Dr. Fred Writer's Links


Institute of Children's Literature Chat Transcript
Thursday, August 16, 2001

"Finding Your Niche in Children's Science Writing" with Alfred Bortz (aka Dr. Fred)

Moderator is Kristi Holl, web editor for this site and author of 24 books and 150+ articles. She also taught writing for children for 15 years.

Dr. Fred is Ph.D. physicist and children's writer Fred Bortz. For an extensive look at Dr. Fred's published work, explore his fascinating web site at www.fredbortz.com. Fred teaches writing in the Master of Arts in Children's and Adolescents' Writing (MACAW) program at Chatham College, Pittsburgh, PA, where he also teaches undergraduate physics and works with K-12 science teachers pursuing Master's degrees.

Names color coded in blue are viewers who had questions.

Interviews are held on Thursday nights for two hours beginning [9 CANADA/Atlantic], 8 Eastern, 7 Central, 6 Mountain, and 5 Pacific.

Moderator: Good evening, everyone! Great crowd tonight! Welcome to tonight's scheduled interview with Alfred Bortz, better known as Dr. Fred, who will be talking to us about finding your niche in science writing for young readers. I hope you've already checked out his web site. If not, you'll want to do that as soon as our interview is over. I'm Kristi Holl, your moderator, and it's my pleasure to introduce Dr. Fred. Welcome!

Dr. Fred: Hello, everybody. Kristi tells me that we have enough people that I might have to take my socks off to keep track!

Moderator: Yes, it's a good turnout! Fred, how did you get started writing, and how did you come to specialize in science writing?

Dr. Fred: I came to specialize in science writing for an obvious reason. I've been a professional scientist for a long time. But there's a less obvious reason, too. I've been a scientist all my life, probably from when I first began thinking about the world around me.

Moderator: With your science writing, did you "find a need and fill it"? Or do you fit into publishers' already established plans and series?

Dr. Fred: I've never been a find-a-need-and-fill-it person, although I must admit that's a surer way to get sales or assignments. I think most writers are more like me in that we write from a compelling interest for an audience we value enormously, and then we hope we can find editors who will buy our work.

Moderator: Anyone visiting your web site for kids is struck by your passion for your various subjects and projects. Is this passion for science important?

Dr. Fred: It is for me. The best writing derives from a passion. Sometimes I feel as if I'm so wrapped up in the passion that nothing else matters. Then I kick myself back to humanity because if my passion crowds out my humanity, it leaves no room to connect with my readers.

Moderator: Do we need degrees in the scientific field to write science or nature articles? Or would enthusiasm and a willingness to do research be sufficient?

Dr. Fred: Add knowledge of the field, however you have gained it, and I think you have the recipe right.

Moderator: How do you find time to stay "on top" of all the current scientific developments so you can write in the science field?

Dr. Fred: No one can stay "on top" of all current science, but I'm always on top of a few subjects that are most interesting, and I keep aware of others that I might want to read about to catch up if I have something to write. One of the advantages I have as a freelance writer is the opportunity to accept book review assignments. That always produces some surprises. If you live in the Milwaukee or Dallas area, you'll see a review of THE SECRET LIFE OF DUST. I never would have read it, but it has some interesting pieces of information -- and is ideal for my trademark addition, a limerick.

Steve: I'd like to write a science book for young readers, but every time I think I'm done with research, there's another discovery. By the time the book would come out, even if it sold today, wouldn't it be outdated? How do you handle that?

Dr. Fred: Hi, Steve. Great question. If you go to my web site, you'll notice that I have update areas for a couple of my books. But I also need to avoid writing something that will be completely overtaken by events. I try to include a forward looking section whenever I can. As an example that I'm particularly proud of, in CATASTROPHE! I have a chapter on nuclear reactor accidents. I point out that the argument is likely to pick up again if the world energy situation or the world political situation changes. That was written in 1994-5. Recently, with trouble in the Middle East and an energy crunch in California, the topic of nuclear energy popped up as predicted. Of course, it popped right back down again -- at least this time.

Leesid: Do you ever write science fiction?

Dr. Fred: Hi, Leesid. No, I don't, but not because I have anything against the genre. I just think the real world is full of amazing things to write about. Who could make up that stuff?

Moderator: Is your research on the Internet at all?

