Right now, I’m reading Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. And since it could just as easily be titled “How to Understand Astrophysics” for how it’s been presented and marketed, we’re going to use it to illustrate this week’s Writing Rule.
Now, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry was a book I was really, really looking forward to reading – as a few previous Innovative Editing blog posts may have possibly indicated back when we were talking about science nonfiction.
But sadly, since actually starting it, my opinion has changed. Drastically.
Now, I understand that Neil DeGrasse Tyson is literally a rocket scientist. Which is a big deal. But just because you’re a rocket scientist doesn’t mean you know how to write a book in general. And it certainly doesn’t mean you know how to write a how-to book specifically.
Case in point… Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. To understand why it’s a case in point (or probably so), let’s first go to our actual Writing Rule:
By the time they’re done reading, they should understand the subject matter you wrote about.
Do your readers have to be experts by the time they’ve flipped the last page? No. And they may never be ready to physically, professionally or technically delve into the world you’ve chosen to expound on.
But they should still be able to have interesting conversations about it. They should be able to correct common misconceptions. And they should be a whole lot more knowledgeable than before they began.
Now, the reason why I had to put “or probably so” into that Writing Rule introductory statement was that I haven’t finished Astrophysics for People in a Hurry yet. I’m only four chapters in. So who knows, Neil DeGrasse Tyson might turn the whole thing around by the time the last chapter closes.
However, as far as I’ve seen it now, I don't see that happening. I want to edit the whole thing. Here’s the book’s two biggest flaws so far:
It introduces concepts as fact when there is no actual fact – only speculation – to back them up.
It introduces language that it expects readers to understand instead of providing even the slightest explanation for said language. (Maybe it’s trying to confuse people further so they don’t question the speculation in fact’s clothing?)
Those are pretty big deals for any kind of a how-to book. In fact, I’m probably going to have to read Astrophysics for People in a Hurry a total of three times (making it "Astrophysics for People With Plenty of Time") in order to fully appreciate it for what it’s worth – which, at this point, I don’t think is very much.
Believe it or not though, none of this is meant to merely trash-talk the book or author. It’s simply to encourage you not to fall into the same traps when writing a how-to book. Which means you have to keep the following in mind:
Just because you’re very or even exceptionally knowledgeable about a subject doesn’t mean your readers will be. In fact, if you’re writing a how-to book, chances are high they won’t be exceptionally knowledgeable about it. So use appropriate language to be clear and concise.
Along those same lines, know who your target audience is. If the title of your book is "Astrophysics for Astrophysics Majors in Their Junior or Senior Year of College," then you can forget having to dumb it down to anyone who doesn’t automatically understand the current premises that astrophysics is based on.
Just because you’re very or even exceptionally knowledgeable about a subject doesn’t mean you’re supremely knowledgeable about it. Double-check your supposed facts and figures before you publish them.
Otherwise, you haven’t really written a how-to book. It belongs in a completely different genre altogether.