Writers wanted

Would you like to become the next Richard Dawkins? If so, sign up for the UK's first non-fiction creative writing course. Hilary Wilce reports

Have you got an interest in science or technology? Do you also want to write? Do you dream of your ground-breaking book on artificial intelligence or the new frontiers of neuroscience getting on to the best-seller list? If so, Imperial College, London, has just the course for you.

Have you got an interest in science or technology? Do you also want to write? Do you dream of your ground-breaking book on artificial intelligence or the new frontiers of neuroscience getting on to the best-seller list? If so, Imperial College, London, has just the course for you.

In September, the college launches the UK's first Master's degree in creative non-fiction writing. Which isn't, says Jon Turney, the course leader, a contradiction in terms, because, although the programme is designed specifically for people who want to write about factual material, the aim is to help them do it "using a gripping narrative, and a variety of writerly techniques. We wanted the 'C' word in there, because although we're talking about stuff that you're not making up, we're not talking about writing dry textbooks either."

Turney, who has written Lovelock and Gaia: Signs of Life, on the man who inspired the Green movement, and Frankenstein's Footsteps: Science, genetics and popular culture, and who is an editorial consultant with Penguin, believes that, although the big boom in popular science writing has calmed down and editors are no longer throwing big bucks around, publishers are still hunting for good projects. And this course will give students an edge in placing their work.

The course sits alongside two other MSc courses in science communications - one focusing on science and the media, and the other on science and radio and television production - and elements of these will slot into the new book-focused course. "For example, we teach science and fiction, looking at how plays and novels use science, and we teach narrative theory and structure," says Nick Russell, the director of the science communication group at the college. "We could have made this an MA course if we had wanted, but we thought we'd add it to our other MScs to keep the brand, if you like. The bizarreness of it is almost a kind of hook."

Students will be able to take the course as a one-year, full-time programme, or over two years part-time, and it will be modelled closely on the many successful creative writing programmes around the country, with students working on their own projects, being coached in small groups, and attending seminars held by visiting writers and publishers. Students will be helped to develop skills which combine analytical expertise, factual research and explanatory techniques using traditional literary devices such as plot, character and dialogue. They will also be tutored in writing good book-proposals, and in how publishing works.

"Writing with the explanatory clarity of Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker, as engagingly as Bill Bryson in A Short History of Nearly Everything, or as dramatically as James Watson in The Double Helix demands literary skill of a high order," says the college in its launch announcement of the course.

Creative non-fiction courses have been run in the United States for 30 years, but this is the first such course on this side of the Atlantic. "This is about the serious business of writing about serious stuff for a popular audience," says Russell. In future, he foresees that the course may expand beyond pure science-writing into other areas of factual writing, such as philosophy and economics, although not the more lightweight ones of travel or biography. "We won't do lifestyle journalism," he says, "but I don't see why we have to have things in ghettos. The barriers need breaking down. This could be for anyone who is trying to communicate serious ideas." He also sees it as being open to good candidates who don't necessarily have a science or technology degree, and possibly expanding beyond books into other areas, such as website development or scriptwriting.

Enquiries are coming in, as word of the course gets out. "I had an e-mail from someone who said he was a science writer and had thought about writing a book, but wouldn't have the confidence to do it alone," says Russell.

The college thinks the course could be of interest to a wide swathe of people - journalists, teachers, researchers and new graduates. "We can't teach people how to write, but we can take what they want to do and help them make it better" he says, "and offer them a safe environment in which to do it."

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