Dr. Fred: I used the Internet extensively in two ways. In MARTIAN FOSSILS ON EARTH?, I was writing about a topic -- possible signs of ancient fossils in a meteorite from Mars -- that was hot and new. My book came out 13 months after the NASA news conference. For that book and one other, COLLISION COURSE!, which came out this year, I also went looking for images. I found more than half of them by surfing, and the other half by tracking down images in books and magazines I had read.

christine collier: Dr. Fred, my family and I heard the meteor that went over a few weeks ago. I mean our house shook so badly we thought something had hit it! Would there be an article in that for me or have meteors been done too much now?

Dr. Fred: Hi, Christine! I was just in Corning speaking at the Museum of Glass and people were talking about it. In the scheme of things, that was really a pretty common event, so it is probably better for background in your writing. For instance, you could use it in a novel.

Andy1066: Hi, Dr. Fred. Do you think it's important for young readers to understand vocabulary such as hypothesis, independent variable, dependent variable and control?

Dr. Fred: Hi, Andy. I don't think it's necessary to teach the vocabulary of the scientific method. I usually speak of following questions and keeping an open mind about what you see or observe in other ways. I don't always get along with educational theorists, as you might guess from my comment, but I get along fine with teachers because we share the same objective for the kids.

SaraJ: What about science books for the very young? I have seen board books about insects and birds, or books with maybe 50 words or less. Is there a market for this type still?

Dr. Fred: Hi, Sara. I'm not sure what segments of the market have wider windows than others right now. As I said earlier, I don't try to fill a need that I see in a market announcement. I just write what I think needs to be written for an audience who I think wants to hear about it. If you can tell a story in 50 words, then you have a talent that people will probably pay for. The story can be true or made-up, but I prefer true ones.

AnneKelly: Dr. Fred, when writing articles, do you supply a glossary?

Dr. Fred: Hello, Anne. It depends on the publication. I have glossaries in my books, and I've had some magazine add little characters in the margins to define a word or phrase.

Granny Janny: Have you done any research on the crop circles or is that just a hoax?

Dr. Fred: Hi, Granny. This Grampa is sure that they are hoaxes.

ClaraRose: How much "story line" does a nonfiction science book need in order to sell?

Dr. Fred: Hello, ClaraRose. Again, the answer depends on the publication. I usually end up including a story, because that's my style. Although sometimes the protagonist is a bit abstract, like the Earth or ecology.

Jenny: Dr. Fred, when submitting an article do you always include or need a query?

Dr. Fred: Hello, Jenny. Again, it depends on what the publishers request in their guidelines. I guess I'm sounding a bit like a broken record. (That's technology that predates most of you.)

AnneKelly: Do you write for children of all ages?

Dr. Fred: I have been gradually moving younger. My first books were for teens. Two of my last three were for upper elementary. I have a picture book under contract, but it may not make it (long story) and I just finished my first of what I hope will be a series of "Ask Dr. Fred" columns for the new ASK magazine for ages 7-10. You'll see that in the second issue of the magazine around March.

ClaraRose: How do you recognize when you are too passionate about a subject (not enough "human connection") and how do you fix it?

Dr. Fred: That's a toughie. I think I just recognize when I'm not talking to anyone but myself. When I'm visiting a school (http://www.fredbortz.com/daywith.htm) I can see it in the kids' eyes before it's too late.

AnneKelly: Do you base the age you write for on your subject? Do you think of a topic and then figure out which age group it would best fit?

Dr. Fred: That's a question that comes up in several guises. Is there an age for which a particular subject is best suited? I think it's possible to stretch the age range quite a bit. If the kids of a particular age are interested, then there is clearly a way to tell them more. Sometimes, a kid comes up to me after my talk and blows me away with the depth of his/her understanding. The harder thing is to convince an editor that the subject works for that age. I just went through that on my "Ask Dr. Fred" column, where I persuaded a skeptical editor that I could discuss the main point about the "ozone hole" and make it work for 7-year-olds. The trick was, I talked about how a good neighbor cleans up his/her mess, even when it happened unintentionally.

Nell: Is there an advantage to have the general science curriculum of the various age groups in mind when writing science articles/books, or are school curriculum topics overdone?

