8 Tips on How To Become a Science Writer
How To Guide Nov 30, 2018 | by Masha G. Savelieff, PhD, SciGency
Science writers serve an important role; they bridge science researchers with scientists in other fields, science professionals, science industry experts and entrepreneurs, and the general public. They communicate important advances and discoveries from a spectrum of disciplines, providing faithful and factual articles supported by the scientific literature. The science writer is also tasked with representing complex scientific concepts in a manner that is accessible and engaging to their target audience. I had been a bench scientist for almost twenty years before I started writing full-time around two years ago. Although the job title contained the word “science”, it was sufficiently different to being a bench scientist which meant I initially had to navigate a steep learning curve. Drawing on these earlier experiences, this is the advice I have to offer.
The job description
As a science writer you will be drafting articles on science. The topics will vary, so it is important to have broad interests and a willingness to learn. Also critical, is the need to stay current with the latest developments. As a science writer, one important aspect of your work will be to relay cutting-edge scientific discoveries to the magazines’ or websites’ readership. Therefore, read frequently and widely and cover a few high-profile journals every week.
Build your base
Whether you’ve decided to freelance or find full-time employment as a science writer, both will start from a solid foundation. Create a strong internet presence: this will include your own website, accounts on professional networking sites, social media, and membership to professional associations. If you’ve decided to freelance, then sign up for accounts on freelancing websites. Use those resources to highlight your writing accomplishments and keep your websites and accounts up-to-date. Professional sites and social media are great ways to garner contacts and followers. Membership associations are good mentoring tools filled with advice for people pursuing the same career paths. Cultivate those relationships; a strong network will help launch your science writing career.
Proper preparation, perfect proposals
If you’ve decided to freelance, you will find it necessary to generate proposals for most projects. The editor will make their decision on whether to hire you based on your proposal, so take the time to prepare it carefully. Do some background reading and a literature survey to ensure you can deliver on your ideas for the project. Be certain to include in your proposal: (i) what sets it apart from other similar articles, since the topic will most likely have already been covered from a different angle, and (ii) a general outline and a timeframe you can honor. If you are an employee, rather than a freelancing science writer, proper preparation will still help you formulate and cement your ideas for articles, which can then be presented to the magazine or website’s senior editor.
As a science writer, you will be reaching a broader audience than a conventional peer reviewed paper in a journal. It is important to strike a balance between technical language that conveys the science accurately, and language that is sufficiently appealing to a diverse audience. Less is more; excessively complicated language and sentence structure may confuse readers and lower clarity. Therefore, to communicate the article’s point effectively, stick to simple, concise, and clear prose.
Fact-checking facts, accepting ownership
As a science writer, you will have an obligation to your readership to deliver articles that are factual and properly supported by the scientific literature. You also have a responsibility to yourself; your name will appear with your article and you don’t want to be known for poor, low-quality articles.
Timely delivery, multitasking
It is important to honor article deadlines. If you are a freelance writer, you will likely receive projects from different clients, with differing deadlines; therefore, with such a shifting workload, it is important to be flexible. Sometimes, you may not be able to complete a project before being assigned a new one with a tighter deadline. Learn to prioritize work as it is assigned and how to multitask so that you can work on several articles simultaneously.
Deadlines: Even if you have to put an article aside temporarily to focus on one with a more imminent deadline, don’t let the first article languish! Keep a calendar to track article due dates to ensure you deliver all articles on time. Missing article deadlines frequently makes you unreliable. Editors have obligations to post content in their magazine or on their website, so if they can’t rely on you, they may not hire you. Occasionally, circumstances arise that are out of your control. For instance, a scientist who agreed to an interview for an article may postpone the meeting. Keep the commissioning editor apprised of the delay so that they may plan accordingly.
Inaccuracies, referencing, and plagiarism: As for peer-reviewed journal articles, all science articles must be supported by the scientific literature. Perform a thorough survey of the literature before writing to ensure you can validate the article’s content. Also, read the supporting literature carefully and be certain you have understood the content to avoid making inaccurate statements. And finally, as with any content that was ever written, plagiarism is never acceptable.
Words to the wise
You will most likely not win every proposal you submit, despite careful preparation and an intriguing idea. On these occasions it’s important not to be discouraged. There are many science writers with different areas of expertise, and someone else may have had more appropriate training for a particular project. Keep trying and focus on enlarging the content in your portfolio. Eventually, your experience will speak for itself.
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