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NEWS17 March 2016

Bill Bryson on being selective with research

Leisure & Arts Media News

UK – The trick to using research is to “gather so much information that you have to be selective about the parts that are necessary to do the job, to make a book cohesive”, according to author Bill Bryson.

Bryson was addressing delegates during the climatic keynote at the end of this week’s MRS annual conference, Impact 2016.

Bryson, whose books include travelogue Notes from a Small Island and populist science book A Short History of Nearly Everything, discussed his fascination with all things English, from its roots in 1970s England to the present day.

Bryson reassured delegates that he did believe in market research but did not think that publishers did enough of it.

He also expounded on his own approach to research used to inform his writing.

“Research depends on the type of book I’m writing,” he said. “If it’s a travel book then I travel and do some reading and sometimes encounter something that requires me to do additional reading; by and large travelling and having experiences and relating them as interestingly and amusingly as they can.

“If I’m trying hard to convey facts accurately and interestingly (as in A Short History of Nearly Everything), this takes a lot of research.

“That book was a big undertaking. It required speaking to academics, scientists and researchers in those fields. The thing I found with scientists is that they really appreciate it when you ask what interests them in spending their lives studying moss or lichen or snails… when no one has ever asked them before.”

Bryson expanded on how to writes about science, a subject he confesses no aptitude for. “I can only deal in words,” he said, citing some of his visual analogies for scientific values, including an image of the entire US covered in a nine mile-deep stratum of pop corn, with each kernel representing a unit in a very high number.

“That’s the moment of enlightenment. Science at school in text books meant nothing to me. But if you’ve used a story [or image] to convey it, you’ve brought clarity to it.

“Other parts of my research involves going into libraries and reading and reading and reading – that’s one of my favourite things in the whole world.”

As the last day of Impact 2016 drew to a close, Bryson was presented with an honorary fellowship of the MRS by chief executive Jane Frost, for his services to ethnography and research.

@RESEARCH LIVE

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