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
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.]
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!