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Dissecting the Popular Science Book: What Do Fans Want?

Bill Sullivan (@wjsullivan)

Communicating science has always been a challenge. Scientific discovery is built upon generations of accumulated knowledge that takes years to master. Even experts find it hard to keep pace with rapidly accelerating technologies and increasingly specialized fields.

But the need to communicate science has never been more vital. Rampant science illiteracy jeopardizes health, education, the economy, and progress. Nefarious individuals and organizations have seized this opportunity to build an anti-science empire for profit and political gain. Talented science writers are urgently needed to counter this ominous movement.

A bevy of popular science books is published each year, but very few rise up the ranks to become bestsellers. Imagine a time in the near future where science books dominate the nonfiction lists and their authors are frequent guests on talk shows and news programs. Perhaps we can make this happen if we were able to write more appealing science books.

Which raises the question: What’s the formula for writing good popular science? We asked readers of PLOS SciComm four questions about the art of writing popular science in hopes of improving science communication.

1) Tell us a little about yourself, including how many popular science books you read a year and what genre(s) you enjoy the most (biology, physics, psychology, botany, etc). Feel free to mention your favorite science author(s) or book(s).

2) What makes a good popular science book? (What keeps you engaged)

3) What makes you stop reading a popular science book? (What turns you off)

4) Anything else you’d like to tell authors that could help them write better science books?

Here is how some of our readers responded (some responses were lightly edited for clarity).

SARAH OLSON MICHEL (@SOlsonMichel)

Tell us a little about yourself. Back when I was working at an independent bookstore and regularly reviewing science books for my blog, Read More Science, I usually read one a week. These days I’m focused on other endeavors, so I average about one a month. My favorite books are about history and science with a focus on intersectionality, for example Angela Saini’s Superior and Ainissa Ramirez’s The Alchemy of Us. I also love books about food and plant science, such as those by Michael Pollan (The Botany of Desire, This Is Your Mind on Plants), Daniel Stone’s The Food Explorer, and Deborah Blum’s The Poison Squad

What keeps you engaged when reading popular science? The more the author surprises me with their research, the better. You can tell which authors spent considerable time investigating, reading, and interviewing to find their most interesting stories, and which authors are regurgitating what was easily obtained from the internet. I also really enjoy authors who put a personal touch on their work so that it borders the line between science and memoir. Some great examples of this are Ruby McConnell’s Ground Truth: A Geological Survey of a Life, Riley Black’s Skeleton Keys: The Secret Life of Bone, and Lulu Miller’s Why Fish Don’t Exist.

What should authors avoid when writing popular science? I read and advocate for books that make science accessible to the public – those without specialized training in science beyond a high school education – and my pet peeve is when authors use too much jargon to keep readers engaged. If a book is too technical for the average nonfiction reader to follow, I usually set it aside. I make an exception for my field of study, microbiology, because I consider those books a form of professional development for me. But the books I promote through reviews and social media to readers are books I know anyone can read and enjoy.

Anything else you’d like to tell authors that could help them write better science books? Don’t be afraid to be personal and vulnerable with your readers, something formal scientific writing (i.e., papers for publication) tends to discourage. Science has a reputation for being cold and unwelcoming, and the point of popular science is to make it more accessible by inviting readers into the process of scientific discoveries. The more that authors include themselves and their journey in their book, both the trials and tribulations, readers will feel the humanity and wonder of science shining through the pages. A great example of this is Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, which became a roaring bestseller with non-scientists for a reason.

ANNE JANZER (@AnneJanzer)

Tell us a little about yourself. I’m an unabashed nonfiction writing geek and author of five nonfiction books (on writing and marketing.) In the popular science category, I gravitate to cognitive psychology and neuroscience topics, and books about nature. (I’m on a “marine” kick right now, reading about the abyss, whales, eels, and more.)  I regularly review books by women authors, which often broadens the scope of my popular science reading. 

What keeps you engaged when reading popular science? The ability to explain scientific topics clearly is important, but that’s just table stakes. The authors I enjoy know how to make a deeper connection with me (the reader) by bringing their personal experiences and enthusiasm onto the page. They write to serve the reader’s interests, rather than their own agendas. (“Servant authorship” is my label for this approach.)

What should authors avoid when writing popular science? I’ll put a book down if I feel like the author is writing in a self-indulgent way—which is to say, without respect for the reader’s time, attention, or curiosity. If a book feels boring, it’s usually because 1) the author cannot escape the writing patterns of academia, or 2) the author hasn’t taken the effort to think about what I need to know and how to present it. I’ll happily stay with a book for hundreds of pages (Behave by Robert Sapolsky, for example) if the author respects my time and attention.

