I’ve recently been doing a spot of teaching at Bath Spa University, as part of their publishing programme. I also talked about science writing, prompting a review and refresh of a list I’ve been annotating for years of “how to” books about science writing, and non-fiction writing more generally. There are quite a few of them, so it occurs to me it might be of use to a few other people. No-one would ever read them all, or like them all, but I hope it’s a resource that a writer who is trying consciously to develop could dip into and find one or two useful items to follow up. I’m putting it all up here because science writing is one way of observing science, and the one I’ve thought about most. Feel free to share, and/or let me know if it’s useful, or there are things to add.
PS You can also find a PDF of the post below here.
Some resources for non-fiction writers.
Many people write. Quite a few write about writing. Some of them write criticism and academic analysis. Others write books or articles for writers. As with the more academic stuff, I do not think there is a core set of works which everybody must know. Rather, there is a diversity of things on offer, any of which may be useful to some people, according to taste, temperament and ambition.
Besides, writers learn to write by writing, or by analysing others’ writing with particular care. But you may want to study some of the writings on writing, for inspiration, encouragement, or specific advice. The list below is a resource. Writing is a craft skill which can develops over many projects, and many years, so things listed here that don’t appeal or that you haven’t time for might prove useful one day.
I began compiling this some years ago for science writers. It has been updated, and grown, since then. It might now be more accurately headed “some resources about writing that I like”. I check availability from time to time. Please let me know if there are things listed here that seem impossible to get hold of – or if you find useful writing advice that isn’t listed here.
Elise Hancock, Ideas into Words: Mastering the Craft of Science Writing. Johns Hopkins, 2003.
The best single book I know on science writing and how to do it. Succinct and helpful.
Deborah Blum and Mary Knudson A Field Guide for Science Writers,
Oxford University Press pb. In print, 2nd edition, 2005.
A basic collection of “how to” and practical advice pieces produced for the US National Association of Science Writers; most, but not all of the advice applies to the UK. None of the individual pieces go very far, especially the one on writing books, but some useful bits and pieces to dip into here.
Thomas Hayden and Michelle Nijhuis, The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything you need to know to pitch, publish and prosper in the digital age. (eds). DaCapo, 2013.
Similar to above, but more up to date.
Michelle Nijhuis, The Science Writers’ Essay Handbook: How to Craft Compelling True Stories in any Medium. (2016). Self-published, and pretty good short guide. (94pp, but only £3.50 on Kindle)
John Allen Paulos, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, Penguin.
esp. Section 4, pp133-164, Science, Medicine and Environment.Or read the same author’s Innumeracy. Sometimes the facts we want to use come in numerical form. Getting them right matters. Paulos shows how by discussing what goes wrong. He still writes a regular newspaper column on such things. See http://www.math.temple.edu/~paulos/
J.B.S. Haldane, How to write a popular scientific article. A classic of its kind. Find it in Haldane, John Maynard Smith (ed), On Being the Right Size and other essays, Oxford University Press, and enjoy reading him practice what he preaches.
Roy Peter Clark, Writing Tools – 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. Little Brown, 2006
Writing tips for all occasions, by the writing guru of the Poynter Institute, US journalist training outfit.
Verlyn Kinkenborg, Several Short Sentences About Writing, Knopf, 2012
Original, wise, provocative, and always concise. A shrewd collection of hints and tips for how to get the work done, down among the sentences. Something to dip into when you’ve got some experience with what writing feels like, and want to think about it a bit more, or try some new tricks.
William E Blundell – The Art and Craft of Feature Writing. Signet Paperback (US) 1988. (in print)
A superb book, which treats writing as a process, including much on reporting, and a great deal on structures and how to systematically review aspects of a topic to see all the things which might be written about it. Based on writing coaching for the Wall Street Journal, so focused on feature writing, but no reason not to apply what he says to much longer projects.
William Zinsser – On Writing Well. Harper US paperback. much reprinted.
A classic book on the craft of writing non-fiction. Like Blundell it is extremely well written, and he makes you (me) want to write as well as he does. Has a good chapter on science and nature writing, but offers much more than that. I recommend this one to everyone.
Harold Evans. Editing and Design. Book One: Newsman’s English. Heinemann, 1972.
Part of a five volume series which used to be the industry standard for training journalists. I still have two old copies. However it has been repackaged (with another author, Gillian Crawford) as Essential English – For journalists, editors, writers by Pimlico. Covers basics of journalistic English in classic style. If you can already do this stuff, don’t bother with this. If you need to work up the rudiments of a journalistic style, this is still a good place to start.
William Strunk and E.B. White, The Elements of Style. Many editions. What it says. Distilled wisdom (92 pages). In any good bookstore. Anyone who has not read probably should. Evans (and everyone else) repeat chunks of it shamelessly. On the web at http://www.bartleby.com/141/
Keith Waterhouse. Waterhouse on Newspaper Style. Penguin paperback. Out of print, alas. Originally a style book for Daily Mirror journalists, but great fun (and instructive) for anyone else.
Joseph M. Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, Chicago University Press, 1990. (various updated editions since) An extremely worthwhile update on Strunk and White, with reasons for doing things in certain ways which are informed by modern linguistics. It is not about “literary” style, but about communicating clearly but still has much useful advice on emphasis, tone and rhythm. My personal favourite among style books because it makes so much sense of the way language works on the page.
