Authors of science books often begin as writers of science news. As a science journalist who is looking to write a book, I’ve become very curious as to how other science journalists made the leap forward. I suspected that the questions that go into books might be different from those that drive newspaper and magazine journalism. With that in mind, I asked six successful science authors what questions they have found themselves asking—of themselves or of their sources—when writing books. Are there essential questions that journalists might not ask but which book authors should? They provided a trove of valuable insights:
Deborah Blum, author most recently of The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer and a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison:
Aside from the obvious things—the difference in rhythm, and pacing, and depth—is that writing books really became my laboratory for thinking about narrative writing. Mostly that’s because when you are writing a narrative book, you find yourself obsessed with how to structure it—how many story lines do I have, how many characters, how many points of view? How do I weave those together? Rebecca Skloot talks about this in her “braided narrative” discussion of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
If you look at The Poisoner’s Handbook, you’ll see that it actually has two different internal structures. One is the chronological narrative of two crusading scientists. The other is an actual handbook of poisons, with every chapter focusing on a different toxic compound or element. And woven through that is the story of the Prohibition era.
All of this has influenced the way I teach writing. For instance, in my magazine writing classes, I always require my students to write using different structures on their blogs—a zipper narrative, a diamond-shaped narrative—so that they can start thinking early about the art of craft of story structure.
David Dobbs, author most recently of Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral and writer of features and essays for The Atavist, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Wired, The Guardian and others.
The questions I ask when writing a book are of two kinds:
First, I ask all the kinds of questions I’d ask writing an article on the same subject—very much the sorts of questions you’ve outlined in your article at Scientific American [CQC: which you can read here].
Second, over months and months I ask another huge string—a pile, a truckload, a Nile of questions—that are hard to characterize outside the context of a particular project. Why? Because these additional questions usually follow from the answers to the first line of questions. Their entire point is to get past that first layer to other, deeper, hidden layers—to many, many., many details about the science (90% of which I won’t use), as well as details and background and motivations of the people in the book (ditto).
I tend to write about science that is pushing the edge of evidence—it involves tensions that I feel are at the heart of science and reveal a lot about why both humankind and individual people get into science. When I wrote about such arguments taking place in the 19th century, I could know how the argument turned out, and getting the science right was relatively easy. It’s a lot harder when writing about cutting-edge science being done today. I’m not here to adjudicate who’s right; that’s not my call—it’s history’s. But I need to understand the science—science that confuses and confounds and divides researchers—well enough to get a sense of how far the more aggressive people are leaning out over the evidence. That’s the tension I’m after, and to know it I need to see all the strands. This is hard, if you’re doing it right, and of course the science is advancing as I study it. It’s a bit crazy.
Anyway, that same difficulty produces tension in the scientists’ lives, and to get that I need to ask them a lot of questions. I ask them questions about the science and about themselves to the point of them getting sick of me, in some cases beyond. I ask questions that seem to have nothing to do with anything—this seems to bother scientists particularly—and I ask questions that I’ve asked before. I do that partly because I may get more information and partly because their thinking might change. (Just last week, someone told me, “Actually I have changed my thinking a bit on that.”) And I want to know them as people, and that takes a lot of questions, both direct and indirect, about where and how they grew up and how they got started and other questions that are better to keep to myself for now.
Take all that together and you can see why it’s hard to name particular questions I’d ask in a book that I wouldn’t for an article: it’s like predicting what you’d be talking about 20 days into a 400-day conversation. It gets detailed. It gets personal. It gets repetitive and also, sometimes because it’s repetitive, it goes places you don’t expect. The questions can seem weird taken out of context.
But they’re also fun. So here are a few questions that I’ve asked various people just over the last month, for instance, as I work on my book about the genetics of temperament. These come from different parts of different interviews; no two shown consecutively here were asked in any given interview.
Is that a real skull?
So just how full of shit are they—like, completely?
How many monkeys we talking about?
Is that thing poisonous?
These guys jump out of airplanes at night at 10,000 feet into combat, and they’re scared to swim?
In what sense is the science getting too far in front of itself?
Would a really big canoe impress you?
So in three months he went from being a disorganized jerk to a focused machine. What changed?
