Popular Science Writing Requires Inspiration, Perspiration

The unexpected--and unprecedented--success of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes created a big bang of its own in the world of publishing. The Cambridge University re- searcher's textual flight through space and time, published by New York's Bantam Books in April 1988, earned rave reviews the world over and spent 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, ringing up sales of some 1 million copies in its hardcover edition alone

May 11, 1992
A. J. S. Rayl
The unexpected--and unprecedented--success of theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes created a big bang of its own in the world of publishing. The Cambridge University re- searcher's textual flight through space and time, published by New York's Bantam Books in April 1988, earned rave reviews the world over and spent 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, ringing up sales of some 1 million copies in its hardcover edition alone.

Publishers did double-takes, then scrambled to sign up scientists with stories to tell and theories to explain. As a result, popular science books--those that bring scientific knowledge to the public in a voice that the layman can understand and appreciate--have become something of a trend, and more scientists than ever before are venturing into the world of mass-market publishing.

Indicators are that the genre will continue to expand for some time--just what one would expect following a big bang. Strengthening the anticipated demand for popular science books is the speculation that the public's fascination with science is on the rise, spurred on in part, no doubt, by Hollywood's blockbuster science-fiction movies and hopes for cures for catastrophic diseases like AIDS and cancer. "We're always on the lookout for science books," says Leslie Meredith, executive editor at Bantam.

There are two stages to book publishing--writing, editing, and printing the manuscript serve as the first; marketing the product is the second. Since publishers rarely invest much money on advertising, reviews and publicity tours serve as the means by which the result of your hard work is promoted.

Upon publication, advance copies are sent to newspapers and magazines for review. Such reviews, particularly in publications such as the New York Times and Publisher's Weekly, are important and can help a book gain sales momentum. But inevitably, no matter how well-researched and well-written your book may be, odds are you'll get a bad review or two.

Even two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Edward O. Wilson has experienced his share of negative reviews of his popular science books. In some cases, critics give bad reviews because they "fail to absorb the book," he says. In other instances, a reviewer might be simply mistaken about the science. Yet there is also a third possibility: The critics may just be on to something.

While authors are frequently advised to ignore bad reviews, Wilson says, "it's dangerous to ignore them. If there's a pattern in the response--if several say your writing is too terse or turgid or preachy--you really ought to take it into account," he says. But don't dwell on the negative, he advises: "File [the reviews] away."

If the reviews are positive overall, your topic catches the public's fancy, and your book takes off, you might be asked to go on a publicity tour. "No one is ever forced to go on a publicity tour," says University of California, Berkeley, astronomer Timothy Ferris, a veteran of the radio and TV circuit.

"But if you are asked, the thing to remember is that your [main] responsibility is to communicate with the public. This is not some celebration of how great a guy you are, and it's not a two-week vacation in Hawaii."

Ronald K. Siegel, a psychopharmacologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, received much media attention from his book Intoxication: Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise (New York, E.P. Dutton, 1989). He offers this advice to avoid burnout from lengthy book tours: "Watch or listen to the shows the publicist has scheduled for you, and be selective. Know that radio call-in shows can be done over the phone from your office. If you're flying from city to city, you might want to consider taking rest periods."

If you don't have the time or desire to go on a publicity tour, Siegel says, "you can ask the publisher to divert money from tour promotion to [giving away] free copies." Siegel, for example, had Intoxication sent to every member of Congress who has jurisdiction over drug policy, as well as to members of several Cabinet departments. "It's not so much for publicity, but more for communicating ideas--which is what popular science books are really all about."


With so many scientists entering the world of mass-market publishing, maybe you're thinking about writing a book for a popular audience or have been approached by a publisher about doing so. Scientists who have written for the mass market say the experience can be very fulfilling--but it can also be tedious and time-consuming.

What's Your Motive? The first thing to examine if you're thinking about writing a popular nonfiction book is your motivation. Before visions of fame and fortune begin to orbit your mind, consider that Hawking's megasuc-cess--while always a possible payoff of the effort of writing a book--is rare for any genre. It takes sales of 60,000 copies on average to garner a position on one or more of the bestseller lists, and most popular science books are not likely to sell more than 20,000.

