Saturday, July 16, 2011

On writing history of science for the general reader

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 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).
Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


The Widget said...

So what's your next 'bestseller' James?

Pedro Erik said...

Now, tell us what you changed in academic books.

Pedro Erik

Rabbi said...

James, you need to edit the first sentence of the second paragraph. You have two links jammed in amongst the text that are not working.

James said...

Hi Rabbi, sorry for the dead links. They are simply something the blogger editor inserted and don't mean anything. If I edit, the article will reappear in everyone's reader so I'll just leave them be.

beckyfh said...

Many thanks, James, for these thoughts regarding my post and popular history of science, broadly. It seems like very wise advice, to properly consider your audience, read successful books of a similar type, and work hard with the writing and re-drafting. It is, very clearly, not any easy thing to get right, so hats off to those who try and succeed!

I wonder, though, if I can push you to think or say a little more on the kinds of issues raised by Miller (as quoted in my post) regarding the tension between insights of academic history of science that are considered most important by most current historians, and the requirements if trade publishers? Complexity is, perhaps, essential to understanding the past, but very difficult to get across successfully. The knowledge that evidence can be interpreted differently by different actors and historians is surely not a fault but an important insight. It does not necessarily stop the writer having a clear point of view, but it does make creating a readable narrative more difficult.

One of the things I am most interested in is what writers of 'good, popular history of science' feel they can and can't compromise about. It's not just a question of style, but also a question of what it is the writer is hoping to achieve, and just what is achievable in a popular format.

James said...

Hi Becky (if I may). Miller suggests that academic historians of science are caught between journos writing heroic narratives and scientists who object to being forced to see themselves in the looking glass. I think this is true to an extent. Yes, much published non-fiction is written by journalists and much of it is no good. Some is, of course, but we are fully entitled to tear our hair out every time a new book comes out by Michael White or Gavin Menzies.

But surely the solution to this is to do it ourselves and crowd these guys out of the marketplace. The public are fully aware that academics are more likely to know what they are talking about than journalists. And I would say that even after they have made all the compromises I outlined in my post, it is better for an academic to be doing the job than not. Publishers are aware of this too. Of course, it is bloody difficult to get published by a trade publisher, but it is possible. Academics should not surrender the right to communicate their subject to the public without one hell of a fight.

As for scientists deciding STS/HPS is the enemy, I am not sure this is as much of a problem as Miller does. True, people like the Ken who posts on Thony’s blog show a truly awe-inspiring lack of self reflexion, but outside new atheist circles I don’t think this is all that common. And although scientists obviously want to defend their corner, they are no longer the modern Olympians that they were a few decades ago. Academics can join the public debate about science, its uses and misuses without fear. But to do this they must engage. This should mean pitching articles, practicing the writing craft and publishing books for popular consumption. Hard work - but an essential part of the academic function, in my opinion.

One thing we do need is a big book or TV show that can change the default setting in our culture about the history of science: basically something to erase Sagan and Bronowski from our collective memories. Maybe David Wootton’s upcoming history of the scientific revolution (a category he is happy to admit is problematic) can be a game-changer in this regard.

Best wishes


beckyfh said...

Thanks James! This makes me feel nice and positive, although it's interesting that Miller's downbeat review was of an academic who did his bit in terms of aiming for a wide audience. But yes, we should all try. Now, who can we talk to about this game-changing blockbuster TV series?!

Anonymous said...

Hi Becky. Well I do think academics could be more supportive of each other. I certainly sometimes sense sour grapes over academic historians who have success as writers. In private it is even worse than in public reviews.

I wonder if there is any appetite in TV land for a big and serious history show. The last I can remember was Schama's History of Britian (which I thought was terribly good). Unfortunately, if you are not called Ferguson or Starkey I doubt you'd get a look in.