There are tons and tons of cool things in the world. Cool people doing cool work. Weird discoveries. New technologies. Funny-looking animals. Whatever your beat, there are always going to be more ideas than there are stories. What’s the difference between a great idea and a great story? Great question.
An idea is like, a topic. A subject. A singular concept. Maybe your idea is to profile your favorite Twitter scientist. Maybe you just heard that researchers in X country are using Y unexpected animal to study Z disease. Maybe you just have a random question that you’ve always wondered about, and want to know the answer (and think other people might, too.) Why do you sneeze when you look into the light?
But an idea (almost) always will need more development than this before you can be sure it’s worth a story. Luckily, it shouldn’t be too hard to beef it up (or discover that there’s no beef to be found, so you can move on with your life.) There are a couple ways you might approach this, but in general, I like to think about 1. Why should anyone read about this topic? and 2. Why now?
Find the News Hook
An easy tidbit to add to any idea is some current relevancy. Sure, my idea about sneezes might be kinda interesting on the surface. But is it cold and flu season? Is there a global pandemic? Did a politician recently sneeze awkwardly into a light and now people are Googling “awkward sneeze” to laugh at the video? Is there new research on sneezes? Any of these could give a little more meat to your idea and answer the “why now?” question.
Find the Narrative
My favorite science stories to read are ones that walk me through a process of discovery. Stories that say: We used to think X, then researchers did Y experiment, and now it seems more like Z is true. I realize most of science doesn’t come with distinct “eureka” moments … but when it does, I eat it up.
More generally, it’s a good idea to look into the topics you’re interested in to and see how they’ve changed over time. If there’s cool new research you want to cover, how long have the scientists been working on it? What inspired them to start on that particular research path?
Cast of Characters
If you have the space, adding some personality to your people can really spice things up. Is one of your sources a real character? Can you sprinkle in those details without getting too off topic? If you’ve got a lot of space, how about some character development? I realize this isn't necessarily in the cards for most short-form writing, but, it’s still something to think about.
Another way to add tantalizing substance to an idea is to get into its future implications. What will this topic mean for the world? It can be hard to get scientists to comment too far outside their actual data — as it should be — but everybody has hopes and dreams and ambitions. Just make sure to keep the “well if I absolutely had to guess” part of your source's quote so you’re not giving more certainty to their prediction than they want.
Musings on science writing, from a scientist turned writer.