How I write about science – James Randerson
In the second of our series from professional science writers, James Randerson offers his tips for entrants to the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2011 in association with the Guardian and Observer. In his advice, the Guardian Environment and Science News Editor focuses on how the web is changing our approach to science writing .
Since I joined the profession just over a decade ago, journalism has ridden a rollercoaster of change that has been both exciting and, at times, deeply unsettling. The internet has posed some harsh questions for the old ways of working (and making money).
Like an ongoing succession of climatic jolts to a group of island species, the web keeps demanding that journalists continue to adapt or go extinct. Darwin would have found the process familiar, although I suspect that even he may have been taken aback by its speed and ferocity.
The best science communicators of the next decade and beyond will be those who are comfortable with this process of change and can glimpse which direction it is going. That’s why the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2011 in association with the Guardian and The Observer, will include forms of story-telling that go beyond traditional newspaper news and feature writing.
You won’t be penalised if you don’t use the web in your entry, but if your submission shows that you understand it and have good ideas about how to use it then that will be recognised by the judges.
The most fundamental shift to the newspaper industry wrought by the web has been to drag the means of production (the ability to publish and distribute news, features and opinion pieces) from the hands of a few and given it to anyone with an internet connection.
In science, as in other fields, this has led to an explosion of people – bloggers, amateur film-makers, photographers – producing content about their area of expertise and interest and putting it online. The result is a fantastic variety of story-telling about science that has been overwhelmingly positive. But in the process, it has made traditional journalists work harder (a good thing) and asked some searching questions about what journalism is and whether it exists at all.
The web has also handed a new set of tools to science communicators (both mainstream media and others) to help make their stories more compelling, for example the ability to mix audio and video with text; the potential to link directly to sources; and novel ways of illustrating data using interactive graphics.
Journalists can also interact with readers in real-time using social media and tell stories as they happen, for example through live blogs or story trackers.
In a different part of the Guardian newsroom, the art of the political live blog was invented and mastered by my colleague Andrew Sparrow (if you’ve not seen one, think over-by-over cricket coverage combined with prime minister’s questions).
This new tool offers an entirely new way of telling developing political stories online and is a significant addition to the way we cover politics at the Guardian. It has also won plaudits for Sparrow professionally. He was named political journalist of the year at the Press Awards last week.
At their root, the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize is about excellent story-telling that enlightens, entertains and excites the reader. As my colleague Alok Jha explained (with lots of other useful tips) in his introduction, the craft of writing is fundamental.
But I would love to see entries that go beyond that and use the medium that is most important to the future of journalism. If you can offer a clever and innovative way of enhancing your story using the web then the judges will sit up and listen.
Show us the future and you will go a long way to winning one of the prizes.
James Randerson is Environment and Science News Editor at The Guardian.
The Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2011 in association with the Guardian and Observer is open for entries until 20 May 2011.