Contemplating careers: science writing

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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):

11 Responses to Contemplating careers: science writing

  1. Deepak says:

    Some very random thoughts

    Hardly an expert here, so I am not sure what the correct approach is. My guess is that some of the more traditional approaches don’t work these days and alternatives, like a blog, might be a good place to start.

    Maybe you can do some freelance writing to start of with (getting started shouldn’t be this hard, and blogging is a viable form of science writing).

    You could also think about syndicating some of your content. Depends on how you want to approach this.

  2. Alexey says:

    “I’m starting to wonder whether writing about science could become a viable career path.”

    sounds great, but any model of monetization? let’s say 60k/year

  3. shwu says:

    @Alexey: Well, the thing is more that I am interested in science but want to do more creative things with it. I would like to remain involved with science more directly than just as an observer, though, if possible. So perhaps science writing as part of a science company. Or a sciencey job that involves research or analysis but also involves more writing for the masses (e.g. not grants or pure research papers). I really have no idea yet what the salary would be like for jobs like that. But after a grad student stipend, 60k/yr would be a fine start (better than a post-doc). And I’d hope to build off that, certainly.

  4. kitt says:

    I recall reading in an issue of the New Scientist about a job opening for the magazine. The position entailed reading various papers and writing articles or summaries for the magazines.

    Science magazines run the gamut of being for the total layperson to the highly specialized. Writers who are able to summarize complicated papers so that people with a high school science education (and there are a lot of those people) can read them, are definitely gifted people.

    I’d suggest trying it out. Check out issues of the science magazines you’d like to write for, see if they have a call for samples. Guest write for a science blog or two about issues you’re passionate about, and maybe one you’re not passionate about for a reference point on writing about uninteresting topics. Start writing here, posting articles you wish existed (and they will, once you’ve written them).

  5. nz says:

    Journalism is under tremendous financial pressure — their business model is in a lotta trouble — not sure if its the best field to go into from a monetary perspective.

    In terms of whether or not you need a formal education in scientific writing or journalism — at least from the political press, the general impression of the blogosphere is that it would be much, much, much better to have more content experts as journalists rather than journalists with no background in the topic they are covering.

  6. jpk says:

    I went through this dilemma myself a few years ago and am still exploring. I actually did a internship/fellowship through AAAS (the organization that publishes Science magazine) that was a wonderful experience, both in terms of the contacts and friends I met and the actual work experience I got. It’s specifically geared at students in science who are interested in exploring careers in journalism/media (see http://www.aaas.org/programs/education/MassMedia/). I really loved how I got to explore a number of different science topics at a time, but the money and other lifestyle factors made me decide not to pursue a pure writing position. Some other ways to get your feet wet – look at your school’s newspaper/magazine for alumni. The Stanford Report has articles focused on scientific research within Stanford and they let me write a couple of stories for them to build up my portfolio. It was free labor for them and experience for me. The magazine that I edit (Biomedical Computation Review, http://www.biomedicalcomputationreview.com/index.html) has also occasionally worked with students for our short NewsBytes. Good luck!

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  8. Well, writing can become a very interesting profession, provided you have the knack for it. There are a lot of courses out there that claim to make you a good writer, journalist and so on. But I believe that if you do not have it in you, no education may be able to help you.

  9. Steve Koch says:

    Hi Shirley, from my perspective, you and some of the people commenting above are contemplating your innate talents and whether science writing is a career which will leverage those talents you have. I think you’re absolutely approaching this decision in the write way, and thinking about your innate, unchangeable talents versus your acquired and acquirable skills may help you out. I wrote my own blog last night about talents in the lab, and you may find it relevant to this…I hope so! http://stevekochscience.blogspot.com/2009/01/talents-in-lab-part-one.html

  10. Armand Leroi says:

    Hi Shirley,

    It’s certainly possible to make a living as a science writer: I have any number of friends here in the UK who do. For example, Olivia Judson writes — or wrote — a superb series of online articles about evolution for the NYT, as well as occasional articles for the Atlantic and Natural History and so on.

    That said, being a freelance writer is very hard. I couldn’t do it. Instead, I write occasionally for the public as a working scientist. That has two virtues. First, a steady academic salary which means that I only write when I want to write. Second, there is a certain authority that you gain as working scientist with an academic affiliation. You are not a journalist; you are a public intellectual (if you will forgive the slightly pompous note). So, consider combining science with writing. It’s been often done.

    And do consider writing a book. It’s not that hard to get a non-fiction book published. And even today, perhaps especially today, in a world flooded with ephemeral comment, hardcovers still command a — perhaps unreasonable — amount of respect.

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