been able to convince a publisher what will be possible when ebooks delve into dinosaurs.

I am in the beginning stages of writing a popular science book, so I was *very* excited to hear about your blog series. I was hoping you would be posting more often. :)

Some questions off the cuff:
- How did you solve the balance between themes that you personally found interesting, versus themes that would appeal to a wider audience?
- How much and how often did you involve friends and family in the process, especially before getting an agent and editor?
- How did you balance time between research and writing? I find there is *always* one more book or article to read, and have to force myself to sit down and just write.
- Some people have suggested going with a NaNoWriMo-style approach of "write first, edit later." How carefully did you proceed when first writing, and how much editing did you do afterwards?
- Practical tips: What software did you use along the way? (I'm trying DevonThink and Scivener. Bookmarks in Delicious.) And what was your daily writing practice? (Always at certain time of day? Always in certain cafe? Warm up exercises? Write on paper, then transcribe into computer? Did you print out drafts along the way for editing?)

Sure there is more. Keep posting!

I've been loving the posts, but I hadn't thought of any questions to ask. One topic came up at ScienceOnlineAgain 2010, which people might like to see explored here: what are the pros and cons of academic publishers versus the rest of the industry? Our SciBling, Jason Rosenhouse, might have something to say, as his Monty Hall Problem book was with Oxford University Press. (COI disclaimer: Oxford UP sent me an advance reader copy, which I enjoyed very much, though I've been a lazy slob and haven't yet written a review like I should have.)

I was hoping for more engagement now due to the propensity for posts to disappear down the rabbit hole (the nature of the blogging beast is that posts are "old" a day or so after they appear).

When I get around to blogging again — research started consuming even more of my time, and then I got sick, grumble grumble — I'll link to them and try to make them "new" again.


I just wanted to let you know that I really appreciate these posts, and I'm hoping to go back to them in the future when I'm ready to seriously take that step. Writing a popular science book is currently one of those slightly-far-off dreams, and right now I need to put my focus into more pressing matters (ie, my dissertation). But I do think the information will be helpful in the future.

What I would like to know more about is the process of developing a book proposal, and finding an agent, because that's the part that seems most intimidating to me.

Put me down as another who is following this series with great interest and appreciation, but has not come up with any good questions to ask yet (although I wish I has thought of some of those raised by the other commenters in this thread).

I am in the very early planning stages of a book that will be in some respects pop-science. I was lucky enough to have been approached by an agent, on the basis (I guess) of my particular academic expertise and my web presence, so I have short circuited that stage of things, but I have no experience with writing for a popular audience or at book length, so there is still a lot to learn, and I need to put an outline together, which I find daunting in itself. I have published some quite long academic articles, but I have not been in the habit of planning them out in detail first. I generally start with an idea, and an opening line and start writing. Once I have got a fair bit down, I may start to worry about structure, and start re-arranging stuff, which may involve sketching out a very rough plan. However, to tackle a full book, and especially in order to sell the idea to a publisher, I clearly need to produce a much more formal outline. At the minute I have only been able to come up with a very vague and tentative list of chapters, and I am finding it difficult to get beyond it. I have, however, been wondering if it would be good idea to start work on a chapter first, in the hope that doing so will help me to focus my mind on how to structure the work as a whole, and what to include. Does that sound like a sensible plan, or do you think it is wiser to force myself to work out a more detailed plan first?

I guess I managed to come up with a question after all. Just writing this comment helped me focus on what I would like to know.

It's great to see all these comments arriving - now I'll chip in a little.

Nigel - I recommend that you do as you describe for a paper, but for a chapter - just pitch in and start writing! I find that doing so absolutely concentrates the mind and opens up new lines of ideas and narrative. Then come back to the plan - the whole process is iterative.

Michelle - worry through the ideas first and start writing - if you convince yourself that what you have is a fantastic book, then the rest will be less intimidating (if not less time-consuming).

Blake - I set out a few thoughts on Academic versus commercial presses in my posts - I'd be happy to answer any more specific questions as best I can.

Stan - for me, the themes balance just seemed to emerge as I went along. There were many topics that I thought should be included, but knew virtually nothing about; the research stimulated the emergence of not only (I hope) a balance, but also new directions.

