CAREER COLUMN

What scientists can expect when dabbling in science writing

It can be a difficult career path, but also rewarding and worthwhile, says Brittney G. Borowiec.
Brittney G. Borowiec (Twitter: @this_is_brit) is in the final year of her PhD at McMaster University, Ontario, Canada, and is a freelance science writer.

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I’m a zoologist, freelance science writer and assistant editor of Massive Science. My portfolio includes blogs, popular science and science education outlets, and even some children’s books. It took me a long time (and still does) to get my work out there into the world.

Breaking into science writing is hard. You might shoot an e-mail off to a magazine such as Popular Science, a television network such as CNN or your favourite blog, offering your services to write a piece. Days and then weeks might pass without a response.

But as grant awarders and other scientific institutions push for more public engagement with research, science communication seems to be a growing field.

There are many excellent resources for scientists pursuing science writing (see ‘Help and advice for budding science writers’). They were invaluable in teaching me the basics of pitching, interviews and storytelling. However, most resources lack a frank discussion of how hard it is to get started. This leaves would-be science writers blind-sided by the inevitable bumps in the road to publishing in the popular press.

Help and advice for budding science writers

The Open Notebook: For science journalists of all experience levels, includes a pitch database.

Science Writers’ Handbook series: Developed with the US National Association of Science Writers (NASW).

National Association of Science Writers (NASW) online resources: Access to some resources requires NASW membership.

Starting a Career in Science Writing: Collection of articles curated by Jim Austin, former editor of Science Careers, and science journalist Andrew Fazekas.

Massive Science Storytelling 101: E-mail lessons in science writing. Requires consortium membership fee.

The Knight Science Journalism Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Maintains a list of resources for practising science journalism.

In my opinion, we need more scientist-science writers, but we also need to better acknowledge the less-than-glamorous parts of the job. It’s hard work learning how to write again, deal with rejections and work in a new field.

Here’s my advice for those scientists who are willing to try writing for the public.

Learn how to write again

The passive and complex style of academic writing, written for and by scientists, doesn’t work for general audiences.

Would-be science writers must critically examine their writing and return to fundamental storytelling. The pervasiveness of bad writing habits in scientists is less obvious to writers who began in academia.

Structure. Academic writing follows a ‘reverse triangle’ structure, beginning with background information and narrowing to a specific idea. By contrast, science writing often ‘spoils’ the ending by stating the conclusion before the supporting details. These general patterns aren’t absolute, but recognizing that general audiences have little tolerance for long-winded, academic-style explainers is key to getting published. Rookie science writers must learn the art of communicating the main point without the support of extensive background information.

Some pitches I receive at Massive Science fall into the reverse triangle trap. Authors explain a topic but don’t tell a story or articulate why it’s interesting. We help authors to distil their thoughts by pushing them to sell their idea to non-scientists and create a narrative with characters and emotions.

Style. Sentences can look very different between academic and non-academic writing. General audiences like short, active and snappy sentences. The tone of academic writing is stereotypically passive (‘was opened’) and overly conditional (‘can sometimes cause’). This is changing (although not without tension) as academia concedes that active and engaging language is usually more exciting and easier to read.

When I do ‘autopsies’ of my old, rejected research proposals or edit my friends’ scholarship applications, it often strikes me how many words I could cut and how many sentences I could make active. Almost universally it makes for a clearer, shorter and better proposal.

Rookie science writers must turn off their academic-writing autopilot. The written scaffold around your ideas should be fresh and enthusiastic, and not the same dusty old paragraph you submitted in a grant five years ago.

Deal with rejection

All writers have more pitches declined than accepted, and even highly successful writers occasionally miss the mark. It’s discouraging to read a slew of ‘no, but thank you’ e-mails, and it’s hard not to bristle when an editor takes an axe to your carefully crafted paragraphs. Learning to acknowledge and fix problems in your work without feeling attacked takes time and self-reflection. Inexperienced writers must resist the urge to beat themselves up when things don’t go exactly as planned. Everyone gets rejected.

Learn the cultural differences

But the most complex challenge for amateur science writers is getting to grips with an unfamiliar culture. Scientists can be hard for editors to handle. We often demand final approval of articles, habitually overqualify interesting findings and get caught up in relatively unimportant details. We’re so accustomed to controls and caveats that we can lose sight of the big picture. This attitude is at odds with the editorial standards of the popular press. For example, writers generally don’t contribute headlines or get the last word on articles. Learning to navigate these cultural differences and trust the expertise of editors goes a long way.

So, what happened with that story you sent to Popular Science? Maybe your pitch wasn’t engaging or developed enough. Maybe it went to the wrong person or it got lost in an inbox purge. Maybe it really was a good idea, but there’s a similar story in the works. Working with little feedback is par for the course for freelancers.

It’s a slow, unpredictable climb to becoming a science writer. But scientists who are ready to practise a lot, actively engage with a new field, take rejection in their stride and pay attention to feedback have the best chance of getting their voice out there.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01753-y

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturecareerseditor@nature.com.

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