On the Origin of Science Writers

By Ed Yong | July 29, 2010 9:38 am

Writing
Every now and then, I get an email from someone who’s keen to get into science writing and wants to know how I started. Whenever I reply, and I always try to, I’m always left with the nagging feeling that my experience is but one of a multitude of routes that people have taken. Science writing (whether you want to call it journalism, blogging, communication and so on) is a diverse field, as are the people working in it. It would be far more illuminating for a newbie to see a variety of stories rather than just one.

This was the origin of this thread of origins. I will be asking science writers around the world to do what they do best – tell a story – about the thing they know best – themselves. This will be a perpetual thread that I hope will act as a lasting resource for the writers of tomorrow to take inspiration from.

Some kind individuals have already submitted their stories and I hope that many more will chip in. You can already see that they’re a varied bunch. Some stumbled into it by accident. Some came from traditional journalistic backgrounds. Others were bitten by a radioactive Carl Sagan. The more the stories accumulate, the better this diversity reveals itself.

Who should contribute to this thread?

Anyone who regularly writes about science, and preferably has been doing it for a couple of years now. I originally wanted to focus on science journalists but because all these definitions are bleeding into one, I’m opening it to all manner of science writers. From blogger to book writer, beginner to veteran, Asimov to Zimmer, tell us your story.

What should I say?

You’ll see from the existing entries (which are virtually unedited) that there’s a lot of variety in content, tone and length. This is as it should be – science writers are a diverse bunch and it would be a shame to edit them into uniformity. But essentially, there are two basic questions:

  • how did you make your start
  • what advice would you give to people in the same position?

What do I do?

Just  stick a comment in with your story, who you are and what you do. If there are multiple links, it’ll be diverted to my spam folder, but just email or tweet me and tell me to rescue it. Alternatively, feel free to email your story and I’ll put it up on your behalf.

How do I tell people about this?

Obviously, the URL is above, but you can also link to this page from tinyurl.com/sciwriters and bit.ly/sciwriters

What about regular comments?

I’m not going to restrict people from posting regular comments initially, but I’d ask that readers keep them to a minimum. The thread’s value relies on the stories taking centre-stage.

Other than that, go for it.

Who has contributed?

I’ll keep a running list here, with links to their stories:

  1. Carl Zimmerblog; website, Twitter
  2. Mark HendersonTwitter
  3. Tim Radford
  4. Jonah Lehrerblog, Twitter
  5. Maggie Koerth-Baker Twitter
  6. John Rennieblog; Twitter
  7. Steve Silbermanwebsite, Twitter
  8. Gaia Vinceblog; Twitter
  9. Mary CarmichaelTwitter
  10. Ivan Oranskyblog; Twitter
  11. James Randerson Twitter
  12. Deborah Blumblog; Twitter
  13. Oliver Mortonblog; Twitter
  14. Melinda Wenner Moyerwebsite; Twitter
  15. Jonathan GitlinTwitter
  16. Raima Larterblog; Twitter
  17. Mohammed YahiaTwitter
  18. Steffie Tomsonblog
  19. Jennifer Ouelletteblog; Twitter
  20. Chris Lee aka Laserboyblog
  21. John Pavlus - blog; Twitter
  22. Alice Bellblog; Twitter
  23. Ed Yongblog (yes, this one); Twitter
  24. Sandeep Gautamblog
  25. John Timmer - website; Twitter
  26. Mun-Keat Looiwebsite; Twitter
  27. Charles Seife - website; Twitter
  28. Helen Fieldswebsite
  29. TR Gregoryblog; Twitter
  30. JR Minkelblog; Twitter
  31. Cassandra Willyardwebsite; Twitter
  32. Christopher Mimsblog; Twitter
  33. Brendan MaherTwitter
  34. Rowan HooperTwitter
  35. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee
  36. Emilie Lorditch
  37. Catherine Shafferwebsite, Twitter
  38. Apoorva MandavilliTwitter
  39. Ann Finkbeinerblog, Twitter
  40. Eric Michael Johnson - blog, Twitter
  41. Emily Antheswebsite, Twitter
  42. Carin Bondar - website, Twitter
  43. Michaelangelo D’Agostinowebsite, Twitter
  44. Tom Levenson - blog, Twitter
  45. Stephen Curryblog, Twitter
  46. Richard Conniffblog
  47. Alexandra WitzeTwitter
  48. Sean Carrollblog, Twitter
  49. Emily Willinghamblog, Twitter
  50. Maryn McKennablog, Twitter
  51. Thomas Hagerblog, Twitter
  52. Joanne Manasterblog, Twitter
  53. Matt Fordblog
  54. Marcia Bartusiakwebsite,
  55. Barbara J Kingwebsite, Twitter
  56. Virginia Hughesblog, Twitter
  57. TJ KelleherTwitter
  58. Michelle Nijhuiswebsite, Twitter
  59. Dan Verganocolumn, Twitter
  60. Edward WinsteadTwitter
  61. Hillary Rosnerwebsite, Twitter
  62. Cristine RussellTwitter
  63. Kate TravisTwitter
  64. Peter RodgersTwitter
  65. Jon Turneywebsite, Twitter
  66. Christie Aschwandenwebsite
  67. Andy Extanceblog, Twitter
  68. Vivienne Raperblog, Twitter
  69. Priya Shettyblog,
  70. Kat Arneyblog, Twitter
  71. Leila Sattarywebsite, Twitter
  72. K. Kris Hirstwebsite
  73. Dave Mosherwebsite, Twitter
  74. Claire AinsworthTwitter
  75. Paul Sutherland - website, Twitter
  76. Nancy ShuteTwitter
  77. Maria-Jose Vinaswebsite, Twitter
  78. Ann Downer-Hazell - blog, Twitter
  79. Heather Pringleblog, Twitter
  80. Emily Sohnwebsite, Twitter
  81. Dan Faginwebsite, Twitter
  82. Mary KnudsonTwitter
  83. Beth Azar
  84. Anne Sasso - website
  85. Adam RutherfordTwitter
  86. Mike Lemonickwebsite
  87. Dave Mungerwebsite, Twitter
  88. Sheril Kirshenbaumblog, Twitter
  89. Laurel Nemewebsite, Twitter
  90. Richard van NoordenTwitter
  91. Jude Isabellawebsite
  92. Matt Billewebsite, Twitter
  93. Becky Oskinwebsite,
  94. Emil Viktor Nilssonblog, Twitter
  95. Jeff Hechtwebsite,
  96. Rhett Allainblog, Twitter
  97. Alex Antuneswebsite,
  98. Bora Zivkovicblog, Twitter
  99. Eoin Letticeblog, Twitter
  100. Steve Koppeswebsite, Twitter
  101. Joerg Kurt Wegnerwebsite, Twitter
  102. Sally Churchblog, Twitter
  103. J. Michael Quante, Twitter
  104. Martin Fennerblog, Twitter
  105. Lewis Dartnellwebsite, Twitter
  106. Catherine Doldwebsite, Twitter
  107. Erik Klemettiblog, Twitter
  108. Carmen DrahlTwitter
  109. Boonsri Dickinsonwebsite, Twitter
  110. Pamela Ronaldblog
  111. David Manlyblog, Twitter
  112. Roger HighfieldTwitter
  113. Tom Chiverswebsite, Twitter
  114. Dan Ferberwebsite, Twitter
  115. Emily BaldwinTwitter
  116. Kerri Smithwebsite, Twitter
  117. Earle M. Hollandblog, Twitter
  118. DeLene Beelandblog, Twitter
  119. Hannah Watersblog, Twitter
  120. David M. Lawrencewebsite
  121. Michael Brooksblog, Twitter
  122. Cobi Smithwebsite, Twitter
  123. Julia Heathcoteblog, Twitter
  124. Alan Boylewebsite, Twitter
  125. Sarah Webbblog, website, Twitter
  126. Charlie Petitblog
  127. Todd I Starkblog, Twitter
  128. PalMD - blog, Twitter
  129. Brian Switekblog, Twitter
  130. Jim Handman
  131. Martin Robbins
  132. Richard Grant
  133. Fred Furtado
  134. Henry Gee
  135. Brain Clegg
  136. Eva Amsen
  137. Simon Frantz
  138. Allen Salzberg
  139. Catherine Schmitt
  140. Gianluigi Fillippelli
  141. Wendy Barnaby
  142. David Bradley
  143. Daniel Stolte
  144. Tuan Nguyen
  145. Catherine Brahic

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Journalism

Comments (152)

  1. I backed into my job by fortunate accident. As a kid, science was an important part of my nerdy regime, but I never actually considered becoming a scientist. In college I was preoccupied with writing, cranking out so-so short stories and interning for a local paper one summer. But I still had time for physics and a few other science classes. A couple years out of college, intent on finding a magazine job, I took a test to be a copy editor at Discover. I proved to be a terrible copy editor, but I was allowed to cling to a job, fact-checking and then starting to write short pieces. A very lucky break: I was hooked.

    I talked in more detail about becoming a science writer in 2009 at the University of British Columbia. UBC made a podcast of the talk, which, if you are interested, you can listen to here: http://bit.ly/ZimmerUBC

    Carl regularly contributes articles to the New York Times and Discover magazine among others, blogs at The Loom and has written several books including Microcosm and The Tangled Bank.

  2. As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a journalist. I edited both of my school rags. At university, I edited the student paper and the magazine, and even managed to get bylines in the Observer and the Sunday Times while on work experience. When I left, you can imagine that I was thrilled to get myself onto the Times graduate trainee scheme.

    But I never wanted to be a science writer. In fact, if you’d suggested that’s what I’d end up as, back when I was studying history with adolescent views on science not far removed from those of Simon Jenkins, I’d probably have laughed.

    When my two-year traineeship at The Times ended, I was taken onto the staff, first as a general news reporter. I often found myself covering for specialists, especially in the health and education beats, and was keen to get a patch for myself. Then I was appointed to the leader-writing team for about eight months. And then there was a specialists’ reshuffle — and I was asked (well, told) to cover science.

    It wasn’t what I would have chosen. I could see the possibilities, though. If you can’t find great stories from everything that’s pouring out of the world’s laboratories, you’re not much of a journalist. I’d covered some science while writing leaders, and while moonlighting on health, and I was becoming quite taken with its rigorous approach to evidence. I could see why the Deputy Editor had picked me for the job. I thought I’d enjoy it for a few years, before moving to other pastures.

    It was a steep learning curve. I made more than my fair share of early mistakes. But within a few months, I was hooked. It was a serendipitous appointment — one that I would never have chosen for myself, but one that suited me down to the ground. I’ll always be grateful to Ben Preston, formerly Deputy Editor of The Times, who gave me the opportunity.

    Why was I hooked? I’ve already mentioned the rigour. I love the way that science stands and falls on the evidence. There is no end of exciting and varied subject matter. The stories I’ve covered really seem to move on — my ten years as science correspondent and science editor have roughly matched the aftermath of the sequencing of the human genome, for example, and I’ve had a box seat from which to watch events develop. There is no better job for the curious.

    I also enjoy communicating the wonder of science — and particularly, its peculiarly robust methods — to a lay audience, clearly and understandably, while keeping my copy sufficiently accurate and detailed to satisfy the specialists. I feel I’m writing for people like me — meaning people like I was before my job made me discover the richness, value and fascination of scientific inquiry. That science isn’t just a body of knowledge, but the best way of finding things out that has yet been devised.

    That’s something I never quite picked up at school, despite having a fantastic education. If only I’d been taught as a kid what I’ve managed to learn about science since I started to cover it…

    A few things I’ve learnt…

    You don’t have to be trained in science to write about it. A scientific training teaches a lot about a little: if you’re a PhD particle physicist, are you really much better off writing about molecular biology than a history or English graduate? Journalists are often (although not always) generalists. Knowing what it’s like to be a lay person can be helpful when you’re communicating with lay people. And you can pick up an awful lot of knowledge as you go along — even becoming fairly specialist in some areas. I’ve recently written a book about genetics. Ian Sample’s just written a book about particle physics. Neither of us has a scientific background in the field.

    But you do have to understand how science works. You need to grasp the importance of evidence, replication, falsification and so on. If you get that, you’re half way there. You need to be able to at least begin to tell the difference between rigorous work and unfounded assertions.

