These tips and tricks will help you submit an essay to the UNSW Bragg Student Prize for Science Writing. But it’s also useful information for anyone who wants to write for a living.
UNSW Bragg Student Prize for Science Writing
Future Earth: Creating a more sustainable planet by 2030
Discover and report on current research into creating a sustainable future for planet Earth.
In the next decade, our global society faces major challenges in developing sustainable energy solutions, food sources, clean water, and waste management and in protecting biodiversity. In this essay, describe one of the challenges we face, and present your ideas or past research into how we are currently addressing, or we could potentially address, these issues.
Your 800 word essay could consist of:
– A news story on an exciting piece of research that aims to solve issues relating to climate change, clean water, pollution, clean energy, food security and biodiversity.
– Your own ideas for sustainable initiatives that will make an impact in your community, in Australia or around the world.
– An essay on why these issues are important for society; their impact and the need to address the challenges in food, water, climate, pollution and biodiversity.
For examples and questions to help you get started click HERE.
YOUR ESSAY SHOULD INCLUDE:
A great title
A short introduction with an engaging first paragraph
A body of information describing the sustainability research, initiatives or impacts you’ve chosen to write about
The significance of the research, initiatives or impacts
For the UNSW Bragg Student Prize for Science Writing, judges will look at the suitability of the topic, your creativity and style of writing, the quality of your writing (including grammar and spelling), the accuracy of the text and the use of colour and tone (descriptive words, phrases and the use of text to convey your message in an engaging way).
Before you start surfing a minefield of information on sustainability, narrow down your topic. Think about what inspires you in this area. There’s plenty you could write about, and if you are passionate about the topic, this will clearly come through in your essay.
Choose your angle
The task is not to write a comprehensive report of everything known about the topic – especially in less than 800 words. So it’s important to choose the angle of your story early on.
For example, will you:
• report on new research?
• discuss your own ideas?
• justify or critique the importance of sustainability?
Also known as the ‘hook’, the angle both narrows the focus of your article and grabs your reader’s interest. In news stories and most blogs, you’ll generally find the angle is in the lead sentence or first paragraph of the story.
One angle could be to look at how research in an area of sustainability might affect one group of people, animals or environment in particular. How will it make life better or help to protect them? You could also look at how the research came about, or how it might change in the future. Will sustainability be more or less important to society in 100 or even 1000 years?
Your angle needs to be attention grabbing and have relevance to your audience. In other words, it is not old news and has not been written about before, or if it has, try to take a fresh approach or offer a new point of view. The rest of your story will hang off your angle, so it’s important to get this right first.
This is not always easy and you may find that you need to do some more research to pin down your angle.
Things to keep in mind while writing your essay:
• Who/what is your story about?
• Why is it important?
• Is there anything new about it?
• What’s changed or what will change as a result of the research or sustainable initiatives?
• When and where did it happen/is it happening?
• Who/what will affected by it and why/how?
A great first line
First lines are great hooks for your readers, like a baited line, it entices them into your story. You could start with a quote, something surprising, a short definitive and challenging statement, an unbelievable fact, or a moody description that sets the scene. Here are five memorable first lines in science:
Start a blog, I told myself. Then you can write about anything you want.
The Vanishing Writers, Fiona McMillan, freelance science writer
Everything you experience is an illusion to some extent.
It’s all in your mind: The feeling of ‘wetness’ is an illusion, Jesse Hawley, Communications Officer, CSIRO
One whiff of the corpse and he was hooked.
Love Bug, Wendy Zukerman, science journalist
“The best thing you could do for the Amazon is blow up all the roads.”
Global ‘roadmap’ shows where to put roads without costing the earth, William Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor at James Cook University in Cairns
In a corner of the Port of Brisbane, close to the CBD, no human is allowed to tread.
Robots on a roll, James Mitchell Crow, Deputy Editor, COSMOS Magazine
Get your facts right
The mantra of writers is “Accuracy, brevity and clarity”. There’s a reason accuracy is a top priority – people often take the written word as truth. So it’s important for you to do your best to ensure the facts are correct. As a writer, your reputation will depend on the accuracy of your work. Keep this in mind as you research and write your story. Once you’re finished, get someone else to check it, or check it again yourself. Myriad resources are available today at your fingertips. Keep track of references and websites you’ve visited from the start. Not only will this help you with your research, it also useful when you check your copy once you’ve finished.
1. Use reputable sources
These can include but are not limited to:
• Journal articles published in reputable journals – journals that are well known or make an impact.
• Websites or research reports from government-sponsored organisations, higher educational institutions or government departments – be sure to check dates, however, as information can quickly become dated.
• Books, blogs, newspaper and magazine articles written by experts in the field, individuals who have studied and become qualified in this area and who regularly write about it.
• Expert commentary – interviews with people who are working with or involved in the area you are writing about can be excellent sources of information. However, keep in mind everyone has opinions – and their information may inadvertently be out of date (or wrong). Make sure you clearly attribute the information that came from these sources.
2. Check names, dates, places and facts
Double-check everything you write by at least two reputable sources and, if you have time, run the text past someone who is knowledgeable about the topic.
Don’t write too much
When you read over your article, you’ll find you can edit some of the information that you included at first. Writing short pieces is often harder than writing long pieces, however. You’ll make life a lot easier for yourself if you keep it brief and to the point in the first place.
While you shouldn’t be afraid to use ‘colour’ – the thoughts, feelings and descriptions that bring writing to life – your goal in a short article is to keep your writing simple and to the point. Avoid long-winded sentences, and try to only present one idea per paragraph.
A few more general writing tips:
• Try to use active verbs where you can.
• Keep clauses short and simple; where possible, avoid acronyms or initials.
• Make sure that your first sentence is clear, brief and engaging.
• Make sure your paragraphs are concise – shorter stories tend to have shorter paragraphs than longer articles.
• Keep your word count down by avoiding long-winded and passive sentences (e.g. use ‘Director Marie Curie’s lab research was world-changing’ rather than ‘The research by Marie Curie, the Director of the lab, changed the world’).
• Be ruthless with your writing – it’s better than having someone else (like an editor, or a teacher!) be ruthless with it.
Keep it clear
As a writer, you need to become an expert on the topic for the duration of your writing. Don’t expect everyone else to be an expert, however. Keep in mind the audience you are writing for. What is their assumed knowledge? What needs to be spelled out? Avoid jargon or confusing sentences – you’ll quickly lose your audience.
Leave it and then read it again
It’s useful to give yourself some time away before you review your work. If you can, leave it for a day. Get someone else whose opinion you trust to read the piece and offer feedback. If you don’t have time, a useful practice is to read your piece aloud as if you were on the radio. This will help you identify awkward sentences or mistakes.
You should ask yourself the big questions as you finalise your piece:
1. Do you have a successful story angle? Is it interesting, new, relevant, amazing? Would you tell your friends about it ?
2. Did you present your story angle in the opening paragraph, or is it buried too deep into the story? If your readers only take in the opening paragraph, they should still have a clear idea of what the story was about.
3. Did your story address the angle? Does the rest of the writing support the original premise? Did you include too much information, or meander from the point?
4. Is it accurate? Check again that you have confidence to support your facts and claims. If they’re not your facts, identify the source in the article so your readers know where the information came from.