The Popular Science Writing Process

Via SFSignal's daily links dump, Lilith Saintcrow has a terrific post about the relationship between authors and editors:


I don't lose sight of the fact that I am the content creator. For the characters, I know what's best. It's my job to tell the damn story and produce enough raw material that we can trim it into reasonable shape. (Which means I am responsible for my deadlines, but we knew that.) I'm also way too close to the work to be able to see it objectively. So, 99% of the time, the editor is right.

Read it. It's good, and very true.

"Yeah, but that's talking about fiction," you say. "Science is Serious Business, and not to be mucked about by people with English degrees. They make you dumb things down and get all the details wrong!"

I was going to save this for the Special Edition DVD Release of How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, but I've been informed that it isn't actually a blockbuster movie and thus won't be out on DVD, so I can share this with you, my valued readers. Thus, I present the top secret, never before revealed, writing process for my popular audience physics book:

  • Read a whole bunch of stuff about quantum physics, and decide what to write about.
  • Bang out a manuscript explaining everything in full, with all the details correct and qualifying notes and references and all that sort of thing.
  • Send manuscript off to my editor
  • Wait
  • Get back an edit letter saying "AAAAAAAHHHH!!! Much too difficult! Make it simpler!"
  • Spend a day or so ranting at length to Kate about how this is totally unreasonable, and I can't possibly make the changes being demanded, and this is incredibly insulting to my deathless prose, etc., etc.
  • Sit down, make the requested changes.
  • End up with a vastly better book than the previous draft..

(Repeat as necessary.)

What's the conclusion to draw from this, other than "Kate is a saint for putting up with an enormous lout like you?" The conclusion is 99% of the time the editor is right.

My drafts weren't terrible-- they were better than a bunch of other pop-science books I've read. But they're nowhere near as good as the final text. The end product is vastly more readable, and more comprehensible for the target audience (which is to say, people who are not physicists).

Were there details left out? Absolutely. I cut out a number of things I think are absolutely fascinating. But they were fascinating to me, and a bunch of other people with physics degrees, and that's about it. Those people aren't the audience for this book-- they already know that quantum physics is pretty darn cool, and don't need to hear it from my dog.

Doesn't that mean the book is dumbed down? Absolutely not. One of the things that I'm tremendously happy about with the book is the list of blurb quotes, which includes a bunch of novelists and writers, and also Bill Phillips, one of the 1997 Nobel laureates in physics. Yeah, he was my Ph.D. thesis advisor, but that wouldn't get him to blurb a book that he didn't think was sound. Believe me, if the book was "dumbed down" in a way that introduced significant errors, he would've let me know-- I know that, because he did correct me on a couple of points. They were subtle mis-statements, and very few people would've noticed them, but he did, and I fixed them.

So, when an author tells you that the editor is probably right, believe them. It was unpleasant at times (steps 3-5, say), but the final product is a whole lot better than it started out.

I think the reviews bear that out, too, both the Amazon customer reviews and the more traditional media reviews. They're not 100% glowing, but there are about as many people saying the book was fantastic as there are people saying it was too hard. That suggests to me that we got it about right-- it's not going to completely overwhelm physics novices, but it's not fluff by any stretch.

This is why I'm deeply skeptical of the people who proclaim the triumph of the web, and the overthrow of traditional publishing models. Yeah, it's great that the web lets everyone with a keyboard publish whatever they want, but there's a lot to be said for the traditional publishing process. Specifically: It produces better books than you would get otherwise.

Believe it.

More like this

The use of editors and the various web publishing modalities are not mutually exclusive!

I really appreciate your putting this all down into a post. :) It's so very hard to strike just the right balance, and takes a lot more work, but in the end, as you say, the result is much better book. I'd like to tell you that it will be easier the second time around, when you write the sequel,... but it honestly never gets any easier. The books, however, continue to get better. I look forward to more terrific books from you...

Question is what the editor is right about. They might simply have goals the author doesn't share. Then what?

As a medical writer and editor, I'm so glad to hear you say that!

There are a lot of ways to describe what I do and what my goals are as an editor, but they all boil down to "Make It Better." The editor has a tricky job in some ways -- you have to be on the side of the author, helping them create the best work they can, but also on the side of the reader, giving them something readable and interesting. (If those goals are in conflict, there's a problem.) It is a bit of a balancing act. But when it works, and everyone's happy, it feels GREAT.

(To Bee's point: it depends. The author and editor both need to know who the audience is. If their goals are in conflict, maybe the editor is wrong for the job -- it happens. Or maybe the author is taking the wrong approach -- this also happens. I edit patient education materials, and I've noticed that doctors in particular often write as though they're addressing fellow doctors or medical students, rather than patients. So while the information is good, it doesn't meet the intended purpose. Lots about pathophysiology and epidemiology, lots of jargon, lots about interpreting medical tests; much less about what the patient needs to do or can expect. So then I have to tactfully break all that down with them.)

By Electric Landlady (not verified) on 27 Jan 2010 #permalink

"Question is what the editor is right about. They might simply have goals the author doesn't share. Then what?"

Then there's been some serious miscommunication much earlier. The author and editor are presumably already in agreement about what kind of book they want to create. If not, then either the publisher or the author have not been honest or clear about their goals.

Your situation is not a problem of editing, but of the initial business agreement.

Despite Heinlein's views on editors (they piss in the soup to improve the flavor), he could seriously have used some deep editing on his later work, which was self-indulgent in the extreme. Likewise Rowling, Tolkein and any fantasy writer that does a trilogy or worse.

For myself, my editor did a stirling job, and the subeditors even moreso. I am deeply grateful for making me seem smarter than I am. All hail editors!

Janne: Yes, is what I'm saying. I was more thinking about journals though than books. The editor of a journal might simply have goals the authors submitting the manuscript might not share/approve of/understand. Nobody really publishes a paper in a journal because they think it's a fun process. It's more a matter of "has to be done." The editor might be "right" with his decisions for what his goals are concerned, but the author might simply not approve of these goals to begin with.