    Talk to everyone you can. A journalist in any field is only as good as his or her sources. The answer is always a phone call away — if you don’t know, you can usually find someone who does. And try to remember what they say — don’t just file knowledge under a particular story, store it to build up your own.

    Learn from your mistakes. We all make them — it’s how you respond that matters. If someone complains that a story you’ve written is inaccurate, and they know a lot about the subject, hear them out. They might be right, and you might have an opportunity to avoid the same mistake in future. They might be wrong — but you’ll have been forced to think about your work, and will try harder to make it more robust next time.

    If you don’t know what to think, find out what Prince Charles thinks. Then disagree with him.

    Mark is Science Editor of the Times and author of 50 Genetics Ideas You Really Need to Know

  3. In 1960 I was the NZ Herald’s reporter in Rotorua. It was a place of earthquakes, volcanic neurosis, boiling mud, forest fires and agricultural and forestry research. The first science story I ever knowingly wrote was about Stomoxys calcitrans, the biting stable fly, and the second was about new techniques to distribute seedlings of Pinus radiata by air. I didn’t count tectonic phenomena as science, even though (for a while) it had been my job to collect the weather map and then change the paper on the newsroom seismometer. Tectonic phenomena (not a phrase we ever used) were more formally known as “stories”. Ditto the greatest events of 1957, the year I joined the NZ Herald, to wit: the crossing of Antarctica by Fuchs and Hillary in the International Geophysical Year, and the launch of Sputnik 1, both of them no doubt real scientific achievements. But to us, they were just great stories.

    Anyway, I wanted to be an aesthete, a poet and a critic. I did become, all too briefly, the Guardian’s arts page editor and the paper’s deputy film critic (I met Andrei Tarkovsky, face to face! Eat your heart out, aesthetes! Alas, I also met Richard Chamberlain and David Frost so it wasn’t all sublime) but by then I had made a serious mistake. I had got interested in science, as a source of glorious comedy, drama, excitement and that special quality known technically as well-I-never!) At some point early in my Guardian career, I picked up a bit of agency about a tsunami in the Philippines that might have killed thousands and – as the cub reporter who jumped into his Morris 1000 and drove across a sea level flood plain to a beach just in case the area was hit by a tsunami in 1960 (the one that creamed Hilo in Hawaii) – I knew what a tsunami was. I went down to the science library and looked up three Scientific Americans and a so-so book and wrote 800 words about the mechanisms of a tsunami (scary thrilling drama, enhanced by phrases like “incalculable havoc”). That rather doomed me. Whenever there was some event that made the foreign desk furrow its brows – Chernobyl, Challenger etc – I was involved. I boast that I am the only newspaper literary editor who had to stop reading the books page proofs to write through a piece about a catastrophic earthquake in Armenia.

    At some point in my 40th year I was dragged kicking and screaming from the arts pages and put on the op-ed features pages, and told also to nurse a little weekly science feature, which expanded to a science and computing feature: I commissioned young scientists to write for it: among them Roger Highfield, Peter Aldhous, Ted Nield, David Whitehouse, Paul Simons and several others. Paul Davies was an early regular, ditto Ian Stewart. Martin Ryle, Peter Medawar, Ritchie Calder and Bernard Lovell all sent me pieces. I started going to British Association conferences to look for new contributors and started writing copy anyway. And, somewhere along the line, like the boy who was warned against making faces, the wind changed, and my face was thereafter forever contorted in science correspondent mode.

    I have never complained. However, when asked at symposia, seminars and sessions on science and the media, about the difference between arts reporting and science reporting, I always point out that when you ring up a poet and ask for an immediate glib quote about government policy on arts funding, the poet never says “Well, I’m hardly the right poet to comment on that old boy. I suggest you get in touch with Professor So-and-so, he’s the world expert on glib apposite quotes. He’s away at the moment but when he gets back in October, he’s your man…”

    Don’t get me wrong. but I really loved being rung up by Bernardo Bertolucci or the director of the Cannes Film Festival or Harold Pinter and I thought going to the Royal Shakespeare (I was on the arts page from Tom Stoppard’s Travesties to David Edgar’s Nicholas Nickelby) was the best conceivable way to spend an evening, ever, anywhere. However I did rather appreciate the science beat, because it gave a reporter the chance to write something that had never been written before, and sometimes to write something that no-one could ever have imaged being written before. No small privilege. No sports reporter could say the same, nor economics correspondent, nor political commentator.

    Tim was Science Editor of the Guardian from 1992 to 2005.

  4. I became a science writer because I couldn’t become a scientist. In fact, I was so bad at bench science that the post-doc I was working for (and he remains one of my best friends) used to joke that I “excelled at experimental failure”. This ineptitude led me to think about science writing, which struck me as the best of both worlds, since I could continue to think about scientific ideas but didn’t have to wear latex gloves, sacrifice mice, or worry about calibrating micropipettes. As Bob Dylan said, “There’s no success like failure.”

    I’m afraid I don’t have any good advice. I’m still learning how to write myself One thing I’ve learned, though, is that writing is a craft. There are no born writers. One has to practice and practice and practice. (That’s why blogging has been so important for me – it’s forced deliberate practice, with lots of critical comments!) And maybe, if you’re lucky, your sentences will get a little bit better most days, a little bit more transparent and clear and readable. You will say more with fewer words. But there are no short-cuts. I’m convinced that, before you can write a good sentence, you have to write lots of really bad sentences, and then spend lots of time editing those sentences. So the writing process isn’t always fun. But the upside is that, as a science writer, you’ll get to ask some of the smartest people on the planet a lot of really naive questions. That’s the best part of the job.

    Jonah is a Contributing Editor at Wired, blogger at The Frontal Cortex and author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist

  5. When I was a freshman in high school, I read The Hot Zone and The Coming Plague and, like any sane teenager, immediately decided that I wanted to do what those people did. I grew up in rather small towns in the middle of nowhere, where my family, friends and school advisers generally knew that smart kids could become doctors–and respected that profession–but didn’t really have any clue about lab science. I was steered toward general medicine and kind of flew blind, enrolled in college as pre-med with my major in anthropology…but pretty quickly decided that I couldn’t hack it. I’d always been told you had to get A’s in math to be a doctor, and I didn’t. (In retrospect, I could have benefited from a higher level of advice. The lesson: If you don’t know anybody who has the job you want, and you aren’t getting your questions answered very clearly by the counselors at your school, don’t be afraid to email strangers in your dream field. That’s a benefit you get from having the Internet. Use it. Most people really don’t mind.)

    Luckily, around the end of my second year of college, I kind of stumbled into journalism on the advice of a friend. I’d always enjoyed writing, but hadn’t really realized I could make a living at it. I graduated with degrees in anthropology and journalism and went to work for mental_floss, a trivia magazine that covers a lot of pop culture and weird history. While I was working there, I got to write a couple of articles that focused on science, and really enjoyed it. I also started feeling like, while my job was nice, I wasn’t doing something that I loved. When my husband got a job offer in another city, I took the opportunity to go freelance. Within a couple of months, I decided to focus my career on science–taking the topics I was just naturally curious about and turning them into my job.

    Freelance writing is hard. Succeeding at it is not something that just happens because everyone thinks you’re awesome. This is an important PSA. If you don’t think you want to be involved in sales, if you don’t have any interest in managing a business, if you aren’t comfortable hustling for work, don’t do it. In my experience, succeeding at freelancing means writing (and annually re-writing) a business plan. It means honing your skills pitching stories to editors and pitching a lot. (I average four pitches a week when I’m not writing a book.) It means dealing well with rejection. It means learning how to self-promote and schmooze a little, both online and in-person. The actual writing is something you get to do if you are good at those things.

    I don’t mean to discourage you. Far from it. Going freelance was the best decision I ever made. But I know from experience that nobody tells you how to run a freelance career in school. And it can look pretty mystical from the outside. Some people might see the reality as a let-down, but I see it as empowering. A freelance career isn’t something that, “poof!”, happens to cool kids. You can do it. You just have to put in the work.

    There’s been a decent amount of luck involved as well. Mental_floss asked me to turn a cover story I wrote into a book, which led to a guest blogging stint on BoingBoing.net, which led to BoingBoing asking me to come on as a contributing editor. But that’s not really the kind of career tip you can emulate. What you can do is think of yourself as a business, ask to be paid what you’re worth and stick to your guns, always turn things in on time, learn that editing is not your enemy, and work really, really hard at writing nuanced, factual stories that are still fun to read. Luck helps those who help themselves.

    Maggie is a contributing editor to BoingBoing.net and is currently writing a book on the future of energy for Wiley & Sons.

  6. From a fairly early age, I always had interests in both science and writing. The idea that there might be a profession that combined the two didn’t even occur to me, though, until one day when I was 12 years old and picked up a paperback anthology of Isaac Asimov science essays off a spinner rack. (It was From Earth to Heaven, and yes, I still own it.) “This guy has the best job in the world,” I thought, and inhaled that book and as many others like it as I could find.

    Nevertheless, partly for wont of confidence in my writing, I made my way through college studying biology with the intention of continuing in research. But after a moment of epiphany late in my senior year, I put my neurobiology grad-school fellowship on hold and instead went to work in a medical school laboratory while I wrestled with my future. In the end, I decided my passions lay more with writing about science than practicing it, so I set out to find editorial employment suitable for someone with a head full of science and no journalism experience at all.

    My first job involved writing 150-word abstracts of published magazine articles—dozens every day—alongside a roomful of other writers who were similarly occupied. Our collective output constituted the voluminous guts of a new library reference resource. (Today it would be a database, but back then in the 1980s, it was all for microfiche!) The more technical articles going into the index tended to stymie my humanities-trained counterparts, which had the effect of tossing a wrench into the sweatshop machinery; I was useful to the company because I could do those more quickly. Tedious as that work was, it taught me discipline for writing concisely, and underscored that people who knew how to write well about science were a rare commodity.

    Eventually I moved from Boston to New York for better opportunities, which took the shape of jobs writing for various tech newsletters and freelance assignments for The Economist and other publications. My big break came in 1989 when I heard about an opening on the staff of Scientific American. I applied less in the hope of landing the position than of making contacts for freelance work, but to my astonishment, they hired me.

    The outstanding editorial staff then did me the wonderful favor of ripping apart my early efforts in the most constructive, encouraging way. What I learned about reporting, writing and editing—not just intelligently, but sensitively—during those years on the job was the best education in journalism I could have desired.

    Five years later, Scientific American one day found itself without an editor-in-chief and somebody else in the organization threw my hat into the ring. In the end, the ownership liked the idea of promoting someone from within the magazine guiding its transition into the digital age, and they picked me. There I stayed for the next 15 years.

    What lessons, if any, can be drawn from my story? Only the most shopworn advice, I’m afraid: Work hard at something you can be passionate about. Take advantage of as many opportunities, professional and otherwise, as you can because you don’t know what they will bring you. Cherish any chance you get to learn from the best, and then learn from them. Be smart about getting lucky.

    John was editor-in-chief of Scientific American between 1994 and 2009 as now teaches at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute of NYU and blogs at Rennie’s Last Nerve.

  7. I took a somewhat unusual path to becoming a science writer.  Like many of my peers, I was fascinated with science as a kid, but a better way to say it would be that I was fascinated by the universe and how it works. I read cloud atlases and books on weather avidly, pestered the adults around me with questions constantly, and sent away for little kits in the mail to make your own rubber balls. I abused chemistry sets and lit fires in the backyard with Estes model-rocket engines. The Edmund Scientific catalog — with its thrilling pictures of Van de Graaf generators, telescopes, and Geiger counters — was my bible. Many people assumed I would become a scientist when I grew up.

    At the same time, however, I loved language.  Before I was even old enough to talk, my late father taught me to love words by reading James Joyce’s “Ulysses” aloud while carrying me on his shoulders. As an English professor at a state college in New Jersey, he showed generations of inner-city students how to see their own struggles reflected in the travails of Dickens’ textile workers and the crew of Melville’s “Pequod.”

    Eventually, my interest in science led to science fiction. I became obsessed with books “The Martian Chronicles” (space!) and “Flowers for Algernon” (mind hacking!).  The opening sequence of the original “Outer Limits” TV series still raises the hair on the back of my neck and brings me to tears. I saw George Lucas’ brilliantly inventive, dystopian first feature THX 1138 a dozen times when hardly anyone else even knew it existed. Meanwhile, my love of language led me to poetry, which is a kind of science of language. As a teenager, I related to the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, particularly his epic poem “Kaddish,” which recounted his mother’s tragic journey into psychosis.