What do you mean when you say you still feel a “cautiously optimistic vaguely skeptical pessimism?”
How did she do it?
So is gene expression a downstream trait—or is it the stream?
I want to make sure I have this: the frogs with the longest legs migrated farthest and fastest, to make a migratory wave-front; mated with other long-legged frogs at the front; and so over generations the frogs at the front became even more longer-legged. Right?
Five minutes ago you said geneticists don’t like to talk about ‘why’—but you just did. Why?
Wait: The truck actually took you all the way from Ohio to Miami, then broke down at the end of the exit ramp? Like the very end?*
These are the kinds of questions I get to ask. This is one of many reasons I love my job—and why it’s often hard, especially when writing a book, to stop asking questions and write the damned book. You know there’s more gold out there—and all you have to do to get it is ask the right question.
*The guy whose truck broke down, by the way, said it did indeed break down at the very end of the exit ramp, and he rented an apartment in a rundown apartment house right by the exit ramp and carried his stuff over. The answers to the other questions, in order, were (usually paraphrasing): Yes; Completely; 49; Not any more; Some of them are; It’s complicated; Definitely; “He grew up.” “Just what it sounds like.” [Too distressing to relate here]; Both; Right; I didn’t.
Matthew Hutson, author of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane and onetime news editor at Psychology Today.
One question that I pushed myself to answer while writing my book about magical thinking was, “How has writing this book changed me?” (One answer that I offered in the epilogue was that without sacrificing my skepticism, I’ve tempered my cynicism.) This is not the type of question you normally ask yourself when writing a blog post or news story, and often not even while writing a feature. But when you give your life over to an investigation for a period of years, it’s going to change you. And the reader wants to know how the journey has affected the narrator, who to some degree is also the protagonist.
Here are some suggestions for good questions:
a) Who are the main characters in this story? What happens to them?
You can write a non-fiction book that is mostly polemic, if you want. And you can write a non-fiction book that is really a collection of mostly unconnected essays. But those books aren’t as enjoyable to read as a book that tells a story through the eyes of a character. Basically, you don’t just want to write a book, you want to tell a story. And to do that, you have to ask yourself some questions about what the key narrative events are and whose journey this is going to be.
b) Why does this topic need to be a book?
Not everything does. When I read non-fiction books that are dull or tedious or that don’t feel like somebody telling me a story, it’s usually because the author had something important to say, but didn’t need 85,000+ words and a storytelling format to explain it to me. You will have some key points that you’ll have to make—if your book had an “executive summary,” this would be it. But there should be something going on beyond that executive summary material. There should be a reason for me to read the whole book, not just the executive summary. Asking, “Why do I need to write a book about this topic, as opposed to a long feature, or a short feature,” is a really good place to start.
I transitioned from being a newspaper reporter to writing books and magazine pieces, and shortly afterward, blog posts as well. The most important questions for me were, “What do you uniquely bring to this subject, and what do you have to say about it that can’t be said by someone else?” These were hard questions for me to contemplate, because as a straight news reporter I’d been trained to not offer an opinion. (In fact, [I was trained] to keep myself out of the story as much as possible). I had to learn that, to make a book worth a reader’s time, I had to go beyond straight news reporting into interpretation and, I guess, active curation—that is, letting the reader into my POV and making my thought process visible. I still struggle with this.
Carl Zimmer, author most recently of Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed and writer for The New York Times, National Geographic, Time, Scientific American, Science and Popular Science, among others.
I guess the one big question I ask with a book is “What is the history of this story?” There isn’t space in a news piece to get into history, which is unfortunate, since the effect is an impression that new scientific research just pops out of the void. It’s much more interesting to trace the whole saga, and books provide the space in which to do so.
Guest contributor Charles Q. Choi has written for Scientific American, The New York Times, Wired, Science and Nature, among others. In his spare time, he has traveled to all seven continents, including scaling the side of an iceberg in Antarctica, investigating mummies from Siberia, snorkeling in the Galapagos, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, camping in the Outback, avoiding thieves near Shaolin Temple, and hunting for mammoth DNA in Yukon. Follow Charles on Twitter @cqchoi.