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!


Building a Career: From bugs to belly buttons – Guest Speaker Dr. Holly Menninger

30 09 2012

If you want an example of a person using multiple life experiences (aka jobs), all of which were not “perfect,” to lead you to a great job/career that makes it all worth it, then Dr. Holly Menninger is the example for you.  She was invited as a guest speaker on Tuesday, September 25th, 2012 to our ENG 520 class as the Director of Public Science for the Your Wild Life project.  As part of her job as director, she gets to enthusiastically engage the public, introducing them to glorious scientific knowledge, write, record podcasts, and play with bugs, all of which are passions developed over the beginnings of her career.

What at glance would seem a haphazard transition from Ph.D. in entomology, appearances on CNN (as a bug publicist), to work in science policy, to creating a weekend science radio show/podcast (on a volunteer basis), all have their purpose in allowing Dr. Holly to succeed in her current role as Director of Public Science.  She exudes a passion for bugs, which began early, as she would tell it, but 17-year and 13-year cicadas emerging from the ground to “do their thing” is what launched the transition from pure interest in studying these creatures, to interest in public education of scientific phenomena.  Creating a buzz (pardon the pun) around the emergence of “giant bugs” that make a lot of racket and that could be perceived as the beginning of the apocalypse, if the public was not educated about the natural life cycle of these bugs, was invigorating.  Her excitement about the topic, vicinity to major news outlets, and the fact that her PI was doing Good Morning America the same morning, allowed her to be the perfect “bug guru” for 6 episodes on CNN.  This first major exposure to public, mainstream education was trial by fire for Dr. Holly and from her comments, it seems that this is how she learned the most about how to be the interviewer and interviewee.  A relatively brief stent as a science policy liaison with a side project as a science radio show host showed her that absolutely wanted to follow her passion, educating the public, rather than dealing with the paperwork mess of policy for a career.   Thus the transition into the Your Wild Life project, where she can play with bugs, create podcasts, educate the public, and use the information she gleaned from the science policy job to really influence the lives of the public around Raleigh, and the rest of the country, investigating microbiomes that are a little closer to home than we’d like to imagine, bugs in our homes, bacteria in our belly buttons, and not to mention what lives in our armpits!

She and her comrades strive to make bugs a little less yucky and a lot more educational and exciting for young scientists and other inquiring minds.  The projects they are working on engage citizen scientists to investigate and sample for themselves and contribute to the pool of samples from urban and suburban local areas.  The Your Wild Life team strives to “Explore the biodiversity that lives on us, in us and around us,” so if your game, the participation information is on the groups’ website,

The theme of class was interviewing skills for the interviewer and interviewee, as our class is a mix of scientists in the making and Technical Communications students, so we will all probably be on both sides of the coin at one point in our careers or another.  To address this theme, along with telling her wonderfully inspiring story, she gave us tips about being both the interviewer and the interviewee, which I will summarize below:

For the interviewee:

  • Focus on the 5 P’s: Prior Practice Prevents Poor Performance

Think about your main message when approached about an interview, take five minutes to organize your thoughts and get your talking points together.  If you know ahead of time that your story or research is likely to make headlines, do a little preparation to be sure you deftly cover appropriate issues and give the most factual information possible.

  • Stick to no more than three talking points, which emphasize your main message.

Too much information can oftentimes detract and distract from the message that you really want to convey.  The “triangle method” was how Dr. Holly presented graphically the 3 points and a main message mantra.

  • Ask the “Why me?” question.

Knowing why you are a person of interest to be interviewed and what spurred interest in the subject can give you a great head start into knowing what information will be relevant to the interviewer and what may allow you to make the most positive and pertinent press about the issue.

  • Get your facts straight.

Probably the most important tip for the interviewee, this is the way to gain good exposure as an expert, if you misspeak or fudge information because you don’t know the answer, the journalist may not come to you again, because you’re not a reliable source.  The best policy would be to say you don’t know (if you don’t), look up the information, and get back to the interviewer later.  I’m sure most scientists and science writers value accurate reporting of facts at a later time, rather than a quick, inaccurate quotation.  Good punchy facts can also potentially make powerful quotes, so doing your homework and being prepared can make a big difference in getting your message across.