    Then I did a very good thing. When I was 19, between semesters at Oberlin College,  I spent a summer studying with Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and other writers at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. In his own way, Ginsberg was a journalist, working for planet Earth. He amassed vast file-cabinets of carefully annotated data on subjects of interest, such as CIA-sponsored heroin trafficking in Southeast Asia. (Those files are now housed in a special collection at Stanford University.) One day in class Ginsberg said, “Poetry is the realization of the magnificence of the actual.” That remark has stuck with me. It could also be said about science.

    Ten years later, I returned to Naropa as Ginsberg’s teaching assistant and began freelancing for newspapers and magazines in San Francisco. One day in 1993, I installed one of the first graphical Web browsers, Mosaic, on my little Macintosh. The world-transforming potential of hyperlinking was instantly apparent.  My training as a writer suddenly seemed like preparation for chronicling the birth of a new global network.

    My first feature for Wired magazine in 1994 explored the ways that gay teenagers were using services like America Online to locate peers and mentors. I was hired as the senior editor of HotWired, the first commercially-supported webzine. (My mother wanted to know where she could pick it up on the newsstand.) It was an exhilarating time. Features hastily improvised in our office — ad banners, blogs, streaming audio, user-annotated maps — would soon pop up on hundreds of other Web sites. I eventually became a contract writer for the magazine.

    Fifteen years later, I’m proud of all the work I did for Wired. Before autism was widely covered by the mainstream press, I wrote a feature called The Geek Syndrome about the prevalence of spectrum disorders among the families of engineers in Silicon Valley. I did the most in-depth profile of neurologist Oliver Sacks, author of “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” that has ever been written. I covered the high-tech search for a Microsoft engineer who mysteriously went missing on his sailboat, Jim Gray. Then last year, I wrote a piece on the surprisingly powerful placebo effect that ended up getting widely linked and referenced on “The Colbert Report.”  But Wired’s priorities and the economic realities of magazine publishing have changed. A couple of weeks before my placebo article was published, I was informed in a phone call by a senior editor who didn’t like the piece that my long-standing contract would not be renewed, and that I was becoming a freelancer again.

    Thus, in mid-life, I find myself starting anew, which may prove to be a blessing. I’m now working on a book proposal for a book based on “The Geek Syndrome” and other articles I did for Wired, focusing on the neurodiversity movement. My engagement on Twitter with other science writers, such as the mighty @edyong209, has been very inspiring. If all goes well, I’ll also be launching a new blog within the next couple of months on a new science-blogging network.

    And I’m still pestering adults with questions about how the universe works.

    Steve is a writer for Wired and other national magazines.

  8. Science journalism for me is the the happy marriage of my great interest in science, my love of writing and my general nosy curiosity. I started off doing a science degree – chemistry, because that seemed to me to be the fundamental basis to all other science, which became physical chemistry and maths, because it turns out I’m too clumsy and impatient for long and delicate biochem experiments.

    While at university, I knew I wanted to write, so I hooked up with my college magazine and the student newspaper. I wrote theatre and film reviews for student rags and for Time Out, getting free tickets to opening nights and gigs, and I wrote the odd news piece and feature.

    After uni I lived overseas for a while, in Sydney, where I got a job as a reporter on a medical magazine and I did a bit of freelance work for ABC Radio National’s Science Show, before retuning to London. After a few years of muddling around (in which I did a master’s degree and worked in book publishing as an editor), I decided I wanted to commit to a career in journalism and I needed formal training for that, and so I did a year-long periodical journalism course at City University.

    Newly qualified, I worked as a freelancer for various newspapers and magazines, edited my own magazine briefly, before working as an editor at New Scientist and then Nature. I’m currently freelancing.

    My advice to would-be journalists: If you want to be a journalist because you always liked English at school, or because you love writing stories, or because you think it’s glamourous or pays well, then you’ll be disappointed. Do something else. Journalism is not easy, is not well-paid, is not about writing nice self-indulgent stories about your life or hanging with celebrities (not science journalism, anyway). If you don’t read newspapers or magazines, if you’re not itchy for the latest news, then journalism is probably not for you.

    But, if you’re the sort of person who always has another question to ask; who sees or reads about something and wants to know why, where, how, etc; who is able to explain the hidden beauty of human discovery to other people, who wants to know the latest, the story behind the story, then maybe this is for you.

    First step, is to know the basics. If you want to be a science writer, have a good enough grounding in science (at least a first degree) that you can understand a scientific paper, recognise what you don’t understand and know the questions to ask to make the rest clear. Second step, learn how to write like a journalism. Writing news or feature articles is not the same as writing in your diary or composing an essay in English class. Like all trades, it can be learnt and there are rules. It takes practice – a good way of getting experience is though an internship. Third step, be tenacious – everyone gets rejection, but if you really want to do something, don’t be put off. News editors are busy people, so think in ways they don’t have time to. Is there a story you know about, that you have special access to or that you can think of a new way of covering?

    If you do decide that being a hack is for you, then good luck to you – you’ll be joining a community of some of the most interesting, intelligent, humane and eclectic people on the planet – even if journalists don’t enjoy the best reputation in society, it’s an important and necessary job!

    Gaia was News Editor at Nature before she embarked on a worldwide journey, reporting on the human impacts of climate change

  9. As it happens, my creation myth is a literal one. Here’s what I told the Knight fellowship selection committee when they asked me this question:

    *** My AP Biology teacher made me the science journalist I am today, but I don’t think she’d be proud to hear it. Let me explain. I went to high school in the rural South. My bio class had a textbook with a chapter on evolution, which we skipped. Instead, we read “Creation: Facts of Life,” which asked “why Christ would… raise us to newness of life if God’s plan for step-by-step improvement were based on struggle, accident, and death.” Luckily, I was immune to creationism. I marked up the margins, half with teenage philosophy (“maybe God isn’t good?”) and half with what can only be called pitches (“article idea: creationists who are not Christian”). At 17, with no clips yet to my name, I was already a science writer. What I wanted to be, though, was a scientist. I spent the next semester breeding sea urchins and tormenting their larvae with nitrates. The larvae all died; they were supposed to. But their parents, who should have stayed alive, died too. Their spines fell off and littered the aquarium floor. Here, again, the teacher disappointed. Instead of reassuring me, she retreated behind her desk and allowed me to conclude that I wasn’t careful or capable enough for a career in a lab. A few months later, I took an internship at the local paper, half-flippantly telling people I was going to become a writer because you couldn’t kill a living thing with words. How little I knew about words – but that’s a digression.***

    This is a long way of saying “I was an agnostic with no lab technique.” But of course I didn’t seek out the newsroom solely because I felt I couldn’t cut it in the lab. Writing about science can be more of a challenge than actually doing it. To be a science journalist, you need all the mental skills of a scientist. You should understand statistics (tip 1: take a class), and you should pick apart every paper you report on as carefully as a good peer reviewer would. If you can’t do that, call someone who can. (Tip 2: backgrounders are your friend. You never know when a potential source will come in handy.) On top of this, you also need the mental skills of two other professions. You must explain things as well as a teacher (tip 3: if you’re not sure you’re communicating something effectively, recruit a friend with no scientific background, tell her what you’re trying to say in three sentences, and keep revising those sentences until she stops looking at you blankly.) And you must move your readers’ emotions as well as a novelist. (Tip 4: Read. Constantly. Anything high-quality.) You can explain science clearly and beautifully until you’re blue in the face; it won’t matter unless your reader cares about what you’re saying.

    Doing all this simultaneously can be a very high-pressure endeavor. Which is why tip 5 is the most important one: Have fun! Cover what you love and love what you cover; writing about science for a living is a tremendous privilege, as is evidenced by the number of people who do it for free.

    Mary is a senior writer at Newsweek and a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT

  10. If pressed for the story of my origins in journalism — sort of as Ed is doing here — I’d start with the day I first set foot in The Harvard Crimson. I had just turned 18, and the assignment editor, a vaunted 20- or 21-year-old, sent me out to find out more about a student government race in which a candidate was being criticized for supporting ROTC on campus. I came back with a notebook full of reporting and sat down to write my first story for The Crimson.

    What resulted bears almost no relation to what I first wrote. But that’s because what I wrote was awful, and two patient editors — one of whom was Jonathan Cohn, now senior editor of The New Republic — turned my reporting into something publishable.

    The Crimson was a crucible and a party all at once. I had the best time of my life, all while working my butt off. I had always been interested in journalism, and had been editor in chief of my high school paper. The Crimson molded me into a reporter.

    More accurately, the “senior leadership” of The Crimson molded me into a journalist. The “rules” of journalism were posted in the Crimson’s newsroom: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. I will not philosophize, I will be read. Etc. I’d be leaving people out no matter how long my list of Crimson mentors was, but it was Andy Cohen who fostered my interest in science and health reporting, Brian Hecht who encouraged me to take on a big beat to prepare me for a spot on the executive board, and Julian Barnes who showed me the ropes on that beat — the Harvard faculty — and edited lots of my stories.

    I made plenty of mistakes, all on my own. One in particular stands out. While I was on the medical school beat, I found out about the suicide of a Harvard Medical School student before any other Boston-area reporter. But I didn’t push a dean harder for more information. It turned out that the student had been the recipient of some highly unorthodox therapy from a Harvard Medical School faculty member named Margaret Bean-Bayog. The Boston Globe reporters who jumped on the case — and to whom I most played catch-up for months — ended up with books about the tragedy. I learned to check story tips out more thoroughly, that’s for sure.

    Tip #1: If you’re still in college, run, don’t walk, to your student-run campus news organization, be it a daily newspaper, an online magazine, a radio or TV station, or, as freelance contracts often say, “media not yet invented.”

    I went to medical school after college, legitimately thinking I wanted to practice as well as write. I come from a long line of doctors, so it was the natural path. But a hint of my future came that summer, when instead of taking my parents up on their generous offer of a backpacking trip around Europe, I decided to do an internship at a suburban daily newspaper in Westchester owned by Gannett. I had a blast, starting out each day writing an obit and then working on “big” projects such as the fight over sidewalk sales in a tony village and the future of the county’s public library system.

    Ed wanted our origins, so I’ll try to accordion the years between then and now: After meeting George Lundberg, then the editor of JAMA, as a college senior, I ended up as co-editor-in-chief of the medical student section of JAMA, which sadly no longer exists. More exposure to smart and nurturing editorial types, not the least of whom was George, who remains a mentor to this day.

    When I graduated med school and started my residency, one of the people I met while working at JAMA gave me a monthly column in American Medical News on being a medical intern. The resulting columns got me into trouble at my hospital because I was honest about working 110 hours a week and making mistakes — this before “reasonable” working hours became a requirement. The fact that I was having such fun with it, however, along with a weekly column I started writing for The Forward — and that people were willing to pay me to write! — made me realize maybe full-time journalism was my future. (That Forward column, by the way, was a commission from a good friend from The Crimson, Ira Stoll, so see “Lesson” above. The Crimson network I was privileged to join in college has made for a lifetime of contacts and mentors, but most importantly, friends.)

    So I left medicine shortly after my internship, and haven’t looked back. I freelanced while I figured out what I wanted to do full-time, eventually landing as the founding editor-in-chief of Praxis Post, a webzine of medicine and culture that was a finalist in the General Excellence category of the Online News Association Awards in its first full year of existence. When that was shuttered, its owner recruited me to join The Scientist, where I started as web editor and eventually became deputy editor, with day-to-day responsibility for print and web. In 2008, I left The Scientist to become managing editor for online of Scientific American, and in June 2009 took my current job as executive editor of Reuters Health.

    See anything linking those gigs with my training? Yes, four years of medical school plus one as an intern have given me terrific background. I would be the last to claim that medical school, or some other graduate school, is the only place to gain that kind of expertise, but I would also be the last to claim, for obvious reasons, that someone with a doctorate can’t make it as a journalist. (Yes, I’ve heard both of those arguments.) My way of thinking about that is another bit of advice:

    Tip #2: Develop expertise. You can do this on the job, covering a beat, or you can do it in school, or at workshops, however you want. Some of you already have; sounds as though Ed gets a lot of the same calls I do from trained scientists and doctors who want to go in to writing and journalism. But more and more, hiring managers are looking for people with expertise. And you can prove you have that on a blog and Twitter.

