Calling science writers

Elizabeth Finkel


UNSW Press is running a science writing competition. Some of the outstanding pieces will also make it into the 2012 edition of The Best Australian Science Writing.

As this year’s editor, I’d like to heartily encourage new science writers and particularly working scientists to try their hand. I used to be a research scientist and I know I owe much of my success to the fact that I can pick out the great stories from the thicket of scientific advance.

So here are my tips.

The fundamental is you have to explain something ‘new’ to the reader.  You should write as if they have little prior knowledge but are smart and interested. You have to conjure the reader in your mind and talk to them – perhaps conjure up your mother or a curious friend.  Contextualise the subject for them – how does the finding of the Higgs boson reach through into the worldview of your Mum?

The best subjects to pick are those that get you excited; your excitement will be conveyed to the reader. You should also have an excellent understanding of the subject. That will allow you to write with an insouciant tone. And that can take a lot of work.  For example, if you’re not a particle physicist making sense of the Higgs boson will take some grunt.  But it’s never impossible.

Once you understand the science thoroughly, you need to apply some art.  Pick up that misshapen clay of words and turn it around every which way. See how to sculpt it. Try to explain it to friends, muse while you walk or run – my muse always meets me at the third bend of the creek in the Glen Iris wetlands.  

And borrow from the fiction writers.  Bring your story to life by putting in the props.  Describe place, the main protagonist, the atmosphere. I like descriptions that are like Japanese brush-stroke paintings: a few strokes to sketch the subject.

And when you have your first draft, find a smart, critical person who likes good writing, to read it. The more people read it, the better. Criticism is gold – take it on board. 

Elizabeth Finkel has written for Science, Lancet, Nature Medicine, New Scientist and The Age, among others, and has broadcast for ABC Radio National. She is the author of Stem Cells: Controversy at the Frontiers of Science and The Genome Generation. Elizabeth will edit The Best Australian Science Writing 2012, coming soon from NewSouth Publishing.

Click here for more information on The Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing.