Tips is a series which aims to provide young and early-career science writers with, well, tips to aid them in their budding careers. The series will attempt to link out to existing resources available online.

Today, we feature On the Origin of Science Writers, a blog post or rather, a comment thread, initiated by popular science writer, Ed Yong on his blog. The thread showcases a variety of pathways to becoming a science writer written exclusively by science writers themselves—150 of them.


“How do I become a science writer?” That’s the question! When it pops into your head it might not be easy to figure out a decent answer. But worry no more as Ed Yong and 150 other science writers come to the rescue.

In On the Origin of Science Writers, Ed asks science writers who have experience in the field, two questions:

  1. How did you make your start?
  2. What advice would you give to people in the same position?

Until now, 150 science writers have answered these questions. They include Carl Zimmer, Marc Henderson, John Rennie, Steve Silberman, Christopher Mims. It’s a very diverse bunch and you will find writers who tend to specialise in different fields of science as well, all happily giving advice.

The comments are diverse as the writers who’ve contributed to thread. Of different styles, lengths, etcetera, they are catered to a variety of potential science writers.

Apart from being a wealth of advice though, the thread is also inspiring. Reading how such great science writers started out will surely inspire you. And, if they could do it, so can you.

Here’s a snapshot of the comments:

Carl Zimmer:

I backed into my job by fortunate accident. As a kid, science was an important part of my nerdy regime, but I never actually considered becoming a scientist. In college I was preoccupied with writing, cranking out so-so short stories and interning for a local paper one summer. But I still had time for physics and a few other science classes. A couple years out of college, intent on finding a magazine job, I took a test to be a copy editor at Discover. I proved to be a terrible copy editor, but I was allowed to cling to a job, fact-checking and then starting to write short pieces. A very lucky break: I was hooked.

I talked in more detail about becoming a science writer in 2009 at the University of British Columbia. UBC made a podcast of the talk, which, if you are interested, you can listen to here:

Carl regularly contributes articles to the New York Times and Discover magazine among others, blogs at The Loom and has written several books including Microcosm and The Tangled Bank.

Steve Silberman (excerpt):

I took a somewhat unusual path to becoming a science writer.  Like many of my peers, I was fascinated with science as a kid, but a better way to say it would be that I was fascinated by the universe and how it works. I read cloud atlases and books on weather avidly, pestered the adults around me with questions constantly, and sent away for little kits in the mail to make your own rubber balls. I abused chemistry sets and lit fires in the backyard with Estes model-rocket engines. The Edmund Scientific catalog — with its thrilling pictures of Van de Graaf generators, telescopes, and Geiger counters — was my bible. Many people assumed I would become a scientist when I grew up.

At the same time, however, I loved language.  Before I was even old enough to talk, my late father taught me to love words by reading James Joyce’s “Ulysses” aloud while carrying me on his shoulders. As an English professor at a state college in New Jersey, he showed generations of inner-city students how to see their own struggles reflected in the travails of Dickens’ textile workers and the crew of Melville’s “Pequod.” [...]

Christopher Mims (excerpt):

I started in college. I wrote a “humor” column for my school paper’s editorial section. It was (sarcastically) called Smoking is Cool and it was mostly me ranting about things that enraged me. I was so ignorant of journalism that I never realized that writing editorials disqualified me from writing news, not that I was terribly interested in doing that — it was much more fun to just make things up. (Now that we have journalists who also blog, and activist journalists, and Journolist and Fox News and all the rest, no one even pretends to be objective anymore so I guess I got the last laugh on that one.)

Through dumb luck my (pre-assigned) freshman advisor happened to run her own undergraduate science initiative, so one summer she hired me to be a science writer. All I did all day long was interview scientists and write up the results as Q&A’s and as-told-tos. It was great practice. [...]

Head off to the On the Origin of Science Writers to read Ed’s own explanation of this thread and all the comments.


Previously in this series:

Tips: Charles Q. Choi’s Website Is A Treasure Cove

Tips: 12 tips from Ann Friedman