    Oh, and I blog and Twitter, which brings me to my next bit of advice:

    Tip #3: Blog and Twitter. Get yourself and your journalism out there. Follow, and interact with, people like me and Ed so we keep up with your work. Contribute to the community of people who create content, and that community will be your biggest supporters. Curate as well as create.

    I’m also on the board of directors of the Association of Health Care Journalists, an organization I’d obviously endorse. (Not to mention I met my wife at one of our conferences.) Journalists tend not to be joiners, but resist that tendency. Join early, and use the network — and resources — of groups such as the AHCJ, NASW, and SEJ to get better at doing what you eventually want to do full-time, if you’re not already. So, naturally, another bit of advice:

    Tip #4: Join journalism organizations if you want to do journalism. If you haven’t developed mentors elsewhere along the way — and even if you have — find them there.

    But above all else, have fun.

    Ivan is executive editor of Reuters Health, teaches at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute of NYU and blogs at Embargo Watch

  11. How I got into journalism: During my PhD at Bath Uni in Evolutionary Genetics 1998 – 2001, I started writing popular science pieces for my university mag and for BBC Wildlife magazine, The Biologist, Scientific American and New Scientist. I also did work experience at BBC Natural History Unit and Icon Films in Bristol. All that led to an internship at New Scientist which led to a full time reporting job.

    General advice:
    ABSW website – bit out of date

    Start doing it- Write a blog; write for your university mag; pitch stories to your local paper; anything – it will all build your confidence, improve your writing style and help you to make contacts.

    Do your homework – When pitching a freelance piece make sure you understand the style and form of different outlets at your chosen publication. Sounds obvious I know but you’d be amazing how often people don’t do it. If an editor can see you haven’t bothered to read his or her website before then it won’t give much confidence in your attention to detail.

    Be brief – Editors are typically extremely busy and pitches from unknown freelancers are usually at the bottom of the priority pile. Encapsulate your story in 50-100 words. The last thing an editor wants is to plough through the whole 2000 word feature. They will ask for more info if necessary but you have to hook them first.

    Be charming – Editors take lots of flak on a daily basis – from writers annoyed that their story was chopped in half; from bosses annoyed that they missed a competitor’s splash; from persistent corporate PRs trying to lever their client’s product into the paper; from sarcastic emailers pointing out grammatical mistakes. It all comes with the job, but politeness and charm will go a long way to helping you cut through.

    Be persistent – There will be knock backs – lots of them. So keep at it and don’t despair.

    Think about the future – Journalism is changing rapidly and the web present many new and exciting ways of researching and telling stories. Think about the opportunities the internet provides rather than coveting traditional media jobs (because they may not exist for long). Alan Rusbridger’s Cudlipp Lecture earlier this year is a good place to start.

    James is editor of environmentguardian.co.uk. He was formerly guardian.co.uk’s science correspondent

  12. When I started college, I had big plans to become a chemist. Enrolled as a freshman in a terrific class called “Honors Science Majors Chemistry” where I was pretty solid the classroom and a near lethal menace in the laboratory. It completely brought out my inner klutz. One day, I smoked out the entire class with toxic fumes. Another day I set my hair on fire -only the end of one braid, but still I began to fear that something even more grisly was in my future. Also that I would break some zillion dollar apparatus (my lab instructor clearly agreed with me there.)

    I shifted over to journalism because I wasn’t sure what to do with myself but I did like to write. The kind of easy decisions that you make when you’re 18! And then as it turned out, I loved journalism – the adventure of it, the way it tests you to learn as you go. I worked as a police-fire-courts-education-city-hall reporter for five years at three different newspapers before I realized that you could be a journalist who specialized in science. I applied to graduate school and quit my job before I even got in. Got a grad degree in environmental journalism from the University of Wisconsin and was hired out of school in 1982 by a medium sized newspaper in California, The Fresno Bee, and off I went.

    I’ve always thought that my background first as a news reporter helped me be a better science reporter – I was always quick to see and argue for the science angle in big events, from fires to floods. And I was always interested in trying to the same audience I’d written for as a police reporter – more interesting to me because they weren’t necessarily science savvy. It’s the latter that’s probably most driven the way I write about science – I’m always looking for ways to tell the story in a more seductive way.

    Deborah is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of The Poisoner’s Handbook

  13. When I was at school I was pretty good at both the sciences and the humanities (I was in a school system with a baccalaureate, so didn’t have to make invidious choices as the English tend to). I also wrote for money from the age of 15, doing music reviews for a local magazine. I didn’t know what I wanted to do: rock star and science fiction writer both appealed, as did being Jerry Cornelius (which is really just both of the above at once). I applied to Cambridge because you could do a natural sciences degree that didn’t start out focusing on one particular science, and there was a history and philosophy of science (HPS) option in later years: I really liked philosophy at school. The breadth of the Cambridge degree and the HPS option came in handy, since if I had been forced to do just one science it would have been physics, and I soon learned a) that being good at physics at school and at a tough university were very different things and b) that geology and molecular biology were far more interesting to me. Hated and avoided student journalism, but egged on by my father applied for the Richard Casement internship at the Economist after my first year at college. In my second year I realised that HPS was the thing for me (and also got an ABSW award for my work at the Economist, which seemed a good sign). In my third year the Economist offered me a job as sci-tech correspondent and I took it. If they hadn’t I would probably have tried to go on to do a doctorate in some sort of HPS/STS, though not getting a first would have damaged my chances.
    Spent eight years at the Economist (moving out of the science section near the end), 18 months at Wired, eight years as a freelance, three years at Nature, then back to the Economist to do energy and environment. Much of it was good, some of it was hard, the books are the bits that last. Thought about going more mainstream, had a few offers that way, never quite felt like the right thing to do.

    I wouldn’t recommend science writing as a career in any sort of blanket way, but it’s worked as the basis of mine so far and I still enjoy it.

  14. I loved writing from a very young age—when I was in the fourth grade, I wrote a monthly magazine for my friends for about a year, just for fun—but I also always loved science. When I got older my creative passions turned to music, and I got a bachelor of music in composition in addition to my bachelor of science in cell & molecular biology. But as much as I loved writing music, I realized that I wasn’t crazy about my potential career path: doctorate, academic position, teaching. So instead, after graduating, I moved to London and began working in marketing for a biotechnology firm.

    That’s when I started reading New Scientist religiously. I wasn’t wild about the business side of science and found myself fantasizing about being a science writer. I reached out to a handful of writers I admired and asked them for advice. Did I need to get a Ph.D. to write about science? Did I need to go to journalism school? One New Scientist writer I contacted advised me that a journalism degree might not be a bad idea to “cleanse” myself of my business / marketing past. I got a response back from John Gribbin, too, who told me that I didn’t need any advanced degrees; I just needed to start writing. I remember how excited I was that he took the time to write me back. It made the possibility real. I can do this, I thought.

    I ended up in NYU’s SHERP program the next year and loved every minute of it. Then I did a short stint at SEED, but I knew that I wanted to write, not edit. So in February of 2007 I quit and I’ve been freelancing ever since. I’m always learning about the most amazing things. I love my job.

  15. Jonathan Gitlin

    I don’t know if I still count, but I’ll play anyway. I discovered, during my PhD, that writing up was actually more fun than the actual labwork. I had inklings that being a scientist wasn’t the best career for me, but it took a couple of postdocs to really confirm that. At my first, at Scripps, there was an awful lot of sitting around waiting for mice to breed, and then waiting for mice to eat, so I decided I ought to at least look busy. Ars Technica, in those days pre-Conde Nast, were looking for extra content, and I pitched them the idea of restarting their weekly science column.

    Pretty quickly I found I enjoyed trolling that week’s journals for interesting papers that I could translate for a nerdy but not scientific audience, and being able to cover lots of different topics had a lot more appeal than narrowly focusing on one tiny area of biology.

    Still, I took another postdoc after Scripps, this time in Lexington, KY, thinking that I really should give science one last try and this time in an area I thought I’d find more intellectually stimulating, but as before, there was a lot of sitting around waiting for mice to do their thing (unavoidable with in vivo diet studies). Ars Technica revamped their format, moving to daily science content instead of a weekly column, and we attracted several other (bored) postdocs to the team, all of whom are excellent writers. In the days before the Research Blogging movement got underway, we took pride in the fact that we actually read the whole paper before writing it up, rather than the regurgitation of press releases that had become so common. Now it seems everyone is doing it! I think we got annoyed by the constant refrain of “scientists need to be better communicators” and so set out to prove that you can make research accessible and interesting.

    Caring about science, and covering the intersection of science and policy evidently sparked something in me. After four and a bit years as an unhappy postdoc but a rather content science writer in KY, I made the leap to working in policy for NIH, where I’ve found most of the same skills are necessary; being able to understand complex ideas and then break them down for lay audiences in a way that tells a story and doesn’t make reading a chore. Sadly, the one area I’d love to be writing about for Ars’ audience is now the one I work on, and the only one that NIH isn’t keen for me to cover, but I suppose those are the breaks.

    My advice for aspiring writers, especially those coming from the lab, is to get out there and do it. The barrier to entry is low, all you need is a blog. Think of your audience, try and find an interesting angle, and the odd science fiction or pop culture reference never hurts. Building up a body work is important, and like all skills, you need to practice. So get out there and do it!

  16. I’m fairly new to science writing, having worked at it professionally for only two years now. I’m not at all new to science, though, since I was a chemistry professor for over twenty years, then a government scientist for five years after that. I’m not new to writing, either, and churned out short stories, essays and even a novel over that same period of time. Two years ago, it occurred to me that perhaps I could combine my two loves, science and writing, and become a whole person (in a professional sense) for the first time in my career.

    The key step in moving from that vague idea of “combining my two loves” to a job where I’m paid to write about science and a membership card in the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) was getting some education. I took a short workshop on science writing, offered by the Bethesda Writer’s Center here in DC and taught by David Taylor, and followed that up with a fantastic one-semester course through Johns Hopkins’ MA in Writing program. My teachers in that course, especially Mary Knudson and Nancy Shute, provided practical advice, lots of practice in writing, but most importantly, support and mentoring after the class was over.

    One struggle I have had in making the transition to science writer is that the default assumption of most people in this field is that (a) scientists can’t write; and (b) science writing is a sub-category of journalism. I consider myself a scientist who writes about science, not a journalist, although I think the two fields (science and journalism) are both devoted to the same goal: finding out the truth and communicating it to others. When I was a professor, I taught writing to all my students, and told them that a scientific discovery was of no use to humanity unless the scientist who made that discovery could tell other people about it. I see my work now as one in which I help other scientists do just that, and hope that my personal experience as a practicing research scientist will be of help in getting the word out about all the interesting work going on in labs and research institutes around the world.

    My advice to aspiring science writers is to follow your heart. If you want to write, then write. If you want to get in the lab and work as a scientific researcher, then do that. I don’t think you can go wrong when you make your choices based on what most excites you. Passion can go a long way in carrying you forward in any career, so do what you love.

  17. I have been excited about science for as long as I can remember. Interestingly, in my school you could be fascinated with science AND be cool, you didn’t have to be nerdy (or at least we thought we were cool!)

    I knew back then I wanted a career in science, but didn’t know which one exactly. Finally, I decided that studying pharmacy would combine several of the different sciences that I was in love with. So I went to university and studied pharmacy. After graduating, I started to consider career choices. Working in a community pharmacy still ranks very high on my most boring activities list. The other choice was working for a pharmaceutical company. I joined one of the biggest companies but quit after a few months due to moral reasons.

    That is when I realized I hit a solid brick wall: I hated all the career choices I had now. In that depressed state I read an ad in the local newspaper for a science journalist at IslamOnline.net. Up to that stage I had no idea what a science journalist was. But I knew that I had always loved writing, and a science background made sense.

    I went to apply and was quickly accepted. That is where I met Nadia El-Awady, who is now the president of the World Federation of Science Journalists (WFSJ). She taught me everything about science journalism and became a very good friend and mentor. I made every attempt to learn from her and realized that I fell in love with science journalism.

    Suddenly everything made sense! I had a “THIS is what I was born to do” moment!

    My science background was very helpful – but the tricky part was learning how to share the science with the general community. Every story became a fascination for me and I tried to spread my work out as much as possible. I had my share of stumbles as I learned the ropes, some much worse than others, but I treated each story as a chance to make the next one better.

