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Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Behind The Twitching Curtain - ABSW Briefing on How To Write A Popular Science Book.

By Edward Wawrzynczak

The first of a new series of ABSW Briefings kicked off in style at The Geological Society in London on March 13th with a capacity audience keen to learn How To Write A Popular Science Book.
L to r: Gabrielle Walker, Peter Tallack and Richard Hollingham. Picture: Ted Nield

How strange is the world of popular science book publishing. Celebrity scientists get massive advances and publicity, although publishers cannot guarantee to sell enough books to cover their costs, while the rest of us struggle to get published and can only hope to make a bean or two along the way.

Publishers plan their marketing years ahead yet, if a topic is hot, they commission ‘crash’ books with deadlines so short they threaten to reduce their writers to jabbering jellies. At the same time, editors cannot agree what makes popular science books successful and seem to have little idea who actually reads them.

Is it any wonder that budding authors find the prospect of writing the right sort of book and finding a publisher so daunting? To help steer a path through the confusion, the briefing’s panel of experts shared their experiences, offered sound guidance, and answered questions from the floor.

Peter Tallack, author, editor, one-time publisher, literary agent and proprietor of The Science Factory, considered what commissioning editors look for in a popular science book. He stressed how important it is to write a really meaty proposal that stands out and makes an immediate impact. He outlined all the essential points that a proposal needs to address and highlighted the key pitfalls to avoid.

BBC presenter and writer Richard Hollingham (How to Clone the Perfect Blonde, and Blood and Guts in the pipeline) described his experience of writing popular science and the satisfaction involved in covering a subject in depth. He pointed out the key role of narrative, the need to plot out stories and link characters between chapters, and the importance of allocating the time needed to bring everything together.

Finally, Gabrielle Walker, freelance broadcaster and author (Snowball Earth, An Ocean of Air, The Hot Topic, and a new book about Antarctica on the way) discussed writing different types of narrative, offered her perspective on what makes a proposal successful, and amplified the vital role played by the agent. She also made pertinent comments about what the writer can do for the reader.

People are keen to know about the world. They want to venture behind the ‘twitching curtain’ to grasp what interesting and amazing things lie beyond. The writer who understands science and tells good stories can open a window to this hidden world, an exciting world the reader would otherwise be to unable to see into. If you believe it’s worth doing, make sure you convey that sense of excitement.

Edward Wawrzynczak is a freelance science writer based in Surrey.