Competence and competition….and community

This Tuesday I’ll be hopping over to Sydney to attend the launch of a science writing anthology, The Best Australian Science Writing 2015. It should be a great read, from the few pieces I’ve been able to track down before I get my hands on the anthology itself. By all means grab a copy for yourself at your nearest book-dispensing entity. But that’s not exactly what I want to talk about.

Here’s the thing: My piece, an excerpt from my immunology book, is on the shortlist for the Bragg science writing prize; the winner and the runners-up will be announced at the launch, so I don’t know yet. It’s an absolute honour to even be considered; to be frank , when I got the email telling me I’m shortlisted, the first thing that popped into my mind was the phrase ‘there must be some mistake’.

Still, to be even more frank  – and this is getting a bit uncomfortable for me to write – I’ve been walking around these past couple of weeks with a part of me nagging away anxiously “I wonder whether I’ll win it; I wonder whether I’ll win it”. And I seem to be thinking that, not just because it involves money, or that it’ll look nice on my cv (I’ll admit to both of these fairly legitimate, if somewhat embarrassing, considerations), but just so that I can say to myself that I’m BETTER.

Which is, of course, utterly idiotic. Not only has the decision been made already, but it is, anyone will admit, kind of meaningless. Any piece of writing in the anthology is bound to be of high quality; any piece on the shortlist would be of very high quality (I’ve read a couple and yes they are very good indeed) – and there is no way to objectively measure which piece is ‘the best’ of the lot – we’ve all written about different topics, in different styles and approaches, for different audiences, and under different constraints. How can winning be meaningful at all if you’re not even running the same race?

So when I try to analyse what I feel about this episode, I find that I can neatly separate two different kinds of feelings: the first came when I was told I’d been included in the anthology. It is a bright, well-scrubbed sense of professional competence – a validation of my ability that I can produce science writing to a high standard. This feeling is a useful tool in any professional’s toolbox, possibly even more than average for writers, who are notoriously plagued by self-doubt about their abilities. Such a sign that you’re okay at this writing thing can really really help when you’re struggling with a recalcitrant passage.

The second kind of feeling is one of competition – the wanting to win this. With all due respect to the cultural drive ‘to be the best’, in this case I find it’s useless, perhaps even damaging, for me to feel this way; if I do happen to win (and I don’t think that’s likely, by the way), it won’t validate my competence to any greater extent than it now is. It might even make me think about writing in competitive terms – which, again, is not even a thing. And if I don’t win, then I stand to be disappointed. Both results will affect not my professional view of myself, but the immature part of my ego that craves adoration (ouch).

And so, as Tuesday draws near, I’m working on myself, reiterating to my inner child that whatever happens in Sydney doesn’t matter. Oh, I’ll definitely be making some noise if I end up being the winner or a runner-up; but internally, for the person who’ll be sitting at the keyboard the next day, the result of the competition doesn’t matter. What matters is taking the next blank page and finding a way to tell another good story.


The anthology launch was yesterday. It was great. I came home with a ‘runner-up’ award, which I’m very happy about. This year’s winner is Christine Kenneally, and her contribution is an exceptional story of Huntington’s disease excerpted from her most recent book.

In regards to all the stuff I wrote about above, I found that it took a neat little twist: After attending the launch, I feel – for the first time – that I’m a legitimate science writer, but I feel that not because of the formality of receiving a nice piece of paper, but because I was treated as a legitimate science writer by my fellow science writers, publishers, and other people who are interested in science communication. We talked, we shared anecdotes, views and ideas, laughed and sympathised. In short, I felt I was included by a community of my peers.

And so, what ended up mattering the most was the tribe. It seems obvious in retrospect; a science writer should’ve remembered that us humans are above all social animals who strive for inclusion. It’s a good feeling to have, isn’t it?

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