So you want to write a pop-sci book: Answers to your questions

Written in Stone

Last Friday I posted an open-thread in an attempt to gauge what readers might be getting from the “So you want to write a pop-sci book” series (Parts 1, 2, and 3), and I was quite pleased by the response. I was glad to hear so many of you have found it useful (or intend to go back to it when you get your own book projects in order). There were also a few questions about the book-writing process, and I will answer them here.

Most of the questions were asked by Stan, and I’ll go through them one at a time.

How did you solve the balance between themes that you personally found interesting, versus themes that would appeal to a wider audience?”

I actually did not feel much tension between the two viewpoints. I tried to pick the kinds of examples and stories that had fostered my love of science in the first place; the sort of stories that make you think “Wow! Really?” when you first hear about them. Granted, I might not exactly be on the same wavelength as someone who has only a passing interest in paleontology, evolution, or science in general, but my basic goal was to come up with an interesting story and then pick the best examples to tell that story. This prevented me from getting too bogged down in ancillary issues that, while certainly interesting, did not really fit in to the rest of the book. (I would have loved to spend more time of the Cuvier-Geoffroy debates, for example, but I could not find a comfortable place for it.)

The bigger challenge was keeping up with new discoveries, as exemplified by my uncertainty over what to do about Puijila. Puijila is a an otter-like fossil seal that has helped paleontologists to understand how the ancestors of modern-day seals became adapted to life in the water. It could have fit quite nicely into the chapter on early whales (since it, too, illustrated a transition from land-to-water among prehistoric mammals), but by the time it was discovered I had already completed that part of the book. Additionally, I spend a few pages of the chapter comparing the way whales and ichthyosaurs each became adapted to the water (especially how the way they moved was influenced by the anatomy of their ancestors), so there was not room to include another diversion about Puijila. I did mention it in a footnote, but I could not cover it in as much detail as I would have liked without derailing the chapter.

At the same time, other discoveries have been so fantastic that I was forced to go back and find a way to fit them into the book. When the research about the feather colors of some dinosaurs was published earlier this year, for example, I knew that these examples would both bolster my argument and hook readers, so I cut back a discussion of bird-like behavior seen among dinosaur specimens to fit in the discoveries about feather color. One of the main “selling points” of Written in Stone is that it covers discoveries not mentioned in any other recent popular treatment of evolution, and I knew I couldn’t stay true to this goal without mentioning the colorful plumage of Anchiornis.

How much and how often did you involve friends and family in the process, especially before getting an agent and editor?

Before I committed to Written in Stone full time I wanted to make sure I had something good, so within a few weeks of completing the first three chapters (in early 2009, several months before I had an agent) I sent drafts to a few science blogging friends to see what they thought of it. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and that encouraged me to keep going. (Had the response been negative I probably would have gone back to the drawing board to find a better way of telling the same story). And, as I alluded to in part two of this series, sending out a “preview” version for comments led one of the readers to bring up my book with an agent they just happened to bump into.

The most important person involved in my work, however, has been my wife Tracey. She has provided me with ceaseless encouragement, been the first one to listen to my ideas, and has been generous enough to let me take over the office with part of my library and other writing-related flotsam and jetsam. She has not yet read the entire manuscript (I am waiting to give it to her after another round of edits), but she has been extremely supportive during the entire book-writing process. Without her help, I probably could not have done it.

How did you balance time between research and writing? I find there is *always* one more book or article to read, and have to force myself to sit down and just write.

I started out with a bit of an advantage. I had spent so much time reading books, articles, and papers during the past several years that I already had a pretty solid base of information from which to work. Even so, I still had to go back to a variety of sources to make sure I had my facts straight, and I went through a step-by-step process which I repeated for each chapter.

I read voraciously to make sure I had the most up-to-date information available. I took in everything I could find until I felt that I could deliver a lecture on the subject if I had to, and then I set about forming the story arc of the chapter in question. I’ll use the chapter on feathered dinosaurs as an example. I knew that I was going to start the chapter with Edward Hitchcock and the dinosaur tracks of Connecticut Valley, connect that to T.H. Huxley’s work on bird origins, move to the rise of the “pseudosuchian hypothesis”, transition into the “Dinosaur Renaissance”, and then launch into a review of some of the most interesting evidence that birds are living dinosaurs. Rather than try to make sure every line was perfect, however, I laid out this story in abstract form by composing a draft of the chapter without worrying too much about specifics (like quotes, little technical details, etc.).

