Preparing for a career in science writing: Part II

Field biology is a competitive market. Photography is a competitive market. Academia is a competitive market. Science writing is a competitive market.

I am sorry, but what is not a competitive market? Should we all be chemical engineers and computer scientists? I am pretty sure if someone had no interest in those industries, any effort would not go near as far as someone who did.

What makes science writing a difficult industry to enter? That answer varies as much as the number of science writers and wanna-bes, because everyone has a different background. Most people either have a science degree and later choose to pursue writing or have a journalism/English degree and at some point find themselves getting more science assignments.

More important to consider is which aspect of the industry you want to enter and strategize for that. As the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW) outlines, science writers can be science journalists or public information officers.

Science journalists

animal care

This man hauls chicken feed at an animal rescue facility. How much does feed cost these days? Are there enough workers to care for the animals? Does the nutritional formula really meet the animals need? An agricultural journalist would find out and write about it.

Science journalists write for newspapers, magazines, websites, radio, television and book publishers. You may have heard about the decline of journalism and that you should not enter that field. However, the decline is in print journalism. While newspapers and magazines lose the advertising that supports their publication, many more online publications have started and gained popularity. It is easy to produce content when you do not have to print and transport physical entities, and that applies to broadcast media as well.

I will mention a subset of science journalism: agricultural journalism. These publications do maintain a solid following and even need more writers. The average person who wants to write usually has liberal arts interests. If they like science they may have medical or technological leanings.

“Agriculture is not sexy,”

As my agricultural news and feature writing professor said.

But it is an important industry, whether you hate conventional farming and love organic, or you grew up a farm kid and prefer to remain a part of that community. You also can live just about anywhere because these publications and firms do not concentrate in metropolitan areas. However you feel about it, it is a healthy industry for communicators.

While “healthy” is debatable, the general science writing community also needs more writers–more good writers.

“When I first started trying to make a living as a freelancer, it seemed the world was teeming with talented writers but that paying gigs were few. Then when I become an editor, suddenly the reverse seemed true: there were too few capable writers around,”

Jim Austin at Science magazine pointed out. Matching publication to article is the hard part. Most science magazines rely on freelance writers, and the staff consists of editors. Ultimately, you need good clips and know where to market them.

You may hear about “backpack journalism.” Especially useful for online “writing,” marketable journalists use whatever medium necessary to tell a story. That can be text, audio, photo, video or graphics. They carry the necessary equipment with them, thus the backpack analogy (or sometimes they literally carry everything in a backpack).

Though not considered journalism, the arguably best market for science writers is B2B, or business-to-business, or trade publications (B2C is business-to-consumer, which defines journalism). Newspapers and magazines are considered a glorified market where new writers want to see their bylines, while trade publications present less competition for jobs and offer more money. The catch? Well, you really have to know your science! You cannot write an article with a few facts and the “gist” of things, you need graphs and in-depth summarizing to satisfy readers that can understand journal articles.

Needless to say, many entry-level jobs and internships in science journalism look for a journalism or related degree, while trade publications and other B2B documents (technical writing) prefer science degrees. You may even get a job without writing experience as long as you can show basic skill and enthusiasm. Most magazines and trade publications base out of major cities.

Public information officers

writing for universities

Research writing at universities means you have the opportunity to work in an architecturally and culturally diverse environment. You may have beautiful landscape to accompany you on your lunch break.

These people can be called public affairs officers, public relations specialists or communications officers. They work for nonprofits, government agencies or labs, private research foundations, museums and universities.

They write the same materials as journalists: social media posts, blogs, news, features, video scripts, audio scripts and even books. However, they represent a group and thus write about the science conducted within that group. Sometimes this involves organizing events for science journalists, educational brochures or exhibits, speeches, advertising copy, crisis communication and instructing scientists on how to conduct themselves during an interview with the press.

Often PIOs expand their science writing to include freelance opportunities.

Again, agricultural communications is an easier industry to break into if you have the interest. Because agriculture is “not sexy” like fashion, not glorified like health trends, and not romanticized like environment and travel, agriculture jobs attract a hardy group. Best part is, you can develop a solid career graphic designing, photographing, marketing, advertising or writing straight from just about any region, rural or metropolitan. Do not want to move to New York City with all the other publishing wanna-bes? You do not have to! Clearly you can tell this is my back up plan, that and trade or technical publications.

Both

Most science or writing career websites will tell you that journalists start at small papers and can go as “far” as senior editors at national magazines. PIOs often start in public relations firms or assisting communications at a small college and may end up managing media relations for major nonprofit or federal agency. I emphasize the latter so you do not think of PIOs as purely government workers even though often they are. They also more often than journalists need a masters degree.

Such career sites will also tell you job growth in science/technical writing is 13% (I am averaging from different sources, ironically citing the same statistics source). Pay usually starts at $30,000-$40,000 with a median salary around $65,000.

Working at any kind of publication helps build experience, such as school papers, company newsletters, etc. If you can secure an internship whether as an undergraduate or graduate student, the better off and more confident you will be. However, if you have a day job or someone to support you financially, many science nerds without formal training enter the freelance world.

Bottom line: read a lot about science, whether news or journal articles, write regularly regardless of genre , and network. The National Association of Science Writers includes many benefits for members, but even if you are not one, you can look up members in your area who might be interested in an informational interview or mentoring!

 

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