English Literature and Science Journalism

Before university, and even before choosing my A-Levels, I faced a dilemma I’m sure I wasn’t alone in: science or literature? Of course, the choice was made based on my grades which were in favour of literature, and so here I am, studying English Literature at the University of Surrey. While I wouldn’t change my degree for the world, I would like the opportunity to pursue my passion for science further. It is with this ambition that I aspire to a career in science journalism, with an emphasis on medical journalism.

It was only a year ago that I realised I could combine the two in this particular profession. Since then, my enthusiasm has only grown and so has my ambition – I have written for online publications, written publications such as the university student-run newspaper the Stag, set up a blog and entered science writing competitions. So when the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Competition 2013 entries opened, my excitement hit the roof – I had been waiting eagerly! It’s a brilliant opportunity, and really shows that there is an entire world of possibilities out there for science writers like myself. Not only is there an opportunity to win £1000, your work will also be published in the Guardian or the Observer. It is a real chance for science writers to establish themselves.

On Wednesday 27th March, I attended a masterclass at the Guardian newspaper by James Randerson on how science stories make it from the lab bench to the front page. I arrived early, greeted by a wine reception outside the “classroom” which had a modern, glass-walled design much like our university library. Very fitting! Excitement was brewing in the room as I nervously chatted away to fellow attendees. Science and writing enthusiasts filled the room and I loved it! I was surrounded by like-minded individuals, all with different aims and backgrounds.

Randerson, who is the Guardian’s Science & Environment Editor, began by presenting the Guardian’s website and briefly mentioning a bit about the future of science journalism. We then talked about everything from dropped introductions to churnalism (the art of writing press releases for the print media). I really enjoyed myself and made some amazing contacts. I learnt a lot, and was able to see new ways to improve my writing.

Dropped introductions had to one of the best techniques I learnt – that fundamental part every journalist needs in order to reel in their readers. If you don’t grab their attention straight away, they’ll approach the rest of your article with minimal concentration. Attract them, engage them and buy them into what you’re selling (telling).

On actually impressing editors and potential employers – and this is my favourite piece of advice of all – Randerson said to really charm them into hiring you.

Randerson also acknowledged his predecessor, the brilliant Tim Radford, and his article on science writing in which he says:  “Someone who writes about science is going to learn something about science: writing is an act of learning.” There are surely no truer words than these, and that is the magic of science writing.

Perhaps most importantly, Randerson emphasised that our job is not to educate the public but rather to astonish them and act as promoters of science. The “educating” part just comes as a complementary effect – as Radford wrote: “assume the reader knows nothing.” Radford’s words of wisdom are a key starting point for any piece of science writing.