    Based in the Middle East, I knew it was a real challenge to bring prominence to science in a region where, for so long, science has taken the backseat to politics and sports coverage. But that was part of the fun of it. The challenge of bringing the story down to people and making them care, even if they think they don’t.

    I guess my focus on a more or less niche area (science in the developing world) opened up several opportunities for me. I went from covering science at the website IslamOnline.net to becoming the regional editor for the Middle East at SciDev.Net. Finally I ended up as editor on the recently launched Nature Middle East portal.

    Through my work I have met some of the most amazing people and made friends across the globe. Today, I can’t imagine myself doing anything other than science writing – in whatever form it comes!

    My advice for someone coming from a science background like me is, yes the science will help, but it doesn’t play the main part. We all need to continuously work on our style and writing skills to develop them further.

    Going into science journalism can be a leap of faith for someone in that situation. They have been tailored for so long to work in science, they just can’t imagine being journalists. But if you have a love for writing then you should definitely consider taking that leap of faith. It is exciting to be delve into all different stories related to science. It can also be particularly rewarding if you are based in the developing world, where there aren’t too much other science journalists and where you can really make a difference and shine.

    And the most important thing is, make sure that it is fun for you. I enjoy every single story I write, it becomes part of me while writing, and that is the thrill of it all.

  18. As luck would have it, I’ve only just begun my blogging career and my very first post was all about my motivation to finally put my thoughts out into the ether. As a graduate student, I’m forced to absorb information faster than I ever have before, and I have plenty of battle scars to prove that this absorption is not passive. If nothing else, I wanted the opportunity to share what I’ve learned with others. Almost more importantly, I’m learning what it is to have a legitimate, scientific opinion and how excruciatingly important it is to demonstrate evidence to support a claim. As @boraz so delicately described in his farewell letter to SB, posting science online opens you up to a world of scrutiny, which is perfect for young scientists and journalists.

    I wholeheartedly doubt that I am the only budding science writer to struggle (initially) with meeting the expectations of peers, for despite my initial momentum, I have scant few (published) articles in my new blog to prove that I am actually continuing the process. Much like graduate school orientation, starting your own blog lays out a landscape of possibilities – new resources, friends, people who follow you, comment on your thoughts, and invite you to do the same for them. Much like Day1:GradSchool(end), producing quality work takes time and effort, especially at the beginning. I’m sure I’ll encounter plenty of blunders as I learn the ways of the blogosphere, but I’m looking forward to it nonetheless. Good luck!

  19. I got into science writing completely by accident, but I was always something of a writer. I was writing my own stuff since, like, the age of 6. I started reading early, loved words, loved playing with them and putting them together in interesting ways. At 8, I filled a notebook with my earliest attempts at poetry, an effort which has mercifully been lost forever, along with most of my “juvenalia.”

    At 10, I was writing fables and horror stories (I was addicted to horror anthologies and ghost stories). At 13, I wrote a Harlequin romance novel, having read several while babysitting and deciding it didn’t look that hard. (This appalled my mother when she stumbled on it, since I was parroting a few “adult” phrases whose meaning was not yet quite clear to me. Note: even writing bad romance fiction isn’t especially easy.) My mother, of course, thought I was genius. She was mistaken. But all those horrible youthful efforts made me a better writer in the long run. As several folks have pointed out, writing is a craft. You get better by doing it.

    As for science, I liked it well enough and did very well in all my math and science courses, but never considered it as a career. And I didn’t know the profession of “science writer” even existed.

    I didn’t discover journalism until college, when I made friends with the features editor of my college newspaper and started writing for that, eventually becoming editor myself. My college didn’t have a strong journalism program, but I took the few classes that were offered, and learned the rest on the job, logging in countless hours at the newspaper. Ironically, I hadn’t really thought about writing for a living; I had some vague idea of going to grad school in English literature and possibly studying at Oxford (I was a hardcore Anglophile by then).

    A year of part-time graduate study convinced me that wasn’t where my interests lay. By then I was living in NYC. First I tried to become a rock and roll reporter, since (a) I was a classically trained pianist so had some music background, and (b) I was dating an editor at SPIN at the time. My first freelance assignment — done on spec, me being an utter neophyte — involved dogging the lead singer of a then-well-known band through the clubs and drug-infested dives of the Lower East Side while he was on an all-night binge, trying desperately to get some coherent thoughts from him on the deeper philosophical meanings of his lyrics and musical composition. I failed. Around 3 AM, with one final “BLARGH,” the singer threw up on my shoes and passed out. His manager quickly chimed in, “That was off the record.” I quit the assignment the next day (and tossed out the shoes). Clearly I didn’t want that career badly enough. :)

    Floundering, with no direction and — more important — no money, I took what I thought would be a short-term job with the American Physical Society, then based in NYC. I wrote a couple of short movie reviews for the internal employee newsletter, and when my supervisors realized I could write well, they started asking me to write up short news stories: initially society news, but increasingly, I started writing about science, profiling physicists, visiting their labs, and learning about the “job” of physics in the process. I fell in love with all of it: the writing, the science, the people — a physicist has yet to throw up on my shoes. And when the APS relocated to Maryland/DC region, I struck out as a freelancer in NYC.

    Of course, I read my early stories now and cringe a little. My lack of confidence showed, and because I had little science background beyond high school, those portions tended to be dry and uninspired. But I kept at it, and kept getting better — and got a pretty awesome science education in the process. And eventually I found my “voice” as a science writer. I’d always written long letters and emails to friends, and a physicist pal told me one day, after I’d sent a lively, humorous account of a visit to a lab — none of which was included in the final article I wrote — that my emails were far more entertaining than my straight reportage, and perhaps I should consider writing about science in my own voice. He was 100% correct; it was the best advice I ever received.

    I wrote a couple of articles for Discover, and for Salon, and this led to writing my first book, which in turn led me to start my blog, Cocktail Party Physics. And blogging? It is my metier. I was born to be a blogger; the format just needed to be invented. My writing has continued to improve in leaps and bounds since I started blogging. And a series of blog posts about learning calculus turned into my third book, THE CALCULUS DIARIES: HOW MATH CAN HELP YOU LOSE WEIGHT, WIN IN VEGAS, AND SURVIVE A ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE, due out August 31 (shameless plug alert!). Yes, there is a calculus of the living dead and I’d be happy to show you the derivation. Wait! Come back!

    Other advice? Rather than recap everything here, back in 2006 I wrote a blog post called “The Write Stuff” chock-full of practical advice for science writers, that also ended up being featured in the first Open Laboratory collection. You can read the original post here: http://twistedphysics.typepad.com/cocktail_party_physics/2006/09/the_write_stuff.html

  20. I came to science writing as a relief from failures in my lab work. At the time I was working on a project that was not as logically consistent as it should have been, making the work seem a bit fruitless. Equipment breakdowns kept preventing me from making nay progress anyway. In the meantime several projects that I wanted to work on were stalled by administrative barriers. All in all, I was pretty unhappy.

    At this time, I noticed an awful lot of complaints in the comments of the science section of Ars Technica: that it was “all biology all the time.” I volunteered to contribute–I am a physicist–and went from there. My motivation was partly selfish in that I wanted something positive in my work day to balance out the recurrent failure of my lab work. I also felt that science communication was important and wanted to contribute to that effort.

    Luckily, because my main career is still as a scientist, I have a lot of freedom. I pick and choose the stories that interest me. I (skim-) read the comments in the articles to get inspiration about what my audience are interested in and where they have misunderstand what I wrote, or have come to the article with misunderstanding. My best writing has not come from current science work, but more general articles that explain the process of science. If I was focused on daily science writing I would not be able to write such articles.

    Also, I should note that the editors at Ars Technica are very patient with me because I can go for weeks without contributing just because I am burnt out from my day job.

  21. I fell into journalism by accident, and then into science journalism almost by default. I started writing movie reviews for my college paper because it was the only thing I knew anything about (I went to film school). Then that got boring and I realized that making fiction films wasn’t that interesting to me either (I had no passionately held ideas for films) so I decided to orient towards nonfiction. But I still didn’t know anything about anything.

    I wrote about myself (for Salon.com), more about filmmaking (for trade magazines), about the city I lived in at the time (Chicago, and then finally realized (before moving to New York for better “opportunities”): If I’m going to really make a living at “being curious for a living,” I’d better get a better grip on what the hell I tend to be the most curious about. Once I asked that question, “science” was the simple, obvious answer.

    I don’t have a formal degree, or even a beat. Just plain old honest curiosity — built up from a childhood of watching NOVA and flipping through my Dad’s popular science books on quantum mechanics, cosmology, and chaos theory. It’s a powerful engine for a career and I feel lucky that I can rely on it. But it also has practical advantages.

    Focusing on curiosity helped me set aside my substantial fear of asking questions and interviewing people. (Kind of important if you want to write nonfiction for a living.)

    It also makes finding and honing story ideas much simpler. That may sound galactically obvious, but I spent a lot of time in my early twenties worrying about what I could/should write about instead of writing and pitching. I was lucky enough to get advice on this from John McPhee. It boiled down to: just try to answer questions that YOU wonder about. Who cares whether it’s a “good” or “important” topic, or is done to death, or all that b.s. that just blocks you. Curiosity is a wonderful, clarifying tool for answering that scary question that freelancers face every day: “What the hell am I going to do with myself today?” (And its evil offspring: :”OK, now that I know, where the hell do I start?”)

    Curiosity also helps remind me that most things aren’t as “hard” as they appear at first glance — a crucial attitude for doing science writing. If you genuinely WANT to understand, you will find a way. I recently pitched a story about new programming languages even though I knew nothing about programming and have never written a line of code in my life. Of course I didn’t mention this in my pitch, but after I got the assignment, I just trusted the simple curiosity that generated the idea in the first place (“hm, why WOULD anyone want to make a new programming language, anyway?”) to guide me through reporting it. And it worked out fine. (I ended up over-studying on Wikipedia, but it felt like fun, not work.)

    I’ve gone on long enough, so that’s my history/tip in a sentence: BE curious and ACT curious. Everything else will work itself out from there.

    John is a freelance writer and filmmaker who’s written and/or worked for Wired, NOVA, Scientific American, National Geographic, and others.

  22. I wouldn’t normally say I’d count as a science writer, but Ed asked for my “origin story” too, so here it is.

    The first press release I wrote was repeated in the People’s Friend. This was the start of my career in science communication.

    I didn’t realise it at the time.

    I was 16 and wondering about doing politics at university, so organised a months’ work experience for myself at the CND press office (the People’s Friend are unlikely fans of the CND’s Christmas cards). I also volunteered a couple of hours a week with an education project run by my local branch of Mind, which quickly turned into paid work.

    I finished school and was a bit clueless as to what I wanted to do, so applied for a job in the kids’ galleries at the Science Museum. In the interview, I made paper planes and told them my hero was Faraday. They liked this, and gave me the job.

    I thought I better get a degree. I stumbled across a history of science BSc at UCL which included a load of science communication and policy studies too. I realised this was everything I’d ever been interested in. Then I started the degree, and hated it. I was also going through a rough patch at the museum and was close to dropping it all. I saved some annual leave and over-time-pay and went to Australia for a month, working in science center in Brisbane. It gave me some much-needed perspective, and I came back deciding to give it another chance. I’m pleased I did, as I adored the rest of my degree.

    I also did a couple of weeks work experience on a project to launch the UK national year of science; getting a million kids to jump at the same time, just to see what’d happen. We didn’t cause an earthquake, but we did set a Guinness World Record and made the front page of the Guardian. This turned into two years part-time work, helping run events, writing for their website and editing a book for teachers (well paid too – funded my MA with savings).

    At the end of my second year, one of my tutors got me a bit of freelance work. This led to some more, which in turn led to more.

    I was working and studying at the same time, and I loved the perspective this gave me. However, I felt there was a huge gap in the academic literature when it came to children’s relationships with science. I did a PhD to start to fill that gap and now find myself teaching science communication rather than doing it.

    I may go back though, either by accident or on purpose.

    So, I’d say a lot of my career has been down to chance and luck. I said this at an event at my old school once and my old form tutor scolded me saying “you make your own luck”. Ok, yeah, I worked hard, kept my eyes open, been interested in exploring new career paths and didn’t limit myself to one media or type of audience, but I know how lucky I’ve been.

  23. nullJust realised I haven’t contributed yet to my own thread… Ahem.

