Contemplating careers: science writing
January 1, 2009 11 Comments
Writing is one of those things – I enjoy it, I’m reasonably capable at it, but I often need a reason to do it. Similarly, science is something I enjoy and am reasonably good at, but I am finding that I also increasingly need a reason to do it. Simply doing science in a vacuum doesn’t appeal to me, nor does writing for the sake of writing, though both remain attractive to me in the theoretical sense.
With blogging, I’m starting to wonder whether writing about science could become a viable career path. I doubt I could ever churn out a full-fledged book but maybe that’s mostly because I’ve never been close to trying. Regardless, being a science writer now means many things, from writing books to writing articles or blog posts to writing short blurbs on websites. And, there is anecdotal evidence that you don’t necessarily need formal training in writing or journalism to become a science writer.
In bioinformatics, I’ve always felt that computer scientists who learn biology tend to fare better than biologists who learn how to program. That is obviously a biased view, and self-identifying mostly as one of the latter, it might explain why I’m less inclined towards pursuing a career as a strict bioinformatician. ;) But I also wonder if science writing comes more easily to a scientist who happens to write well, or to a writer who learns about science? The advantages of being a scientist might be that you may grasp new scientific concepts more easily or have some insight from your experiences, but you’d still need to learn about each unfamiliar topic and distill it for public consumption. Being a writer, you might be better at expressing the concepts for a lay audience and be familiar with stylistic and journalistic conventions but you might have a harder time understanding or synthesizing the material.
At this point, it’s probably just a matter of the frame of reference. If you grew up speaking English without exposure to other languages, you might find it incredibly difficult to learn the intonations of Chinese or the grammatical structures of Japanese, and equally vice versa. But if you are smart and dedicated, you should be able to pick it up eventually.
Now a real question might be, what advice might people have for building a collection of writing samples? What are things to keep in mind when one is writing a piece for a popular audience? Having no writing background myself, it would be really helpful to have some guidelines. I’m also curious whether it would be appropriate to point to my blog posts (in the “Science & technology” category) as examples of my writing, at least for less formal writing jobs (i.e. not a position at Newsweek or the New York Times). Could I do this as-is or should I use some of the posts as starting points for more formal versions?
A continually updated list of interesting science writing links on the web as I come across them (please feel free to suggest others):