Getting to Novice: What I’ve figured out so far about how to become a science writer

This blog’s sister organization, Neuwrite-West, is a science-writing working group at Stanford through which scientists can practice and learn together to become better public communicators of science. For the first year of the group’s existence, we have focused on writing for and critiquing one another, as a fun and safe way to improve our science communication skills. However, our ultimate goal has always been to share our perspective on scientific issues and enthusiasm for the process of discovery with the broader public, so this year we must turn our sights to more active engagement with the larger world of science journalism.

As the group embarks on this effort, my colleagues asked me to offer up some advice for group members on how to get from the pleasant idea of science writing to the stage of actually sending your work out into the world for publication. A simple google search for all of the science writing that I’ve had published will reveal that I have scarcely set out on this path myself, but I have read and heard a great deal of excellent advice from professional science writers over the last year, and am happy to synthesize and summarize what I think I’ve learned below, along with some key resources that I’ve found useful along the way and gladly pass on to you.

I’ve broken this synthesis down into three basic sections, because like any other skill or trade, learning to write takes a combination of keen observation, patient practice, and repeated feedback:

1) Observation

What is good writing?

 Lady_Murasaki_writing

 

Avid reading is a key to effective writing. Before you can produce good writing, you need to have an idea of what good writing looks like. How do others tell stories? When do they hit you with a turn of phrase that makes you laugh or makes you think? Where would you have described a certain concept differently? How would you have done it?

Reading broadly within science journalism is a great way to start to see patterns, identify holes, and come up with new ideas for your next article. In the resources & links section, below, I have listed a number of my favorite blogs along with numerous other reliable sources of excellent science writing that I suggest following for your daily science journalism kick.

The importance of reading goes beyond looking for neat tricks to borrow from other science writers, however. There is a sort of literary equivalent of “you are what you eat” that will seriously handicap you if you subsist on a diet of technical scientific papers. There is some mysterious transformation through which you consume the writing of others and break down the ingested sentences, images, and ideas into the raw material from which you will craft your own prose. So whether it is journalism, history, poetry, or literature, don’t forget to scoot away from PubMed some evenings and pick up a nice dusty tome full of quality words and have yourself a feast.

I’ve included a vast selection of my favorite science blogs and other sources of science news and features in the links below. Have fun!

 

2) Practice

Write it again, Sam.

woman-writing-letters-by-charles-dana-gibson

To some degree, writing is just another skill like piano or basketball, and more than anything else you just have to do it over and over until it feels natural. It may never be truly easy, and some days words will still flow slow and ugly like molasses, but the advice I’ve heard over and over from many different writers is to just try to write a little bit every single day. You’ll probably end up throwing most of it away in any case, but to get to that perfect 500 words comparing a neuronal spike to the flush of a toilet with just the right balance of entertainment and education, fact and fancy, awe and amusement (ok ok you get the picture), you’ll probably write 2000 crappy words that are no better than they ought to be. To get to the golden 500, just make it a habit. Craft some sentences over your morning coffee, sort through your verbs on the evening train, but write 30 minutes a day and it will eventually begin to flow.

But how should you practice? What should you be writing during those hallowed 30 minutes? This is a personal choice, of course, but my suggestion is to start small. It’s more important, as you start out, to write regularly and get feedback (see next section) than it is to pursue your grand scheme to write about the nature of consciousness.

Here are a few suggestions:

• Write one paragraph each week summarizing a scientific paper you have read for your regular phone call to your 15-year-old brother. He’s been taking high school biology, but you suspect he’s also playing smash brothers in the background, so make it exciting!

• Convert your thesis proposal into a dinner-table explanation of the importance of your project for your Uncle Willy the mechanic. He’s a smart guy when it comes to automobiles, but don’t assume he knows what autophagy is.

• Try writing a shrot letter to the editor of the local paper explaining the importance of federal funding for your area of research. Even if it’s fruit-flies in Paris, France.

• Start work on a series of 100-200 word descriptions of basic neuroscience concepts such as neuron, synapse, action potential, firing rate, glia, or blood-brain barrier. Actually, seriously, and send them our way – we want to make a jargon wiki for this blog.

• Write a 500-word response to an article you just read that just totally gets the behavioral role of the dopamine system wrong AGAIN.

There are many possibilities, and I’ve provided a few more collections of topics that could serve as writing prompts among the links below. The important thing is to make writing a priority. What are you going to get written this week, and when are you going to find time for it amidst your busy schedule?

