Are You Made of the Write Stuff?

Science writing competitions aren't sexy. But if you dream of being a science journalist, entering a competition could be the hottest move you ever make.

My flourishing career as a writer began with The Daily Telegraph BASF Young Science Writer awards. I came runner-up in the first year of my Ph.D., and 2 years later I've had articles in New Scientist, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, and The Economist. I used to wonder if journalism was as enjoyable and stimulating as it seemed, but it's even better!

What's so magical about getting placed in a competition? To be a science journalist, you should love to write. The process of writing a competition entry will reveal whether you're cut out for the job. In my case, the hours slipped away with such pleasure that a revelation took place: This simply had to be my career! It was a surprise, because academic writing hadn't supplied the same thrill.

The next step is to establish whether you're good at popular writing, and a prize confirms that. However, many good entries don't get placed, so don't give up! All writers, whether they're competition winners or not, need to find an editor to publish their articles. A prize makes it easier to convince them of your worthiness.

In the case of the Telegraph competition, the true value of the prize itself isn't immediately obvious. Granted, a few hundred pounds is always welcome, but an 'Invitation to the British Association's Festival of Science' hardly sounds seductive (although first prize is a very tasty trip to the United States).

In fact, the BA festival turned out to be an all-expenses-paid taste of the stimulating world of journalism. Daily wine receptions and dinners with most of the UK's big name science editors were a budding networker's heaven! The chance to lurk in the busy hive of a pressroom, attend press conferences, and eavesdrop on interviews was invaluable education. It seemed possible that one day the process would be within my reach.

Recognising one of the science editors at an academic conference in London a couple of months later, I approached him with a story idea based on a poster at the conference. It appealed to him, and my list of articles began to grow. What you know is as important as who you know, but the more 'who's' the better!

Editors are constantly on the prowl for catchy, well-written stories to fill their pages, and they pay for work from freelancers. They need two types of stories: news and features. News stories are short and lay out the bare bones of a very recent science discovery. Features are longer, and topical either because they fit a recent discovery into its background, or for a different reason--the season, perhaps, or a political event.

Competition essays are essentially short features, yet without a pressing need to be 'topical'. So where do you start? An interesting subject is as vital as the way it's written. I could get people interested in my research at dinner parties, and that is a good sign that your own work is suitable to write about. This is a challenging mission, but the appealing alternative of writing about another scientist's research is an equal, if not greater challenge. It requires another set of skills altogether to conduct the necessary interviews and wrap your mind around the intricacies of a new subject.

Your first priority should always be to ensnare jaded readers so they cannot resist continuing to read. If people have to read three sentences before discovering why they should give a hoot, you've lost them and the competition. With my dinner conversations in mind, I decided which aspect of my topic people could immediately relate to, and opened with it. For example, if your topic is a gene that controls cancer cells, a description of sinister tumour growth in the relevant organ will probably do the trick. If you analyse flavour compounds for your chemistry PhD, conjure up the sensation of eating a peach for the reader.

Mimic the technical aspects of The Daily Telegraph's Wednesday science page. How many words does an average sentence contain? How many sentences to a paragraph? Notice that information is arranged so readers can understand every stage as they proceed through, and don't have to hold points in mind while they wait for light to dawn at the end.

When the white page stares blankly at you, I suggest two strategies. First, make an essay plan--I just scribble a list of points to cover, then number them in order. Second, I stop worrying about how bad the words sound, and write them anyway. Improving sentences is much easier once the structure is in place.

Miraculously, the problem soon becomes too many words, not too few. Oh, how it hurts to cut! But it's always possible; a friend of mine likes to say that World War II can be explained in five sentences or five books, it's just the detail that varies. I found it invaluable to have someone read my essay, telling them it needed to be shorter. A fresh point of view makes it easy to spot unnecessary words--unfortunately they're often the very words I'm in love with!

When you think you've finished, take a few days' break. I read a couple of New Scientist features, and new inspiration flowed. Only then did the crafting of the masterpiece really begin! The best writing comes when every word has been agonised over, which inevitably takes a long time--my Telegraph essay took many intense days. But remember, it should be a labour of love rather than a dreary chore, and if it's not, maybe journalism isn't for you.

Mention of a writing prize will always impress. Potential employers will pounce on it with glee; scientists-cum-communicators are scarce. But personally, my CV was the last thing on my mind when I entered the competition--yet I've ended up with better credentials for my dream job than I could have imagined. So follow the tips and work hard--but mostly, enjoy!

The Ed says: This year's Daily Telegraph science writing competition is now on! Full details and past winning entries (including Andrea's--see 1999) can be found on the Web. Andrea suggests that reading the efforts of past winners provides excellent guidance for your own attempts. The closing date is 9 March 2001 , so get writing!

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