Science Writing Prize 2014: How to write a science feature
The Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2014 is open for entries – offering you a chance to win £1000 and see your article in The Guardian or Observer. We know that staring at a blank page can be daunting, so we asked Nicola Davis, commissioning editor for Observer Tech Monthly to share her advice on how to write a feature.
1. Choose your topic and length carefully
Be realistic about the issue you are covering – does it have enough dimensions to hold a reader’s interest for a long feature? If the story can be summarised in 180 words, you don’t need to write a 1,800-word feature. And anything beyond 4,000 words is a very long read.
2. Have a plan
Make a list of all the points you want to cover in the article then put them into an order that allows you to move with the most ease from one point to the next. Remember to pepper fascinating points throughout the article – if you put all the juicy stuff in the first 500 words, why would a reader continue to the end?
3. Come back to the intro again, and again, and again…
Writing introductions is always a tricky business. The best introductions conjure up a clear, compelling scene, an unusual conundrum or a stark situation. Avoid rambling opening paragraphs and remember that if a sentence doesn’t sound quite right, it isn’t right. Move on to the body of the piece and come back to it. The introductions that seem the most effortless have probably taken the most work.
4. Get on the phone, or better still on the road
A good feature is not an extended essay, a regurgitation of undergraduate topics, or a stream of consciousness. Don’t indulge in covering too many historical aspects of the issue – use them only where strictly relevant. The same goes for technical details. Remember, your audience may not have the burning interest in genetics you do, or be familiar with what an allele is.
A feature should be rich with voices from those involved with the issue you are focusing on. Speak to researchers, speak to those affected by the issue and speak to people with different viewpoints. Record your interviews – when you listen back you may be surprised at the gems you find.
5. Get building
Once you have your transcripts from all your interviews, make one document with the quotes you want to use and the points you want to make. Then shuffle these around to create the skeleton of your feature. Then you can add detail and refine paragraphs as you go along.
6. Choose your structure carefully
A feature could take many forms, for example a long “write-through” or continuous narrative, a Q&A format, or a series of distinct sections. Would a detailed explanation of how mitochondria work be better in a separate, pull-out section, suitable for a tinted box on the printed page? Would a graphic save you 300 words? Use such furniture wisely and it will improve your feature.
7. Know what you are trying to say – don’t waffle
No feature can cover every aspect of an issue. There will always be other points or angles. Make sure you have a clear idea of what is relevant to the overall thrust your piece and don’t try to shoehorn in tangential information.
8. Get your facts straight
Double-check everything. If someone gives you a figure for the cost of a medical procedure, check it in the literature and ask the experts. Make sure your sources are up to date and accurate and remember to differentiate between facts and opinion. If your piece will be published online include links so that readers can easily access your sources, if it’s in print give enough information for them to track it down for themselves.
9. Change the pace
A monotone approach makes for a tedious read. Change the pace throughout the article – emotional experiences, sobering facts, funny quotes and informative sections keep your reader engaged to the end. Like a good play, sections of a feature can also move back and forwards in time and be set in different scenes.
10. Kill your darlings
Your hilarious sentences and painfully crafted metaphors may seem like works of genius, but they are probably too esoteric to appeal to anyone else. Write them, love them, cut them.
In a nutshell:
- Interview a variety of people
- Have a clear angle
- Get your facts straight
- Waffle on
- Put all the interesting stuff in the first 500 words
- Write in a monotone
Image credits: (top) Matthew Herring, CC-BY-NC-ND,Wellcome Images, “Alex + Banana Phone” by tomcensani CC-BY-ND on Flickr, “59/366: Blah blah blah” by theunquietlibrarian CC-BY-NC on Flickr, “128 Angle Protractors” by macattck, CC-BY-NC-SA on Flickr.
The Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2014, in association with the Guardian and the Observer is open for entries now. Get writing and submit your piece before the deadline on 11th May 2014 for your chance to win £1000 and a chance to get your work published. We are running a series of “How to” posts giving you tips on how to write a good science story from a research paper, how to interview someone and how to pitch to an editor in the run-up to the competition deadline.
Full details and terms and conditions can be found on the Science Writing Prize pages of the Wellcome Trust website. Good luck!