Dr. Fred: Hi, Nell. If you can do that, you have an advantage, especially for a particular market segment. I just have to follow my interests and let the editor define the match. I don't recommend that to others, but I do recommend being true to yourself, and that's just the way I work best, so I roll with it.

Moderator: Do you have your mss. critiqued? If so, by whom and for what? Do you recommend that science writers have their work critiqued before submitting?

Dr. Fred: Yes. I don't hire an outside expert like an editor would, but I usually allow the scientists I have contacted during my research check to see if I got the science right. If you have a major question, then you probably haven't finished your research, but you may need to clarify something. Most of the time, I'm pretty expert, but I still want the publisher to send it out to a fact checker or concept reader.

Moderator: How can you tell what scientific concepts are appropriate (and not too hard) for a particular age level? (Is it, perhaps, in the publisher's guidelines?)

Dr. Fred: I'm not very good at that. Some people claim they can match concept to age, but I've seen too many places where they are dead wrong. Those examples I cited a bit ago might tell you why.

red2: Would it be appropriate to write a science article on, say, a subject that interests my son, or should the science articles be left to the science experts?

Dr. Fred: Hi, Red. Are you saying that you haven't become expert enough to write about it? Or are you saying that you are UNABLE TO become expert enough to write about it? In the second case, leave the article to someone else, but in the first case, get out there and research it. If your son's interest sparks your passion and you are writing for him, you are probably also writing for a whole audience of kids like him, and an editor could recognize that in your query or manuscript.

Andy1066: Dr. Fred, what about writing about great scientific discoveries? Is that overdone?

Dr. Fred: There is often a fresh angle that fits the time or a bigger picture. In that case, the greatness of the discovery may only now be becoming apparent. In some books for adults, people are revisiting Mendel's peas and arguing over its greatness.

christine collier: Dr. Fred, have you ever had a true difference of opinion about some aspect of science with your editor or publisher?

Dr. Fred: Yes, and that's when the fun begins. I love the interplay between two people who each care about a manuscript and want to bring out its best. You'll see the result of a spirited but never acrimonious discussion in my first "Ask Dr. Fred" column in ASK next March.

spalted: An article on making music from many recorded sounds by my students is underway, but would it be considered scientific?

Dr. Fred: It could be. The best science articles touch on other areas, I think. Harmonies and rhythms, perception --- these are a few possibilities for science within the music.

Moderator: Among other things, there's an excellent weather site link at your personal web site where readers can find a LOT of extra information on that topic. How did that come about?

Dr. Fred: There's a human story behind that. I had a wonderful collaborator on DR. FRED'S WEATHER WATCH, Dr. Marshall Shepherd, a NASA meteorologist who finished second in the Georgia state science fair with a project like the one I have in the book when he was in sixth grade. Those are Marshall's links, with some updates as he and I discover them.

Moderator: How important is your personal web site to your niche in science writing?

Dr. Fred: I've been working on a "persona" that is an accurate reflection of who I am and how I think. The web site has brought "Dr. Fred" to life in a way that I never could have imagined. My bow ties are a bit of "shtick" that emerged, and I have great fun with them now. Kids pay attention better, I think, when they know I'm not overly serious about myself.

Moderator: Fred, I am very "science challenged," and in case any of our viewers are like me, I'd like to cover some BASIC basics. What exactly is science writing? Physics? Chemistry? Biology? Outer space? Earth science?

Dr. Fred: Well, I don't think we have enough space to define all the different branches of science. The best I can do is say that science is a frame of mind, a way of thinking and observing, a quest for understanding. I hesitate to say a quest for truth, because science needs to be open-minded about the meaning of new discoveries. Something can be true, as far as we understand it, but can be not quite true when we learn a little more.

Moderator: What if a writer loves a certain kind of science (natural, physical, chemical, whatever) but has no degrees. Can this science enthusiast or hobbyist find a niche in the science field of writing? If so, how?

Dr. Fred: Amateur science has a long tradition. David Levy, for example, is a science writer, but he is now known best as a comet hunter. I guess that happens when one of "your" comets just happens to smash into Jupiter. Levy was an amateur comet hunter. Amateur geologists and amateur paleontologists are responsible for many important discoveries. In short, you don't have to be a professional to be an expert. In fact, a professional doesn't always have the opportunity to pursue a passion like an amateur does. As a science writer, I'm exploring topics that I would never have been able to look at had I stayed in my "day job."

