5 Tips for Scientists Who Want to Become Science Writers
Because I became a 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 the most important issues of the day, 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 six 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 assume you are crazy—and they would be correct. An editor would 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). Expertise is an asset, but it’s also a liability. On 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 may make it more difficult to take a step back and present the science so it’s compelling and accessible to a wide audience. 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.
Start by writing only for yourself—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.
Fortunately, 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 are able to drive a car, but only a 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 a book review, you could start by reading several book reviews in The New York Times Sunday Book Review. But the key is to evaluate the technique, not just the content—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? Which elements are facts and which are speculations? 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.
There are many science-focused publications from which to draw inspiration. Here are five that launched within the past five years:
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.
This article explains the elements of a successful pitch, and these two articles illustrate what makes it a flop. The Open Notebook, an excellent resource for science writers, has compiled successful pitches in their “Pitch Database.”
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. Suggest short articles, which editors consider less risky to assign to novices. (Many 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 and events. Here is a list from the National Association of Science Writers of other groups around the country.
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.
5. Get to know the realities of the field.
Science writing, like academic research, is an extremely competitive field. Beginning science writers generally make little money and have no benefits. After freelancing for years, you may land a job as a staff writer, although those 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. These figures from a small survey by The Open Notebook are slightly more optimistic. Most 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.
It is worth taking a moment to assess whether you can tolerate the instability of a writing career, and the outsized role luck plays.
One alternative to freelancing immediately is 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. However, I must sound a note of caution: While there are scholarships, these degrees are expensive. The tuition for MIT’s program in 2016-2017, for example, is $53,750/year. That does not include living expenses in Cambridge and Boston. Given the grim financial reality of the field, this is a hefty price tag. Here is an article in Science discussing the benefits and drawbacks of science journalism programs. Most science writers do not have science journalism degrees, and it seems to make little difference to an editor whether you do or not (the same goes for your PhD). The real measure is not academic but professional: Have you proven that you can write?
If there is anything I have learned—and this can be particularly frustrating for 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.
For example, I came to science relatively late. In undergraduate, I studied, believe it or not, Spanish literature. I also wrote short stories, poems, and essays. Along the way, I took a handful of science courses, but never studied any subject systematically. After college, I worked in construction, tutoring, and even performed in a bluegrass band. 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 then I was hooked. I took the undergraduate science courses I was missing, earned a master’s degree studying fly genetics, and then received my PhD in Neuroscience from Columbia.
During my first year of graduate school, 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 allowed me to pitch other editors, many of whom I met through meet-ups. Over the next few years, I wrote several more articles, and almost got started on a book before, to my advisor’s great relief, I remembered that I had to write a thesis, publish papers, and finish graduate school. Now I am a full-time freelancer, and am lucky enough to publish in great venues such as The New York Times, Newsweek, and Scientific American. I am also returning to that book.
I consider myself to be at the beginning of my career, but I have already spent years honing the craft, writing for free, pitching manically, and doing the work required to meet other writers and editors. However, I also got lucky: A handful of editors were willing to take a chance on a novice. And, in the grand tradition of “writers-and-,” I support myself with supplemental income.
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, trade the pipette for the pen, and launch your writing career: