A quick and dirty “How to Get Started Science Writing”

I’ve had several people ask me how to get started in science writing. There are so many different avenues that I get overwhelmed thinking of the possibilities and different ways us “science writers” have gotten started. If you’re interested in science communication, that is a different animal. It’s an emerging field and therefore mostly DIY, forge your own path. In this post I refer to science writing as a particular field that demands a solid definition, but is generally recognized by its practitioners as writing about science topics for the general public. I know, I know, all you academics want to be considered science writers.

So, for now, I’m going to share a short email I wrote in about 10 minutes to a loved one who asked the same question. It is my duty and promise to put together a thorough guide by the end of this year. It will be a necessary resource for the Austin Texas Science Writers association that I helped co-found in the past month (check us out on Twitter until we get our website up: @atxsciwri)

If you’re worried about TL;DR, don’t worry–this isn’t that post.


Re: how to start science writing

The single most helpful resource (particularly the list of publications and examples of successful pitches in their Pitch Database): https://www.theopennotebook.com/
Single best pitching tip: pitch a story, not a topic or summary. You will usually need a person’s story behind article.

Subscribe to National Association of Science Writers (NASW) emails and they have a freelance listserv. They also have endless online resources, it’s excusable to spend hours browsing their site. For example: https://www.nasw.org/all-about-freelancing

Read the Science Writers’ Handbook orA Field Guide for Science Writers: The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers.

Study AP Style (as opposed to Chicago)! All newsrooms, popular publications, and organization communications use this. I have the AP Stylebook which is absolutely necessary. Keep this on your desk. Nat Geo has a style guide that helped me learn specific examples. Don’t submit to an editor without reading and checking your article against this. There are many variances by publication but you’ll start to learn the types of things that are more considered style than standard. Some of the most common mistakes: no apostrophe in date years: it’s 1800s not 1800’s. Recognized regions are capitalized: Central Texas, but not southern Texas. Possessives: if it’s plural like science writers’ guide vs. singular but ends in s like Carlos’s.

Read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style to learn about the cliched joke of oxford commas you’ll find in every writer circle and how to get rid of those pesky extraneous commas your editor finds the most common mistakes they have to correct. Also, take note of this post’s formatting. No tabs and spaces between 2-3 sentence paragraphs. Keep Elements on your desk.

Read famous science writers’ work [These are writers I read that same day. The short list in no way reflects my preference and endorsement over other authors, except Ed Yong. Read every piece by Ed Yong. I have an upcoming more definitive list. Follow along.]

  • Ed Yong
  • Adam Ruben
  • Tim Radford
  • Carl Zimmer
  • Hope Jahren
  • Siddhartha Mukherjee
  • Oliver Sacks
  • Lewis Thomas
  • Basically any columnist at Scientific American (more science-literate audience), The New York Times, Discover, Smithsonian, etc.

The Best American Science and Nature Writing series is published every year and I pull inspiration from these daily.

As far as first outlet, I’m thinking Quanta magazine. I haven’t published there, but I’ve heard it’s very beginner friendly and straight forward. In general, pitching to the magazine’s front of book (FOB)–the first few departments in a magazine that publishes short news-style and Q&A articles–is the best for beginners or working with a new publication. I’ve heard Quanta pays well, looks for Q&A (no fancy story structure) with one scientist and an article, not necessarily recently published, from lesser known science journals (so not Science and Nature). [I know, anecdotal. Oops.]

There are also mentorships at publications for beginners. Ensia magazine comes to mind.

I have a list of popular science publications that are the goal of many a science writers and should act like a byline checklist. I can send that along as well.

Looking forward to helping you in any way I can get your first article published!

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Pond Scum Explains Evolution Of First Animals

[This article was published in NASA-sponsored Astrobiology Magazine in Jan. 2018.  https://www.astrobio.net/origin-and-evolution-of-life/pond-scum-explains-evolution-first-animals/]

Earliest animals evolved on seafloor microbial mats
By Emily Moskal

 

When Charles Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species and for decades thereafter, scientists ascribed the beginning of animal life to the Cambrian, eventually pinned to about 540 million years ago when trilobites and other multicellular organisms emerged in a relatively short timeframe. It was not until the 1940s that geologist Reginald Sprigg discovered Precambrian Ediacaran fossils in Australia.

