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Science Writing Prize 2014: How to report from a science conference

1 May, 2014

Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2014

The latest in our series of “How to” posts, specially commissioned for this year’s Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize, looks at how to report from a science conference. We persuaded Robin McKie, Science and Technology Editor at the Observer, to share his professional experience with us..

They can break important science news, but are also ideal for meeting scientists and fellow writers – and escaping the drudgery of desk work

Conferences are critically important sources of material for science writers. Some of the most important stories about modern research have been revealed at these meetings. For example, the results of the first draft reading of the human genome project were outlined at a genetics conference in Lyon in February 2001 and showed – to considerable surprise at the time – that human beings have far fewer genes than had previously been supposed: fewer than 30,000, not the 100,000 or so that many anticipated. The story made headlines round the world, as have many other key breakthroughs announced at conferences – in astronomy, high-energy physics, human evolution and other fields.

For good measure, conferences are first-class places to meet colleagues, gossip, drink and eat too much – and avoid irritating requests for copy from news editors – so most science hacks are happy to head off to major gatherings of researchers as frequently as possible. Favourites, at least for UK science journalists, include the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting – which is held in a different US city every February – and the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) annual meeting which is held in San Francisco every December.

AAAS 2014 program

The number of papers presented at meetings like these is breathtaking. Organisers arrange press briefings for the most important papers and these certainly help. Nevertheless, the sheer mass of science on offer is invariably daunting and for those hoping to cover such events, a great deal of careful organisation and preparation is essential.

You don’t simply roll up on the opening day and hope for the best. You have to work in advance, reading a particular day’s list of lectures and talks at least 24 hours in advance, and from this attempt to calculate who is going to present the most newsworthy paper. If you can contact a promising speaker, you can prepare your piece in advance leaving you more time to work on other stories the next day. This is certainly going to be welcome in the case of the AAAS and the AGU meetings where the workload can be daunting.

As to writing up your stories from the conference, the same rules apply as for any good news story: you should use crisp, short sentences and avoid complex clauses. Verbs should be active while adjectives should be kept to a minimum. Most important of all is your intro – the opening sentence of your story. It should be no more than 26 words and should sum up, as dramatically as possible, the main points of the rest of your story.

File a couple of good tales, tightly told, every day and you will be onto a winner.

Certainly, you should relax in the evenings after you have filed, but not too much. A hangover won’t do much for the quality of your work. And finally, never read the comments posted under your stories after publication. They aren’t worth the time of day.

In a nut-shell

DO…

  • Take time to identify sessions of interest
  • Contact researchers in advance
  • Keep your copy crisp

DON’T…

  • Turn up just hoping for the best
  • Don’t get overwhelmed by the number of papers
  • Risk the quality of your work due to a hangover

Enter the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2014

The deadline for the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2014, in association with the Guardian and the Observer, is fast approaching. Get your entries in by 11th May 2014 for your chance to win £1000 and see your work published by the Guardian or the Observer. Full details and terms and conditions can be found on the Science Writing Prize pages of the Wellcome Trust website. Good luck!

You can see the complete set of “How to” posts giving you tips on how to write a good science story from a research paperhow to interview someonehow to write a science feature  and more, on our page of science writing tips.

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