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May 4, 2012 / lachlanpetersen

The Science of Writing Science

Nature.com has recently compiled Q&As with five successful science book writers, giving advice and tips for budding science writers.

The five authors all write in markedly different genres, and yet all of them alluded to the same core ideas about what makes a good a writer. And not just how to be successful financially, but also successful on a more personal level. Their advice all boils down to a few key, salient points that are essential if you wish to be a successful writer yourself.

The first point is a simple one. Do your research. This of course means research on your own topic. This is essential, as the world of writing is a dynamic one where your work, once published, is no longer protected from scrutiny by your peers and business associates. Your entire professional history has been published and is now in the public eye, so you have to know what you’re talking about.

But this also means you should research your field. This includes your audience, your associates and your market. You must know who you’re writing for and adjust your writing appropriately. You should consider getting an agent and an editor to help you. But do your research on them, too. Make sure your writing is compelling and relevant to your audience and be sure there is demand for your work.

The next point is that you must know when to listen to others and when to stay true to yourself. Criticism is absolutely vital to developing your skills as a writer and you must be able to heed it without being offended. But there is a fine line between good, constructive criticism and useless commentary. You must simply ignore meaningless insults and flattery. Sometimes you are right, sometimes you are wrong. Joanna Cole said, “[t]he first reaction from the sales representatives was that the books were too cluttered. But that’s what kids like about them”.

An important yet often ignored point is that you need to be willing to put in an immense amount of effort into your writing. A single book can take years of work before you get a single cent, and even then the financial rewards can be slim at first. As Carl Zimmer said, “[f]ind a subject you love so much that you could spend two years writing about it — even if nobody bought the book when you were done. That way, if people do buy the book it’s a bonus. Love for your topic is very important”.

Which brings me onto my final point: love writing, and love what you’re writing. If you don’t you may find yourself going down a miserable path doing something you loathe with little reward. The reward must be in the act of writing itself.

Are there any points you think are also important to a budding writer that I haven’t covered, or have writing experiences of your own? Share them, for the betterment of humanity.

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8 Comments

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  1. noelynn / May 5 2012 2:07 pm

    The final point: “love writing, and love what you are writing.” is where I’d like to start commenting on. Writing takes a lot of time and effort. Thus, it is worthwhile and rewarding to spend your life on something you enjoy and happy with than go down the boring lane.

    Like you highlighted in the post, if the reader is to grasp what the writer means, then the writer must understand what the reader needs. Now science is hard to read. It’s difficulties are born out of necessities, extreme complexity of scientific data and analysis. Therefore, the science of science writing is the actual communication.

    It does not matter how pleased the writer might be to have converted all the right data into sentences and paragraphs. But it matters only whether a large majority of the readers accurately perceive what is communicated.

    So, in my opinion, the science of writing science is all about communication within the author and the reading audience.

    Good job on the post!

  2. djasudasen / May 6 2012 2:32 am

    After Penny singled you out in the lecture for your sarcastic humour I read your post expecting something very witty! This it wasn’t, but I thought it was incredibly clear, concise, well structured and I read to the end with great interest. Well done!

    Another point for a budding writer to take on is to develop their own sense of style. If you read several pieces from the same author you’ll notice their own idiosyncrasies come through their writing. You can always get tips from your favourite writers but your style is something that comes quite naturally. Work with it. If you keep going with what’s instinctive, you’ll find that your readers will look forward to reading your work.

  3. muza2009 / May 9 2012 12:59 am

    I like your Carl Zimmerman quote it reminds me of the Stephen Hawking book, A Brief History of Time, one of the most famous popular science books but probably the least read! Do authors write for themselves or for the audience or do they attempt to strike some balance in between? If we were to look at the most successful popular science books would that tell us anything?

  4. ashfonty / May 10 2012 10:03 am

    I can draw so many parallels between your post and Beau Gamble’s lecture today! If you didn’t make it, he graduated from UWA last year and is working as a freelance write at the moment. His main message was that by writing more, you will get better at it!

    I don’t necessarily agree that you have to be really passionate in what you are writing about. I certainly think it helps, however I think a good writer can write about anything!

