Preparing for a career in science writing: Part I

As a high school senior I searched for universities that had a good ecology-focused program and preferably with several professional writing course options. I figured I would conduct field studies in the wilderness and freelance write.

However, after my first semester of taking all science classes, my brain was screaming at me to use a different part of it. “Write!” it told me. “Draw!” it told me. The post-high school smothering of my artistic side led to a consequence. This consequence would not let up until I swapped my physical geography courses the following semester for journalism courses. Yes, I dearly wish I majored in geography, but on professional level I knew I wanted to study and write about ecology. That writing part overrode my secondary interests, and thus my elective credits. Instead of graduating this week with a biology degree and geography minor I will be getting a biology degree and an agricultural communications (essentially journalism) minor.

study site in fernow forest

I certainly love any excuse to get outside and be more intimate and knowing about nature than the average tourist, and field biologists get to do just that. Field work is rewarding, but I’m glad I can talk about the experience instead of entering pages of data into a statistics software.

But how does that support my endeavor to study and write about the natural sciences?

Fortunately you do not have to conduct quantitative projects that utilize lab space to study a science. Writers are essentially researchers. We just have a more qualitative set of skills. Prior to starting my final year of college I did a lot of research into marketable skills for writers. Being called a “writer” is like calling YouTube “TV”. Writers no longer just research, interview, and write.

Marketable skills include:

  • Graphic design: particularly using Adobe software such as InDesign, Photoshop and Illustrator.
  • Website design: such as understanding HTML code, CSS, SEO and using Adobe Dreamweaver.
  • Social media marketing: more and more in demand. This includes professional usage of Facebook, Twitter, blogging sites such as WordPress and even YouTube.
  • Technical writing: at some point you are bound to compose a business-like email, proposal, memorandum or another technical document. I consider this “baseline writing” because it is used by writers and non-writers alike.
  • Journalistic writing: i.e. Associated Press style writing. You use this for news writing, feature stories, video scripts and advertising/public relations or copy writing.
  • Interviewing: it is not always about getting quotes, but researching and gaining “a guy” for a topic. Do not know how to find a story for bridge engineering? Find an engineering friend who knows a bridge engineering friend. Writers cannot afford to be loners. Stories are often about people and you cannot write a good story without getting to know someone.
  • Photography/Videography: these days you can use almost any digital camera for professional projects and use default editing software on almost any computer.
  • Campaigning: this includes defining your project’s primary audience, planning which media outlets will be most effective, how to use those outlets and when to use them.
  • Public speaking: speaks for itself.

Somehow, without planning all of it, I have completed some course work in each of these areas. Great! I appreciate the windfall. My biology degree included course work in ecology, cell biology, chemistry and physics–so those sciences support my ability to understand similar topics.

news writing notes

Tip: learn to write your course notes the way you would for a journalistic interview: keep as much as possible in quotes. Proper note-taking is a hard skill, especially listening well enough to have good quotes for an international agricultural development seminar. All the “…” mean I failed to hear and write all I intended to get. Development is not my most familiar topic. Forest ecology, anyone?

Many science writers start out with a journalism or related degree, work for a while, and try breaking into science writing. Often this comes in the form of freelance writing, but occasionally they can write a science section for a newspaper or get a job with a research institution, science magazine, or documentary production company. On the other hand, many people start as scientists, get tired of lab work and narrow research topics, and branch out. If they already have a graduate science degree that adds to their credentials for that topic, which works great if you go into freelance.

Science background: check.

Marketable communication skills: check.

Related work experience: starting a science writing internship with my university next week.

Graduate degree in science writing or similar: in the near future.

In the next post I will address the science writing career in more general, industry context instead of my personal path.

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