While there are numerous valid motivations that can impel a scientist to write a book for the mass market, the veteran scientist/authors surveyed for this article cite a strong desire to write as being the most essential for ensuring success. That desire, they say, ultimately serves as the driving force to see a book through to completion.

Stephen Jay Gould, a professor of zoology at Harvard University, and one of the most prolific scientist/authors, sums it up this way: "All the clichEs--that it's based on a desire to communicate, to better educate the public, which funds scientific research; that those of us who can do it should be doing it; that it's a responsibility, a duty, and a challenge; that reaching a bigger audience is the job of any intellectual--I believe all that, but it's not the primary reason for writing. Quite simply, I love to write."

Says Gould, author of Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (New York, W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., 1989) and The Mismeasure of Man (W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., 1981), among others: "Not to sound egotistical or flip, but I do it for myself, and I would suppose any good writer would tell you the same."

No Small Task The next point to consider is whether you can, and really want to, expend the effort required to write for the mass market. It is certainly not something to be considered lightly, and it's not something every scientist is capable of doing or will want to do. For starters, writing a popular science book is an endeavor that requires a commitment of time and energy, and an ability to communicate complex concepts, formulas, and ideas in a way that is understandable to--and entertaining for--the lay audience.

"I've had numerous inquiries from scientist friends about writing popular books, and they're often quite unrealistic about it--saying, `I have the summer off and I'd like to spend those three months writing a book for laypeople on particle physics,' " says Timothy Ferris, author of The Mind's Sky (Bantam Books, 1992), Coming of Age in the Milky Way (New York, William Morrow & Co. Inc., 1988), and other astronomy-oriented books.

Ferris, an astronomy instructor at the University of California, Berkeley, is considered by many to be one of the bards of popular science books. Ferris, who does not do research and considers himself a writer rather than a scientist, offers some inside, objective advice: "Scientists need to appreciate the time factor, as well as the fact that writing a mass-market book is most likely harder than what they're used to writing.

"They need, too, to understand that there's no way the general reading public can really understand a concept unless [the author] can put it in clear, simple language."

Indeed, writing a mass-market book is an experiment of sorts in a laboratory very different from the one to which scientists are accustomed. "You don't just sit down and knock off a book like you would a few technical articles," says Robert Shapiro, a professor of chemistry at New York University and author of The Human Blueprint: The Race to Unlock the Secrets of Our Genetic Script (New York, St. Martin's Press, 1991) and Origins: A Skeptic's Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth (New York, Summit Books, 1986). "It's absolutely harder, and an enormous zapper of energy. You really have to relish the process. I just found that I really enjoyed trying to capture the essence of scientific ideas in a way that nonscientists who came for dinner would not just appreciate, but enjoy."

Making Science Fun How does one go about making science sound enjoyable? "Through the use of metaphors and other literary artistry," says Bantam's Meredith. Metaphoric devices, she explains, "allow the writer to draw pictures in the heads of the reader that may not be as precise as a scientific experiment, but will lead the reader to a `eureka' experience in reading new thoughts." Publishers look for clarity of expression--verbal as well as written--from potential scientist/authors, Meredith says, as well as a writing style that incorporates metaphors.

Following are some suggestions from authors and publishers on how to turn your scientific expertise into a book for a popular audience.

1. Determine if you have a viable idea. Do enough people care about the subject matter? Is it alluring? Can it be made interesting to a general audience?

2. Examine your motivations.

3. Try your hand at a short essay and determine if it's enjoyable for you to take complex information and make it informative for, and entertaining to, nonscientists.

4. Determine if you have an ability to use metaphors or other literary techniques, and most important, if you enjoy the process.

5. Write up a proposal, consisting of an overview of what the book will cover, an outline, and a couple of sample chapters.

