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Jenn: How does one write an INTERESTING and NOVEL textbook?

I’ve just spent 36 nearly consecutive hours writing two long and technical chapters on volcanoes. I’m almost happy with them, though I’d like to add another “rough” to my earlier statement that I’m writing rough rough drafts. There’s so much more to do, but I really think this schedule thing works for me where I write on each topic the day(s) after I lecture. The irony was that as I wrote about convulsing underground magma chambers spewing out volumes of lava and ash while I cared for my mostly sleeping daughter who was afflicted with a nasty stomach virus. I typed frantically through the night, aided by six cups of coffee, hoping to finish before I caught the bug. A film in class on Tues and thus a respite from this project. Tsunamis on Friday, I’ll spend the weekend writing up that chapter (should be simple and straightforward) and then I’ll go back and start polishing these first nine chapters with a goal to get them all to my editor by 3/10.

My reward, the thing that keeps me going, is this blog and reading what you all have written – the rat pellet treat reward of writing is logging on. I hope all of you are finding this site as motivating as I am, though I feel like an oddball because I’m not taking creativity to the heights that all of you are. I mean, how creative can you be in an introductory science textbook? How many ways can you present lava chemistry?

I’d LOVE to hear if anyone has any ideas on this. I have four would-be competitors, and my doctoral advisor has told me I can make this work only if I have a new, novel approach. I would like to lean towards yellow journalism and sensationalism, but my peers and reviewers are staid old white males who have dogmatic and conservative ideas on the way things should be. I have ideas on writing an interest box in each chapter on Hollywood films (Twister, Deep Impact, The Day After Tomorrow) that deal with each subject and tease out fact from fiction, but I dont’ know a thing about getting copyrights to movie posters or images, and I’m guessing I don’t *want* to know what’s involved.

The textbook is entitled Natural Disasters and Catastrophes. I once reviewed a Physical Geology textbook (holy market saturation, batman) and the author purported to present the material in a new, applied approach. I blasted him by saying essentially, “Guess what? You didn’t.” Payback time? I also want to, as much as possible, make the students feel like they are living through each catastrophe. Instead of reading, “Ms. Maria Ruiz awoke at 8:32 AM on May 12, 1981 and smelled sulphur,” I want to write, “You’re laying in your bed, and shortly before your alarm is due to go off, you start having this dream you are being choked. You wake up and realize the air is filled with a noxious odor…” I don’t know how that is going to work? Any ideas would be MUCH MUCH appreciated.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. In the local paper last week, there was an article about a local physics teacher who just published a book based on his in-class lectures. Basically, he teaches physics by showing kids clips of Hollywood movies and then showing them how impossible the scenes are according to the laws of physics. Apparently, he has students eating out of his hands. I could try to find that article for you if you’d like to read it.

    I once taught in a private school for gifted children, and the year I taught 6th-7th grade, my class was all boys, and the majority had been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD. I found that they did much better with a very hands on approach to everything. I was constantly doing projects with them– we made solar ovens, we made cars out of soda cans, we made an edible landfill, etc… These were the sorts of things that really captured their attention and their understanding of the subject matter. My suggestion in writing a textbook is to tie it into classroom projects, tv clips, comic strips, things on the internet, that sort of thing.

    Heck, tie it into stuff on You Tube, like the guys who do the Mentos Fountains with mentos and soda. I can picture a portion of the book where they have to look that up online and then discuss the science behind why it works.

    February 4, 2008
  2. A couple of thoughts. One is very general, which is to find what you are passionate about in the subject and try to touch that place inside whenever you are writing. Or, when you are rewriting (since we so rarely get it right the first time), think about whether you’ve captured the “wow” factor you or your students tend to feel about the subject.

    More specifically, I do like your idea of drawing the reader into the event by using second person. In text books and other learning material, I am also a big fan of:

    – Case studies
    – Vignettes
    – Examples (i.e., first explain the methodology, then apply it in an example)

    I’ve found, both as a reader and a writer, that the more it reads like a story, and the more passion and enthusiasm the author brings to the topic, the easier it is to read and learn from.

    If you find you are writing about the same topic over and over in different ways, you may have a structural problem. Perhaps you need to provide, say, a survey of lava types up front, and refer the reader to that chapter if necessary.

    February 4, 2008
  3. First off, congrats on the HUGE accomplishment of writing so much. WOW! And with a sick kid in tow. You rock girl!

    Secondly, ideas. Hmmm. This one I might have to think on (wait til Wednesday, I drive into the office, and boy do ideas have a way with coming to me when I drive). But *I* always love personal stories. Love them! Human interest I guess and that is what brings me to read the whole thing.

    OR a good mystery. Have some weird unsolved mysteries in the natural disasters and catastrophies? I mean, newscasters spend days on trying to *solve* why these disasters happen? Maybe that is an angle you can go with. Or maybe myths and old legends about all of the volcanoes and things you cover. Try to uncover the tribal myth (think mythbusters).

    I know I am spewing nothing… but hoping maybe this triggers something for you to go on Jenn. Please tell us how it goes!

    February 4, 2008
  4. I would suggest you read the 9/11 Commission report. They did an amazing job writing from the POV of the victims – not a typical federal report at all. Dennis Smith’s Report from Ground Zero is similar. I also highly recommend Sebastian Junger’s writing. He does an excellent job (esp. in The Perfect Storm) of seamlessly integrating scientific facts and the victims’ stories.

    What you want to focus on are the 5 senses. You touched on it a little in your example – that’s what writers mean by “show, don’t tell.” 🙂

    And if you need a critique, let me know. Part of my business is copyediting, and even if I can’t do it, I can recommend a few great people who can. 🙂

    February 4, 2008
  5. All good advice above–if your approach is to go for the story, you’ll hook your readers–and I would willing to guess, blaze a new trail in the textbook field as well. As Christa points out, focusing on the five senses creates immediacy–and the more your readers are able to imagine THEMSELVES in your story, the more engaged they will be.

    When I first read your sample teaser (“You’re laying in your bed, and shortly before your alarm is due to go off…”) I immediately thought of Encyclopedia Brown, those old choose-your-adventure books! (If you try to outrun the lava, flip to page 342…”)

    February 5, 2008

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