    It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good science background must be in want of a PhD. I had always been in love with science but my hazy hopes of a research career were stymied by a degree of experimental ineptitude that is still spoken of in hushed whispers and/or raucous laughter. Two events helped me changed tack towards a more suited and less radioactive path. One: a friend of mine told me in a pub that I was good at explaining complicated things to him. Two: I did a two-day science communication course for graduate students, which told me the same thing. These were lightbulb moments. A year later, I started working in one of Cancer Research UK’s information teams, a job that I still do at increasingly senior levels.

    My other career (the one you’re probably more familiar with) also hinged on two events. The first happened in 2006 when I started this blog. I wanted to flex my writing muscles on different topics and in a style that’s more naturally mine and since I wasn’t getting any traction sending pitches into mainstream media, I started doing it myself. The second happened in 2007, when I won the Daily Telegraph’s Science Writer Award after flirting with the top spot in three previous years. That changed everything – it gave me more kudos when pitching to editors but much more importantly, it gave me confidence. But I knew that this power-up had a limited lifespan (at least until the next winner was announced) so I worked myself to death over the next 12 months, pitching frantically, writing as much as I could, and building up contacts – a pattern that has since become more like the status quo than an unusual blip.

    Everything else has flown from there, with the two streams of blogging and freelancing crossing in a nicely synergistic way. But it’s important to note that there has never been a plan – no long-term strategy, no carefully mapped-out route to science-writing glory. It has always just been me, doing things I love, trying to be brave, shunning hubris as far as possible, and making sure I was ready to capitalise on as many opportunities as possible. My tips to others in the same boat would be these:

    Be sure you really want to do this. A lot of people want to do this line of work because they don’t like research. But this can’t just be a fallback option – you really have to love it. I spend around 1.5-2 extra working days on top of my day job every week doing this. Your passion will have to carry you through the hard initial bits.

    Pull your finger out. It has never been easier to get yourself published and to prove to yourself and others that you can write. Start a blog. Do a podcast. Try contacting organisations to see if they have internships or work experience. Try entering competitions. Start making contact with people on Twitter. Be bold – the Internet reward boldness.

    Perservere. It’s tough at first because no one knows you and you are an unproven quantity. Also there are a lot of people who want to do science writing/comms so competition is fierce. If you’re trying to do freelance writing, you will suffer a lot of rejections. If you start a blog, you will get no readers at first.

    Be honest and pleasant. There is a big culture of mutual support among the modern science writing community. People really want to help each other out; with so much chaff around, it’s in our interests to cultivate the wheat. And with social media, there are ready-made ways of tapping into this altruistic community.

    Read a lot and pay attention. Immersing yourself in good writing will give you ideas about the sorts of things that professional publications commission, and also show you what works and what doesn’t. When I write, the words of greater writers resound in my head. Also, keep an eye on journalism, the blogosphere, and so on – these areas are changing so quickly that you can blink and the landscape will be different. Try to blink one eye at a time.

  24. I’m not a science journalist, but just a science blogger; also I don’t blog for livelihood, I do it just for passion and fun; so I doubt I have any advice to offer to people who want to make a career out of science journalism (I’m not there yet myself:-), but ya as an author of a reasonably well respected science blog, The Mouse Trap, with neither a degree in science or journalism to boot, I can share my story and hope to share with those who want to start on the science writing journey the sense of excitement and privilege, and the requirement of just raw passion to take you where you want to be. As Mary mentioned in her comment, many bloggers write for free about science and what more privilege it could be if you could also earn your livelihood from it.

    I come form a computer engineering background and my day job consist of that; I wont go into why I got enrolled into IIT in the first place, but there I read a book ‘The anatomy of human destructiveness’ by Eric Fromm that sort of literally transformed my life by making me aware of the methods that psychologists use and the immense importance of their contributions. From that moment I was hooked to psychology and neuroscience and started enhancing my knowledge base.

    Slowly, over the years, driven by my passion, I strove to enhancing my knowledge, and also seriously considered getting into grad school to do a phd in psychology/neuroscience. Meantime, blogs became happening and in a science blog I found the perfect outlet for my new found passion for science – till I started blogging, I had this feeling that I was consuming and assimilating a lot of scientific knowledge and methodology, but to little avail. Blogging seemed to come as a boon, giving me opportunities to put that knowledge to new uses and learn on a whole new level by interacting with the science blogging and reading community (which was very welcoming to say the least) .

    But the tug-of-war between being a scientist and being a blogger continued. I visited NBRC (National Brain Research center) , where I was offered a project assistant position and there things finally crystallized when I saw the monkey s in captivity on which I would have to perform experiments. I suddenly realized why I sort of self-handicapped myself every-time Is seriously considered being a scientist myself- the ‘sacrifice’ of rats,or experimentation on animals in captivity was juts not for me- let me be celar here I have no ethical stand here- I feel the research is justified, I’m just a bit queasy about doing that myself. So to cut a long story short , I finally realized that to enjoy the best of both worlds, I stick with my day job and do science blogging and writing and popularizing and armchair philosophizing and theory making and science advocacy etc, but not the nitty-gritty of actual experimental science.
    So here I am, and the only advice I have for those aspiring to be science writers is to have a burning passion for your subject area; if that is the case you will rise above lack of degrees (either scientific or journalistic) , you’ll gain valuable experience along the way as you persist, and I would recommend doing it for non-monetary reasons for at least a year or two before going full steam ahead and trying to make a livelihood out of it. Because as other commentators have noted, it is not an easy task to be a freelance/ ‘tenured’ science writer!

    Sandeep Gautam , is the author of a Psycholgoy and neuroscience blog titled The Mouse Trap and is a comparative newbie to the field of science writing (just 4 years:-)

  25. I seem to be a bit unusual here, in that I didn’t know I wanted to write until very late in the game, after over a decade of solid-but-not-spectacular work in a variety of post-doctoral and non-tenure track positions. I had a liberal arts degree and knew how to use writing as a tool, but really only deployed it for papers and grants—not the sorts of things that inspire a love of the craft.

    My career trajectory changed not because of a flash of inspiration, but because of a growing sense of annoyance. With plunging funding lines, writing grants just started to feel like an exercise in futility. Meanwhile, as topics like evolution and climate change demonstrated, the US public was having a terrible time coming to grips with what science is all about.

    My indignation found an outlet when one of the websites I read (Ars Technica) started a dedicated science section. I offered to contribute in my spare time and, within a month, found myself in a free-wheeling environment where, when you were happy with a piece, you simply hit the “Publish” button. Most of us were scientists writing like scientists, with passive voice and elaborate, carefully constructed paragraphs. It was pretty awful, but thousands of people read anyway, and were more than happy to tell us it was awful.

    Nearly five years flew past, and they brought a bit of internal peer review before hitting publish, followed by formal editing, a publishing schedule, coming to grips the the journals’ embargo system, etc. My research career came to an end, my writing continued to improve, and Ars offered me a full time home. About the only constants have been that the readers still tell me when I’ve not done a good job, and that most of my family still has no idea what I do for a living.

    Are there any lessons in this? One is that it’s possible to start small and in your spare time, developing your skills as a communicator—as people above indicated, these are skills that need work. A second is to push yourself and those around you. Back in late 2005, when I first started with Ars, none of the science writers really knew what we were doing, but we kept trying new things and sharing what we learned. The last is to pay attention to your readers. Some of them are truly idiots and the hatemail can get depressing, but their comments will always be the easiest way to find out when you’ve not described something well.

  26. Right up until the final year of my undergraduate genetics degree, I had no idea you could have a career as a ‘science writer’. I’d done a year working in a lab on a sandwich placement and knew bench science wasn’t for me. Plus much of my final year was taken up working on the University newspaper. I had an inkling that there might be a way to combine the two, but none of my tutors or career advisors could tell me anything other than “Er… Do a PhD?”.

    By chance, I ended up getting a position at the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which introduced me to the science world outside of science. This reignited the interest that had led me to study science in the first place, and got me thinking deeper about the issues surrounding it: policy, bioethics, history and philosophy of science and science communication. Following good advice from my colleague Nicola Perrin I decided to try for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London.

    It ended up being one of the best decisions of my life, full of stimulating discussions, amazing opportunities and lots of fun. You don’t have to do a course like this to get into science writing (though there are plenty if you do want to one), but the MSc gave me the confidence and practice I felt I needed to move on. I wrote news, features, made podcasts and TV packages and ended up Editor of Imperial’s then nascent science magazine, ‘I, Science’. We came 2nd in the best Magazine category of the Guardian Student Media Awards. “At the very least, this science writing lark has gotten me a kiss from Lauren Laverne,” I thought.

    The MSc also provided me with an internship at SciDev.Net, which led to my first proper science journalism job and I eventually progressed to News Editor. My two years there were tough but fun and extremely valuable, giving me hands on experience of running a news desk and working for an international news agency. As Mark Henderson (I think) once said to me, journalism is a craft you have to learn on the job.

    I learned a lot but the responsibilities of being a News Editor made me miss my first love of writing and reporting, I moved to the Wellcome Trust where I now write news and feature articles on a regular basis. It’s different from mainstream science writing in the journalistic sense, but no less challenging or important, I feel. There’s no shortage of stories I could be writing about; in the past year I’ve tackled neuroscience, genetics, synthetic biology, infectious disease research, climate change and medical comic books. And it’s all for a good cause. I’ve also had the opportunity to expand into other areas — I helped set up and run the Trust’s blogs, Twitter feed and Facebook page (and no-one suspects it’s all a ruse so I can be on the internet all the time :P ).

    Science writing isn’t just news, features and books. And being a science writer doesn’t mean you have to be a journalist for a national newspaper or magazine — there are plenty of opportunities out there working for so many different organisations. Nor do you have to have a background in science. If you can write well and have the interest, you can do science writing. And as Mark’s written above, not being an expert in something can help when you’re trying to explain it to others who are similarly clueless.

    I’d echo what others have said. You can get some basic advice from the ABSW guide (http://www.absw.org.uk/reading-room/so-you-want-to-be-a-science-writer) (a little out of date, but it is currently undergoing an overhaul). And there’s plenty of other advice on the web (like this post — great idea Ed!).

    But more importantly: get practicing and get some experience. In the Twitter-age there’s no reason not to be using the self-publishing tools available to you. Start a blog, start writing about papers, events, interesting things you’ve read — whatever enthuses you. Build up a portfolio of writing and you’ll get better as you do it. And get out and meet people, make contacts, get advice, get some work experience and talk to others doing the same thing. The great thing about the science writing/communication world is that everyone is generally very friendly and happy to help (and with Twitter, you don’t even have to meet them in real life….).

    Mun-Keat Looi is a science writer at the Wellcome Trust and spends way too much time on the internet.

  27. I had little doubt that I would become a scientist — as I grew older, my interests shifted from biology to physics to mathematics — but I never really thought that my career would lead anywhere but science.

    As college ended and graduate school began, it dawned on me that the Ph.D. track was beginning to chafe. I loved the research, but I was not enjoying being crammed into a narrow specialty. And I was not happy with the increasing suppression of my humanities side.

    I was always writing. First came fiction (At eight, I sci-fi with a highly-original epic: “The Jupitarian Chronicles”) then non-fiction. As an undergrad, I wrote a profile of mathematician John Horton Conway for a class — it became my first published work. Even as I pursued my Ph.D, I was writing… but it was increasingly difficult to find time.

    Then, a friend of mine told me about the Casement internship at The Economist. Three months in London under the tutelage of the esteemed Oliver Morton, and it was all over. Screw the Ph.D. — science journalism is what I wanted to do.

    My advice? There’s much more to science than press releases and embargoed news — if you want to write things that make a difference, stray from the pack.

  28. In the summer of 2001, I was a PhD student in ecology at Stanford. I was miserable, I couldn’t figure out what I was doing, and one day I whined to a friend, “All I *really* want to do is be a science reporter for NPR.” She said, “Then do that.” I was like, “oh.” It hadn’t occurred to me that this was actually a real job that people could have. I signed up for a journalism class for the fall and applied to science writing graduate schools. One year after that conversation, I was an intern on the science desk at NPR.

    I went to the graduate program in science writing at U.C. Santa Cruz, then spent four years continuing my education under the wonderful mentors at U.S.News & World Report. I moved from there to National Geographic, where I worked for a year and a half before being set free – thank you, layoff – to start freelancing, which turns out to be way more fun and less stressful than I expected.

