5 tips for scientists who want to become science writers
Because I became a full-time science writer after obtaining a PhD, scientists often ask me: “How can I do the same?” I understand the appeal: A science writer gets to grapple with a wide range of fascinating scientific subjects in a public forum, yet work mostly at home in sweatpants. Besides, science writing is not just interesting — it is also important. Scientific, medical, and technological concepts underpin some of today’s most important issues, including climate change, artificial intelligence, and clinical trials. A better-informed public, or so the argument goes, can better evaluate these issues.
But few scientists know what makes a good science writer, or what steps to take to become one. Even fewer are acquainted with the reality of the field.
Carl Zimmer, in a blog post, points out that “How do I become a science writer?” is not the same question as “How did you become a science writer?” For instance, my path — which I’ll get to later — was a winding one.
Regardless of how you make the transition to science writing, these five tips will serve you well.
1. Write about science
The first tip is obvious but often overlooked by aspiring science writers. Imagine walking into the operating room and saying, “I have given this a lot of thought, and I would like to do some surgery now.” The doctors would correctly assume you are crazy. Although the stakes are lower, an editor might have a similar reaction: How do I know this person can write?
Scientific expertise does not automatically confer communication skills (as you’ve probably noted just before nodding off in the back of a conference auditorium during a PowerPoint presentation). Expertise is an asset, but it’s also a liability. On the one hand, an expert can parse scientific papers adeptly, and may have an eye for more obscure findings that would escape other writers. On the other hand, proximity to the field can make it difficult to judge what will interest a general reader. As an expert, you’ll have to recalibrate your definition of what is interesting — and that is not easy. One of the most common mistakes I observe in aspiring science writers is assuming that because the writer is interested in the topic, the reader will be too.
To get a jumpstart on building you skills, see if your university already has any programs or course, such as NYU’s science communication workshops, or has plans to offer any. If not, convince your university to bring a workshop to campus. Start by checking out the offerings at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, Story Collider, COMPASS [pdf], ComSciCon, and AAAS.
Whether or not you get official training, you’ll need to practice writing on your own — begin with just a few hundred words a day. Try to distill complex topics into jargon-free prose. Summarize your own research, and later, research from outside your field. Next, shift your focus from explanation to narrative. Learn about character, and the difference between a topic and a story. Learn how to lay out the stakes of your story — what I call the ‘so-what’ factor. Learn how to use suspense. Last but not least, learn how to write a good sentence. You did not become a scientist overnight — writing is no different.
Unsurprisingly, writers love to write about writing. Here are some of my favorite books in the genre:
● On Writing Well, William Zinsser
● Telling True Stories, eds. Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
● How to Write a Sentence, Stanley Fish
● Elements of Style, Strunk and White
2. Learn how to read like a writer
Reading quality science writing is equally as important as practicing your own. A piece of writing may be easy to read, but that it does not necessarily mean it was easy to write. Many people can drive a car, but few can actually build one. However, with the right tools, you can look under the hood, so to speak, to understand how writing works.
Other stories can serve as guides to think about structure and style for your own work. For example, if you wanted to write an Op-Ed, you could start by reading several editorials in The New York Times. But the key is to evaluate the technique, not just the content. Your job is to figure out what makes the article tick. Observe what the author did, and then determine how he or she did it. Map out the purpose of each section, paragraph, and sentence. Why do the paragraphs appear in the order they do? How did the author begin and end each paragraph? What words were chosen, and why? What science terminology was included, and what was excluded? Identify the point of view: Is the author a character in the piece? The point is to recognize that the writer had to make choices, and that those choices have consequences for the reader. Finally, consider how you could apply these techniques to your own writing.
Science journalist Diana Crow puts together a regular round-up of great short-form science writing, and The Open Notebook — a great resource for science writers generally — has a series called “storygrams,” in which writers annotate award-winning longform science stories.
Or find your own inspiration in articles appearing in proliferating science-focused publications. Here’s a few examples:
And, for a sampling of the classics, I recommend these:
● Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, ed. Richard Dawkins
● Faber Book of Science, ed. John Carey
● The Best of the Best American Science Writing, ed. Jesse Cohen
3. Learn how to pitch a story
Reading and writing are essential, but most writers also want to publish. As a scientist, you would complete the work, draft your paper, and submit it to a publication. In science writing, it can happen that way, but more commonly, articles are pitched.
A pitch is what it sounds like: a brief written proposal intended to entice an editor. It describes the article you hope to write for their publication, and why you should be the one to write it. The length of the pitch is important. Editors are pressed for time, so be brief and include it directly in the body of the email. For example, a pitch for a 1,000-word commentary for Slate might be only four to five sentences, while a pitch for a 5,000-word cover story for The Atlantic might run several paragraphs.
