Rebekah Higgitt’s new blog, Teleskopos, has a post about popular history of science writing. She asks for some thoughts on the tricks required to communicate academic history of science to a wide audience. I am, of course, a writer of popular science history so I thought I’d flatter myself into thinking that I might be able to provide Rebekah with some thoughts from inside the bubble. Just treat the below as random musings on lessons learnt the hard way…
Firstly, Rebekah quotes scholars who found it hard to write for a http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifgeneralhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif audience because they were required to be direct. They had to say what they thought “without the customary allusion to the way in which the same evidence could possibly be interpreted in different ways.” Now, I think this is a fault with academic writing rather than with popular books. The two best books by academics I’ve read over the last few years are Bad Medicine by David Wootton and The Fall of the Rome and the End of Civilisation by Bryan Ward-Perkins. Both are arguments that present the evidence and knock down the opposition. Both authors have the confidence to believe they are right and their opponents are wrong. Some editors advise that each chapter you write should have a key message that you can summarise in a single short sentence. If you need more than one sentence, use shorter chapters.
Second, there is the question of writing style. The first draft of God’s Philosophers never got shown to anyone. I made the mistake of thinking the second draft was quite good. It got me an agent and some friends said they really liked it. But no publisher would touch it. The third draft found a publisher (thank you Icon, thank you) and the fourth got published. You might say each rewrite was more “dumbed down” than the last but even so, many people find the final product is still too difficult to enjoy. I found this extremely frustrating, but books for the general public are to be enjoyed. People won’t read something for pleasure unless it gives them pleasure. Academics completely over-estimate the level of writing that they must use for trade books. So you should not test your book on your colleagues or friends. You should find someone who not only knows little about the history of science but has also never shown the slightest interest in it. And if they politely say it was OK but a bit hard going, you are going to have to rewrite from the start.
Third, if you are like me and don’t have some amazing literary talent, you will need to learn how to write for a general audience. I think the best way to find out how is to read loads of the books that non-academics read. And that does not mean literary fiction or those general histories of the Thirty Years War or early Middle Ages that only Penguin can get away with publishing. For trade non-fiction, the best exemplars are rarely historians. They are more likely to be journalists. Recent books that I’d suggest anyone would do well to model their style on include Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, Freakonomics and Tim Harford’s The Undercover Economist (techno thrillers by the likes of Frederick Forsyth are also good). The reason these books sell is that they explain concepts simply, clearly and entertainingly. Yes, Richard Dawkins can do this too, but most people will be extremely hard-pushed to pull off his technique. The same goes for writers of the calibre of Simon Schama. So I think it’s best to aim for clear and simple.
Fourth, trade books do need anecdotes, narrative and human interest. Personally, I’d like to see more of this in academic books too. Partly this is because history is made by people. So, books about history need to be books about people too. But it is also far easier to tell a story through people than through ideas. For popular writing, a key technique is to show, not to tell. You need to show the reader your characters doing things, saying things and achieving things. That way you can get a historiographical message across through the medium of narrative.
Finally, don’t make the mistake of believing that the market for history of science is very big. God’s Philosophers is probably in the top five bestsellers in this genre over the last couple years but that was achieved with total sales that barely reach five figures. The really big sellers in history of science, Dava Sobel and Bill Bryson, are genre-busters which broke out of the narrow market. Unfortunately, they are no more likely to make their readers more widely interested in history of science than I was going to become a fan of chick-lit because I once read Bridget Jones (another genre-buster).
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