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What does it take to be a good science writer?

What does it take to be a good science writer?

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Wellcome Trust, The Guardian and The Observor are looking for the next great science writer in the United Kingdom or Ireland. The new Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize 2011 is a challenge to non-professional writers -- anyone who hasn't written for money -- to write 800-word articles that might be published in one of the newspapers.

The contest is good incentive for new writers across the pond, but what is great about the contest for those of us in the United States and elsewhere is the "Secrets of Good Science Writing" feature The Guardian launched this month to encourange entrants. This week in Career GPS, we're highlighting some of the series' most compelling lessons so far. You can find more job and educational opportunities in health media at the end of the post. Keep up with Career GPS via RSS.

Guardian science correspondent Ian Sample describes science writing in a way that might make your stomach hurt:

The people you interview may have spent decades pondering a particular phenomenon to grasp the depths and subtleties of its meaning and mysteries. You will have minutes to grab from them enough information to explain their work and perhaps not much longer to put it in a context that an interested but inexpert reader will thank you for.

Consider how much trust your interviewees put in you. Misrepresent their work or opinions and you might as well not bother. An interesting story is a worthless story if the information is wrong.

But Sample's advice is to put aside thoughts of your weighty task to get over writer's block: "Take your responsibilities seriously, but don't let them get the better of you. Keep them in mind and you are on course to do the right thing by your readers, your interviewees and your story."

Many of the series' entries remind writers to always keep the reader in mind. Freelance science writer Gaia Vince explains the concept this way: "Extensive and thorough as your information-gathering may be, don't for one minute think that your reader wants to be dropped in a quagmire of your new knowledge. The research is for you; the story is for the reader."

Tim Radford, former science editor at The Guardian, describes the challenge of making complex ideas comprehensible:

A writer's first duty is always to the reader (without a reader, who says you are a writer?) but unless what you write is also right, why bother? So as Albert Einstein is supposed to have once said, in what I have always imagined was advice to science journalists: "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

Science blogger and professor of structural biology Stephen Curry makes a compelling -- and very funny -- case for scientists to enter the contest. He advises his his colleagues to abandon jargon for the sake of storytelling:

For many scientists, the abandonment of jargon is extraordinarily difficult. It goes against the grain. For one thing, we like to think of ourselves as clever people who do clever things. Many scientists fear that by presenting a simplified version of their research, they too might be thought of as simplified, at least by their peers. I have seen this time and again, especially in research talks by scientists, where speakers were so keen to display their intellectual wares that they bamboozled the audience with data sufficient for ten talks and lost their grip on the point of the story. Even when scientists sit down to write for a lay audience some may care too much about the imagined tut-tutting of their colleagues at the (necessary) omission of subtle caveats for the sake of an engaging narrative. Put these people out of your mind -- you will not be writing for them.

In his introduction to the contest, Alok Jha implores the writers to begin with a simple step:

The first thing to do is read – blogposts, news stories, magazine features, poems and books (fiction and non-fiction). Look at what is possible when it comes to writing about chemistry or dinosaurs. Go back and read The Selfish Gene and observe how Richard Dawkins manages to make evolution seem beautiful, horrifying and simple, all at once, without making readers feel stupid or shielding them from the harder ideas. Read this book review by the Guardian's former science editor, Tim Radford, where he manages to explain, in the first paragraph, the mysterious business of cosmology in one lean metaphor.

Nature senior editor Henry Gee offers ten rules for writing. In rule 4, he says:

Now, unless you are a very skilled professional working to a tight deadline, you should never send stuff straight to air while it's still hot. Good writing is a dish best served cold. Very skilled professionals working to a tight deadline have sub-editors to go through the text for mishtakes [sic]. You won't have that luxury. Every so often, take a break. I find that I can't write more than a thousand words at a stretch without my concentration going hello clouds hello sky and floating out of the window.

Barry J. Gibb, multimedia editor of Wellcome Trust, says, "The first practical thing I do is plan the hell out of my writing task."

If I need X thousand words by Y, I calculate – and keep to – how many words I need to achieve per week. That's the dull but important bit. Next I tackle the crucial and infinitely more fun task of getting to know the subject, reading as much as my mind can stand within my allotted schedule, sucking up data, papers, information. To give an example, in the first edition of the The Rough Guide to the Brain, to keep to schedule I needed to research a subject for three weeks (say, consciousness), then spend one week writing.