In recent years, however, astonishing complexity has been discovered in the period right before the advent of the “Cambrian explosion,” revising the scientific view of the origins of the most complex, multicellular life on Earth.

“By the time we get to the Cambrian—which has much more familiar organisms—a lot of the evolution has already happened on Earth,” said Mary Droser, a paleobiologist at the University of California, Riverside.

Droser is the lead author of a recently published paper in the Annual Review of Earth and Planetary Sciences describing the conditions that led to the rise of the earliest animals in the late Ediacaran period of the Precambrian, and the stages of evolution that led to their domination. Classification has proven difficult for soft-bodied Ediacara biota, as their remains are encased in some of the oldest rocks on the planet. But uniting attributes like multicellularity, bilateral body shapes, and movement to find food have surfaced in recent years. Droser said it was time to compile and synthesize the published research on the topic.

Although scientists have widely credited the Ediacaran for harboring early animal life, researchers mainly focused on fossil impressions of individual specimens. Droser and her colleagues, James Gehling and Lidya Tarhan, took a different approach by examining microbial textures, evidence of mobility, and species associations among fossil beds to gather clues about their ecology and evolution.

By studying how and why early animals settled or moved, scientists can get a glimpse into the lives of these long-gone animals and they adaptions they used to survive, including what kinds of surfaces they colonized and how they traveled and ate.

“One of the things that we look at is evidence of mobility, as opposed to the organism itself,” Droser said.

A trove of mobile information can be found about the Ediacaran in trace fossils—“footprints” left behind by the animals when they moved and interacted with the surrounding environment—rather than their actual body parts.

“We’re not just looking at the beautiful fossils but everything that’s there,” Droser said. “It’s looking at the weird and unusual things that actually provide a lot of the insight.”

Root-like anchors that attached sea fan-like organisms to the substrate, scraping marks left by mollusk-like algae eaters, and mining burrows left by worm-like animals — all are traces of what these extinct creatures left behind.

Before the ubiquity of predators, sediment mixers, and decomposers, what accumulated on the seafloor was not only organic material that fell to the seafloor but also mucus-like layers of microbes coating the sandy bottom called microbial mats. “Think pond scum,” Droser said.

The range and diversity microbial mats that served as the foothold for Ediacara biota would prove even more pivotal to the ecology of these ancient habitats. The mats offered an alternative path from the free-floating lifestyle of microscopic algae and bacteria as something for the new and enterprising species to attach to or feed from on a shifting seafloor. The stability and environmental complexity provided by the sticky mats made the extensive seafloor habitable.

The appearance, diversification, and evolution of Ediacara biota are inextricably linked to these mats. Researchers have found that with the rise of complex animals comes advancements in the microbial mats themselves, revealing the ecological interplay between the species, Droser said.

The advent of mobile taxa played the critical role of colonizing other mats after big disturbances, such as large storms, thereby preventing total community wipe outs. Mobile and immobile animals exploited the textural qualities of the mats representing different microbe brews — from microbial bunching of sediment to bumpy structures that resemble “elephant skin” or “bubble trains.”

Microbial textures are a proxy to understanding how sediment, microorganisms and macroorganisms interacted to produce consorts of animals, or assemblages, found in regular association across fossil beds. The Ediacaran stratigraphic record shows three distinct groups of animals that emerged successively—the Avalon, White Sea, and Nama assemblages—each with their own strategies to exploit their changing environment, spreading and then waning before many met evolutionary dead ends.

The Ediacaran, replete with explosive diversity, saw the first emergence of successful bilaterial animals that would later give rise to Earth’s first vertebrates, mobility, early mollusks, skeletons, plant-like reproduction, and population struggles like competition over resources and space, which are all vital components of modern animal ecosystems today.

“We would argue that the beginning of animal life as we know it begins in the Precambrian,” Droser said. “By the time that you get to the Cambrian, all of the major groups are established.”

Droser said studying the ecology and evolution before the Cambrian explosion offers key insights to how the early stages of the evolution of complex life may play out on other planets.

“It’s much cheaper and easier to go back in time our own planet and ask,” Droser said, “’How did the atmosphere and ocean chemistry interact with the nature of prokaryote, eukaryote, and multicellular evolution to produce a planet with this complex green scum around it?’”

The review was funded, in part, by the Exobiology & Evolutionary Biology element of the NASA Astrobiology Program. Mary Droser is a member of the NASA Astrobiology
Institute at the University of California, Riverside.