 

3) Feedback

Am I writing right?

redpen

So now you’re reading several articles and blog posts a week about varied topics, you’re writing regular brief screeds against the stupidity of your lab’s rival operation at MIT or paeans to the brilliance of this one lab you’re hoping to join as a post-doc. You’re starting to feel confident that you can pump out 500 coherent words at some forsaken pre-dawn hour before heading to lab. But how do you know if you’re actually hitting the mark? Sometimes it feels a little safer just to lock all your work away in a drawer, just in case someone might read it and tell you it’s not as good as it seemed as you wrote it, or worse, that it’s just as bad as you feared.

But if you’re not going to be actually putting your work out there, why are you doing this in the first place? You’ve got to put it in front of some discerning readers to get their honest opinions about what you’re doing right and where you’ve gone astray. Making your own blog or joining a blogging community like this one are great ways to make your writing public, but you’re not guaranteed much strong feedback, unless your high-school physics teacher happens to be a reader and still takes his red-pen responsibilities seriously.

The best test of your writing, and the only way to start making something of your efforts, is to start pitching story ideas to editors and getting assignments to write real stories with broad public impact to a real deadline. However, this requires a working knowledge of the arcane art of the pitch. This is a somewhat mysterious entity, but at its most basic, a pitch is just a slightly formalized email to an editor introducing yourself and describing the article you want to write.

One of the surprise realizations I had when I first started was that writing a fully fledged article from scratch was a fairly pointless endeavor if I wanted it published somewhere other than my own website. The reason for this is that editors do not want to be cold-called with your final, polished article. In my experience, editors are lovely people (and hopefully responsive to flattery), but they are also really really busy. They don’t really have time to read your article and decide if the idea is interesting enough to spend the necessary time to convince you to rewrite it to fit their publication’s style and their readers’ interests.

So how do you get published if the editor at The Chalkboard won’t read your article about the discovery of a new electrically-gated calcium channel? Basically, you just have to convince her (in under 500 words) that she is actually desperately and intensely curious about calcium channel activation and so are her magazine’s discerning readers, and you are just the guy to write the tell-all about these darling little molecular machines (in fact, you are personally acquainted with the brilliant but highly reclusive scientist who discovered them), but unfortunately you haven’t written it yet. In fact, you will only write it if the editor agrees to pay for it (well, at least agrees to publish it, if you’re just starting out). In other words, you write a sizzling pitch.

The key elements of the pitch are to convince the editor that the story is right for her magazine or website and that you are the right person to write it. The former requires that you understand the publication you are pitching to – read lots of their articles, understand their target audience, practice their usual style. The latter requires that you give the editor reason to believe that you’ve got the writing chops and have done your homework (you have an outline of the piece, you have contacts you plan to interview, you know what the overall story of the piece will be).

There are several great resources in the links below for browsing successful (and unsuccessful) pitches to various publications, many of which are by quite famous and successful science writers. As you try to figure out your own angle, it’s good to know that even the best have been there with you.

If you are a Stanford student, and you don’t feel quite ready to start pitching the editors of Scientific American, there are a great array of publications nearer to home that are probably very interested in hearing what you have to say. Stanford Med Magazine and their blog the Scope, Stanford Alumni Magazine, and the Stanford Daily all cover local news and have publishers who have expressed great interested in hearing the perspectives of Stanford student/scientists. (If you need help getting in touch with these editors, just shoot me an email.) We at Neuwrite are also going to be running some pitch workshops in the new year, and are happy to help you tune and perfect your pitches. Just get in touch!

 

I hope my novice advice was helpful! Here’s to your new new year’s resolution – just write!

 

Links and Resources:

1) Observation

What is good writing?

 

Science News:

There are many sources for good science news (NYTimes, NPR) of course, but I particularly enjoy the science coverage at the Guardian.

 

Online Magazines:

In addition to familiar science-oriented magazines (WiredDiscoverNew ScientistPopular Science), there are a number of fantastic new online magazines which I highly recommend, including Aeon, a gorgeous online magazine of science and culture (check out this recent article on consciousness or this one by David Dobbs on rethinking the selfish gene), and Nautilus, a new, lavishly illustrated online science magazine with weekly issues covering different aspects of a broad monthly theme.

 

Blogs:

The number of science blogs out there is astounding, and seems to be growing at an exponential rate. Below are some of my favorites, and a few more for good measure.

