I want to be a science writer
I’m often asked about getting into science journalism. To partially answer this question I’ve written a few tips below about ways of getting started in a science writing career, along with some links and an explanation of how I ended up becoming a science journalist.
Tips for getting into the world of science journalism
- Read, read, read and read some more. Soak up the style of any publication you’d like to write for. Make a note of the kind of science they report on, the sort of language they use, and the different types of stories that appear (news, features, photo-stories, book reviews and so on).
- Start blogging. Write a blog on something that you are passionate about and use the blog to showcase your writing.
- Enter writing competitions (see links to competitions in resources below).
- Leap at public communication opportunities (talking to school children about what you do for example)
- Go on courses and writing classes. There are masses of good courses to join and we all benefit from learning from others. See if you can find an evening class on journalism or writing to join. Or, if you are really serious about science communication as a career, go and do one of the excellent Masters courses on science communication (see list in resources below).
- Do an internship/media fellowship (see links in resources list below). As well as invaluable experience, an internship or fellowship will enable you to meet science editors and make some contacts.
- Try pitching an article. If you’ve got an idea, and you think you know the perfect publication for your story, then try and get yourself a commission. Pitches are usually just a couple of paragraphs, outlining your idea and convincing the editor that this is a story they can’t afford to miss. Ring up the publication, ask for the email address of the relevant editor, and then send your pitch on its way. If you haven’t heard anything after a week or so then you might want to ring the editor to check they received it and remind them what an amazing story it is.
- Be warned that pitching stories is a bit of a dark art. Editors are incredibly busy people and they consider hundreds of stories every day. Make sure you have a thick skin, and be prepared for quite a few rejections before you strike it lucky.
My unplanned and haphazard career path
It took me 13 years of school and 7 years of university before I realised that I shouldn’t be a scientist. Finally, whilst doing a PhD at University College London, my impatience, boredom and rather slapdash experimental manner made me realise that the world would be a better place without my scientific contributions.
But what should I do instead? The first inkling of an idea came to me when I attended a science communication course run by my PhD funding body – The Natural Environmental Research Council. The weekend course was intended to make us scientists better at communicating our work, but in my case it made me realise that I’d prefer to be sitting on the other side of the table with the science journalists – they had really fun jobs!
Back in the lab I neglected my experiments and instead spent some time putting together an entry for the Young Science writer competition, run by The Daily Telegraph. My efforts were rewarded by some dreadful experimental results for my PhD and 1st prize in the competition.
Winning this competition really was my door in. Part of my prize was to attend two of the biggest annual science jamborees – The British Association for the Advancement of Science Festival and the American Association for the Advancement of Science Festival. During a giddy few days in London, and then San Francisco for the American festival, I met the ‘great and the good’ of the science journalism world, sat in on press conferences and watched fingers flying across keyboards in the press room, as deadlines were raced to be met.
Then later in the year I was sent to report on a new iridescent paint being developed by BASF – sponsors of the science writing prize. One double page spread in The Daily Telegraph later and I was really on the path to being a science journalist.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing from here. It probably took me a good year or two to really break into science journalism and gain the trust of a few editors. Whilst finishing my PhD I started off by writing a piece for my research council magazine, and a few pieces for the university alumni magazine. I also did an evening class in journalism at City University. Gradually my confidence grew and eventually I managed to get a feature into New Scientist – now I could really call myself a science journalist.
Twelve years later and I’m still going strong and have no regrets about closing the door on my scientific research career. Instead I spend my time talking to some of the most talented and enthusiastic scientists in the world, experiencing all the thrill of their discoveries, but without suffering the long years of hard graft. Every day brings something new – perfect for a butterfly mind like mine!
Guides and advice
- So you want to be a science writer? Natasha Loder, Science and Technology Correspondent, The Economist, 2002. A really useful and comprehensive publication, written for the Association of British Science Writers. Download your copy here.
- The Guardian – Science writing tips series.
- Communicating your ideas: How to tell the non-specialist about your research (NERC)
- Science Media Centre: Top Tips for Media Work: a guide for scientists
- Science Media Centre: Communicating risk in a soundbite, a guide for scientists
- Science Media Centre: Communicating uncertainty in a soundbite, a guide for scientists
- Association of British Science Writers
- National Association of Science Writers
- British Science Association
Competitions, grants, fellowships, internships and courses
- The Wellcome Trust/Guardian Science Writing Prize. This is a great competition for aspiring science writers to enter, and you’ll also find a wealth of top science writing tips from some of the best science writers around.
- British Psychological Society public engagement grant
- The New Scientist Prize for Science Writing
- Richard Casement internship, The Economist
- The British Science Association Media Fellowship. An ideal opportunity for scientists who would like to try their hand at science communication and gain more of an insight into how the media works.
- Science communication courses – The British Science Association keeps an up to date list here.
- Handbook of Science Communication. Edited by Anthony Wilson. Taylor & Francis, 1998
- A Field Guide for Science Writers: The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers. Edited by Deborah Blum, Mary Knudson & Robin Marantz Henig. Oxford University Press, 2005 (2nd edition)
- The Economist Style Guide. Economist Books, 2005. available at http://www.economist.com/research/styleguide/
- The Penguin Guide to Punctuation. R.L. Trask, 1997.