    So that’s my origin story. I never know what to tell people about how to become a science writer. Practice writing (most of my practice came in the form of e-mails to friends and family). Learn how to report and how to meet deadlines. And don’t get huffy when editors change your words.

  29. @#23 – Ed Yong

    I think one very important tip that you left off is to develop a respectful relationship with scientists. When you, or Carl Zimmer, or Brian Switek, or others who have always been very careful with details, respectful of researchers, and clear about what you find exciting about the science write, the people doing the research take notice. There is a lot of frustration among scientists and educators with the way new studies are portrayed in the media, but when someone is recognized as an honest and skilled communicator, he or she will be among the ones that scientists hope will discuss their research.

    Also, I think it’s very useful for science writers to encourage the minority of scientists who run blogs or do their best (though obviously not at a professional level) to talk about science to a broad audience. Most of us lack the time and writing chops to do so at a level approaching what good science writers produce, but it’s great if we’re included in the community of individuals sharing our love of scientific knowledge.

  30. I got into science writing on a whim. I was an undergraduate working in a biology lab, and one of the post-docs showed me the web site for the UC Santa Cruz science writing program. She must have known it would speak to me, because I immediately decided I would become a science writer. I had always been a good writer, and I had an interest in geeky things like evolution and philosophy of mind. This was primarily because of my dad, a long time Sci Am subscriber whose bookshelves were stocked with science and science fiction.

    In my imagination, being a science writer meant I would become a famous essayist like Stephen Jay Gould. It didn’t occur to me I would be doing journalism until I found myself in the department of journalism at NYU, as a student in the Science and Environmental Reporting Program. After graduating, I freelanced successfully for five years, mostly for magazines, then took a job writing daily news for SciAm.com. Now I’m working in a biology lab again and freelancing a little on the side.

    I am probably a bit unusual among the people posting their stories here, in that I don’t know how much longer I will remain a science writer. I’m just not in a position to write the kinds of stories I would want to read, at least not for pay. For someone starting out, I would recommend they follow Ivan Oransky’s advice. Take a job at a publication that values strong reporting. Learn from your editors. The writing will come, if you work at it — it’s the reporting that’s key. You have to stay skeptical, particularly when reporting on biomedicine and human behavior. The more you can separate hype from reality, the better you will serve your readers.

    Good luck.

    [With heavy heart, I have to add that JR died in January 2011. The science writing world lost a star, and our best wishes go to his family and friends - Ed]

  31. In college I gravitated naturally toward the biological sciences (after a brief, so-not-torrid affair with political science). I hemmed and hawed, but eventually ended up choosing Biological Aspects of Conservation as my major. I’m still not sure what that means, but I didn’t have to take as much chemistry as I would have had to take for a degree in botany or biology (my first choices). After I graduated, I had no idea what to do with myself. So I did what most people who find themselves in that situation do: I joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in Bolivia.

    But that just delayed the process of figuring out what to do with myself. When I got back, I still had no idea. I spent several months unsuccessfully hunting for a job at an environmental nonprofit and watching my savings dwindle. Then, out of desperation, I called a friend who owned a consulting company. She asked me, “How would you like to be a science writer?” I had no idea what that meant, but I knew I didn’t want to live with my parents any more. “Sure,” I said.

    I worked for her for two years. I’m not sure whether what I was doing — writing technical briefs about research related to the health effects of cell phones and power lines — was honest-to-goodness science writing. I wasn’t doing much de-jargoning or explaining. My readers were scientists and industry folk, people who knew a lot more than me. But it did give me a taste of what science writing is all about. I decided I wanted to write more creative science-y things. So, in 2006, I went to Johns Hopkins to get a master’s in science writing.

    My path from there was pretty traditional: internship at Nature Medicine, staff position at EARTH magazine, and now I freelance. Before I applied to graduate school, I remember debating whether I needed to get a graduate degree or not. “Maybe I can just kind of wing it,” I thought. I recognize now that that would have been an enormous mistake. I desperately needed training in journalism as well as all the contacts I made through the Hopkins program. I could never have done it on my own.

  32. I started in college. I wrote a “humor” column for my school paper’s editorial section. It was (sarcastically) called Smoking is Cool and it was mostly me ranting about things that enraged me. I was so ignorant of journalism that I never realized that writing editorials disqualified me from writing news, not that I was terribly interested in doing that — it was much more fun to just make things up. (Now that we have journalists who also blog, and activist journalists, and Journolist and Fox News and all the rest, no one even pretends to be objective anymore so I guess I got the last laugh on that one.)

    Through dumb luck my (pre-assigned) freshman advisor happened to run her own undergraduate science initiative, so one summer she hired me to be a science writer. All I did all day long was interview scientists and write up the results as Q&A’s and as-told-tos. It was great practice.

    One year out of college I got an internship as a science writer at the membership magazine of the National Zoo. My only real experience was the summer gig I’d had in college, but they let me write not only news, but a feature, if you can believe it. This is why interning at small pub is A Good Thing.

    After that I was a lab tech – I wanted to find out if I wanted to actually be a scientist, and hey, it was a job. I had been told by the editor of a newspaper that my background didn’t matter, only my clips, so I freelanced for the Zoo’s magazine in order to build up my clip file.

    I ended up in New York completely by accident. I didn’t even want to live in New York. I hated my (new) lab tech job so I applied for an internship at Seed magazine. During the interview, the senior editor I was talking to said I was the most experienced intern he’d ever seen, which sounded crazy to me. But there you go: my clips were enough, even though they were all for places of little consequence.

    Skip over the next few years of steady advancement, and now, 10 years after that first summer gig, I’m a full time freelance science writer.

    Here are the lessons for aspiring science writers I take from that:

    1. Get some formal journalism training. You may think it’s b.s., but a good news writing class will teach you discipline and the strange conventions of the literary genre known as News. I’m not saying you need a degree.

    2. Be obsessive and driven. Being a writer in any context is punishing, ill-paid work that will not earn you the esteem of your parents or peers in the same way as doing something materially useful (medicine, entrepreneurship, garbage collection).

    3. The definition of a professional writer is that they write for money. The web encourages us to give away the fruits of our labors — don’t.

    4. Get an internship. Even though the number of internships out there is dwindling. If you can’t get an internship, apprentice yourself to someone who knows what they are doing. (I’ve been thinking of setting up just such an apprenticeship for a while now.)

  33. Why I did I become a science writer? The short answer is that I was failing chemistry…

    I went into college, like many, unsure of what I wanted to do or be or become. I majored in biology because it was something I was good at and had always enjoyed. A lot of elements kept pushing me more toward writing, however. I had been involved in my high school newspaper and quickly joined up again in college, in part because I liked getting free CDs and movie tickets. But crucially, in my freshman year I was failing chemistry. I had a heart to heart with my advisor, who suggested I split my major between my two loves. I could major in writing with a specialization in biology. It allowed me to put off the second semester of introductory chemistry for a year or two and choose more of the biology classes that I wanted to take sooner.

    Then, I got very lucky. In my third year, after having only just met me, a writing professor asked me if I wanted to do an internship with the Baltimore Sun. Like an idiot, I asked for a day to think about it. Thankfully I came to my senses within 24 hours.

    My mentor at the Sun, features editor Michael Gray, was kind and generous with his time, and good at teaching the value of hard work and enthusiasm for subjects. He would ask me every week to research a story for another reporter. When I’d come back with a stack of research anxious to tell him about all the odd things I’d found, he’d say something along the lines of “Well, you obviously know more about this than the writer I was going to put on it. Why don’t you write it?” I ended up with something on the order of ten clips from a national newspaper.

    That kind of experience is about as close as most undergraduates can get to a blank check. Sadly, I don’t think there are many such opportunities anymore. I didn’t find every door open to me, but I managed to get a job doing some editing and writing for a trade publication involved in marketing. It wasn’t a good fit, and I was fired for insulting a potential advertiser in a public space. That experience left me a little bit wiser and a good bit humbler at the door of The Scientist, a trade magazine for biologists. Larry Hand, the editor who hired me told me he worried I was overqualified for the job they were looking to fill, essentially a researcher and fact checker. But, sensing this was a chance to get my career moving in the right direction I couldn’t be deterred.

    The Scientist was a young energetic office with lots of people to learn from — the kind of place that is very rewarding to self starters. Within a few weeks, I was spending every spare moment writing stories for them, and I within a year and a half I had ridden the ever shuffling staff procession up to the position of senior editor. I learned from many great mentors here. There was former Inquirer crime reporter, Christine Bahls who taught me much about pacing, engaging the reader and writing in clear declarative sentences. And I learned much about the business and its ethics from the esteemed and ever-watchful Ivan Oransky. In 2007 I quit my job to work temporarily for Nature on their features team. It was an exhilarating and frightening prospect. A nine month assignment eventually turned into another, and finally a full-time job, and I’ve found so many more great people to learn from, like Oli Morton. Among the lessons I would give to anyone but especially aspiring science writers: humility and self-assured enthusiasm can coexist; you won’t always recognize good opportunities, so don’t be afraid to take risks; good clips are golden, but so are the relationships with editors that build, nurture both; and never, NEVER stop learning how to write.

    Brendan is a features editor for Nature. He eventually passed both semesters of introductory chemistry.

  34. I think the first thing I published was a review of a Happy Mondays gig for my university newspaper. The second piece I wrote was a few years later, after I’d done a PhD in behavioural ecology and had moved to Japan: I wrote reviews of local ramen shops. Then, whilst still a postdoc, I started writing about science for the Japan Times. I just pitched them a story on dragonflies and luckily they picked it up. I eventually joined the newspaper as science editor, learning how to report properly on the way. After a stint in a physics lab at Trinity College Dublin as writer-in-residence, and a spot of freelancing for Wired and the Economist, I got an internship at New Scientist and that led to a reporter position. Five years on, I’m news editor.

    Whilst it is by no means essential to have a science degree to be a good science journalist, at New Scientist all of the editorial staff do. Many also have PhDs. These days many have done masters degrees in science journalism too. That’s the sort of elitist bunch they have here. It’s hard to break in, because so much has already been reported: the New Scientist archive is bursting with amazing science stories, so my first bit of advice is to check our archive before pitching a story. Second bit of advice: check your news sense. You might have turned up a new bit of science, but will it make a story that you’d want to read, or tell your friends about? Think about how to sell it to the commissioning editor: why is this a cool story, what does it tell us that we didn’t know before? Keep plugging away.

  35. Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

    As a child, I enjoyed writing poetry. My father was a geologist and would take the family along on field trips to remote locations in Rajasthan, India. All that I could do for entertainment here was write about my surroundings — a snake slithering past a camp tent, an evening excursion with my father to survey rocks for wolframite — a tungsten-bearing mineral that glowed sky-blue under UV light. When I finished high school, I decided to study engineering because that’s what a lot of bright kids from middle-class India were doing at the time. I had not the foggiest idea what I was getting into. Three years into my coursework in chemical engineering, I realized that technical study was sucking the soul out of me. I wrote poetry for relief. The running theme in these writings was the gulf between a scientific and emotional understanding of the world, which I naively believed I could bridge through my poems. In the fossil of an archeopteryx, I imagined a reptile striving for transformation. In the oily shimmer of rain-drenched streets Mumbai, I saw miniature rainbows that reflected a technologically-inflicted abuse of the environment.

    After college, I worked at a cement company for six months — a disaster. Writing was the only thing I could do. I became a reporter for a newspaper in Calcutta, covering everything under the sun. About three years later, I landed a science writing job at a competing newspaper which had a science section. I went into science writing because I realized that I couldn’t write poetry about science AND make a living; science writing was the next best thing to do. It’s been 13 years since. I have spent the last 7 at Science, where I have terrific colleagues and the opportunity to tackle fresh topics every week. I’m still learning to write.

    My only advice to aspiring science writers is that subject matter expertise will not make you a writer. Studying and practicing the craft of writing is really what it’s all about. Knowledge of a subject is good, but by the very definition of news, you’ll invariably be writing about things that you — and by extension, most of your readers, don’t know much about. (Otherwise it would be old news, right?) It’s only by writing stories that you will realize what questions to ask your sources, what material will breathe life into your piece. Whatever you do not know or understand, you will be able to know by asking the right people. But the writing part — that you’ll have to teach yourselves.

