THE LONG AND SHORT OF IT

So you want to be a science writer? A session organised by the Association of British Science Writers as part of the British Association Festival of Science showed that there are as many kinds of science writers as there are media to employ them, each type of writing with its own characteristics and requirements. The panellists also demonstrated that routes into such a career are as diverse as the media themselves.

Lawrence McGinty from ITN started writing when he failed his PhD. He enjoyed the perks of being a film critic before moving on to New Scientist, and he became a television reporter with the advent of Channel 4. Damian Carrington is the online editor of New Scientist. He spent 3 years as a postdoc, and his writing career started when The Scotsman published an article that he had written for a university newsletter. Later he managed to get a job with BBC News Online after convincing them to let him work there for a fortnight. Toby Murcott spent his postdoc trying to get into radio and now works for the BBC World Service. He recommends getting involved with a hospital or local radio station as a starting point--one of his first jobs was working for a radio show run totally by women!

All three agree that having a scientific background helps, although Murcott points out that it isn't necessary, so expect to compete with nonscientists for jobs. Murcott says that, though he has lost the specialised aspects of his PhD in biochemistry, with the skills he has gained he knows how to find out about almost every science subject in the world. He finds an understanding of scientific language and the way that science works valuable, especially in offering analogies from a layperson's point of view. But as Carrington points out, you still have to learn the journalistic skills.

They also emphasise that journalism is a business, so you need to be hard-nosed. As a freelancer you frequently have to pitch your ideas to editors, which Carrington describes as being "quite nerve-wracking when you start off." Georgina Ferry is a freelance writer whose biography of Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin was published 2 years ago. Despite her strong feelings that everyone should be told about this exceptional scientist, six publishers rejected the book before she found a publisher. Both the World Wide Web and the BBC World Service have a potentially huge international audience. But Murcott says that his editors, not his audience, are his prime concern: Just like a freelancer, "I have to find something to sell." Although he finds it agitating when stories are rejected, he asserts, "I do have influence." He gains a degree of understanding and acceptance because, as well as being a chief producer, he has a second role as an editor himself, in which he is the one responsible for choosing the right stories.

While the journalists obviously enjoy their work, they can see both the pros and cons of their own media. Many might think that working for the World Service would be a glamorous job with plenty of travel, but Murcott is quick to dispel this idea, explaining that he spends most of his time on the phone at his desk. Ferry has been a science journalist for 20 years but has little to do with news. Instead she specialises in features, which she says "suit my temperament better:" As they rarely deal with groundbreaking news, which adds pressure to publish quickly, more time and research goes into writing a feature. The reason she started freelancing was practical: "I had babies." The work is flexible, but she says it doesn't offer "a secure environment to be working in." That's a consideration if stability is important to you, but, that aside, there is a "constant demand for people to write coherent stuff."

McGinty's medium has something that radio and print don't--moving pictures. But his audience usually has a shorter attention span that leaves him more restricted in his work. A television news story is presented in a sequential manner, and he has to be careful that his script doesn't cause viewers to switch off partway through. But surprisingly, McGinty says it "is important, if not more important" to get the pictures in the right order: Television is a very visual medium, and the pictures often hit viewers emotionally. And not all science news is suitable for television--"We are only interested in science when it intersects with public life," says McGinty.

Science can also make poor print news due to its lack of emotion, according to Tim Radford, science editor of The Guardian, who feels that science is too cold to reach his readers. He describes his job as "practising an old art ? everything I write is turned into a story." So what makes a good story? It seems to be about luck as much as anything: "All the best ones just drop into your lap," says Radford.

And the luck doesn't stop there. There is a shortage of journalists who know a lot about the Web, which means that Carrington finds himself very much in demand. He freely admits that he's been "in the right place at the right time." He describes his work as being "quite relentless," although the lack of set deadlines such as print media are tied to means that online news can be first with a story. The Web is a flexible medium using a combination of images, words, audio, and video, but it doesn't suit everyone. Half the work is creating the extra multimedia bits that go with a story, so if all you want to do is write he suggests you look somewhere else. One bonus of the Web is that it can be updated as regularly as the editor likes--"we're never wrong for long," jokes Carrington.

So are you still interested in science writing? If so, McGinty recommends three things for success in the media that you might want to bear in mind: persistence, ruthlessness, and imagination.