This is a guest post written by Nsikan Akpan, PhD, a health reporter at Medical Daily/International Business Times. He was formerly a science writer at the Center for Infection & Immunity at the Mailman School of Public Health. He blogs at SciLogs.com and tweets as @ThatBS.
Everything changed on November 10, 2010. It was a chilly Wednesday in New York City, but I was cozily settled in front of a mac desktop in my thesis mentor’s lab at Columbia University Medical Center. I was looking over some data, while g-chatting with a friend when she suddenly asked:
12:49 PM Friend: what do you want to be when you grow up;)
12:50 PM me: A writer
12:51 PM Friend: i like writer the best:)
ohhh but fortune teller would be fun too!
But in all seriousness, if you want to write, then write.
Although cloaked in jest, this exchange triggered my switch from basic research to a career in science writing. I had been mulling the idea for a year, but after reaching this tipping point, I sat down and planned my exodus from the bench.
Many writers argue that journalism school is the most direct route. UC Santa Cruz has a great program that is tailored for former scientists. What’s that you say? You’d rather pour a beehive down your trousers than go to school again after you’ve completed your doctorate?
Full disclosure: breaking into the writing/freelancing isn’t easy, and at times, can be a frustrating catch-22. Editors prefer writers with a portfolio, but the only way to build a portfolio is by publishing pieces. Writing programs are worth consideration, as they can equip person with a collection of writing samples and a professional network for finding future employment.
I took a slightly different tact to enter the field, and here’s how that went.
Keep calm and pick your audience
Most established writers echo my friend’s last comment and say that the first step is simple: “just sit down and write”. Blogging is the obvious medium, but getting started can trigger certain anxieties.
Will people read it? Will they think that I’m an idiot?
To allay these fears, I consistently turn to a line from Colin Norman in A Field Guide for Science Writers (an invaluable aid to young science writers): “don’t be intimidated by your readers”.
It’s an easy trap to want to please everyone, but this shouldn’t be a main objective. I would argue that your first task should be to visualize your audience.
To borrow another quote from Norman: “Remember who your readers are… a good story for a professional magazine is one that plays to that community’s particular interests”. He was referring to news pieces for trade and science journals, but it is a rule that applies generally. When I first started blogging, I would sit down in front on my laptop and picture my days as an undergrad at Bard College—a liberal arts institution, emphasis on the “arts”—where I would periodically attempt to entertain my humanities-centric friends with random anecdotes about biology. This is the audience I blogged for.
Picturing your audience is important for two reasons. First, it provides a natural context for telling the story, which can give the piece “a voice” and personality. Second, if you venture into freelancing, it can help you decide where to pitch your stories, as each media outlet has a target market: for The Scientist, it’s life science professionals; for Medical Daily, my new employer and a subsidiary of the International Business Times, it’s a general audience in search of expert commentary on health news and policy. Whether you’re trying to reach a “group of artisans” or “young scientists at a journal club meeting”, visualizing your audience is key.
Y U No Share?
Sharing your stories in a public forum can be daunting, especially in the age of Internet trolls, so start on a small scale. Tell a few classmates or share your writing with friends on Facebook (“Likes” and especially “Shares” are a great form of feedback). Friends are often the best critics because they can be delicate but honest.
After you’ve written a couple of posts, you can try to reach a wider audience by sharing your posts on a blog aggregator like ScienceSeeker or ResearchBlogging.com. To measure how well your posts are doing, I recommend using Google Analytics to track metrics—e.g. how long people spend on each post or which posts are the most popular.
Science Writing: all or nothing…or in between
I am periodically approached by graduate students and post-docs who are interested in writing, but “afraid of the time commitment” or “of switching occupations”. My response was recently encapsulated in a recent blogpost from Chad Orzel, a science writer and physics professor, entitled “Blogging Doesn’t Have to Be a Career”.
“[Science blogging] can absolutely be done on an intermittent hobby basis. If it turns out to be something you really like doing, then it can open doors to other sorts of careers and activities, but there’s nothing forcing you to go through any of those doors if you don’t want to.”
The Internet is populated by a spectrum of scientists who blog. Chad, Vincent Racaniello, Puneet Opal and “Dr. Becca” are professors who also moonlight as wonderful science communicators. Connor Bamford (@cggbamford) and Jason Goldman (@jgold85) are PhD students who rank amongst my favorite sources for all things related to infectious disease and neuroscience, respectively.
And Jeanne Garbarino from Rockefeller University was*, without question, my favorite example of post-doctoral researcher who is a science writer…and an editor for Double X Science, a contributor to HuffPo, and a mom..
Garbarino also co-organizes a monthly science discussion series in Manhattan, called SpotOnNYC, and this last resume item opens a perfect segue into my next point. Chatting with current science writers is a great way to ‘measure the waters’ and assess different career options in the field. SpotOnNYC is perfect in this regard. Editors, writers, historians, and publishers from NYC’s major media outlets rub elbows with graduate students and professors from city’s numerous universities. The result is science conversations that are rich and informative. (They are also available by web stream/video.)
*Rockefeller recently made Garbarino their Director of Science Outreach.
The final leap: pitching and professional writing
Promoting science via blogging is fun on its own, but you might want to eventually use these skills to pay the bills (#rhymeintended) Here’s how I capitalized on my blog.
First, I ‘backdoored’ my way into the profession by working as a public information officer for Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity (CII). Academic departments/press offices are often rife with job opportunities—I can think of 2-3 departments at Columbia Medical Center that have hired or considered hiring former students within the last year—and can be a great home for a new scientist-turned-writer. For instance, the CII releases a constant stream of high impact studies on emerging infectious diseases, so I was regularly composing press releases and liaising with reporters at mainstream news outlets. This was valuable experience taught me how to pitch stories to journalists, a skill that I later repurposed for freelancing.
To break into freelancing, you will need to learn how to pitch/sell a story to a publication.
The Open Notebook is great a resource for learning the ropes. They have a pitch database with tips and sample pitches from established writers. Publications like Science and The Scientist supply guidelines on how to pitch to them. The SA Incubator is also populatingsuch a database which also includes editors’ contact info, paying rates and more. The database is open and public so do consider contributing to it.
Mediabistro has a “pitch tips” section that is curated by editors from a huge range of publications, which is where I learned how to pitch to Scientific American. The site also has a great jobs forum, which is where I found my post with Medical Daily. There is a fee ($55/year) for the pitch guides, but the job listings are free.
Finally, if you’re enrolled in a science program, I highly recommend that you become a student member of the National Association of Science Writers ($35). The NASW is a treasure trove of information on how to become a professional writer. They also have a great jobs forum and a list of writing fellowships.
Feel free to shoot a tweet at me if you have any questions. Happy writing!
Correction: The post initially mentioned that Jeanne Garbarino is an editor for Slate's DoubleX. This is incorrect; Garbarino is an editor for Double X Science.