University Research Fellow Dr James Geach shares his experience of writing his first popular science book. From a seed in his mind to the book being on the shelves, James tells us how he did it and how you can too.
In 2014 I published my first popular science book, Galaxy: Mapping The Cosmos. The goal of the book is to give the reader an up-to-date picture of our current understanding of the formation and evolution of galaxies. I wanted to explain not only the science, but also how the state-of-the-art is achieved – how is astrophysics actually done?
Most importantly, I wanted to communicate – to younger readers in particular – that this field, like every active research field, is fast-paced and fluid, full of unanswered questions. Most of those questions (and more to come) will only be answered by future generations of scientists. I hope that my book may inspire one of those people to enter the field, and maybe answer some of those questions.
What made you decide to write the book?
I’ve always been interested in the written word, especially when it is used to explain complex ideas, be that in science or elsewhere. To be honest, I don’t think I am very articulate when speaking about my science; I like writing because it gives me the time to really set out what I’m thinking.
During my undergraduate physics degree, there were relatively few opportunities to develop and hone technical writing skills, bar the odd project report. I tried to remedy this to some extent by enlisting as a roving reporter for the student newspaper, but it wasn’t until I began my PhD that I realised how important good writing is as a fundamental research skill: grant applications, telescope proposals and of course papers all require one to be able to communicate clearly and effectively in writing.
In 2010 I pitched an article idea to Scientific American magazine based on some of my research at the time. They liked the pitch, but wanted it to be a bit broader in scope; this led me to write a feature article called “The Lost Galaxies” (published May 2011) on the topic of missing baryons in the Universe. Now with some bona fide science writing credentials, I had the confidence to approach a publisher with an idea for a fully blown popular science book. My pitch was to focus on galaxies. Specifically, to provide the reader with a clear description of our current understanding of how galaxies form and evolve, the latest research being conducted, and prospects for the future of the field. I felt that no other title in the popular astrophysics canon covered this in sufficient depth. The publisher liked the idea and offered me a contract!
What was the experience like?
Hard. What I discovered was that I am quite spectacularly undisciplined as a writer. In part this is because I also tried to maintain the same level of research productivity while I wrote the book. I found that writing came in intense bursts of a few thousand words a day, followed by periods of inactivity. During the time I was writing the book my first daughter was born, which somewhat put paid to my nocturnal writing bouts, but in a way this made writing shifts more focused, since I knew I had to get a certain number of words done before parental duties called.
At times I thought the manuscript would never be finished, or that it wouldn’t be read, or worse, critically panned! My most nervous moment came when I sent the finished manuscript to three highly esteemed astronomers, including the Astronomer Royal and former President of the Royal Society, Baron Rees, for review. When they sent back positive remarks I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was a wonderful feeling of achievement to finally see the finished product up on the shelves on high-street bookstores.
Has anything changed?
Writing Galaxy taught me a lot. For every line of every page I tried to think how a non-expert would interpret the words. Looking back over earlier drafts, I can see how the text evolved substantially as I furiously self-edited. My mantra throughout was Orwell’s rules for effective writing: never use a long word when a short one will do, cut out words if possible, avoid jargon. These are principles that I have applied to my research writing, and I like to think that my papers and proposals have improved as a result of this experience.
Since it has been published, Galaxy has received really positive reviews, and has now been translated into several languages. It’s a delight to think that my words are being read by an international audience. I’m now finishing off my second book, which I hope will hit the stores in the not-too-distant future!
What advice would you give to other scientists?
For me, writing a book was a bucket list ambition. When I put pen to paper for the first time I asked myself ‘if I don’t do this now, then when?’ So, my first piece of advice is just to go for it – don’t regret not having a go later down the line. It is a commitment though.
Start small. Gain some experience in popular science writing by pitching ideas to popular science magazines, both in print and online. Get in touch with editors and test the waters for a particular idea. If they are interested they’ll invite you to write a longer pitch to be considered by the editorial team. Be prepared for rejection, or to be asked to substantially change your idea. Take criticism on board and adapt.
Keep practicing. When you are sat in a seminar, reading a paper, or talking to colleagues about a technical idea, a good exercise is to constantly think ‘how could I explain this concept to a non-expert?’ Have a go at writing a lay-summary about it in, say, a few hundred words. Yes, those lay-summaries you have to write for grant applications really are useful!
Find a niche that isn’t being exploited in the market. If your ambition is to write a popular science book, your publisher will expect it to be able to compete amongst myriad other titles – many by Big Names – in the bookshop. So do a bit of market research and be prepared to defend how you think your tome will hold its own on the shelf. Be original.
Finally, remember that your most valuable asset is that, as an active researcher at the top of your game, you are one of a very select group capable of writing about your subject in detail and with authority. You have an expert’s knowledge of the cutting edge, and indeed, you are probably sharpening it. Use this to your advantage.