Saturday, November 6, 2010

Book authors channel Strunk & White

Robert Lee Hotz, moderator of the panel “Great science writing part II: Building the big book,” introduced the session by announcing, “We’re going to turn ourselves into a living Elements of Style.” Representing five elements were science book authors K.C. Cole (voice), Jonathan Weiner (story), Charles Seife (character), Jennifer Ouellette (structure), and Carl Zimmer (authority).

Cole cautioned writers against becoming attached to one voice. When people know that you’ve written something, she said, “that’s not a good thing.” She suggested trying on different voices, the same way that singers practice in different ranges.

Next, Weiner described the disparity between writers’ and scientists’ notion of story. While scientists seek universal patterns, writers look for a character facing an obstacle. Weaving those two notions together, he says, is a challenge for long-form science writers.

Seife spoke of characters as lamp-posts that illuminate a story and take the reader from one event to the next. He faced an unusual problem when writing a book about the number zero, which spanned more than two thousand years. “I turned zero into a character,” he says, giving the number verbs and a story arc.

Ouellette compared structure to a laser: light by itself radiates in all directions, but a laser focuses and directs the light. While she has several files of book ideas, she says, they sit there until she figures out which structure the story will take.

Finally, Zimmer gave an example of an error in his book The Tangled Bank, which incorrectly refers to one anatomist as Dutch. In "some of my nightmares," he says, people will refer to the book to look up the scientist's nationality. Book writing requires you to become a “junkie” about the subject, he says, and footnotes can show discerning readers that you’ve done your homework.

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