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 http://www.thefix.com, 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.

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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!





Starting Things Off Write – Guest Speaker: Bora Zivkovic

24 09 2012

A little background into this post before diving in:  I am taking ENG 520 Science Writing for the Media, taught by David Kroll.  The class is about how to write articles about science for the general media, so that lay audiences can gain insight into the goings on of the scientific community.  Bora Zivkovic was the first guest speaker invited to talk with our class, our assignment to prepare for his visit was to read several of his blog entries, which I have linked to periodically through my reflection.  The format of the visit was a very open ended interview, which allowed the majority of the class to have their questions answered about science writing, blogs, writing formats, job opportunities, and personal anecdotes.  I really gained a lot from his visit, most importantly, that I can be a science writer.  Below is my formal reflection on his visit.

I’ll admit when I first heard that we’d be blogging, hearing from bloggers, and reading blogs I was a bit nervous.  I had the general impression that blogging was for those so bold as to put personal diaries online, so once I began reading, I was quite surprised to see people using it to communicate knowledge, parse out thought processes, and critically analyze publications from mass media to scientific journals.  I think my original fears came from my parents’ and school teaches’ ardent lectures about taking care not to reveal too much on the internet, as this could be dangerous.

In some cases they are right, there is no way that I’m going to be publishing addresses, social security numbers, etc online, but then I’ve  also begun to wonder if not having enough online is also a  bad thing.  Could you lose out on potential opportunities that shameless self promotion and publication of a reasonable synthesis of scientific ideas could present?  Would it be better for potential employers to have an idea about your capability and personality beforehand? Bora Zivkovic’s answer to both of these questions would most certainly be yes.  His straightforward, stream of conscious, write until you’re done explaining, style is informative, creative and admirable.  He’s taken off with a new trend, well new since the 20th century, and adapted it to current technology, evolving as the world of science journalism evolves and helping to stand tradition on its head.  I greatly enjoyed our class’ opportunity to discuss with him the ins and outs of his journey in scientific writing and here I muse on some of the topics he brought up.

Bora very deftly describes that the idea that the mass media is 1. the end all be all in news authority and 2. completely accurate in their reporting is crazy, you have journalists with no expertise in science translating it for lay audiences, which definitely has the potential to turn out very badly.  As he realized the potential in blogs early on, he’s helped to popularize the modern outlets for writing, which has allowed for a style of writing and reporting to return that was lost for a blip in the timeline of the earth, aka the 20th century.  By sharing everything and hashing out ideas in mass, with everyone contributing thoughts and critique, this may help a lot of the bogus science to be brought to light, and for the progression of discovery to move at a faster clip.

Bora also brought up the need to be extremely critical when you’re reading, as even in peer reviewed journals, garbage has a tendency to get shoved through the cracks.  With this thought in mind, blogs are an excellent way to discuss the latest science news and publications, getting multiple points of view from a variety of sources, via the comments section, to hash out what is good science and what is hogwash.  One of his suggestions was very insightful, in that you can use a blog as a think tank to work out new ideas, but I’m not too sure this will catch one with prominent scientists too quickly, as most are very protective of new ideas that could be stolen.  I also wonder about how I will personally be able to handle some of the critiques that come from allowing writing to be available to the masses, especially in light of the recent ENCODE circus.  Bora’s thoughts on the matter were helpful in my musings over this matter; he talked about “attacking ideas not people,” a way to critique someone’s writing without bashing it, which can also be used in the reverse, take to heart the content of the criticism, but taking the criticism personal.  Keeping this in mind will allow me to use critiques from the public to grow as a new science writer, rather than shrink back away from my thoughts and principles.

I very much appreciated his openness about how he got some of his jobs; the stories were comical and incredible at the same time.  Who knew you could get a job via blog post? It just goes to show that indeed, having an online presence and a loyal readership can get you pretty far on the job front.  Based on some of Bora’s comments it seems expertise and trust from your readers is absolutely developed over time, along with deftly placed links to resources that can verify your thought processes and resource; this should definitely be kept in mind if you want to science write for a career.  However, if you’ve got a creative streak and an ability to integrate other disciplines with science topics, then you may catch the Blog Father’s eye and be on the fast track to notoriety.  Bora tries to promote and encourage new science writers through mentoring and opportunities to post your work on sites like Scientific American, where he is currently an editor and blog community facilitator; he may also tweet up a storm about a post if he likes it enough.  This attitude of encouragement seems to permeate the science writer blogosphere with veterans promoting newbie’s work; the key to success according to Bora, it’s all about just getting your stuff out there for other curious minds to find.