1, Starting a Career in Science Writing
We asked, they answered, and we wrote it down.
NEXT WAVE EDITORS
20 MAY 2005
Science writing encompasses a wide variety of niches that can include writing for newspapers, mass-market magazines, trade publications, university press offices, broadcast media, and newsletters, among many other venues. But regardless of where you end up publishing—most writers end up working several of the venues listed above—a great way to learn the terrain is to listen to others who already work in the field, either on the writing side or the hiring—that is, the editing—side.
|That's why in preparing this feature we queried established writers and editors on many of the issues we remember facing when we were first getting started: deciding what training is best, what markets are most accessible and lucrative, how to get that very first gig, and practical, day-to-day concerns like accounting and dealing with taxes. |
We asked, they answered, and we wrote it down. The result is a coherent package of articles that we believe constitutes—pound for pound and dollar for dollar—the best short introduction to a career in science writing currently available.
We suggest you start off with Some Thoughts on Becoming a Science Writer, in which Jim Austin, Editor of Science's Next Wave, covers some of the basics from the perspective of an editor and a former (and occasionally a current) freelancer, offering tips on making the transition from the scientific bench to published authorship.
In preparing Science Journalism Degrees: Do They Make a Difference? Robin Arnette spoke to school officials and former students from three leading U.S. science-writing programs about the value of formal training in science journalism. Do you really need a credential to make it in this field?
In Breaking into the Media—Do You Need Formal Training? Contributing Editor for Europe Elisabeth Pain addressed the same question, more or less, from a European perspective, where writers can choose between a journalism program, a program in science communications, or no formal training at all.
Also reporting from Europe but, for this article, covering a broader territory that includes North America, European Editor Anne Forde suggests Some Markets to Explore, noting that the most lucrative and approachable science-writing niches aren't always—or usually—the most obvious. Opportunities exist in everything from newspapers to books to internal company reports. What are the differences between these markets? And what strategies do seasoned professionals recommend for budding science writers? Anne and her sources aim to answer these questions.
It is entirely possible for a seasoned—or not so seasoned—scientist to make it as a writer, but that doesn't mean it's easy. In Survival Secrets of Freelance Writers, Canadian correspondent and frequent freelancer Andrew Fazekas joins a select group of freelance writers in offering advice on surviving in this hectic world and noting that earning a living as an independent science writer takes discipline, perseverance, and a thick skin.
Finally, Managing Editor and long-time freelancer Alan Kotok offers his Freelancer's Business Start-Up Kit, a succinct introduction to the business aspects of writing for a living independently.
2, Science Writing: Some Tips for Beginners
NEXT WAVE EDITOR
20 MAY 2005
There's another good reason why advanced scientific training is advantageous: It can make you a better journalist.
As a writer, an editor, and a former scientist, I rarely give a public presentation that I'm not approached afterward by at least one—and often more—scientists aiming to leave the bench and become a science writer. So, I decided to take the opportunity this feature offers to pass along the advice I offer on those occasions, hopefully in a more coherent form.
For serious, talented individuals who are willing to approach the transition with seriousness and focus, the odds are not as bad as you might think.
When I first started trying to make a living as a freelancer, it seemed the world was teeming with talented writers but that paying gigs were few. Then when I become an editor, suddenly the reverse seemed true: there were too few capable writers around. One, or maybe two, conclusions seem justified: the real difficulty for writers and editors is making the right connections. And, apart from the basics, the most important skill a science writer can gain is the ability to understand and then meet the specific needs of a particular editor and her publication.
|If you aren't a good writer—or unless you have some other gift that will serve you well in this profession—pick another career.|
I don't mean to suggest that you have to have phenomenal rhetorical skills in order to make it as a science writer. Many science writers aren't gifted at spinning prose. Some get by with a good nose for news, strong research skills, and hard, careful work. Others never learn, and struggle along for years, never finding their work satisfying and leaving a trail of editors convinced they didn't get their money's worth.
There are easier and more lucrative ways for science Ph.D.s to make a living. If you're not finding that your prose comes easily and don't feel a real compulsion to write about science, keep looking; you'll find your calling.
Advanced scientific training can work against you.
Yet, scientists with a broad perspective are often viewed with suspicion by their peers. And then there is the matter of science's conspicuously compact and jargon-laden language, which is, perhaps, the most efficient means of communicating with other experts but is a lousy way to tell a good story. One other point that works against you: increasingly, established scientists are pursuing science writing as a sideline, taking work away from full-time professionals. The result: widespread resentment of people with science backgrounds entering science writing.
This resentment wouldn't be a problem were it not for the fact that some of these people go on to become editors, and will, therefore, be reading your queries critically and evaluating your credentials. You will get a fair reading, almost always, but don't expect any special favors.