The winner of the Science Writing Prize receives a £1000 cash prize. Entries are due on May 20. Look for new entries in Secrets of Good Science Writing on The Guardian's website.

Health Media Opportunities

New Job and Internship Listings

Health/Science Reporter, The Gainesville Sun (via JournalismJobs)
Location: Gainesville, FL
Status: Full Time
Medium: Print

Web Content Editor, International Medical News Group, a division of Elsevier (via JournalismJobs)
Location: Rockville, MD
Status: Not specified
Medium: Online

Associate Editor, HealthMonitor.com, Health Monitor Network (via JournalismJobs)
Location: Paramus, NJ
Status: Full Time
Medium: Online

Federal-State Health Policy Officer, The Commonwealth Fund
Location: Washington, DC
Status: Full Time
Medium: Other

Medical Editor/Writer, Confidential (via JournalismJobs)
Location: Southern Connecticut, Connecticut
Status: Not specified
Medium: Print, Online

Fellowships and Grants

National Health Journalism Fellowship, USC Annenberg California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships
Eligibility: Open to professional journalists from print, broadcast, and online media, including freelancers. Applicants need not be full time health reporters, but they need to have a passion for health news (broadly defined).
Included: All-expenses paid six-day program in Los Angeles, $200 stipend and upon completion of what are expected to be ambitious, major fellowship projects.
Deadline: May 2, 2011
From the Website: "To stimulate collaboration between mainstream and ethnic media, we encourage applicants to propose a joint project for use by both media outlets. Up to two collaborators for each project may receive a stipend."

Dennis A. Hunt Health Journalism Grants, USC Annenberg California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships
Eligibility: Open to all journalist members of Center for Health Journalism Digital. Print, broadcast and new media journalists from anywhere in the United States are eligible to apply, as are all past fellows of the USC Annenberg/California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships.
Included: Provides funding for proposed stories or multimedia projects that illuminate or expose critical community health or community health policy issues and acceptance to the National Health Journalism Fellowship program.
Deadline: May 2, 2011
From the Website: "Proposals can focus on a specific health topic or delve into a confluence of circumstances and conditions that impact health, including environment; social class; crime and violence; urban development; access to health resources or the lack thereof; school absenteeism; transportation or city planning, and and disparities in health. Topics that would NOT be eligible would include clinical trials, medical research, or the latest treatments for a disease or any project involving a population outside of the United States."

Australian-American Health Policy Fellowship, The Commonwealth Fund
Eligibility: Mid-career health services researchers or practitioners who are U.S. citizens and have completed a master's degree or doctorate (or the equivalent thereof) in health services research, health administration, health policy, or a related discipline. Applicants should demonstrate expertise in health policy issues and track record of informing health policy through research, policy analysis, health services, or clinical leadership.
Deadline: Aug. 15, 2011
From the Website: "This program offers a unique opportunity for outstanding, mid-career U.S. professionals-academics, government officials, clinical leaders, decision makers in managed care and other private health care organizations, and journalists-to spend up to 10 months in Australia conducting research and working with Australian health policy experts on issues relevant to both countries."

California Health Journalism Fellowship, USC Annenberg California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships
Eligibility: Open to professional journalists from print, broadcast, and online media in California, including freelancers. Applicants need not be full time health reporters, but they need to have a passion for health news (broadly defined).
Included: All-expenses paid seminars in Los Angeles, mentoring for completion of reporting project
Deadline: Aug. 26, 2011
From the Website: "During the Fellowship sessions, Fellows get plenty of time to discuss with experts, and with each other, strategies for covering health news with authority and sophistication. Between the two sessions and for three months after the second session, Fellows confer by phone and e-mail with veteran journalists who guide them through work on major Fellowship projects."

Educational Opportunities

Rural Health Journalism Workshop 2011, Association of Health Care Journalists
Eligibility: AHCJ members (apply via website)
Program: The workshop will take place June 3, 2011 and includes breakfast and lunch.
From the Website:"Even if your newsroom is in a bustling city, there are untold rural health stories down the road. So join us in St. Louis for this special one-day, no-fee workshop to help you find and cover health stories in rural America."

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