Clear way to write a social science bestseller

July 1, 2010

Most social science research has no chance of having a high impact because it is written up "appallingly", according to the co-author of the hugely successful book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.

Richard Wilkinson, emeritus professor of social epidemiology at the University of Nottingham, made the claim ahead of the Economic and Social Research Council's Research Methods Festival in Oxford next week.

At a session on maximising the impact of social science research, Professor Wilkinson and co-author Kate Pickett, senior lecturer in the department of health sciences at the University of York, will explain how they set out to write up their findings on the links between unhealthy and unequal societies as lucidly as possible.

"For a book to be successful you have to have a good story, but you can have that and still be ignored," Professor Wilkinson explained. "I had several previous goes at getting this kind of stuff on to the public agenda. My books did reasonably well but didn't take off."

He said that he and Professor Pickett had chosen their publisher, Penguin, because it had the most non-fiction books in the top 100 bestseller lists.

They asked their editor to show them examples of good, accessible non-fiction and took the decision to eliminate all equations from the text and replace many of the numbers on graph axes with generic terms such as "high" and "low", with the full statistics available online.

Professor Wilkinson said that having two authors also helped to root out any obscurities in the prose.

"So much research in social science wouldn't have a chance because it is full of appalling sentences and demonstrates a consistent preference for longer and less common words," he said. "Sometimes I think that part of how people show they are intellectual is by writing in a way that is difficult to understand."

He admitted that luck also played a part in The Spirit Level's success.

"But you have to have done a certain amount of groundwork to be eligible for the luck to strike," he added.

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