technical/science writing

How did you write that, Dr. Laurence Steinberg?

laurence-steinberg-249x300You may have heard that publishers want nonfiction authors to have a platform. What is a platform? Well, it’s a confusing concept. (Jane Friedman has one of the best explanations I’ve seen here.) In a nutshell, your platform is your means of reaching readers. Publishers like to know there’s an audience of readers out there who are predisposed to buy what you’ve written.

One proven author platform is professional expertise. If you are a recognized expert in your field, you have the influence and authority publishers — and readers — want to see in an author.

Of course, that means you have to find to time to build up professional experience and write books. Dr. Laurence Steinberg — a Temple University professor of psychology, member of numerous professional organizations, and the author of hundreds of studies and articles for professionals, parents, and the general public — has made the combination work. His latest book, Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, draws on and extends his extensive study of teens and young adults.
age.of_.opp_In this interview you’ll learn:

  • The power of sharing ideas with your network
  • Why you don’t have to know everything about your subject before you start
  • Ways to schedule your time for maximum productivity

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Age of Opportunity?

Laurence: The idea evolved over time. Originally, I planned on writing a book about the elongation of adolescence as a stage of life – in fact, the working title of the book was The Longest Decade. But as I wrote, and through conversations with my agent, Jim Levine, and my editor, Eamon Dolan, I came to see that this was probably not the main point I wanted to build the book around. The fact that adolescence is longer than ever is interesting, but the fact that it is a time of incredible brain “plasticity,” or malleability, is much more exciting, and has many more implications for parents, schools, and society. Unlike the previous books I had written, the narrative of Age of Opportunity changed a lot as I wrote it.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Laurence: I think my work on the project really began when I started searching for a new literary agent. I was emailing with the terrific journalist and author, Jennifer Senior (All Joy and No Fun), who had interviewed me for a piece she was writing about adolescence. I told her what I was thinking about and she encouraged me to develop it into a book proposal. I began emailing agents I was interested in working with, which forced me to put into words the ideas that were just only beginning to gel. I’m sure that if I were to go back to those initial emails, I’d see a very different idea for a book than what I ultimately wrote. Once I decided to sign with Jim (Levine) and started writing a proposal to take to different publishers, he and I began talking and emailing about the book and, as we did, it became clear that the focus of the book should be the fact that adolescence is the new “zero-to-three.” I give Jim credit for that. The next step was developing a final proposal, which is when the outline of the book really took form, although even that changed as I began working with Eamon (Dolan).

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

I’m pretty obsessive in this regard. I write detailed outlines for each chapter and then create folders on my computer that correspond to different sections. Because the book covers a lot of topics I’ve been studying for some time, I knew where to go for the latest research findings. As a professor at a major research university, I automatically have online access to virtually every academic journal that is published. So it was fairly easy for me to find the most important articles published on each topic, download them, and file them on my computer. As I read, I’d discover new leads and follow them up by tracking down articles that had been referenced. Because I’m trained as a scientist, I know how to go through a scientific publication fairly quickly and find the information I need. If I didn’t understand something (some of the brain science was very technical, and I’m not a neuroscientist by training), I’d email the author with questions or ask one of my colleagues. People were amazingly generous with their time. I suppose it helps to be a member of the same “club.”

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Laurence: A typical day of research in connection with writing Age of Opportunity involved a lot of internet “foraging.” I’d come across an interesting paper that raised a point I hadn’t considered, then I’d start searching for more information on the topic. I’d keep at it until I felt that I had gotten a handle on it. I learned so much while working on this book. For example, in one part of the book I needed to explain why the age of puberty had continued to drop, so I started poking around the endocrinology literature. Then I serendipitously discovered a couple of papers from a group of scientists in France showing that kids who live near the equator go through puberty earlier than those who live closer to the poles, and that this had something to do with exposure to light. This then led me into the literature on brain chemistry and how exposure to light affects melatonin production, which in turn affects the production of a substance called “kisspeptin,” which triggers the onset of puberty. One of the factoids I discovered is that kisspeptin got its name because it was discovered in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where chocolate “kisses” are manufactured. So those research days were a lot of fun, and I never knew where the foraging would take me.

I keep a very disciplined schedule when I am actually writing. I tend to do my best work in the morning, so I’m usually at my desk by 7. I always begin by rereading and editing the chapter I’m working on at the time. I start at the beginning of the chapter, no matter how far along I had gotten the previous day, and edit the material again. Then I start writing new material where the old stuff left off. I force myself to write at least 1,000 words of new material a day. Writers have different styles – some are slow and methodical, and their first drafts are very similar to their final drafts. That’s not me. I write very quickly and then do a lot of rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting. I also try to get up and walk around my study a bit every hour or so. When I’ve hit the wall (as long as I have 1,000 new words), I stop and head to the gym. When I get back, it’s usually cocktail hour.

