Awhile back I was contacted by someone from a university (I think it was in the United Kingdom, shameful that I can’t fully recall!) who was putting together a career resource guide for science majors. She said their goal was to show the grads that there are career paths available other than pure research, and they were interested in my thoughts on science writing careers. (I still have no idea why she solicited my input. Probably something to do with Twitter.) After warning her that I was still laying the groundwork for my career, and that I only had that point of view to offer, I sent some responses to her questions. I thought it would be fun to post them here too. I’m sure other science writers — especially those with longer and more storied careers than mine — would have given a different set of responses. So, fellow science writers, if you feel inclined please share your thoughts in the comments.
What made you want to become a science writer?
For me, it was first and foremost a love affair with words and writing. In a tight race for second place, it was a strong hunger to learn more about the world around me, and I think science is the best tool for that. As an undergraduate, I flitted back and forth between biology, anthropology, and geology with no clear commitment to studying any single discipline. (I graduated with a Bachelor of Design from a College of Architecture. Go figure. But that is another story.) After finishing school and working in the real world for four years I had, as we call it in the States, a quarter-life crisis about what I wanted to do with my time on earth. I felt a strong pull to look back into the sciences, and ultimately decided to unify my dabbling under the single lens of writing. I entered an interdisciplinary ecology master’s program that allowed me to study both ecology and, as the interdisciplinary portion, journalism. It’s selfish, but writing about science allows me to learn with each and every story I work on, and that aspect is the fuel that keeps me running. It also gives me a small mouthpiece to communicate about issues I feel the general public ought to know more about: ecology, biological diversity and the affect of human development upon wildlife and natural systems.
What path did you take to get there?
Guess I leap-frogged into this question in the previous one, so I’ll pick up the story thread post-graduation. After finishing up my master’s of science in interdisciplinary ecology in the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Florida, I worked in a science writing position at the campus’s natural history museum. Actually, it was the state of Florida’s natural history museum, and actually, I kind of talked my way in to the job half-way through my master’s program (which I did part time because I liked working at the museum so much). For two years, I translated research from a dozen and a half scientific disciplines into stories for general audiences. These were published on the museum’s website through a platform I helped create, in an insert for a museum’s member-edition of Natural History magazine, in our university research magazine and as press releases.
I am very interested in writing craft, so while at this job I spent a lot of time studying how to write for a truly general audience — people that may not have had a science class since high school, for example. I integrated what I’d learned in journalism coursework about how to structure and organize an article. I treated each story like a learning experience. Some were better than others! For the most part, I wrote “explainer” pieces about new research, and research profiles that covered large spans of people’s careers. Shortly before graduation, I was asked to work for another another institute on campus, doing the same functions. But instead of natural history, this new institute dealt with emerging pathogens. The field was less intuitive to me, but it was fascinating. I probably would have worked for the emerging pathogens institute full time, they wanted to hire me, but for personal reasons I moved to a different state where my best option was to begin freelancing.
You have to be comfortable with a hardscrabble existence to jump into full-time freelance. (It’s best if you don’t require niceties like new clothes, the latest iTunes music and eating out.) I networked like crazy, began using social media like twitter and blogging, and went to as many local science cafes and university lectures as I could. I joined a local science writers group, pitched stories, stumbled across an idea for a book and got a publisher interested in it, and began writing for a regional newspaper. At the moment, I’m half-way through the book, which is due out in 2012 through the University of North Carolina Press. The book has kept me very busy, and I feel it’s curtailed my freelance writing output in the past year, but I’m thrilled to be working on it. (Most days. Some days I hang my head in my hands and curse that I ever wrote the proposal. But those days are few and far between.)
Are there any negatives to what you do?
Yes. Many. But the positives outweigh them, or I would not persist at it! (Which would be the definition of insanity, right?) First, there is the money. Writing opportunities that pay well are drying up for freelancers everywhere. The pay rates are all over the map for different outlets, so if you are going to try to make a living off of science writing, and freelance at that, then you have to be highly business-minded. You are a small business owner, and you must operate like one. It’s best to cultivate a few anchor clients that pay well and that offer regular work you can depend upon. Then, even when you have three stories due in one week and are busy pestering elusive sources to call you back, you still have to pitch new stories and market to line up your next batch of stories. Because if you aren’t writing stories, you aren’t getting paid. And even when you do file stories, you may not be paid for months so you must plan your financial landscape accordingly.
