Max Perutz Award science writing tips
Our Max Perutz Science Writing Award is now in its 21st year. To help 2018 entrants, Isabel Harding shares science writing tips from last year’s winner and runners-up, along with comments from the judges on why their articles made the cut. This year’s competition closes on 4 July.
Kirstin Leslie, from the Institute of Health and Wellbeing at the University of Glasgow, was our 2017 winner. She recommends reading around to help with your science writing: “I feel like if you do read a lot and absorb a lot of material yourself you’ll be able to learn techniques from other writers.
“And without even releasing it I think you can gain a lot of skills through that. It’s just a really useful exercise to think about your research in a way that is relatable to people and is entertaining to people and I think it’s just a really good thing to do.”
Get straight to the point
The judges liked how Kirstin introduced her research early on: “Kirstin’s winning article is a very engaging read. The first paragraph articulates in a tangible way the problem of people failing to take medication properly for preventing heart disease. This makes it obvious straight away why her research matters. Kirstin uses a nice variety of tone and touches of humour. Her writing style is lively, witty and direct. A worthy winner!”
Listen to more science writing tips and tricks in our MRC talks podcast:
Keep your audience in mind
Advice from runner-up Sophie Quick, a PhD student from the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, is: “Write passionately about what you are interested in and really try and focus in on the question. Think about your audience as well – remember that they have a lot less knowledge about your specific area, but don’t underestimate their intelligence.”
Paint pictures with words
Be careful with analogies, they have to work. But in Sophie’s case the judges liked what they read: “Sophie compares the irrigation system in a greenhouse to the structures inside the brain, to help explain small vessel disease which can cause dementia. It’s an excellent marriage of illustration and research theme throughout, and the research is very well-explained.”
Use friends and family
Runner-up Lara Morley, of the Leeds Institute of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Medicine, recommends asking your loved-ones for help: “I think going through the process is a really nice way of focusing your research. Trying to explain something to a lay audience and talking about it with my friends and relatives, to see if they understand what I’m doing, really helps to focus the mind and makes you ask important questions of yourself, like why am I doing this, why is this important. And that then helps shape your article.”
Make your science writing personal
The judges enjoyed Lara’s personal touch: “Lara’s article is passionate but not over the top; well-structured and engaging. She’s looking for ways to treat a failing placenta by increasing the blood supply to the foetus in the womb. She articulates her research and why it’s important very well. She includes a lovely personal ending about expecting her first baby. Great title too!”
Humanise your research
Nadine Mirza, our third runner-up from the University of Manchester, learnt how to make her work more accessible: “I definitely learnt how to simplify what I’m doing as best as I can, and disseminate it to a more lay audience. This entire experience taught me to humanise it, to make it more accessible because at the end of the day the general public are the people being affected and impacted by the research, so if they don’t understand it, well that’s not really fair is it.”
Balance narrative and fact
Getting the right balance means you draw your reader in right from the start. This is something the judges felt that Nadine did particularly well: “An enchanting piece in which Nadine’s character shines through. She explains clearly why changes are needed to a routine test for diagnosing dementia, that are unbiased by language or culture, to prevent incorrect diagnoses. It’s a strong article that balances narrative and fact, and draws the reader in right from the start.”
Read more tips in our Secrets of science writing, compiled by previous Max Perutz Award judges.