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.
In some ways, scientific training is poor preparation for a career as a science writer. The problem is that science as it is usually practiced and communicated is just too narrow to serve the needs of a typical audience. As a scientist you learn to care deeply about tiny details that general readers care little about; even scientists working in related fields may not find the details of your work compelling.
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?
There is. There's a trend, especially at high-end journals aimed at scientists, toward hiring advanced-degreed scientists who also happen to be very good writers (with excellent training and experience). If you already have top-notch writing skills, an advanced degree in science is a strong credential, even if it's not an essential or a terribly time-efficient one.
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?
Not directly. Pick up a copy of the National Association of Science Writers' Field Guide for Science Writers. This paperback is the best resource I know for aspiring science writers. It includes advice on writing queries and on many other topics. You may want to wait though; a new edition is due out soon.
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.
Science is too large a beat for anyone to cover, so choose an area and get to know it. You may find your area of specialization doesn't overlap with your training. Andrew Fazekas, our Canadian Editor, has a Master's degree in wildlife biology, but as a writer his specialty is astronomy and space science.
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.
Even if your first query isn't accepted -- it probably won't be -- keep reading, keep studying, and take every opportunity to get your work in front of the editor.
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.
Science writers are always griping -- understandably -- about the beginners and hacks stealing scarce work and driving rates down. So the whole universe of established science writers will hate me for giving this advice, but I'll give it anyway: get your work out there, even if it means giving it away at first. Paying gigs are better, but every "clip" helps. When you send in clips to a new editor, she's not going to know how much they paid you.
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.
Good work, whether it's science, science writing, or something else, is a great privilege, one of life's most consistent rewards. One of the great virtues of an early career transition is that, with its very difficulty, it can help you to appreciate how precious the opportunity is to do meaningful work and do it well.