Involve friends and family as much as possible, regardless of the stage in the process - they have more of a personal interest in seeing the project succeed, and can provide support when things are getting out of control (they are also in some ways the least critical critics, so bear that in mind!).

Everyone's different but my writing habit is to bash away on the laptop for a while regardless and then return and edit. I didn't use any specialist software, just Word (and a lot of Photoshop for the illustrations). Every individual has a daily cycle and favourite locations that are different, so your writing discipline is really up to you - but a target of 2000 words a day is not a bad idea. A glass or two of red wine can be very helpful.

First, many thanks to everyone who commented. I truly appreciate it. One of the problems with blogging is that it can often be difficult to tell if you, as a writer, are making any difference. When people agree with a post they often read it and then move on (I do that, too), so I have been trying to think of ways to foster engagement or otherwise make feedback easy (perhaps a "Like" button at the bottom of posts?).

Second, I will continue the series next week in an attempt to answer some of the questions raised here (particularly the list of queries posted by Stan - thanks!). I will try to offer specifics where appropriate, but if I am holding back it is only because my book is not out yet and I do not want to spoil things for prospective readers! I will try to strike a good balance between providing detail and avoiding spoilers.

Third, even after this series ends, don't hesitate to e-mail me or otherwise contact me with any thoughts or questions. One of the big messages from ScienceOnline this year was that science writers help other science writers, and I would be more than happy to assist others getting their projects of the ground if it is in my power to do so.

Thanks again, everyone.

I also find this series very interesting, even though I haven't commented.

I'm not planning to write any nonfiction books at this time, although I have a faint idea for one now that I think of it. In addition, my day job involves writing a lot of nonfictional material. Finally, I would love to get some fiction published someday. What you have to say about the process of writing and of getting published is of interest to me, even though the application of what I learn may not be immediate or direct.

I would also like to point out that at this point your book, while nearly finished from your point of view, is still something of an abstraction to us, your loyal blog readers. Thus we can discuss the process of writing, and of publishing, but the abilty to discuss specifically what you have written and published still lies in the future. I'll bet that once your book comes out, and we have it in our hands, you are likely to experience a wave of more specific questions: "Why did you choose this example instead of that?" "How did you come up with the approach you took in chapter 4?" "Why did you structure chapter 7 the way you did?" etc.

By Stevo Darkly (not verified) on 20 Mar 2010 #permalink

Thanks for all of the follow up comments. Since Stan raised so many fine questions, I have chosen to answer them on my blog, instead of here.

Nigel, I agree with Michael. Writing a first chapter is a great way to get a feel for your material. Do the ideas flow? Does the topic interest you? Have you done enough research? Does your voice show through? That being said, I also think that working on the outline is critical, basically for the same questions I just raised. Writing and outlining do complement each other.

Michelle, as Michael noted, both of us have more info about proposals on our blogs. Plus, I would focus most on the proposal, as without one it is harder to get an agent.

And, I would also like to suggest for those interested in science writing that you consider joining the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), which has several excellent listservs. There are also great local chapters of NASW, which might be less intimidating if you are new to the process.

Good luck.

Hi, everyone. I just answered Stan's questions in a new post here.

And Nigel; Yes, by all means try writing a sample chapter. If I recall correctly, I wrote my whale chapter many months before I wrote a formal outline. As you said, it can help you figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it.

Ultimately, though, you are going to have to write chapter descriptions for chapters you have not actually written yet! This can be the most difficult part of drawing up a proposal, but if you have a strong idea of what your book is going to be about/how you are going to make your argument, then it will be a little easier.

As Michael and David said, just get to writing. Even if you eventually toss what you put down, the act of writing often helps to frame ideas and lets you see how things look on paper.

David -

I am currently exploring options for moving into science writing as my profession/career, perhaps starting by moonlighting (if I can get permission from my employer) and freelancing. Right now I have a good "geek" job, but it doesn't allow/require me to do any writing, but I love writing and seem to be reasonably good at it.

I looked at NASW, of course, but from what I understand, NASW requires 5 published writing samples for a regular membership and proof of enrollment in a program for the time-limited student membership. I have neither. Any suggestions for other organizations? (I've already joined a local independent writing group)

Saving your pop-sci book discussions for later use (fingers crossed)