Is there merit to the charge that you are taking their profession too lightly? Well, are you? Science writing is indeed a profession full of dedicated individuals doing difficult, painstaking work, and doing it brilliantly. The most accomplished science writers deserve just as much respect as the most accomplished scientists. No one should take this profession lightly, or enter it on a whim.
Yet, many successful science writers chose science writing as an alternative career, on the rebound from the bench, or just stumbled into it. If you're serious and capable, you can do it, too.
Is there any advantage, then, to having an advanced degree in science?
But there's another good reason why advanced scientific training is advantageous: it can make you a better journalist.
Some people in this profession make a distinction between science writers—whose job is to clearly and accurately describe interesting science in plain language—and science journalists—whose job is to get to the bottom of a story, to figure out what's really going on behind the scenes, who the main players are, and what the real "scoop" is.
Unless you happen to be writing about your narrow specialty—which probably won't happen nearly often enough to make a career—your scientific training won't help you much to become a better science writer.
But scientific training will help you be a better journalist. Many of the old salts among today's science writers started out as journalists then switched over to the science beat after acquiring a measure of reportorial savvy, and that's what makes them good science writers.
Many of the skills of science and journalism are very similar. If during the bench-science phase of your career you manage to make yourself into an effective researcher, then those same aptitudes—especially a healthy skepticism and a belief that every problem has a solution—will make you a better journalist. You won't be satisfied with describing surfaces when there's something deeper to explore.
Any advice on query writing?
The best advice I can give about query letters is to do your homework, network, and always to write queries appropriate for the publication. Once you are established, the editor will trust you to deliver a sound product every time. When you're just starting out, you can sometimes accomplish the same thing by convincing the editor that you're serious, have potential, and deserve a break. Familiarity, in this case, breeds content. See below.
There's another respect in which it is important to specialize. There's a tendency, when first starting out, to view query writing as equivalent to buying a lottery ticket. If you pitch a story enough times, the reasoning goes, someone is bound to catch it. For the aspiring writer this approach has a certain psychological appeal: It requires lots of busy-work so you feel like you're doing something, but it doesn't take much of an emotional commitment. It feels safe.
That safety is precisely why it's a bad approach. Any career transition requires a serious investment. You have to take some chances. Here's another reason: As I suggested earlier, it's all about making connections, and that isn't something you can do casually.
Do your homework and work only a few publications at a time. Choose well: there's no point in wasting time on publications that don't publish new writers.
Then put some eggs in those baskets. Study the publications you target until you know them inside and out. What categories of content do they publish? How are the articles structured? Who generally writes the articles in each category—staff writers or freelancers? Know precisely what the editors are interested in, then write a query that promises them what you already know they want.
Be patient and build long-term relationships.
My first contribution to Stereophile, a publication I still contribute to occasionally, was a letter to the editor that was posted online. That letter was the beginning of a regular (but not too frequent) correspondence between the magazine's editor and me. My second contribution to Stereophile was a personal essay that was published on page one. The time between first contact and first paying gig: about 2 years.
Take every opportunity to publish good writing.
She will, however, know if it's a hack job. So don't allow anything to be published that isn't your best work, even if you don't get paid.
Savor the experience.
3, Science Journalism Degrees—Do They Make a Difference?
DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA
20 MAY 2005
Is specialized training in science writing required to be successful in the field? Some of the country's top science writers have no training in journalism and would probably answer "no." Yet, even if a science writing degree isn't absolutely necessary for a science writing career, it does make entering the field a whole lot easier.
Jennifer Frazer, an environment reporter for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and a graduate of the science writing program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) says, "The sad truth is regardless of your ability, with so few jobs, competition will be fierce and my sense is that employers tend to favor those with writing degrees or lots of experience."
|For this story, Science's Next Wave looked at the methods for preparing science writers at the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT, The Center for Science and Medical Journalism at Boston University (BU), and the Science Communication Program at the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC). Program directors, former program participants, and science editors who have worked with their graduates agree that graduate-level training in science writing is a great way to get started in the business. |
Those admitted to these programs can expect to dive head first into an intense one-year program that includes an internship period. Most of the students who enroll are mid-career scientists with extensive research experience. But according to Marcia Bartusiak, visiting professor at the MIT program, these aren't just lab rats looking to find an alternative career in science. "They are usually people who had been conflicted from the start," she says. "They arrived at college and saw two paths in front of them, one science and the other writing. Some of them chose the science route, but always felt their heartstrings being tugged toward writing."
Douglas Starr, co-director of the Center at BU, agrees and says those students are better adjusted than many of their colleagues because they see the larger picture. "A lot of students who have been really good at science and English have always been told they are sort of odd or that they don't fit," he says. "But the truth is they fit better than anybody else. They understand there is no division between science and the humanities because they're both deeply human activities."