Once I had the general story in place I scoured my ever-growing collection of PDFs for relevant papers, threw them all together in a special folder, and started to read through them one-by-one. Where did they fit within the story I was trying to tell? I would read a paper, go back to the chapter draft, insert the technical details, and then move on to the next paper until I had exhausted the list of resources. At this point the chapter was a bit of a mess. The relatively loose narrative sloshed around the pillars of technical information I had sunk here and there, so I went back to the beginning to start smoothing things out. (I usually edited each chapter three or four times before being remotely satisfied with it.)

As I mentioned above, though, sometimes a new study would come out that was so wonderful I knew that I would have to include it. Once I decided whether it should go in a footnote or the body of the text I would try to figure out where it fit best and modify the rest of the text around it. And, as said in the question, there is always another book or paper to read, but there does come a point where tracking down that reference (unless it contains a truly extraordinary piece of information) is not worth the time. Figuring out what can be left out of a book is just as important as knowing what should go into it.

Some people have suggested going with a NaNoWriMo-style approach of “write first, edit later.” How carefully did you proceed when first writing, and how much editing did you do afterwards?

Overediting, or being too concerned with getting everything “just right” before moving on, can really kill a book. I tried doing that for a while and it just sucked all the energy right out of me. Once I had an idea of what story I was going to tell, it was much better to just write until I felt I had reached the end than to agonize over every line.

It reminds me of the technique presented in “How to Draw” videos. No one draws anything by putting together a series of perfect lines. Instead illustrators start with simple shapes and think about how those shapes are going to build up to the thing they want to illustrate. Eventually the shapes are connected together via simple lines, and it is only much later that little flourishes and embellishments are made. This process allows the artist to keep the whole image in perspective and make any changes that might be necessary to the overall image as they go along. If they focused on getting just one tiny part perfect before moving on they may find that it no longer fits with the rest of the image and have to start over. That’s the way I see trying to write a book, anyway. Write once, edit twice (or more!).

What software did you use along the way? (I’m trying DevonThink and Scivener. Bookmarks in Delicious.)

I kept things pretty simple. I just wrote in Word and organized the papers and other resources I needed into a nested group of folders on my desktop so I could keep track of everything. Perhaps I will give something like DevonThink a try for my next book.

And what was your daily writing practice? (Always at certain time of day? Always in certain cafe? Warm up exercises? Write on paper, then transcribe into computer? Did you print out drafts along the way for editing?

Writing every day is certainly an important part of composing a book (it is extremely difficult to get your momentum back if you take a break), but I did not employ any special method or technique to help me write. I did not have the time to. My typical weekday consists of waking up before dawn, going to a job entirely unrelated to my writing interests for nine hours, doing chores when I get home, having dinner, and then using whatever time I have left in the evening to write. (I have a bit more freedom on weekends, of course.) If I developed any writing pattern it was only because I tried to make the most of the time I had, and I did not have much time to do any warm-ups or other exercises to get me in the mood to write. I work best when I know I have limited time, anyway, so I think I probably got more work done on weeknights than when I had the whole day to work with on weekends.

I did print out drafts for editing purposes, though. Even though I wrote the book entirely on the computer I found that I tend to skip over things when I have to look at a screen to edit. There was a major difference between what I was able to catch while looking at the screen versus reading the printed out manuscript. The disadvantage of working with a printed out version is that you cannot make changes right away, but, then again, you are forced to just jot down notes and keep going as if it was a real book (it prevented me from getting hung up on transitions or awkward paragraphs since I knew I could not change them right away).

None of this is to say that I did things the right way or that other authors should do just as I did. My answers only reflect the experience I had while writing, and each author has their own style in terms of organization and method. In fact, I may have to significantly change the way I write in order to complete my next book as it will require a substantial amount of travel, so what works for one book might not for another. Even so, composing Written in Stone has taught me much about the writing process, and I can hardly wait to get started on the next book.

David Williams, at Stories in Stone, took a crack at the same questions, and check Michael Welland’s Through the Sandglass for his contributions to this series.

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