Wellcome Trust/Guardian science writing competition: choosing your topic
SUMMARY: How to choose a topic to write about for the 2011 Wellcome Trust/Guardian/Observer science writing competition
Image courtesy of The Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2011.
So you’ve been thinking and dreaming about the Wellcome Trust/Guardian/Observer Science Writing Prize for a few days now, you’re inspired and ready to go, so you open your laptop and suddenly … you’re stuck. Your brilliant ideas either fade away or don’t seem as brilliant they were when you were discussing them with your friends and family. Now what?
Now is when the work begins.
Since you have an 800 word limit, you already should know that you have to restrict your topic choice to just one. You can’t begin writing until you choose that one topic that you are prepared to write about for the next month, and you are discovering that isn’t as easy as you originally thought it would be. So you need to think strategically about your topic choice. For example, since the deadline is 20 May 2011 and the prizes will be awarded 12 October 2011 at a special ceremony at the Wellcome Trust, you cannot write about hot-off-the-presses research and expect your work to be timely. But this is science after all: there is a vast world of subjects that you can write about. Here’s are a few suggestions that might help you identify and choose your special topic:
Start with what you know
“But that’s too easy,” my students often tell me.
I know this sounds obvious, but when I’ve talked with my students about their writing assignments, many of them were surprised when I told them to choose a topic that they already know something about — especially something they are deeply interested in or something they want to read about. I say this because writing about a particular topic means that you will be reading and thinking deeply about this topic for the next month or so. Additionally, you may draw diagrams or flow charts to organise information, to help you work out how to translate that information into something meaningful that will interest and educate your readers — a significant investment of effort on your part. If you’ve already devoted a lot of time and energy to your topic, you’re already ahead of the game.
Brainstorm potential subjects of interest
Sitting down with a few friends or family members and collectively naming subjects to write about is an effective way to identify topics that interest you (and them). (I often find that sitting in a pub enhances everyone’s creative thinking processes.) Since the people present at your brainstorming session will probably read various incarnations of your essay in the following weeks, this also is a satisfying way to notify them that they will be serving as your very first readers, as your “guinea pigs”. Their comments and confusion will help make your writing more coherent. Further, if at least a few of your “readers” are neither scientists nor in the sciences, this will be additionally helpful as you learn the most creative and effective ways to translate scientific principles or concepts into compelling but comprehensible English for your target audience.
Every respectable writer spends a lot of time reading different materials: books, magazines, newspapers, blogs and websites. Ambitious science writers often read at least some of the primary scientific literature, too. Besides providing examples of excellent (and not-so-excellent) science writing, these materials are valuable resources for identifying topics that interest you. An often overlooked asset are your local librarians: many writers work closely with librarians, at least at the beginning phases of their projects, because librarians are trained to help you identify or obtain more information than you may have dreamt possible to find — because after all, not everything is on the internet.
One of my favorite ways to identify topics of interest is to keep a “questions journal”. My questions journal is a special little Moleskine notebook that I carry everywhere with me. When I am on the subway, in the gym, waiting in line or photographing something, I can stop what I am doing, quickly pull this small book out of my pocket and write down a question that has occurred to me, record my response to a conversation I’ve overheard (and usually have disagreed with), or expand on someone else’s opinion to address what they missed. A questions journal is also useful for narrowing a topic down.
Some techniques to help established scientists
If you are a working scientist, then some of the suggestions I provided above might not be very helpful since you’ve clearly devoted your life to a particular research area. Your work is a tremendous wellspring of tantalising topics for you to write about — probably so many that you aren’t sure where to start. Some ideas that might help you choose compelling topics from within your own research are thinking “outside the box” about your work: for example, perhaps your field has dramatically changed the progress of a different (seemingly unrelated) discipline. (Currently, one of my favorite “outside the box” topics to ponder whilst in the pub is the evolution of human languages; how one might analyse this phylogenetically, and how language affects our perceptions.) Other potential topics include discussing how your field has changed since you launched your career, or maybe you wish to personalise science by, say, writing about how you chose your specialised field of inquiry.
Some closing thoughts
Basically, it is important to remember that there are no “good” or “bad” topics. Some people can make anything sound interesting whilst others can transform a fascinating tale into a burdensome task. What are the secrets for capturing and keeping your readers’ interest? Passion and prose. If you are capable of capturing your passion for your topic, you’re more than halfway there. The remainder of your effort lies in working and reworking your prose as you translate your passion and ideas into compelling and educational writing. When you’ve fulfilled these two objectives, then you will have accomplished what every science writer strives to achieve.
I hope this has been helpful.
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