Days when I’m promoting the book vary a lot, so it is hard to generalize. Usually I’ll have a series of phone interviews for live or taped radio, or for podcasts, which have been arranged by my publisher. During the intense period following the book’s launch, I travelled around the country doing a combination of media interviews (some in person, others by phone from my hotel room) and evening lectures.

What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?

Laurence: As I mentioned earlier, the most important tool for me is unlimited online access to scientific journals through my university’s library. My favorite writing tool is actually The New Yorker. I love the rhythm of their good nonfiction pieces, and I try to get that rhythm into my head, almost like a piece of music. It actually doesn’t matter what the topic is — in fact, I try not to read things on topics that are very close to what I’m working on. But during times when I’m writing, I read a lot of nonfiction from that magazine. I also like to read and reread Phillip Lopate’s great essay, “Waiting for the Book to Come Out” during the time between submitting the manuscript and publication.  It helps keep expectations realistic.

Bonus question: You have studied and written extensively about adolescence for forty years. What keeps this subject fresh for you?

Laurence: I find it endlessly fascinating, and there is always new research being published, so there are always new things to think about. Because I still am actively teaching and doing research — and have a textbook that I have to revise and update every three years — I need to stay on top of things. My problem is never a shortage of things that are interesting. It’s that there is always too much to read, and too little time.

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How did you write that, Laura Pazzaglia?

hip_pressure_front_h350-247x300A popular cookbook can sell hundreds of thousands of copies and have a shelf life far longer than that of the average nonfiction book. Laura Pazzaglia, the brains behind the hip pressure cooking site — the go-to spot for all things pressure-cooker related —  has just launched her new cookbook, Hip Pressure Cooking: Fast, Fresh, and Flavorful. How did she write it?

In this interview, you’ll learn:

  • How a popular blog can lead to a book project.
  • How to adjust your vision to your publisher’s reality.
  • How to identify what will make your cookbook different from the competition.

HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Hip Pressure Cooking?

Laura: It all started from the website. Many asked if I had a book, and I noticed a glut of cookbooks for the pressure cooker from non-experts — a couple of the authors had already written cookbooks for the slow cooker or toaster oven, and the pressure cooker was just the next appliance for them. The recipes were uninspired and they really didn’t take advantage of all the great things the pressure cooker can do.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Laura: Well, my first idea was to write a cookbook in a completely different format. I would write 10 master recipes — steps and sequences that could be applied with any ingredient combination — with about 20 variations. The publisher liked the idea of re-inventing pressure cooking but they weren’t ready to re-invent cookbooks, so they shaped and molded my proposal and ideas into a more classic cookbook format.

I was able to include all of the pointers I had in mind for the master recipe at the beginning of each chapter — this turned out to be some of the most valuable information because it turned the book into more than a collection of recipes — it was a reference to pressure cookery.

HDYWT: How do you organize your research?

Laura: Usually when something goes wrong, I get researching. I do all of my research on the internet and I generally look at scientific principles related to the pressure cookers. I don’t look at other pressure cooker recipes because I don’t want to be unduly affected by someone else’s work and I’m usually disappointed, anyway.

For example, after watching a roast go from plump to shriveled minutes after it was pressure cooked, I began to research evaporation. It might not seem obvious for a cookbook, but many of the recipes in the book use techniques that are based on scientific principles — that’s how I come up with some of my pressure cooker techniques. So, back to the roast, when I read a little tidbit about how evaporation happens faster when there is a bigger temperature difference I realized that meat, in general, needs to be opened with the (slower) natural release method and then covered tightly to cool so it doesn’t become tough and dry. I also changed my go-to pressure cooker tomato sauce recipe from using the natural release to use the (faster) normal release to quickly evaporate and reduce the sauce in no time!

HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Laura: I live in Italy and over 80% of my readership is American, so I wake up early in the morning — 4 or 5 am — and check email and social media because it’s late evening/night in the US. Then I organize my plan for the day — will I be writing a bit for the book (working on the next one)? Photograph a recipe for the book? Do some website maintenance?

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox? 

Laura: I use a thesaurus — a lot. Saying the same thing over and over (like how the pressure cooker works) but using different words, angles and voices keeps it fresh and interesting.

 

Friday Nonfiction Five

fire crackersFive on the Fourth: Five quick links of inspiration, how-to, opportunity, or just plain fun.  Got a link you’d like to share? Send a tweet to @emccullough or contact me here

Science writers share their tips for getting sources to open up.

Book revenues are up — and ebooks are responsible.

The rise of ebooks could mean the fall of dedicated ebook devices, though.

If you’re struggling to get started on your project, here are some kickstarting tips from Nina Amir.

The title says it all: How I Wrote 400K Words in a Year.

Friday Nonfiction Five

fiveFive quick links of inspiration, how-to, opportunity, or just plain fun.  Got a link you’d like to share? Send a tweet to @emccullough or contact me here

Researchers, take note: Lisa Peet uncovers a do-it-yourself-digitizing trend.

Want to know more about Neil Swidey? He talked to Nieman Storyboard about writing Trapped Under the Sea.

How to come up with — and follow through on — good nonfiction ideas.

Contest opportunity: The Susan Glaspell Writers & Critics Series at Drake University is accepting submissions of first books of Literary Non-Fiction for its sixth annual Drake Emerging Writer Award.

Are you courageous enough to make the Curiosity Call?

How did you write that, Neil Swidey?

Photo credit: Denise Drower Swidey

Photo credit: Denise Drower Swidey

Deep-sea diving. Waste management. Chemistry. Engineering. Municipal contracts. In his latest book, Neil Swidey brings together all these topics and more into a gripping story about the men and women who made Boston’s vision of a clean, safe harbor come true.

Trapped Under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles Into the Darkness is the product of years of research, countless hours of  interviews, and solid story-telling. After reading this book, I had to know: How did you write that, Neil Swidey?

In this interview, Neil talks about:

  • Where he found his idea.
  • How he organized massive amounts of research.
  • How to write clearly about highly technical subjects.

Trapped Under the SeaHDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Trapped Under the Sea?

Neil: I was at a birthday party for one of my daughters’ friends about seven years ago, and began chatting with a lawyer friend from the neighborhood. When I asked him if he was working on any interesting cases, he mentioned that he had sat in on a deposition for a case involving divers who were sent to the end of an unventilated miles-long subsea tunnel. They had used Humvees for the first part of their journey and then continued on foot the rest of the way. The mission had taken place years earlier, but I was struck by why I had never heard of it. I soon discovered why. It had been overshadowed by the spotlight-dominating story at the time: the plane crash involving John F. Kennedy, Jr. But as soon as I started looking into this tunnel story, I was immediately hooked.

HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?

Neil: I moved from my defense lawyer friend to the plaintiffs’ lawyers who had represented the surviving divers as well as the families of those divers who had been killed. That led me eventually to the surviving divers themselves. None of them had ever before spoken publicly about the horrors they had endured at the end of an unventilated, pitch-black, 10-mile-long tunnel built hundreds of feet below the ocean. So it took a good deal of effort to secure their trust.

HDYWT:  How do you organize your research?

Neil: Chronologically, mostly. I amassed an unholy amount of material as part of my research — not just thousands upon thousands of pages of documents, but also audio tapes, video tapes — documentary evidence of pretty much every kind. To bring some semblance of order to it, I created a series of massive, annotated chronologies, which I updated continually.

HDYWT:  What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?

Neil: Research days were generally exhausting but fascinating — on the move from morning until night, attaching myself to the hip of compelling people. Writing days were generally exhausting but enervating —  a sedentary, solitary and sometimes soul-sapping exercise. But what a feeling of relief and accomplishment when it was all done! Promotion days have sometimes been tiring but have also provided a fantastic opportunity to connect with readers who are passionate about the book.

HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox? 

Neil: J.I. Rodale’s The Synonym Finder, which I find more useful and user-friendly than Roget or any other thesaurus. And like my writing teacher father used to tell me: Use a thesaurus only to help you identify the perfect word that was already hiding out somewhere in the back of your mind. Don’t use it to find a fancy word you wouldn’t otherwise use. (And when in doubt, cross reference with the dictionary —  bound version, not online —  to make sure it truly is the perfect word for the sentence.)

Bonus question: What is your advice for writers who are dealing with highly technical source material? How do you make it accessible for the reader?

Neil: Never pass on fogginess to your reader! Resist the temptation to fall back on jargon in order to hide something you don’t understand. Read your source material multiple times. Find people who are specialists but who are also effective translators, and lean on them for help in clearing up your fogginess.

Also: before you get too deep into your research, and long before you start understanding the field like an expert, write down the basic questions you had at the very beginning. Then, when you sit down to write, refer to that list of initial questions. That will refresh your memory on what seemed most opaque to you at the start, so you can make sure your explanations effectively clear the air.