British readers might have caught wind of a new Guardian/Wellcome Trust Science Writing prize, aimed at finding the “next generation of undiscovered science writing talent.” Since the announcement, the Guardian have been pumping out a series of pieces on tips and tricks for good science writing, penned by established writers.
Alok asked me for something different – he wanted a reflection on the importance of entering and winning competitions. I won the Daily Telegraph’s young science writer prize in 2007, which in many ways was the spiritual predecessor of the new Guardian/Wellcome Trust one. My thoughts on that win, and its importance in my career, is now up at the Grauniad.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good science background must be in want of a PhD. So it was that I found myself re-enacting a bad 80s sitcom in a biochemistry lab, full of exaggerated characters and slapstick mishaps, but with fewer happy resolutions and more radioactive clothes. Somewhere, a laughter track was playing.
During this time, I realised that I wanted to swap pipettes for pens. I would write about science for a living instead of failing to do it. That was easier said than done. Science writing has never been an easy escape from lab life. There are only a few available opportunities, and they are fiercely contested by a throng of professional writers, eager freelancers, and scientists squeezed out of the research bottleneck.
This was the world I was trying to break into and for some ungodly reason, editors were refusing to take my extensive collection of David Attenborough DVDs as proof of my interest in science communication. I needed a notch on my belt.
At the time, the Daily Telegraph was still running a science writing competition aimed at young writers, which had lifted the careers of many familiar names – the Guardian’s own Ian Sample, David Bradley, Kate Ravilious, Bob Ward, Lewis Dartnell, and more. I entered and, after nuzzling at the top spot with a few runner-up prizes, I finally won the competition in 2007.
The perks were decent: a tidy cheque; a trip to Germany to visit the labs of sponsoring organisation Bayer; and a winners’ lunch where I sat between David Attenborough and Richard Fortey as they competitively classified their seafood platter.
But the real prize was that I had proof that I could write about science. I pitched with more confidence. A month later, an editor approached me about writing for him. And most importantly, it convinced me that I was on the right career path. The runner-up prizes had helped; the win clinched it.
The Telegraph’s science writing competition is now defunct, but in many ways, the new Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize in association with the Guardian and The Observer is its spiritual successor. It offers a chance for a new generation of young science writers to raise their profile, shake off the constraints of impostor syndrome, and develop the itch for science writing that constantly plagues the best of writers.
Competitions can act as gateway drugs to science writing. I saw my win as a video game power-up, one that would expire in a year, when the next winner was announced. So I worked myself to the bone over the next 12 months. I tried to make the most of every opportunity that arose.
The trip to Germany led to a piece in the Telegraph. The winners’ lunch led to an interview with Sir David – a wonderful morning spent looking at fossils in the living room of a man I had admired for decades. I pitched frantically. I said yes to every assignment. I lost a lot of sleep. This lifestyle, once aberrant, soon became the status quo.
There are, of course, many more ways for would-be writers to establish themselves today. You could flex your writing muscles on your own blog (mine was barely a year old and still fairly obscure when I won the Telegraph prize). You could join the thriving science community on Twitter.
And yet, the gleam of competitive victory can still be a boon to an aspiring newbie. Science writers, after all, are avid readers. We pay attention to people who are adulated by our peers and we’re keen to promote the best ones.
But perhaps the best reason for having a go at the competition is that you can. If you have dreams of writing about science, doing so compellingly is not enough. You must also do so compulsively. Start now.