Note: When contacting an editor, always be sure to include links to a few “clips,” or previously published articles, to demonstrate your writing skills. If you have not yet had articles published, I recommend writing for more specialized blogs first, such as ChemMatters (the American Chemical Society’s blog) or Scienceline, or Astrobites. You can also contribute to PLoS’s blogs, or join the Massive Science Consortium. Wherever you pitch, suggest short articles first, which editors consider less risky to assign to novices. (Some of my first articles were 300- to 500-word news blurbs for Scientific American.)
4. Meet science writers
One of the best ways to learn about science writing is to meet the people doing it. In New York, the group Science Writers of New York (or SWINY) has regular meet-ups. Here’s a list from the National Association of Science Writers of other groups around the country. If you’re in NYC, event spaces for science nerds are proliferating, and are a great place to meet people. Caveat, started by ex-physicist and Story Collider founder Ben Lillie, is my favorite.
You can also follow science writers on social media, and contribute to the conversation. This is a great way not only to make connections and form friendships, but also to see what science writers are talking about and which articles are getting the most attention. To get your started, here’s a list of a few science writers on Twitter, and here’s a more comprehensive one.
5. Get to know the realities of the field
Science writing, like academic research, is an extremely competitive field. Beginner freelance science writers make little money, and even experienced writers can struggle to pay the bills (according to The Open Notebook, the mean annual income of a freelance science writer is $50K; keep in mind that’s before taxes, and with no benefits). It’s possible to land a job as a staff writer, although such jobs are increasingly scarce as publications continue to cut those positions. Here are some numbers on salary and rates compiled by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (entry-level: $40K). Many writers I know support themselves in other ways, especially when launching careers. They are what I call “writers-and-,” as in “writers-and-tutors,” “writers-and-techs,” “writers-and-consultants,” “writers-and-living-with-your-parents,” etc.
These grim numbers aren’t meant to discourage you, but it’s worth taking a moment to assess whether you can tolerate the financial instability of a writing career.
One alternative to freelancing right out of graduate school is to enroll in a science journalism program. These programs — which generally consist of about a year of classes, writing intensively, and internships — are a great way to learn and make connections. But a note of caution: These degrees are expensive. The tuition for MIT’s program in 2018–2019, for example, is $54,020/year. (That does not include living expenses in Boston.) Given the financial reality of the field, $50K is a hefty price tag. This article in Science discusses the benefits and drawbacks of science journalism programs. Unlike academia, a degree isn’t necessary to be a journalist. Many science writers do not have journalism degrees, and it seems to make little difference to an editor whether a writer does or not (the same goes for whether the writer has a PhD or not). The real measure is not academic pedigree but professional chops: Have you proven that you can write?
If there is anything I have learned — and this can be particularly frustrating to those coming from the more structured professional world of academia — it is that there is no one way to become a science writer. You’ll have to chart your own path.
Here’s mine. I came to science relatively late. In college, I studied literature and creative writing. After college, I worked various odd jobs and then, because a family member had dementia, I decided to learn more about the brain. I volunteered in a lab that imaged dementia patients, and I was hooked. I went back to school to take undergraduate science courses, eventually earned a master’s degree studying fly genetics, and then received my PhD in Neuroscience from Columbia.
During my first year of graduate school at Columbia, I joined NeuWrite, a collaborative workshop of scientists and writers that meets regularly to discuss member work. The following year, I began running it. NeuWrite revived my interest in writing, taught me about the world of science writing, and introduced me to people actually doing it. I spent a few years practicing on my own. I did communications work for foundations and universities. Then, I published my first article — a book review — for free. That first clip enabled me to pitch other editors, many of whom I met through meet-ups. Over the next few years, I continued to work on my technique, to build up clips, and to hound people for advice. I’ve now published in great venues such as The New York Times, Newsweek, and Slate.
But to chalk this up to hard work would be misleading. I also got lucky. A handful of editors were willing to take a chance on a novice. For instance, my first pitch to The New York Times was solidly mediocre, but the editor — who I had just happened to meet at a social gathering — called me up to discuss how I could tweak the article to make it work for his section. He worked with me closely through reporting and edits. That level of attention was incredibly generous (and unusual), and I remain grateful to this day. That clip — my first feature — was very useful in securing my next assignments from other outlets.
That is my story. Yours will be quite different. (See Ed Yong’s blog post “On the Origins of Science Writers” for 145 more stories.) But just because the path is uncertain does not mean that it is impossible. It’s a wonderful and rewarding line of work, so tuck The Science Writer’s Handbook under your arm and don’t be afraid to trade the pipette for the pen:
A version of this article was originally posted on Columbia University’s GSAS blog.