Monday, 4 March 2013

I want to write popular science

If this is the expectation, don't bother
Last week I received a rather strange phone call. 'Is that the popular science website?' a female Scottish voice asked. I don't get phone calls for so I rather hesitantly said 'Yes.'

'Do I need a degree to write popular science books?' came the reply. The conversation went on this vein for about 5 minutes. Inevitably afterwards I thought of a key question I should have asked her - 'Why do you want to write popular science books?' But I didn't.

My caller was a member of her local astronomical society, but had no qualifications. So what is the answer? Is enthusiasm enough? My reply had to be rather vague. It was a definite maybe. If you are going to write a book about heavy duty physics, I suspect a degree is the minimum qualification to have a reasonable chance of getting the message right. If, however, you are going to write a book about the joys of stargazing, then it certainly isn't a prerequisite. But that doesn't mean that it's enough to simply want to write a popular science book to do it well.

Anyone can, of course, write such a book and self publish it, or pay an arm and a leg for a vanity publisher to do it for them. But that doesn't mean the book will be any good, or that any one will read it. And whether you go down the self-publishing route or a more conventional one it would be sensible to apply the same criteria that a publisher would in taking a look at your proposal.

They would ask questions like:

  • Why you? You may not have a degree, but what makes you a good person to write this book? What is your experience? What can you bring to it? We need a little more that 'I'm a member of my astronomical society.'
  • Is what you want to write about interesting to other people? You may be fascinated by a ten year study of the brightness of a single variable star, but the audience for such a book would be pretty limited. What is there going to be in your book that will get people interested?
  • Can you write? In many ways this is the clincher. It's easy to think 'Well, anyone can write. I wrote stuff at school.' But there's a world of difference between being able to put words on a piece of paper and being able to get a science topic across engagingly - as many a professor attempting to write a popular book has discovered. This is a particularly difficult one as, frankly, you have little idea of your own ability. Nor do your friends and relatives (unless they work in publishing and are dangerously honest). If possible you need to get an unbiassed external assessment. One way to do this is just to send your stuff off to a publisher and see what happens.*
It's a painful process, but a necessary one.

As I mentioned, I regret I also didn't ask that key question 'Why?' If you want to write a popular science book because you heard Stephen Hawking made millions from A Brief History of Time, forget it. Most popular science books probably earn their author a couple of thousand pounds for a lot of work - certainly less than minimum wage. If it's because you want to get on TV and be the next Brian Cox, doubly so forget it. If you have your own scientific theories (probably proving Einstein wrong) that you know the world would be dying to hear - take a reality check. The world does not want to hear. I would only recommend it if the topic fascinates you and you have an urge to share that fascination - and have a certain talent in getting that excitement and fascination across. You don't necessarily need a degree to write a popular science book, but there are some things you can't do without.

* When it comes to the stuff to send, it is important to get it right. I've a little free downloadable guide on this website that describes the package that should be sent as a proposal.


  1. When people ask me similar questions I say that if you want to write a book, you've got to really, really want to do it, no matter what - it's not a casual whim. Then I enunciate Cromercrox's Two Laws of Authorship. The First Law is that you have to want to write this with a devotion to the cause that verges on the Messianic. The Second Law is that you must be convinced that you, and only you, can write this book. If you feel these laws don't apply then it's frankly easier to go back to stacking shelves in McTesco. You'll certainly earn more money that way.

  2. A tricky one - you may not need a degree to be popular. Nor one to be scientific. But to write in a popular way about a complex subject is indeed hard as you well know.