News organizations like the Guardian and NPR have  gotten in on the blog scene in a big way. Some of my favorite Guardian blogs include Grrlscientist, Neurophilosophy by Mo Costandi, and BrainFlapping by David Burnett. My favorite NPR blog is Krulwich Wonders, featuring the mild-mannered gee-whizzing of Radio-lab’s Robert Krulwich, often accompanied by delightful cartoons. Another great wide-ranging science-oriented npr blog is called 13.7.

 

A number of prominent magazines also have excellent blog networks attached to their websites. I like to read these:

National Geographic. The National Geographic science blog, Phenomena, features some of the most talented science writers working today. If you read no other bloggers, read Virginia Hughes, Brian Switek, Ed Yong, and Carl Zimmer.

Scientific American. Scientific American also has a great collection of bloggers, among whom some of my favorites are Jamil Zaki, Ferris Jabr, Jennifer Ouellete, and the mysterious scicurious. They also have a vast and fascinating section of mind blogs.

Discover.Discover’s blogs feature the fearsome (Neuroskeptic), hilarious (Seriously, Science?, formerly NCBI ROFL), and quirky (Science Sushi by Christie Wilcox), among many others.

Wired. Wired also has an excellent selection of science blogs, including Brainwatch, by Christian Jarrett.

Popular Science. I’ve just recently been exploring the popular science blog network, and particularly love the graphical explanations in the Boxplot blog.

New Scientist. I’m not as familiar with New Scientist’s blogs yet, but worth checking out.

Science News. I haven’t visited this site much, but one of the greatest young science bloggers, Scicurious (aka Bethany Brookshire) just recently moved here from Scientific American. I’ll be spending more time here in future.

 

Some scientific journals now have their own blog networks, including the PLoS blog network, which includes several blogs focused on neuroscience (Mind the Brain, Neuroanthropology, and NeuroTribes), and Nature’s blog network, which also has a neuro-specific blog called ActionPotential.

 

Last and not least, there are many, many independent blogs that are very much worth checking out. Here are a few of my favorites:

The Last Word on Nothing is a great blog by a collection of the SciLance folks. Their motto is “Science: clear, crafty, and delivered to your door.”

NeuronCulture, by David Dobbs,was formerly one of my favorite Wired blogs, but is now independent.

The Finch and Pea: I haven’t read this blog very regularly, but I love its appearance so much that I keep meaning to and have included it here for your viewing pleasure.

[Update 2013-12-17]: In the comments, prominent human neuroimaging blogger Neurocritic pointed me to this excellent twitter feed of independent science bloggers that s/he moderates, called @neuroghetto. I’ll be exploring this treasure trove for weeks!

 

Science Blogs and Scilogs are blog networks hosting many great bloggers, who frequently get snatched up to work at the big operations listed above. Scilogs is also an open community, so if you want to set up your own blog, that’s a great place to go.

 

2) Practice

Write it again, Sam.

 

A couple of fantastic resources for any aspiring science writer:

SciLance is a super-group of 35 successful and talented science writers (including Stanford’s own Thomas Hayden) who recently published “The Science Writers’ Handbook”, a great resource for aspiring writers that greatly enjoyed. They also have a fantastic website filled with insightful articles, interviews, and personal stories.

The Open Notebook is another excellent web resource, featuring articles and interviews about the craft of science writing, including a “day in the life” series on the habits of a number of famous writers and a series of how-to articles called “The Elements of Craft.”

 

Some articles I’ve come across with more science writing/blogging advice:

A recent SciLogs post about science writing and storytelling.

A recent NYTimes piece by Michelle Nijhuis of SciLance on the science and art of science writing.

Neuroskeptic on how to science blog.

PLoS blogs lists 10 essential qualitites of science bloggers.

An article from NextScientist on how writing saved one grad student’s PhD.

The Guardian on the 25 commandments of journalism.

 

A diverse set of resources that could used as writing prompts:

• Some visual prompts from pinterest and a dedicated visual writing prompts blog.

• Each year, the flame challenge asks scientists to answer a deep scientific question posed by an eleven-year-old.

• Researching and debunking science myths is a great way to work on your writing – they’re endless! A couple lists here from wikipedia, and a recent guardian article.

 

3) Feedback

Am I writing right?

 

Resources for pitching:

- An outline of what goes into a great pitch from a Stanford conference a few years back.

- Databases of successful and unsuccessful pitches by professional science writers, organized by author or by publication.

- from The Open Notebook

- from MediaBistro (requires subscription)

- How to pitch specific  publications, from MediaBistro (requires subscription)