Moderator: Would you suggest writing on many topics, but stick to one specific age group, or taking a specific topic and writing many books and articles for various age groups?

Dr. Fred: That's a matter of personal inclination. I try not to go too far afield, but I certainly enjoy wandering away from my most recent path. I'm heading for the global warming these days, and I'm finding the political aspects almost as fascinating as the scientific ones.

Nell: If you have no post-secondary science training, would editors of science books take you seriously? Would they consider your manuscript on an equal footing with other ms., especially if the research and writing were strong?

Dr. Fred: Nell, I think we need to distinguish between FORMAL training and knowledge. One of my favorite children's science writers is Patricia Lauber, whose formal training is in English, but Pat is a superb researcher as well as a lyrical writer. No one will turn her down because of lack of knowledge. They know she'll research the topic and present it wonderfully.

Moderator: About selling in the scientific field: is it always with a query for articles and outline for books?

Dr. Fred: That's the usual pattern, but some magazines want the full article. I've reached the point that I can submit an annotated table of contents, but most book editors want writing samples from authors they don't know.

Moderator: Writers sometimes feel, after doing much research, that they are just rewriting someone else's information, almost plagiarizing. Is that true?

Dr. Fred: No, but I understand the feeling. If you find that one source dominates, then you need to worry about plagiarizing. Normally, you need to have a unique way of looking at the collected material. Then, you won't be plagiarizing, but rather interpreting the information for your readers.

Moderator: How do you blend the science facts so that you have an interesting "read" and not just dry facts?

Dr. Fred: I try to make the readers respond to the facts. For instance, when I speak to kids, I often ask them to remember the first time they saw elephants. I get them to think about the ears, the trunk, the tail, the gestation period, facts all, and then I add this question that they might not think of asking: How much poop do the zoo keepers have to clean up each day? Now that's a question of fact that gets a strong reaction!

Moderator: I can imagine! Fred, we hear a lot about "creative nonfiction," or using fictional story techniques to write more interesting nonfiction. Does that term apply to science writing? If so, how?

Dr. Fred: I suppose it does. I guess I even write it. But I'm never one for following the trends, so this is best addressed by others.

Moderator: I am thinking of books like your COLLISION COURSE: COSMIC IMPACTS AND LIFE ON EARTH, which to me is very suspenseful. I got caught up in the story of it.

Dr. Fred: Thanks! I guess I do set the tone with a true story of a very lucky Friday the thirteenth. I have that on my web site if viewers want to follow the links to the book and read the sample (Preface).

Moderator: Many people travel, visiting mountains and caves and the ocean, taking pictures along the way. Can these "travelogue" science trips sell to publishers?

Dr. Fred: I think they need to be connected by a theme of some sort. You need to be guiding the readers to an intellectual destination, not just a physical one. I happen to love photo essays, so I would encourage our visitors to think about bringing their vacation to life.

SaraJ: What do you mean by "guiding the readers to an intellectual destination"?

Dr. Fred: Let me tell you about a story I heard on my last vacation. My wife and I visited Harpers Ferry WV, where there is a wonderful national park at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers. There, a park ranger told us the story of John Brown's raid, pointing in the direction of the various important sites. When he finished, we didn't know if John Brown was a hero, a zealot, a madman, or a murderer. The story left us with an open question, and that IS the story of John Brown. The questions live on until today. That was a wonderful intellectual destination, as we walked along the river shores.

Moderator: What about finding photos, Fred? Do you find them for your science books? Or does the publisher take care of that?

Dr. Fred: It depends. I generally leave the final selections to the publisher, unless I feel that I have a particular insight into the way I want the images to tell the story along with my text. In MARTIAN FOSSILS ON EARTH? and COLLISION COURSE!, I chose all the images except the covers, and I'm pleased to say that COLLISION COURSE! got superb reviews of both words and visual appearance!

Nell: Are there web sites which offer science photos as article illustrations? If so, does one need to get permission to use them?