  5. selinamj / May 11 2012 8:48 am

    Social media permeates every aspect of our life, I don’t think that is an exaggeration, especially with our generation. We all spend hours and hours everyday on Facebook (well at least I do).
    This obviously presents an amazing opportunity to get information about new discoveries out fast. However this has its advantages and disadvantages:
    Advantage- If your research is interesting enough or has significant implications for the general public it has the potential to go viral and thousands of people of people will be talking about it in hours/days.
    Disadvantage- If it does go viral you better hope that your research is sound as it is next to impossible to retract that sort of information once the public has run with it. Social media as a way of communicating science also means that the research needs to be in a very VERY condensed form (140 characters for twitter) and in that you have to be able to grab people’s attention, communicate your main message and encourage them to click a link to get further information. This means scientific research runs the risk of becoming very sensationalised.

    • selinamj / May 11 2012 9:02 am

      Sorry guys I posted this on the wrong post….AWKWARD

  6. rhiandyer / May 11 2012 8:56 am

    I remember once hearing Robert Krulwich (from Radiolab) talk about his success as science journalist; he pretty well attributed his excellent communication skills to his being a non-scientist. It made me think about Bill Bryson, (A Short History of Nearly Everything) who is also a non-scientist.

    I wonder if it helps being outside your comfort zone, since there is so much pressure to do a lot more research. Also I sometimes feel when I am researching a topic that I have no background in, it is not until I have it written it all out really clearly that I understand it myself.

    Maybe always taking on a challenging topic or perspective can make us better writers.

  7. lachlanpetersen / May 14 2012 8:50 am

    @ noelynn. Thank you, it is important that what you write is palatable to your chosen audience,

    @ djasudasen. Sorry to disappoint! I didn’t really have many words to work with and a lot of information to convey so the humour had to be cut out! It can be a great tool to keep people entertained but I didn’t think it was appropriate here. And yes, personal style is important but for some genres of writing it just isn’t applicable. Text books are for the most part devoid of any personal style by design. A journalist on the other hand has a reputation to forge and impressions to make.

    @Muza. I think this is a situation where the cruelty of the universe shows itself. I find that all the great writers write for themselves first and foremost and they just happen to be writing something that is in demand. I’m sure there hundreds of fantastic writers who have written works that just don’t interest enough people to be successful. You may just have to hope that what your interested in is a common interest.

    On the other hand, and I’ll use science fiction as an example as it’s what I’m familiar with, it may be that it takes a good writer to come up with an idea that IS interesting. Take two imaginary sci-fi writers. Both are equally skilled and poignant writers, one of them writes about, say, a tale of a person who finds himself hunting synthetic humans indistinguishable from real humans and begins to doubt his own humanity. The other writes about a battle between two armies of robots fighting over a princess. The better writer in this case the one with the better idea.

    So it really comes down to what genre of writing you find yourself in. Stephen Hawking could (not saying he is!) be poor writer, but the content of his books would still be interesting, as the subject of time and relativity and the origin of the universe is still an interesting topic. In this instance, I would think that the writer really has it given to them on a silver platter. To contrast, if he instead was actually a geologist specialising in the formation of coastal limestone outcrops, he would have a hard time getting interest for his book “A Reef History of Lime”, regardless of his competency as a writer.

    But for some genres, especially science fiction, what makes a good writer is someone who can CREATE something interesting. Again this is of course different for someone who writes text books, as it’s not so much how interesting the book is, but the quality and format of the text. I guess it just depends on your situation when it comes to whether you are writing for yourself or others.

    @ashfonty. I unfortunately missed that lecture! I would say your comment “a good writer can write about anything” is a bit of a sweeping generalisation. There are some writers who have a very limited spectrum of writing, but would still definitely be worthy of being called good writers. However, your comment would be very appropriate if applied to say, a journalist. A good journalist can make anything powerful or interesting. The point I was trying to get across is that a good writer would write mostly things they are passionate about simply in the interest of keeping them sane and motivated! If you’re going to make writing your life, you better enjoy it!!

    @rhiandyer. Being in touch with your audience is an important aspect of being a writer, and the writers you mentioned are good examples of the author sympathising with their audience. I would agree that trying new things and expanding your skills is essential to growing as a writer. But I wouldn’t say it “helps” being out of your comfort zone. You don’t get an edge by knowing less! But you would be compelled to research and learn more, which is definitely a good thing!

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