Top Tips on Writing Popular Science Books
Next Thursday, February 22nd, the ABSW is running a panel entitled “How to write a successful science book”. Admission is limited to ABSW members and closes this Friday, February 16th. You can join here, and register for the event here. In advance of our event, here is the advice of Diane Banks from Diane Banks Associates, literary agents for popular science writers including Brian Cox, Jeff Forshaw, Jon Butterworth, Melanie Windridge and Sheila Kanani.
Science books have become increasingly popular in the last ten years or so, crossing out of the science section at the back of the bookstore and over into the genre which has been labelled by Waterstones as “Smart Thinking”, a phrase which has been picked up across the trade. The general reader is keen to understand all aspects of the world in which we live. Nevertheless, however cutting edge their research, the number of academic science writers who successfully make the move into trade publishing remains small. Cracking the magic formula of a groundbreaking science book which captures and holds the public imagination is tough. Here are our top tips:
1. Public profile. Before approaching an agent or trade publisher, you’ll need to have already demonstrated that you enjoy engaging with a popular audience. The simplest way to do this is via social media and a personal website, where you can post blogs, videos and press cuttings. A writer who is genuinely interested in engaging with a wider audience (as opposed to one who sees writing a trade book as a way to make money) will by definition have already built up a strong social media following and have put themselves out there on the popular lecture circuit. If they haven’t done this, the publisher has all the information they need to make a decision.
2. Narrative arc. A popular science book needs to tell a story, with a clear narrative arc. The reader needs to feel that they are being taken on a journey, with plenty of colour and characters along the way. Bear in mind that your reader will probably be more creatively minded than your usual audience and adjust accordingly.
3. The 80/20 rule. However, the reader does not want to feel that the writer is dumbing down for their benefit. This is an absolute no-no. As a general rule, the average general reader should be able to understand 80% of the content of the book. That way, they are learning a lot but they also feel that they are being stretched.
4. Take away. What will the reader take away from the book which they can apply to their own life? This kind of reader is not an academic so they will not be looking for abstract principles. Whatever your topic, you will need to make sure that your conclusion is relevant to the reader’s life and the world they live in.