Space to Spring

by Michael

The Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize winners were announced this week. The ceremony was rather fun, with interesting and entertaining talks from Mark Walport, Alan Rusbridger and Dara O Briain, plenty of earnest discussions with science writers old and new, and all oiled with free drinks and canapes.

Earlier in the day, I had given my talk to the Science Writing Prize shortlist. My presentation style veers strongly away from slick but I like to think this is all part of my roguish charm…. Oh well, it went fine – as far as I can tell. In putting my slides together, I had landed on the conclusion that there is scope to change the way we tell science stories and that these 30 writers should all be thinking about the innovations they were going to introduce. Of course, some innovations come through collective trends – a simple example is the rise of blogging in science communication. But there is also room for the individual to rip up the rulebook and explore.

One can’t issue such a call without measuring one’s own potential for revolution. I can’t say I’m overflowing with ideas for changing the nature of science writing – but this is perhaps as it should be: new styles should not come about simply because one wants to be different (although that is a good way to at least experiment with new forms); they should be driven by the needs of a particular story. We just have to be alert to the possibility of new ways of telling that story, ways that might just serve the readers of that story better than the current models.

It is surprising to me that I have had so many opportunities to give presentations about science writing. I haven’t been ‘science writing’ that long; I’m not so well connected that people would necessarily think of asking me to do it. And yet I have given training in science writing to well over a hundred scientists and (now) to 30 budding (or, in many cases, budded (bloomed? blossomed?)) writers.

I don’t necessarily feel any more of an ‘expert’ on science writing for doing these talks, but I do feel that talking about the practice is an opportunity to reflect on my own approach. Given the conclusion of my talk this week, I hope that I am bold enough to explore the form and push the boundaries myself. Though, of course, that all sounds very grand for what is, basically, writing about science.

The one piece of advice I always give to anyone who is asking about getting into science writing (or, indeed, any form of writing) is to start a blog. It was why I started this one – in my case, not to practise science writing per se, but to get into the habit of writing, improve my (lack of) writerly discipline.

I’m not sure I’m making the most of it right now, as I do not practise anything like what I preach when it comes to writing – I just sit down and splurge here, rather than developing interesting, well-formed stories that flow well and use engaging imagery. So if anyone is reading this, directly or indirectly, because I advised them to start a blog, I apologise. You can do better, I am sure. At least I have other outlets….

PS: A few new definitions in my Discreet Dictionary today. Spider reminds me of my zenith in theatre (Invitation to a Beheading, nine years ago now, which is a horrifying and shamefully long time); Space reminds me that I must get on with translating Gaston Bachelard’s La psychanalyse du feu. In fact, I think I’ll go and do some of that now….