6. Get a good literary agent who is willing to help you shape the proposal and take the book around to publishers.

7. Once you get a deal, make sure you schedule the appropriate amount of time to do the project.

8. During the writing phase, communicate with your agent and your editor about any problems or difficult passages.


Veteran scientist/authors cite a number of techniques that they say can help ease the transition to popular writing. Edward O. Wilson, Harvard University's Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science, usually relies on one of two methods. "One is to embed the fairly hard, technical data into a matrix of general introductory and more simplified explanatory material--much like raisins in a muffin," he says. "Readers are thereby drawn in and can move along easily through the material and are sufficiently attracted to it that they will be able to more willingly endure the technical descriptions. That way, you can put real science in amongst simpler language."

The other method that Wilson uses is to think of himself as standing before a classroom of both scientists and nonscientists, and consider how he would verbally acquaint people with the material. His techniques, obviously, have met with success: Wilson is the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, one in 1979 for On Human Nature (Harvard University Press, 1978), a popular book, and one in 1991 for The Ants (Harvard University Press, 1990), a more technical work that he cowrote with former Harvard professor Berthold Holldobler (The Scientist, May 27, 1991, page 22). Robert M. Hazen, a research scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington's geophysical laboratory and author of The Breakthrough: The Race for the Superconductor (Summit Books, 1988), uses a similar method of visualizing the audience for whom he is writing. Hazen, who is also a professor of earth sciences at George Mason University, says that the most effective approach is to tell stories. Says Hazen, who is also the coauthor, with George Mason physics professor James Trefil, of Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy (Doubleday & Co., New York, 1991): "People like, and can relate to, and are entertained by stories. Rather than lecturing, or writing the equation for Newton's law and describing the physics, you might offer an anecdote about what happened to your friend when he didn't wear his seat belt."

Ronald K. Siegel, a psychopharmacologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, "popularizes" his subject matter--taking it to the streets, so to speak. Says Siegel, author of Intoxication: Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise (New York, E.P. Dutton, 1989) and Fire in the Brain: Clinical Tales of Hallucination (E.P. Dutton, 1992), "No matter how well I may write a book that details the mechanisms of drugs at a molecular or physiological level, it's going to be boring and read by only a handful of people. People communicate with each other at a behavioral level, and they interact at a behavioral level. That's the level that is meaningful to them, and writing about my field--the effects of drugs on behavior--on that level then [makes for] a popular book."

Simplifying and popularizing your topic, however, by no means implies that you should write "down" to the general audience. "What I write for the general public is essentially at the same level as what I write for professional colleagues," says Gould. "Certainly, it doesn't include the same form of mathematical argument, and it doesn't presuppose knowledge of technical terminology and concepts, but I don't think the conceptual depth is much different."

Realities Of The Market One of the appeals of writing a popular science book, says Siegel, is that "you can express yourself a lot more freely. You can editorialize, and go beyond the bounds of your data, more than you can in an academic journal, where you're constrained not only by the journal's format, but by the scientific format." That freedom, however, is bridled on the one hand by one's own sense of responsibility--to present rational and logical evidence in support of the hypotheses presented--and on the other by the realities of the popular publishing world.

Unlike scientific papers, books are commodities--products that are packaged and sold. "What you think is a good product for sale is not necessarily the final arbiter of what goes out," says Hazen. "The title The Breakthrough was not my title," he says, noting that it came from the president of a large bookstore chain. "I originally proposed 1-2-3 Superconductor. The `hip' name for the superconductor was 1-2-3. It was cute. I didn't like the new one better, but it was a marketing decision."

Some scientists shun writing for the general audience, convinced that it adversely affects one's credibility as a scientist. But the consensus among the scientist/authors interviewed for this article is that as long as you're publishing reputable material, there's no credibility lost; indeed, if you do your job well, credibility is gained.

Says Wilson: "Responsible popular writing, which tries to illustrate what a scientific process is or to explain some complex phenomena that can only be understood through scientific knowledge, actually receives a great deal of favorable attention from other scientists. When you do it responsibly, your credibility is actually enhanced."

In fact, Wilson says, that seems to be more the case now than in previous generations. Because scientific knowledge doubles every 10 to 15 years, he says, it has become more difficult for scientists in any given area to have a full grasp on other scientific fields. "In essence," Wilson says, "scientists are now in a position of being able to appreciate overviews, syntheses, or simple introductions to other areas."

A.J.S. Rayl is a freelance writer based in Malibu, Calif.