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Science Careers Blog

August 3, 2010

Becoming a Science Writer

This week, Ed Yong of Not Exactly Rocket Science started what has turned out to be a really popular meme directed at science writers. If you have ever wondered about careers in science writing, this is required reading. His instructions: Tell your story, and give your advice to people considering a career as a science writer.

What has resulted is a series of more than 100 (and counting) short autobiographies of and by people from a variety of backgrounds working as science writers in various capacities. (In the interest of disclosure, my own story is there.) Yong tells his story: "My hazy hopes of a research career were stymied by a degree of experimental ineptitude that is still spoken of in hushed whispers and/or raucous laughter," he writes. He ended up leaving his Ph.D. and pursuing science writing; he's now head of health evidence and information at Cancer Research U.K. His advice: "Be sure you really want to do this. A lot of people want to do this line of work because they don't like research. But this can't just be a fallback option - you really have to love it."

His CRUK colleague Kat Arney writes about taking on writing -- including as a columnist for Science's Next Wave (the precursor to Science Careers) -- while doing an "utterly miserable postdoc." Her personal revelation: "The most important thing I've discovered as I made my transition from being a lab rat to a science writer was the fundamental truths about my talents and skills. I'm not a scientist. I don't have the logical mind, the insight, or the patience and dogged determination. I'm a creator -- of words, audio, video, music, cakes, socks, whatever... Coming to terms with this was tough, especially dealing with the severe feelings of failure over leaving lab science after so many years of training. But I'm much, much happier now."

Ivan Oransky, executive editor of Reuters Health, came to science writing by way of medical school. He has been a columnist for American Medical News, founding editor of the now-defunct Praxis Post, deputy editor at The Scientist, and online managing editor at Scientific American. "I would be the last to claim that medical school, or some other graduate school, is the only place to gain that kind of expertise, but I would also be the last to claim, for obvious reasons, that someone with a doctorate can't make it as a journalist. (Yes, I've heard both of those arguments.)"

Alex Witze, contributing editor at Science News and former U.S. news editor for Nature, offers some direct advice: "Don't get into science journalism if you want to bring the wonders of the universe to the unwashed public. If so, go be a teacher instead."

The advice repeated over and over and over by people from/in all fields: Get A Mentor. Perhaps multiple mentors. Find someone whose writing you like, who has a cool job, whose job you want some day. Write to them. Ask them about what they do. Find people who will read your stuff and give you constructive feedback. Listen and learn from them. Buy them coffee and Twix bars. (Just a suggestion.)

Where do you find such mentors? Well, you could start with the 117 (and counting ...) people who have submitted their stories to that post, titled On the Origin of Science Writers.

Still interested in science writing? Check out this list of articles I pulled together in February for an event on careers in communication. (Note that was for a British audience; American readers should also check out the National Association of Science Writers.)



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