Dr. Fred: I often use other published versions to point me to photos or drawings, but then I need to go to the same source that the other publication did. The biggie is Corbis, but they tend to be expensive for the ones you really want. In science, however, you can find great public domain images. NASA, USGS, NOAA, etc. If you send me an e-mail from my web site, I'll be able to find the URL of a particularly rich NASA site.

Moderator: Do you know of some good resources for (not too expensive) photos?

Dr. Fred: Is $0 cheap enough? The government sources are free with a few minor exceptions. In MARTIAN FOSSILS, some of the photos I want were prepared by contractors, and they were not quite free, but not too expensive. Others were published in SCIENCE, when then owned them and charged a modest sum.

Moderator: If you're not an expert in the field, but you know of a scientist or science instructor who could write your "Forward" or "Introduction," would that help sell your idea to a publisher?

Dr. Fred: I don't think it helps sell the proposal, but it might help sell books when it comes out. But it has to be a really big name before it matters.

Moderator: Should you have an expert in the field you're writing in read your ms. for errors (not a critique, but a fact checker) before submitting to a publisher?

Dr. Fred: No. The publisher will hire a fact checker. Your job is not to make a blunder so serious that it clearly demonstrates your poor grasp of the subject. Good research prevents the problem.

red2: I am also "science challenged". Are there any favorite books that you would suggest that might give some inspiration?

Dr. Fred: I have used one of mine in several different college courses. TO THE YOUNG SCIENTIST is a set of in-their-own-words profiles that helps my students understand how scientists think and how they integrate their life and their work. I've used that to set the tone in a course about science writing for kids and in a directed reading independent study to set the tone for how science really plays out in real people's lives.

DENENE: Dr. Fred, I am a Clinical Laboratory Scientist and Cytotechnologist, I can think of a million topics but seem to have trouble writing on a level that a child will enjoy. Any suggestions as to how to bring it to an enjoyable children's level?

Moderator: Note: Fred's book CATASTROPHE! GREAT ENGINEERING FAILURE -- AND SUCCESS was designated a "Selector's Choice" by the National Science Teachers Association and a Children's Book Council List of Outstanding Science Trade Books for Children for 1996. This is a good example of simplifying tough concepts for young readers.

Dr. Fred: Thanks, Kristi. Hi, Denene. I never think about writing for the fourth grade. I always think about writing for Susie and Jimmie and Jamal and Ngao and Jose. In other words, I imagine that I have a small group of eager kids reading as I write. If they start squirming, it's time to revise. If they say, "That's neat!', I know I'm on track. Does that make sense to you? I guess I put myself in the right (write) frame of mind when I keep my audience in the room with me. It's a trick I play on myself, perhaps, but it works.

Jenny: Dr. Fred, what exactly do editors look for in a query? It seems really hard to get their attention.

Dr. Fred: They look for something that will excite their readers and themselves, since they will be investing lots of time in a project they accept. You need to give them the "take away" point in the first two or three sentences.

Andy1066: How significant are the people you used to work with as a scientist to your writing now that you are retired?

Dr. Fred: Well, I'm hardly retired. I would say that the projects are more important than any one individual. I had a checkered career, in some people's minds, because I could never allow myself to follow a specialty as deeply as my colleagues would have liked. But I've got this wonderful variety of projects that I came to understand fairly well: how to make a computer behave like a real system, how a nuclear reactor works, how an automobile engine burns its fuel and produces pollution, how a disk drive can store so much information, and now I'm adding new areas with each new book. I love it, but it doesn't fit a normal scientific career.

Steve: In case you wouldn't mind talking about it, are there any scientific breakthroughs or mysteries you're working on now?

Dr. Fred: I'm hoping for a literary breakthrough. I have a seven-hundred word allegory that addresses the interface between knowledge and faith (different from science and religion). I think its the best thing I ever wrote, but I don't have the slightest idea whether any publisher would buy it -- especially for kids.

Moderator: Sounds fascinating to me! I'm sorry to interrupt now, but we're out of time. As always, Fred, it's great to have you. You always have such fascinating stories to share. We appreciate you taking the time to share with us about how we can turn our own science questions and curiosities into writing for children.

Dr. Fred: I've enjoyed it. As I always tell my readers: I hope you always follow your questions! Scientifically yours, Dr. Fred.

Moderator: Do come back in two weeks for our next interview. Look for information about it in upcoming newsletters. And now, good night, everyone!



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