Common questions from new science writers answered-Guest Lecturers Jennifer Ouellette and Maia Szalavitz

23 10 2012

Starting out as a new science writer, dues have to be paid.  It seems like every writer we speak to tries to encourage us to never write for free, to use our very best material to make money.  However, to be paid to write, the editors picking up your pieces have to have a certain level of confidence in your writing ability, especially if they’re paying you to write based on just a pitch.  How then do you demonstrate that you can write without having any clips?  Well, it seems to come down to the fact that in the beginning of any journalist/writer’s career, some free work must be done, to create a few clips that demonstrate just how awesome you indeed are.  (Cue plug for the benefits of blogging).

Blogging turns out to be a great public forum to demonstrate your abilities to editors, to show that you do have the chops to write pieces they might be interested.  Having just a few pieces on a blog may be the key to getting your foot in the door at a publication, leading to first official clips, notoriety and the ability of needing to write for free to writing only for pay.  I’m sure initially after the first few clips that there is a gradient or exponential growth curve related to the time it takes to accomplish 100% paid writing versus, a combination of writing for free and some paid gigs, but as in pretty much all fields, once your dues are paid, success can be within grasp.

I’m pretty sure that I won’t be a full time freelance writer any time soon, my current goals are to be able to discuss scientific literature and communicate it to lay audiences, helping to promote understanding in whichever topic is currently at hand.  Maybe it will evolve into supplemental pay for my current graduate student salary, which allows me just to squeak by.  I think my path will differ from the traditional full time science writer in that I want it to compliment my scientific work, and allow me to have fun exploring topics other than my specialized niche of study.

Helping us to parse out the conundrum of how to start out as a science writer, we (my English 520 class) were privy to two guest speakers this past week.  Jennifer Ouellette, a physics science writer and author of The Calculus Diaries, was kind enough to share some advice and her own experience to help us answer these perplexing questions: How to choose what material goes to paying publications vs. personal blog? and How to write articles that have not already saturated media coverage when released from embargo (when you’re not a well-known writer and don’t get advance copies of studies)? Maia Szalavitz, writer for, Time Healthland, and Salon, also visited (via Skype) and discussed the difference between journalism and advocacy, as well as how to best differentiate yourself as a writer.

Jennifer Ouellette’s visit
Starting out as a new science writer, we lack one distinct advantage that experienced writers have earned, getting early access to newly released papers and results.  To compensate, Jennifer recommended taking a new fresh angle on something that has thoroughly saturated the media.  Her suggestions were to insert a personal experience, to connect you to the new research, or to look places in the paper that writers on a deadline don’t typically have a chance to get to.  She recommends the methods section, which can bring up some interesting questions, like where did they get their sample? (The answer to this question was especially interesting in an article she wrote about sperm sorting).

To get this new/fresh angle published, the “wow factor” must be emphasized early in a pitch, showing how this story will be great, new, and unique.  A science story has to have all the good characteristics of a traditional story with science melded in the middle.

Don’t just tell the editor that the new science is cool, they probably already know that.  Write the background story that makes the science come to life, in descriptions, anecdotes, etc, “anything to make editors start seeing it in their head.”  Describing who you’ll talk to about it, prior work on a similar topic and why the new work is significant are all good ideas to really sell a story.

Remember:  the story elements are what help readers get over the mentality that “science is hard.”  If they are enjoying the story, then the science won’t seem so intimidating.

If the story doesn’t end up getting picked up based on fabulous, well phrased pitches, then don’t let your work go to waste, you can always pitch it to another publication, or put it on a blog, so that the public has the benefit of reading it, and the work put in to writing it won’t seem like such a waste.

Jennifer’s take on blogs is that typically she saves press releases to be used in blog posts that she needs to complete on a daily basis; this leaves room for more historical information with a complete picture as to the significance of a story, and this prevents from further over-saturating media outlets with similar information.  Stories that she pitches to publications for pay are ones that have a lot of character, a life of their own, and that have a fresh angle on trends that no one else has picked up on.

Skyping with Maia Szalavitz
Writing is hard.  It is something that you can improve with practice, but something that you have to practice a lot.  Mistakes will be made, never fear, but use them as learning experiences and tools to improve.

“You really do get better if you practice.”

Maia was so open to share her experiences about what got her into science writing, that no one in class could doubt her passion for the craft.  Her drive to “get information out there,” to explain confusing research and debunk myths, especially in the addiction field, is what drove her to start writing.  Her writing daily puts her on the fine line between advocacy and journalism, helping to define that line and keep to good science, was her sage advice.

 “Back up your own experience with sound research.”

Your experience may be that 1%, an outlier, in reference to the experience of the masses.  If just writing based on experience, you can further muddle the truth in an already murky and confusing pool of literature.

“Write what you know, but remember, just because you have had brain surgery, doesn’t mean that you’re a brain surgeon.”

Her tips on differentiate yourself from the pack includes:

  1. Take a basic stats class, as correlation ≠ causation.
    Just learning and understanding the basics can often give you a great head start when going up against other journalists.
  2. Specialize as much as possible, it narrows the competition.
    Having a subspecialty can also allow you to get to know sources and editors more intimately, and they begin to recognize you as someone who can cover that subject, eventually leading to publications pitching you, the writer, to write certain articles.
    If the thought of specialization makes you worry that there won’t be enough variety in your life, Maia also suggests that variety can also come in the form of the piece, whether it’s a short 300-400 word piece in a local newspaper, or a 3,000 word expose in a major magazine.
  3. “Your own authentic experience is often what you’ll write best about.”
  4. Take direction from editors.
    Not only can this dramatically improve your writing if you learn from each experience, but being civil and showing that you’re willing to learn and adapt your piece to fit the publication can be to your benefit.  I’m sure that editors really do remember the nice writers, as much as they remember the writers that were a pain to work with.
  5. Don’t just report on the fancy, shiny new discoveries; be sure to balance the exuberance over a topic with potential limitations.  Try to show people more about how science works.  That way, they don’t get disappointed and unenthused about science as a field, especially when that glittery piece of reporting that came out last year about a cure for this or that ailment didn’t pan out.


I really enjoyed both talks and feel like I learned a lot about how to make myself a better and more marketable writer.  I look forward to applying these suggestions to my writing.  Thanks Jennifer and Maia!




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