Donald M. Murray, The Craft of Revision, First published 1991, numerous further editions.
A wise and thoughtful guide to writing as rewriting (and revision as pleasure, not punishment). You’ll be convinced. Well worth sampling whatever kind of writing you are engaged in.
Peter Jacobi. The Magazine Article – How to think it, write it, plan it. Indiana University Press paperback, 1991. Out of print but easily available s/h.
Not a personal favourite. Everything he says is fine, just don’t care for the style. But there is a lot of good stuff in here, especially on structure.
Jon Franklin, Writing for Story: Craft Secrets of Dramatic Nonfiction. New York: Plume, 1994, 2002.
The classic text on how to apply the principles of story writing to non-fiction narratives. A master of structure, Franklin has a formula, and a conviction that human understanding is story-based, which he believes are universally applicable. Whether you buy that or not, he is certainly a writer to learn from, as he learnt from (he says) Chekhov…
Particularly interesting is the annotated version of his Pulitzer-winning feature “Mrs Kelly’s Monster”, in which he tells you exactly what he is doing at each point in the text, and why. This is also reprinted in Friedman, M., Dunwoody, S. and Rogers, C. (eds) (1986) Scientists and Journalists: Reporting Science as News.
Franklin also has a website with lots of his writing http://jonfranklin.com/ But it’s no longer updated.
Theodore Cheney, Writing Creative Nonfiction: Fiction Techniques for Crafting Great Nonfiction, Ten Speed Press, 2001. (out of print, but obtainable)
Comprehensive coverage of matters such as openings, points of view, character development, structures. The latter chapter is particularly recommended.
Lee Gutkind, The Art of Creative Nonfiction: Writing and Selling the Literature of Reality, John Wiley, 1997. A very useful practical and reflective guide by one of the gurus of non fiction writing (especially narrative journalism) in the US. He has a later (2012) book of similar scope which I’ve not looked at.
Gerald Grow, Serving the Strategic Reader – Cognitive Reading Theory and its Implications for the Teaching of Writing, 1994
Quite old now; theoretical; pretty interesting. Summarises a good deal of (then) recent cognitive science. The premise is that writers need to understand how readers decode text, and that we know some useful things about this. The implications are interesting for structure at both macro and micro levels. It sometimes sounds as if what he recommends can only apply to textbooks, but relevant more widely?
Downloadable from here http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED406644.pdf
Mike Sharples, How we Write: Writing as Creative Design. Routledge 1999. A bit expensive, but an entirely general, and fresh look at the writing process – again informed by recent developments in cognitive science and psychology. Useful for the emphasis that there is no one strategy for carrying out a piece of writing. Probably save this one until you have acquired some (a lot?) of writing experience and may want to freshen your ideas about how to go about it.
Peter Elbow, Writing with Power. Oxford University Press (US), 1998.
An older take on the writing process. Again completely general, but useful for anyone who is wondering how to get started.
Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato, Thinking Like Your Editor – How to Write Great Serious Nonfiction and Get It Published. Norton, 2002.
Excellent guide to how publishers treat non-fiction and how to persuade them to buy yours. Written from the US, but pretty much everything applies in the UK.
Robert S. Boynton, The New New Journalism. Vintage Books, 2005.
A collection of interviews with some of the best US nonfiction writers, who tell quite a lot about their methods and habits – creates a strong impression of the personal costs of writing heavily researched non-fiction narratives.
Collection of short “how to” pieces published to inspire entries to a competition.
Compilation of advice from US foundation which supports journalism education. You could spend all day reading these, but then you wouldn’t be writing.
This is a lifetime’s work, and very enjoyable it is, too. I think it is more important in this area than others, in some ways, as popular science writers often re-use one another’s explanations, including metaphors and analogies, for crucial bits they need to get to where they want to be – especially in books.
If you want to short-cut the process, some anthologies to browse:
John Carey, The Faber Book of Science (1995)
“Classic” science writing, much of it historical. Little modern material, even for 1990s. Does stretch to Rachel Carson and Richard Dawkins, though.
Edmund Blair Bolles, Galileo’s Commandment – An Anthology of Great Science Writing. Abacus, 2000.
An alternative selection to Carey, of similar intent. Not sure how Abacus get away with pricing new edition at £20 in pb (according to Amazon)
Richard Dawkins, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing. Oxford University Press, 2008
Latha Menon, ace editor of popular science for OUP had a strong hand in this as well. Commentaries by Dawkins (but no writing of his own). Instead a great selection of recent science writing, with a slight bias toward life sciences. Probably the best of these three collections.
None of the above really show the work of many science writers who are just that. All three editors seem to believe proper science writing is best (only) done by scientists. A useful way to get round this is to browse the annual Best American Science and Nature Writing, which has been guest edited by a different well-known science writer each year since 2000. They are mostly US-published pieces, but invariably a good selection of contemporary science writing. 2016 collection was edited by Amy Stewart, who is not really known in the UK, 2015 by Rebecca Skloot. Editions from previous years are still worth reading (good science writing lasts), and cheap. There was also a near-identical series, Best American Science Writing (no nature), that ceased a few years back. See if you can spot the difference?
Jon Turney, Jan 2017