  • Take journalists into the field, it can add ambiance to a story.

There is nothing better than firsthand experience to lend a little spark to a story, not to mention providing photo ops or sound clips.  Dr. Holly’s example of taking a journalist literally into the field, a field of cicadas, surely contributed to later reporting.  She described what the cicadas were like at their time of emergence and that the researchers and journalist were literally shouting at each other to be heard over the din of the bugs chorusing.  What kind of journalist wouldn’t mention that in a story?

  •  Misquotation will happen, just roll with it.

Take the instances of misquotation, which inevitably happen in the transfer of information (think about the childhood game of telephone), something might be misheard or misinterpreted, as a learning experience.  Think about how you could have described it so that the interviewer, next time will fully understand.

You can also use your resources to correct or explain the misquote, linking to the story in your personal blog allows you space to fully explain a statement and communicate why it was wrong or out of context.

We also discussed the fact that if you do get interviewed, it is likely that at some points a quote you provide will not make it past the cutting room floor, don’t take it as a slight; there are absolutely word limits to be made.  Also, it may have been your information that provided the appropriate background to make the story come alive, so use interviews as times to educate, rather than expect big quotations to come out of it.  Being polite and approachable regardless of whether you get a quote or not, may lead to journalists coming back in the future or referring colleagues just because you are a good source.

For the interviewer:

  • There is a fine line between knowing enough to ask intelligent, relevant questions and knowing too much, where questions are too in-depth and you lose the audience.

Most of the time, writing stories and interviewing on subjects that are foreign to you can be easier than subjects that you are intimate with.  Taking a broad base view is more appealing to people who know nothing about a topic, they’re more likely to be able to understand the story if you get at the big picture; whereas,  if you’re already an expert in the field, you make hone in on questions and details that fly way over the head of a lay audience.

  • Send questions ahead of time.

This tip definitely comes with caveats, if you’re trying to catch time sensitive information or get off the cuff comments about a controversial topic, then spontaneous interview is probably the better bet.  However, if you have the freedom to send them ahead of time, then you can have an interviewee that is prepared with great facts and potential quotes.

  • Have more questions prepared than you know you’ll be able to ask.

Nothing is worse than running out of material before the interview is supposed to be over, so being over prepared is key.  Also, feel free to go off script and ask questions that delve in deeper to answers that the interviewee has given, it can give depth to a story and take it somewhere you hadn’t expected.  It also shows you’re listening, which moves us into the next tip.

  •  Listen to the guest.

Is the answer interesting?  Are there any follow-up questions that would be great to fill out your story? Do you need clarification?  Did they actually answer the questions?  These are all questions that couldn’t be answered on the spot if you aren’t actively listening and engaged in what they are saying.  You may also get more passion from the interviewee if you listen rather than robotically go through your list of questions.

  • If the interview doesn’t work out, go to idea #2.

Some people just aren’t naturally enthusiastic or willing to answer questions in an open format, so if you get an interviewee that is a dud, be polite, but don’t be afraid to scrap the material.

Sometimes, you can bring people out of their shells to open up if you ask things unrelated to the core of your interview, ask them about a picture on your desk, or art on the wall, or what their interests are; getting them to loosened up and more comfortable with a more neutral topic can make the flow of the interview better.  And hey, you may learn something fun about the person to throw into your story.

  • Embrace the long, extended, pause.

If there is a lull in conversation or a question than stumps the interviewee, don’t feel the need to fill the void.  Oftentimes, people become uncomfortable with this pause and begin to talk freely just to end it.  This may lead to unsolicited, interesting stories, as well as tidbits of information that the interviewee might have not meant to reveal.


I really feel blessed to have been able to be present in class during these guest lectures.  The science writing community is so open and willing to share great advice and life lessons with newcomers, which you don’t find in many other fields.  I’m sure this information will be of great use in the future, especially when it comes to writing our first formal pieces, which will require extensive interviews.  I also am glad Dr. Holly shared the information about being an interviewee; I will be more than prepared to give an interview, if my research ever sparks a news frenzy.

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.