If you want to freelance full-time, I honestly don’t recommend jumping straight in. I recommend finding a part-time job and freelancing on the side until you have enough clients and scheduled work (and savings) that you can forecast going full time for six months. If you see that happening, then you can use that six months to secure the next few months and get the ball rolling. Then the trick is to keep the ball rolling month after month until you are firmly established. I do not consider myself firmly established, even after two years at it full time. It also helps if you have a loving partner who can help to support you through the first year as you get your financial footing, or a caring friend or roommate that you can live with to help reduce your overhead costs. Or, if you’re young enough to circle the nest, a basement room at mom and dad’s. Other than that, you just need a reliable computer, internet access, a phone and a voice recorder. (Who uses paper anymore?)
Second, there is the loneliness. Freelancers typically work from home offices. Which can sound divine if you currently work in cubicle-land or at a bench in a lab doing monotonous tests day in and day out. But working from home poses its own challenges. For one thing, you are by yourself all day most days. If your high school buddies pegged you as a lone wolf, freelance may actually be a great fit for you. But if you like to be around other people, it can be challenging. Social extroverts may want to consider renting office space somewhere so they can get the human contact they need. (Me, I’m a happy hermit.) If you go the home office route, your work is always near you. It beckons your attention at all times of the morning, day and night. A labyrinth of distractions are embedded in every home, laying in wait to suck your attention and drain your time: laundry, dirty dishes, a rag-tag yard, needy spouses. To work from home and be effective, you must be self-disciplined. Set a schedule, and stick to it; the rest of life be damned. The laundry and dishes will still be there later, the yard can wait till the weekend, and hopefully your spouse is forgiving.
Third, as a self-employed writer, no one is looking out for you and many potential clients may take advantage of you by trying to get you to work for free or reduced rates, canceling accepted stories, haggling contract rights, and so on. It’s best to join a professional writers society. Here in the States we have the National Association of Science Writers and the Authors Guild, which can be good resources for questions about contracts and gaining access to databases of who pays what and which clients have a bad track record with freelancers and that sort of thing.
What advice would you have for those want to follow a similar career?
Look at the field deeply before jumping in. Investigate it. And look inside yourself to an equal depth. What are your work and social habits? If you aren’t a self starter and need someone standing over you with a whip and a stopwatch to meet a deadline, then freelance may not be for you. But a staff job at an online or print publication may offer the rigors of a salaried job that better suit your personality. Or perhaps you could find employment working in public relations for a science institution, educational group, or non-profit organization.
Never assume that because you have scientific training you can, by default, write for general audiences or that you don’t need journalism training. That is the biggest mistake you could make. (Aside from staying in mom and dad’s rent-free basement room for too long.) The language of science is not always easily translated for lay audiences. And the more highly trained you are, the harder it may be for you to be cognizant of that gap. There are some rock stars that can straddle both worlds and the languages codified by each, but for the rest of us mortals, we need to study the language of popular media, the way stories are constructed and told, and how ideas are imparted in persuasive essays and objective news stories. There are patterns, hierarchies and formulas that work well, and it’s time well spent to analyze them, learn them, and harness them for your own work. Your audience, and your editors, will thank you.
There are many, many career avenues other than going freelance as I have. The National Association of Science Writers offers a book, “A Field Guide for Science Writers,” that discusses areas within the field with great clarity (journalism, public relations, education, and so on). I recommend it for a look-see into the various ways you can marry science and writing. Science journalism is but one slice of the science communication pie. After looking in to the field, and taking an honest look at yourself and your work habits, next talk to as many science writers and communicators as you can. Interview them. Ask them what they do on a daily basis, what they like and don’t like about it, what they wish they’d done differently. But most importantly, try your hand at it. Pitch a few stories, get some published clips. See if you like the experience. If you did, keep writing. And never stop learning.