Journalism, writing

Tips for (science) writing


The University of the West of England are running an interesting science writing competition and asked a bunch of writers for their tips for potential entrants. Here are mine.

When you’re really into a topic, it’s easy to think that everyone else will be and it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few aspects – everything is so fascinating. I have to cover all the bases to do it justice. (This counts double if you’re coming from an academic background).

Take a few moments before you start writing to think: what is my story really about? What is the one take home message that I’d want a reader to get from my story, even if they only skimmed it or read a bit? If you were to sum up your story in a sentence or two to explain to a friend or your mum – what would that be?

In film and business, they talk about the ‘Elevator pitch’ – you catch the executive in the lift, and in the one minute between floors you succinctly pitch your idea – enough to give a taste of what the story is about, what’s fascinating about it, why it’s important and how you’re approaching it – why it’s worth them investing. It’s the same principle in writing.

More than anything, it helps you, the writer, stay focused and clear on the purpose and point of your story, in your writing, research and interviews. Your readers – and editors – will be thankful for it.

Blogging, Editing, Journalism, writing

How we write about science

Every year for the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize (now in its third year) we run a series of blog posts with our partners at the Guardian, offering advice on science writing from those of us lucky enough to be doing it as a day job.

This year I’ve had the pleasure of running the series, picking the writers, the format, the questions and editing their answers. In the first year we went for our personal tips, last year we asked for our favourite pieces of writing. This year I went for a straight Q&A format: several of the most commonly asked (at least to me) questions we get asked by those looking to break into the field – and exactly those on the minds of anyone looking to enter the competition.

We’re posting a couple every week and you can read all of them on the Guardian and the Wellcome Trust blog.

It’s been a real privilege to work with the words of such wonderful professionals, and such an inspiration to hear their thoughts. There are already several highlights for me, but I’ll save them to pick out when the series is over and the whole bunch are there to read. In the meantime, back to the editing…


The Story

The Story
"To thine own self be true"

There have never been so many stories, or so many ways to tell them. We can tell stories in the pub, on television, in books, through games, on stage, over mobile phones, on twitter, in newspapers — any time, place or object that we can share with others can be the birthplace of a story…. This is surely the most exciting time in history to be in the story-telling business.

I had a day off on Friday. Not to go on holiday or laze around or even to fulfill some chore. I took a day off to sit in a conference hall with some 100 other people to just listen to stories.

I’ve said before that learning from your peers is the best way to improve, and indeed to be inspired. That’s why I signed up for The Story. Sometimes the best way to improve your work is to learn from other fields, particularly those perceived to be much more ‘creative’ than your own. Continue reading “The Story”


Positive thinking negative?

I just read this feature article (actually an extract from a forthcoming book) in the Guardian Weekend magazine. In it, Barbara Ehrenreich hits out against the ‘positive thinking brigade’ that surrounds cancer, and indeed most major illnesses or calamities.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of it, but it’s an interesting piece. The article focuses on cancer, but is actually about the perceived ‘American’ positivity that is being peddled — backed up by bad science — in society. Ehrenreich points out several contradicting studies and features accounts from different people who have had little benefit from positive thinking.

Continue reading “Positive thinking negative?”


Improving as a science writer

With the onset of a new decade, many people’s minds have naturally wandered back to ten years ago and just how much can change in such a relatively short space of time.

Back at the turn of the millenium I hadn’t a clue that there was anything in science outside of the lab bench, yet alone had an inkling that I would one day be working in that sphere. I’d enjoyed a History of Science module at undergraduate level and had a hunch that people were doing something like it somewhere — somebody had to be writing those non-academic paper pages in Nature. Nevertheless, none of my undergraduate tutors had a clue how I would get into it. ‘Do a PhD’ they said. Fat chance.

I’ve been in science writing, or science communication, for over five years now having stumbled rather than launched myself into it. In a way, I envy those that are entering the field now. The opportunities, the training and the support networks available are extraordinary. But the more people that enter the already burgeoning ‘SciCom’ field, the more those of us who are in it have to step up our game to keep up.

I once read that a wise man realises he knows nothing, or something along those lines. There are many times when I have no idea what a researcher is saying to me, let alone how I am going to explain this in 500 words. And like any writer, I always feel I can improve on my craft.

What keeps me going is the inspiration I get from my peers work. I learn by reading, watching and listening to the extraordinary discoveries being made every day in science and technology, and analysing how my fellow science communicators explain it in a compelling, beautiful narrative.

I hope to highlight some of these works in this blog, as well as the occasional thoughts on events and news that I come across. Today, the internet has more science blogs than you can shake a stick at (if you can shake a stick on the interweb). I’ve often wondered what I could possibly contribute to that. But with this blog, I’ll attempt to get off my arse and find out.