Anything else you’d like to tell authors that could help them write better science books? The reader’s curiosity is your ally, so activate it. Use the techniques of great writing—the telling detail, storytelling, great metaphors—to bring your topic to life. And let us sense your personal enthusiasm for the topic. Don’t be afraid to show up as human—it won’t erode your expertise.

CHRIS BOUTTÉ (@TheRewiredSoul)

Tell us a little about yourself. I read hundreds of nonfiction books each year because I love to learn and think deeply about topics from a variety of angles. As a recovering addict with mental health struggles, I primarily started reading books about self-help and mental health to teach clients at the rehab I was working at. Now, my favorite topics involve human behavior and social issues, so I read a lot in the realm of psychology and philosophy.

What keeps you engaged when reading popular science? As a content creator [Chris blogs and hosts a podcast at THE REWIRED SOUL], I’ve learned that we’re all different and people have different tastes, so I know I’m not the arbiter of what’s “good.” Personally, I like books that break down a lot of studies and research results. I think the most important thing any author can do is present the best arguments against their thesis throughout the book. If they don’t, I’m skeptical that it’s just a book filled with bias and cherry-picking. 

What should authors avoid when writing popular science? At a certain point, I realized how many debates there are in science as well as how many studies were poorly researched due to biases, error, or fraud. If an author can’t convince me that they’ve done a ton of research and found peer-reviewed studies, the book feels like a form of propaganda and I question the author’s motives. I also really despise when someone uses anecdotal evidence to argue major issues such as bias, racism, misogyny etc. 

Anything else you’d like to tell authors that could help them write better science books? Think about who you’re writing for and what the purpose is. If you’re just writing a book to play into the confirmation bias of a specific group, you may have a best seller, but you’re not making this world a better place. I know the easy route is to pander and play it safe sometimes, but the best books are ones that teach us something new while also showing the full spectrum of ideas surrounding that specific topic.

ERIN GERECKE (@mulledscience)

Tell us a little about yourself. I typically read about four or five science books each year. Topics vary, and I usually follow recommendations of people I know for good reads. As a biologist, I enjoy reading about nature, interesting scientists, and other biology-related topics. I also appreciate new perspectives in areas that I’m not at all expert in, such as cosmology, mathematics, or the history of science. Insights into past problems and inequities in science are also useful for thinking about how we move forward in our approaches to science in the future. [Erin blogs at Mulled Science.]

What keeps you engaged when reading popular science? I appreciate a well-written book and admire authors who can add creativity or elegance with language or narrative structure. A bit of subtle humor is appreciated, especially if the topic is rather serious. I also enjoy books that transport me to places I’d never go or introduce me to new ideas about science or nature that are unusually insightful, poignant, or concerning. A few photos or illustrations can be very helpful to add context to a key topic.

What should authors avoid when writing popular science? I tend not to keep reading as intently if I’m not learning anything new, or if the writing style is not engaging. I’ll finish almost any book I start, but there are some I set aside and maybe come back to later if I have time.

Anything else you’d like to tell authors that could help them write better science books? A popular science book is not a textbook. It should tell a good story, or a series of them. I enjoy reading science books to hear one author’s perspective on a topic, not just the nuts and bolts of how the world works. In other words, unless it’s specifically a book of amazing photography or interesting science factoids, the book should have a clear argument, limited and well-explained jargon, and a novel distillation of a topic I wouldn’t have discovered anywhere else.

MICHAEL McEVOY (@yovecmm)

Tell us a little about yourself. I am a family doctor, in practice since 1986. I read about 15-20 popular science books per year. I read over a broad array of topics or fields with some emphasis on evolutionary biology, cosmology, the history of science, and general mathematics. Of course, another is clinical medicine and neuroscience. Some favorite authors include Carl Zimmer, Sam Kean, Morris Kline, Marcus du Sautoy, Ian Stewart, Amir Aczel, Sean Carroll [the physics writer], and Sean B. Carroll [the biology writer], Brian Cox, Stephen J. Gould. I must also add David Berlinski, Martin Gardner, Richard Dawkins, and Douglas Hofstadter.

What keeps you engaged when reading popular science? I stay engaged in multiple ways, but narration of some human interest or brief biography is perhaps the strongest method to hold my interest.

What should authors avoid when writing popular science? Too many brief sections. For some almost aesthetic reason, I do not want it to appear like a textbook. Graphs, pictures, and equations are not a problem—in fact, I usually prefer some sort of visual content.

Anything else you’d like to tell authors that could help them write better science books? Within reason, do not worry too much about being out of date. Science is a process—even if the knowledge under discussion has been somehow surpassed since publication, a good science book takes the reader on a journey that is worth their effort. This is of course very true for math and the history of science. A recent example of this point comes to mind with Brian Keating’s work and interest in Galileo’s The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.

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