Science writing, plus puppies
Okey dokey, so last week I talked about some of the stuff I’ve been doing to try to break into science writing.
But before we go along on our happy little merry way and talk about how you can get into it, I think a quick reality check is in order.
It’s pretty hard to be a science writer right now. Newspapers are seriously struggling, which means they’re laying off writers of all types like gangbusters. Magazines aren’t having an easy time of it either. This basically means that there are A LOT more people competing for the shrinking number of jobs. Hell, there are even people that used to have writing jobs that are now competing for internships. So keep this in mind as you read along. Although honestly, traditional chemistry career paths are looking pretty shady right now, too. I have some chem friends telling me about the ungodly huge numbers of people who apply for a single industry job. The job market is complete crap!
All right, enough of that. Look, a puppy!
So. Still want to try science writing? Here are a few tips to get started:
1. READ. Read every kind of science writing you can get yer mitts on. Good. Bad. Ugly. (A few of my personal favs: Amy Harmon, Carl Zimmer, Rebecca Skloot, and Ed Yong.) Read books on science writing, like The Best American Science Writing, or The New York Times Reader: Science. (Conflict of interest statement: that last one is the book I research-assisted on with my science writing prof. She doesn’t get royalties on it tho, and it *is* a really good book.) Read about science writing, like at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker or Columbia Journalism Review’s Observatory. Read blogs. The aptly named ScienceBlogs or Nature’s blog network are good places to start, since they have a lot of different people blogging in the same spot.
2. WRITE. And I don’t mean writing research results up for JACS. Technical writing is uber uber different from science writing. (The latter is quite fun, IMO. The former makes me want to scoop out my eyeballs with some kind of rusty dining implement.) Your school probably has a newspaper–go write for them! Most of them are easy to break into, all it usually takes is a conversation with an editor to get going.
3. BLOG. Ah blogging. It’s so free! And you can write whatever you want! So start one. Write about cool papers you find. And after a bit, you can apply to the Research Blogging list. Also, if you don’t already have one, get a twitter account and tweet your blog posts. Oh, also post them on satan’s own spawn, facebook.
4. LEARN. If you can, take a science writing class or get into a program. There are a fair few out there, like Santa Cruz, MIT , Johns Hopkins, or Boston University. (There are others, as well.) These are invaluable for two reasons. 1) You get lots of writing experience, taught by excellent people. 2) You get to know other future writers in your field (good), but you also get to know EDITORS, who teach at a lot of these programs (very good). Connections can be a very nice thing, especially if a day comes when an editor needs a quick news story, and thinks, gosh, who can do this for me? And then they think of you! And you say, oh yay yes, thank you very much I will do this. And you do, and do a lovely job, and they’re happy you did a lovely job and think of you the next time they need someone quick, or maybe someone not so quick for a longer story, and then, as they say, you are golden. Something like that, maybe. But it is quite important to get to know people, which leads to…
5. JOIN NASW. The National Association of Science Writers. They are nice people. They have much information on their website, like job boards and Words’ Worth, a database that rates freelance clients on things like how much they paid and how the editors were to work for. To join NASW as a student, you don’t need any clips (you do as a full member), and it’s relatively cheap, $35/yr. They also have a national meeting every year with workshops and such. Go. Meet people. Have conversations. Which also leads us to the somewhat redundant…
6. TALK. Talk to everybody you can possibly think of that might know something about science writing. Find some writers you admire and email them for advice. Write to an editor of your favorite science paper/magazine. (They might even answer!) Write to me, if you think maybe I could help. In a few weeks, I will put up a profile of a Real Live Science Writer, so you can see this from another perspective.
7. INTERN. Most science magazines and news outlets have some kind of internship program. This will get you more clips, as well as some very good contacts. Plus, science editors tend to know each other, so an internship at one place may open up job prospects somewhere else. NASW’s job board is a good place to look for these. Also try JournalismJobs.com and mediabistro jobs. Neither of these are strictly science writing, but openings at science media places are sometimes posted there. For science degree types like us, the best internship (I think) is the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship that I had. You do need clips to get this one as well, but probably not as many. Also, keep trying if you get turned down the first time! Persistence is your very bestest friend.
Do you need a PhD to be a science writer? Not necessarily. But I think it helps. It’s not in the book, but when Holly interviewed science columnist Natalie Angier for the NY Times Reader, she asked if there was anything Angier wished she’d done differently in her career.
Yes, she said. She wished she’d gotten a PhD.