This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,”where writers (this installment written by David Blockley, author of BRIDGES) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent -- by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.
I have spent a lifetime as a structural engineer, which is another way to say I make buildings, bridges and dams stand up. Like other structural engineers, I get somewhat dismayed when others say engineering is dull, boring, narrow and "techy." (What does that even mean?) So I set out to write a book describing the intellectual and practical excitement of engineering and how it is an integral part of being human. I chose bridges as my topic since not only are physical bridges an obvious part of our infrastructure, they can be beautiful, they can be ugly, and they can be neglected. I have written four previous books but all technical and aimed at other engineers--this one was to be aimed at the general intelligent but non-technical reader. I had to learn a completely new way of writing.
I wrote a proposal and sent it off to publishers and agents. At my 20th attempt, I got a pleasant e-mail from the editor asking me to edit my proposal and resubmit, which I did. The result is Bridges: The Science and Art of the World’s Most Inspiring Structures, published by Oxford University Press, March 2010. The whole experience has taught me some valuable lessons, which I happily share below:
1. Persevere. And to do so, be passionate in your belief that what you are writing about is worthwhile.
2. Pay close attention to feedback--but be robust and try not to take offense. Most criticism has some substance but you have to interpret it in the light of your own view.
3. Find the narrative. This is hard for us technical writers used to writing scientific papers and books aimed at specialists.
4. Find an angle. Mine is: You can learn to read a bridge like a book.
5. Be careful not to sound as though you are talking down to the reader, even if you are trying hard not to. You have to be careful with jargon.
6. If need be, find a non-technical friend who will read and be completely brutal and honest in providing some thoughts on the work.
7. Write and rewrite. Cut down the text to the barest essential flow of the narrative. Always have a potential reader in mind and write for them--trying to connect with how they see a world quite different from your own. Best of luck!
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