Description: Science writing is a specialized form of journalism whose primary intent is to communicate to the public in general, or sometimes to professional audiences in particular, advances in science and medicine. The markets are newsprint, broadcasting, periodical and specialist magazines, and trade press. The Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW) makes a distinction between ‘science journalists’ and ‘science public information officers’. The latter, employed by universities, private research foundations, corporations, etc., are discussed in ‘Public Relations’. Many science writers work as freelancers. They submit to editors ideas for articles, referred to as queries, and if a good working relationship has been established with editors they can be tapped on a more or less regular basis for assignments as needs arise. Some science writers work, of course, within the context of a traditional employment, especially within the trade press. There is wide consensus that science writing is a highly competitive field, especially at a time when the media is restructuring to accommodate internet models of journalism.
Advantage of advanced degree: While highly successful science writers come from a variety of backgrounds, there are advantages to having an advanced degree in science. As argued by Jim Austin, former editor of Science Careers, there is “a trend especially at high-end journals aimed at scientists toward hiring advanced-degreed scientists who happen to be very good writers.” Scientific training can also help one to become a better journalist in the sense of not just covering a story but having the capacity to get to the bottom of it.
Key competencies: The most important qualities of science writer, as succinctly summarized by CASW, is a fascination with science and a talent for communicating clearly, i.e. communicating accurately and with an interesting flair. Beyond a talent for good writing – which is a sine quo non for success in this field – Austin cites a good nose for news, strong research skills, and hard, careful work as important. These traits have clear parallels with those underlying success in scientific research. The ability to network is another trait widely regarded as key to success. Andrew Fazekas, writing as a correspondent from Next Wave, argues the need to gather a regular roster of clients and developing relationships with editors as a key to long-term survival. CASW argues that science writers must become facile with all forms of media, especially as many writers become less defined by the media outlet they work for.
On-campus student organizations: None specifically, but Penn’s student Science Policy Group is very closely allied.
First steps: The most practical step beyond evaluation of printed and web-based resources is, as almost always, contacting alumni who work in the field. The advice from virtually all science writers is to take every opportunity to publish writing. This can take the form of queries within the above-mentioned markets or blogs. There are no on-campus student organizations devoted specifically to journalism in a scientific context, but Penn’s Science Policy Group may be used quite effectively as an outlet for reporting. Several news groups exist on campus, for example The Daily Pennsylvanian student newspaper and the Department of Communications at Penn Med. Quite a few journalism courses are offered at Penn, for example in the English department and the Annenberg School for Communication, and these are worth exploring. Several universities offer formal training in science writing, however most concede that it’s possible to succeed without formal training. Membership in the National Association of Science Writers can offer many benefits. Indeed, this association’s Field Guide for Science Writers is quoted elsewhere as being the best resource for aspiring science writers. Getting started in science writing, according to CASW, means reading “omnivorously” about science in all the myriad formats, for example local and national newspapers, Scientific American, Wired, Science, Nature, EurekAlert!, and Science 360.
- A Guide to Careers in Science Writing | Council for Advancement of Science Writing
- Jim Austin, Science Writing: Some Tips for Beginners | Science Careers
- Andrew Fazekas, Survival Secrets for Freelance Science Writers | Science Careers
- Anne Forde, Science Writing: What are the Markets? | Science Careers
- Carl Zimmer, A Note to Beginning Science Writers | National Geographic Phenomena
- National Association of Science Writers