How to Think Like a Scientist: Taking Stock

For the last several months, I've been poking along on the book-in-progress in a very constrained manner-- basically, I get to work on it in three-hour chunks on Tuesdays when I don't have class (and this term, Thursdays as well). This is, as you might imagine, incredibly frustrating, though I do get some book-related stuff done in the evenings, mostly reading history of science books and the occasional textbook after the kids go to bed.

Other stuff ate up a lot of this week's meager writing time, and next week's going to be a dead loss, as I'll be at DAMOP in Quebec City, then my 20th college reunion. The week after that, though, is our finals week, and after that, I have the summer, when I'll have much more time to devote to writing. So this is a reasonably good time to take stock of what I've got to this point.

This has been a bit different than the other two books I've written, because it's more compartmentalized. The structure calls for four sections, one for each of the four steps of the scientific process, and 3-4 short chapters in each section about everyday activities that demonstrate that aspect of scientific thinking. I've been writing these in more or less random order, because they should be mostly independent, not building on each other the way the dog books did (as they explained a single area of science in detail). My mental target for the chapter length was around 3,000 words, though I haven't been all that good at stick to that, as you'll see.

Here's the current state of things, with word counts from MS Word (yeah, yeah, yeah. It sucks, but it's a publishing industry standard...). Numbers are for the latest complete draft, asterisks indicate chapters that are still actively being revised:

  • Introduction*: 6560
  • Section 1: Looking
    • Collecting: 5008
    • Cooking: 6639
    • Waldo: 3298
  • Section 2: Thinking
    • Sorting: 4503
    • Bridge: 2701
    • Mystery: 3772
  • Section 3: Testing
    • Crosswords: 2990
    • Sports: 6007
    • Baking*: 3432
  • Section 4: Telling
    • Story*: 4449

That's a total of 49,359 words, where my contract calls for... I think 70,000, but I'm not sure. That's farther along than it often feels, which makes me happier. Which was, after all, the whole point of this exercise...

More like this

In the past your biggest problem was to get the word count down to the level they wanted. So assuming that you had about as much to say about this topic as the topics of your earlier books, either you have gotten better at writing concisely, or you have gotten more proactive about editing your content for length.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 31 May 2013 #permalink

The big difference is the nature of the content coverage. In the quantum and relativity books, I had a set of well-defined topics I wanted to cover, and the final word count was whatever was needed to do justice to those. Here, there's not a clear obligation to do any particular thing, which allows for a lot more ruthless trimming to maintain length.

Chad, what I find useful for writing, is to start out by using a basic text editor: TextEdit on Mac, WordPad and NotePad on Windows. These are lightning-fast, stripped-down word processors that don't get in the way of putting thoughts on the page. In .TXT mode, these don't let you do formatting of any kind, but that part comes next.

The second step is to copy & paste my text into whatever "full-featured" word processor I might be obligated to use for whatever reason. And the third step is to edit the resulting document by adding in whatever formatting and "production values" might be needed.