Once upon a time, I used to interview people for my blog and ask them a bit more about their journey in science. I had a section on my blog called interviews and, as a student, it was cool to learn from the experience of other people and how they got where they were at the time. My last interview was back in 2019, life changed since and I’m revamping that section of my website with a new scientist to feature: Dr Julia Ravey. Julia has a PhD in neuroscience and, after landing a job at Alzheimer Research UK, she became a BBC science broadcaster and producer. She also wrote a book Braintenance, an evidence-based guide on creating and maintaining healthy habits. The book brings in diverse scientific research on neuroscience, behavioural studies and human psychology and digs into interesting questions on why the human brain is resistant to change and what we can do to reverse this pattern. To know more buy Braintenance, also available on Audible.
As part of the book club discussion, I asked Julia a series of questions to know more about the reasons behind the book and how she got published as first time author.
Teresa: How did you come about writing the book? Julia: I was approached by a literary agent who asked me if I was interested in writing a book. I had to write an introductory summary, give an outline and a summary of each chapter as a start. She introduce me to the publisher and, after that, I started writing the full manuscript. When I start writing the publisher had already bought the book. Can you tell me a bit more about the timeline. The process began in 2020 and the book got published in Jan 2023. I kicked in with the literature research in Jan 2021, then, it took me 8 months to finish off the first draft. In 2022, we went through the whole process of revisions and copywriting and we published earlier this year, Jan 2023.
I found it very interesting how the whole process took so long. People are often under the impression that you wake up one day and good things happen to you by magic. Easy things don’t exist, it’s the hard work, commitment and showing up for yourself every day which makes the magic happen. And this is the entire message Julia tries to convey with the book. The good intentions only aren’t enough, once you created the healthy habits, you need a system in place to maintain and keeping up with the good work.
The day you plant the seed is not the day you pick the flowers!I’m sure someone said it before me!
Which transferrable skills from your academic studies did you implement in writing a book? Writing this book was no different from writing my PhD thesis. I had the idea, did my own research and then wrote a manuscript about it. During my PhD, I wrote about my laboratory experiments form the perspective of Alzheimer disease, and explain how my research was novel and relevant to that field of neuroscience. With the book, it was more about telling a story on the literature review I carried out on creating and maintaining healthy habits and how this was relevant to me and other people.
When the agent approached you with the idea of writing the book, what did she ask? Her support as well as the feedback from the publishing house was crucial to keep an external reader perspective in mind. During my PhD and as a scientist, I was writing for myself or for a scientific educated audience. In this case, I was writing for the general public, and I had to readjust my style to the appropriate audience. I’m grateful for the support of the agent in this sense because I often found myself trapped in my own mind and perspective. At the end of the day, I wrote a science communication book. It was about bringing science to the public, such as those who don’t have a science background or don’t understand how scientific research is conducted. It wasn’t a review to submit to Nature, Cells or Plos.
Mic drop for Julia. This lack of empathy and failing to get the audience perspective was exactly the reason why I stopped doing science communication. I wasn’t reaching the right audience. 90% of my followers were scientists and there was no point in doing science communication to those who already know scientific research. It was the pivotal moment when I decided to shift my interest towards supporting and uplifting women in science. If you want to know more about it, check my Medium article on “Does debunking online misinformation really works?“
Doing science communication to an audience of scientist is like preaching to the converted.
What did you learn during the process? I learned how to deal with my own insecurities and imposter syndrome. The literary agent asked why me. Why should I be the right person to write this book? I had to question my own abilities and identity as scientist/science communicator and identify what was unique in me. I had a PhD in neuroscience, did science communication and the publishing house also found my illustrations quite unique. In fact, during the whole revision time, I decided to do the illustrations to make the book more visual and aesthetically pleasing. At the end of the day, no one has ever seen a scientific book without figures or illustrations (am I right? sorry this is my addition, Julia hasn’t said that!)
Which advice would you give to people who want to write a book? Identify all the reasons why you are the best person to write that book, your unique strengths and what value you bring to the table. Is someone else the right person for the job? Why would the publishing house buy your book before you even get started instead of investing into another author? Then, you have to select and identify a topic you would like to write about and figure out why everyone else in the world, outside yourself of course, would like to read about the book. I think those elements are non-negotiable to pitch your book and convince a publishing house to invest in your book.
I wish Julia all the best and I will be the first person to buy the next book which doesn’t even exist yet!