    Yudhijit Bhattacharjee is a staff writer at SCIENCE magazine, where he covers astronomy, science policy and other topics. He has also written for The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, Wired, Discover and Time.

  36. Emilie Lorditch

    My senior year of high school, I had to write a term paper about a career that I was interested in. I chose meteorology and learned about William Gray’s and Kerry Emanuel’s research for my paper entitled, “Breakthroughs in Hurricane Forecasting.” I got an A+ on the paper an thought I was on my way.

    In college, I struggled with my physics and calculus courses, but loved my earth science courses, and did well in my journalism courses. I ended up changing my major to Physical/Environmental Geography and minoring in technical writing. I looked for an internship — which I would recommend –and found one with my university’s Public Information Office and wrote about graduate student research. Before that position, I didn’t know that you could be a science writer.

    After college, I applied for every writing job that I found and ended up freelancing and a couple of months later finding a full-time science writing job. Ten years later, I’ve had opportunities that I never thought that I would have had. Now, I write for print, TV , and the web. Plus, I freelance when I have time.

    Looking back now, I was always a science writer and just didn’t know it. For anyone who wants to get into science writing, I would recommend: an internship, keep your curiosity, keep learning all the time, keep improving your writing skills, write about topics that you are interested in, be persistent, and believe in yourself.

  37. To become a science writer, I took the well trodden veterinarian-biochemist-maternity-science fiction writer-science writer path. I had always had an affinity for writing and exceled in writing in school, to such an extent that one of my old English teachers confessed that he had “stolen” some of my papers and got them out to reread every once in a while. However, I wanted to be a veterinarian, so I got on the pre-vet/biology track in college. After a couple of years, I decided that biology was more exciting than veterinary medicine, so I dropped pre-vet and majored in biochemistry. I went to graduate school for biochemistry and took a terminal master’s degree when I realized that a career in science involved many years of virtual slavery, and that I didn’t love it enough for that. I worked for a couple of years in the pharmaceutical industry until I had a child. For 15 months I tried to balance being a good Mom with being a good scientist, and finally gave up and took a career hiatus to care for my child. While he was still a toddler, I started writing science fiction, for which I had prepared by taking the six-week Clarion workshop in 1997. I started selling stories, and decided to try my hand at nonfiction. The rest is history, as they say. After my first couple of article sales, I very quickly built up a clientele and am writing regularly for a number of trade and scientific publications, mainly in the pharma and biotech space.

    Nowadays I am extremely busy and have published hundreds of articles in various venues. I work extremely hard and enjoy every minute of it. I do not pitch very many stories because I have great relationships with editors and other writers that gets me a lot of work through the grapevine. I do not have time to blog, but I am on twitter as cathshaffer. It’s great to “meet” so many of my peers as freelancing can be a lonely business.

    Advice I would give to someone coming from a science background is make sure you can write. Scientists wanting to turn science writer are a dime a dozen and editors are rightfully skeptical of your ability to actually write. If you have not written for fun or done well in English and writing classes previously, you probably don’t have what it takes to be a science writer. If you feel like you need help in that department, invest in some extra schooling or workshops to help you along. Science writing is not an easy out from a science career that you hate. It’s hard work and the freelance life has many uncertainties. There is a good deal of tension between scientists and science writers and one reason for that is that scientists tend to think their way of communicating science is the one and only correct way, and any writer that doesn’t publish their full 1000-word comment is “taking them out of context.” Be prepared to be diplomatic about this and take some hits. I think I’ve been blacklisted at least once by a scientist who didn’t like the way I told my story. This is a badge of honor to me, and hasn’t hurt my career one iota.

  38. If I’d been a better reporter from the beginning, I would have realized I wanted to be a writer a little sooner.

    As it was, I didn’t really pay much heed to the fact that I was the only Chemistry major in the Milton class in college, or the only non-English major in the senior English seminar or that I couldn’t wait to get home from Organic Chem lab to write my English Novel analyses. It took me 4 years in a Biochemistry PhD program to realize that I much preferred writing about my experiments to doing them.

    I immediately hightailed it to New York, and to NYU’s science journalism program, where I tried to unlearn all the terrible affectations of a scientist: writing in passive voice, without any identifiable subject, and jargon, jargon everywhere. I’ve since written for mainstream magazines and for scientists, with my longest stint at Nature (5 years), and had a chance to live my dream: covering infectious diseases where they really matter–in Africa and Asia. For years, my title has been editor, and I probably do more editing than writing, but at heart I’ll always be a writer first.

    Here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way (in no particular order):

    **seek out mentors. Mine taught me invaluable lessons: don’t bury the lede, never let your sources vet your copy, don’t try to explain more concept per sentence, and never, ever assume that what your source tells you is true. I get the allure of writing for different publications and different editors, but there’s no substitute for a mentor who knows all your particular flaws.

    **start writing. If you don’t have clips, write for a free paper that doesn’t care and build on it. My first clips were embarrassing fluff pieces for NYU’s paper, but I took those to an online site that paid $50 per article, then to a community newspaper that hired me as a staff reporter and so on…

    **some of the best training for being a science journalist came from that small town paper, where I covered city hall, police and education (and science/health whenever I could sneak it in). As with science writing, in a small town your sources and readers are the same, so you quickly learn to be critical but fair and always, always accurate.

    **no jargon–ever. it doesn’t matter if you’re writing for a lay audience or for scientists, no one ever complained that something was too easy to understand. Some young science writers think using jargon makes them sound smarter. On the contrary, it’s the first tip-off to your editor (and your reader) that you don’t really understand the material.

    **Like any other trade, journalism has its best practices. learn them. even if you don’t go to school, learn what the inverted pyramid is (and then use it), the nutgraf, the kicker. They’ll make it much easier for you to write clearly.

    **The “tell it to Mom” rule is still the best yardstick for any lede. If she wouldn’t understand it without further explanation, it’s not clear enough.

    **one of my editors told me that before Tim Radford (he’s on this list, so he can tell me if this is true) wrote a story, he would turn to the room, tell them what it was about, and then write it down. The facts, the numbers, stats etc would come later. This is similar to the “tell it to Mom” rule, but it also imparts a valuable lesson about the forest and the trees. Many beginning writers I work with make the mistake of cramming all the facts in first, and trying to cobble a story out of them.

    **stick to the simple present as much as possible. yes, the scientists did the experiments in the past–but are the results still valid?

  39. I never even liked science. I thought science was for people who didn’t have the imagination to be writers. I wrote poetry and short stories.

    In my late 30′s, I was driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike, watching the rock lines in the roadcuts, how they slanted up and down as the mountains went up and down, and then somewhere around Pittsburgh, no matter what the mountains did, the lines in the roadcuts stayed dead flat. First I thought, “Why do they do that?” Then I thought, “Why don’t I know anything about the world?”

    So I took some night school courses — Concepts of Modern Physics, Origin & Evolution of Man — and noticed that the chronological unfolding of quantum theory and the development of the hominid pelvis were just stories, like fiction only real, and more surprising and complicated than anything I could make up. About that time, I first heard there was such a thing as science writing.

  40. I’m a writer because I don’t have a choice. There’s something in me that feels compelled to communicate the questions I’m struggling to answer. I got my start in writing very early by working on short stories and scripts at fourteen or fifteen (filming the latter with my Dad’s video camera and whatever friends I could convince to be in my movie). I wrote my first “professional” essay when I was 17, a critique of President Clinton’s decision to bomb Iraq that was published in the local paper. But it was Carl Sagan who started me off as a science writer. I read his books while going to film school in Los Angeles to be a screenwriter and director. He helped me realize that my questions were bigger than the silver screen and gave me the inspiration to enter the sciences. Others soon joined the chorus: Robert Sapolsky, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins, Carl Zimmer. These writers were my most important teachers and I owe a great deal to their passion and skill in communicating such amazing and complex ideas.

    The scientific training I gained through my PhD work in Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke has been crucial in helping me focus my areas of interest to ask the key questions. Any science writer worth their snuff will seek out this training in some form and learn to appreciate the value in such dedicated skepticism. But communication within the sciences is very different than communication with nonscientists. There is at times a conflict between being a good scientist and being a good writer. Writers are professional embellishers. We take our lived experience or the information we’ve acquired through research and craft a story in the hopes of reaching people whose lives may be very different from our own. The extraordinary specificity and precision of the scientific enterprise can be lost in this translation process. But the good science writers know how to combine both and it has been my struggle to learn from them in order to refine my craft and communicate my love affair with the scientific world view.

    My advice to would-be science writers is the same as for any writer. Write as often as you can. Take risks. Make mistakes. Fall flat on your face. The difference between wanting to be a writer and actually being one is in how often you pick yourself back up. Right now is the absolute best time to do this. The ability to connect with others who are passionate about the same topics as you are, to learn from them, to collaborate with them, to comment on their work, has never been easier. Use this incredible resource. Be promiscuous. Never be satisfied with the work you’re doing and continue to push yourself to improve your ability to communicate. Others will appreciate your struggle, even if the end result appears effortless.

    Eric is a primatologist and budding historian of science whose work has appeared in Discover, Seed, and until recently, on ScienceBlogs at The Primate Diaries.

  41. My parents are both journalists so that part of it, I suppose, was in my blood. But–perhaps because my parents were both journalists–I refused to consider it as a career. I’d always loved to write, and I worked on my high school and college newspapers, but it wasn’t anything I intended to pursue professionally.

    I was determined to be a neuroscientist. I was a big time science fair geek in middle school and high school, and VS Ramachandran’s Phantoms in the Brain changed my life. I’d never seen the brain explained so clearly, and in such an accessible, engaging way. I was sold. I took all the requisite courses in college–organic chemistry, biochemistry, cognitive science, psychology, and the like. But my lab work taught me something unexpected: I loved learning about science, but I didn’t actually like *doing* it. (I am not a very patient person, and I came to have nightmares about pipetting.)

    This discovery unmoored me. I didn’t know what to do next and figured I might as well give journalism a shot. I did a series of summer newspaper internships, experiencing the classic rites of passage of a young newspaper journalist. At the Boston Globe, I covered cops and courts, going to the scenes of traffic accidents, small-time trials, the doorsteps of parents who had just lost a kid in some horrible act of violence. I did a lot of that–trying to get victims to talk to me, witnesses to talk to me, bereaved families to talk to me. I was not cut out for it.

    But the Globe had something that blew my young mind that summer: A science section. An entire, well-written section devoted to science. I’m a little embarrassed to admit it but, at 21 years old, it was the first time I’d realized that there were careers that would let me combine my love of science and writing. I took the initiative to pitch some stories to the science section during my internship–I had to do this on top of my regular duties, but it was worth it. After that summer, there was no looking back. I did a little freelance science writing during my last year of college, did some more internships, and then ended up at MIT’s master’s program in science writing. Since then it’s been full speed ahead. I feel extremely lucky to know that I’m pursuing the exactly right career for me. I can’t imagine doing anything else.

    Advice:
    1. Be curious. No science degree necessary, but you have to genuinely love, and want to learn more about, science.
    2. Be fearless. Pitch, pitch, pitch. Put yourself out there. Be prepared for lots of rejection–and to keep on going despite it all.
    3. Be smart. Take some internships. Plural. Even if you think you’re beyond them. Even if you’re doing menial work for three months (and you probably won’t be), every place you make a personal connection is one more outlet likely to publish your work.
    4. Be friendly. There may be a lot of science writers out there, but it feels like a surprisingly intimate community. And there’s a lot of support out there from other science writers. Reach out to them, make friends. This, of course, has its own rewards, but you’ll also find that today’s drinking buddy could become tomorrow’s assignment editor.
    5. And, of course, read. Read lots of other science writing. It will teach you a lot about writing, but it’s also a great place to get ideas. Often some little parenthetical note in another science writer’s work will become the seed of a great new idea for a story.

  42. My start in writing came when I was ‘allowed’ to take a break from my climb up the academic ladder. Sometimes I think that during our time in grad school many of us forget to let our minds wander to topics that we really LOVE.

    What do I mean by that?

    I mean that we get so entranced by our projects, and so focused on such small scale things, that we forget to ask ourselves critical questions like: do I really like what I’m studying? Is this the kind of question and/or system that I want to spend the rest of my life working with?

    My ‘break’ from academia started 3 years ago, and will likely span another year or two. I’ve had 3 babies now, and I’m simply not going to work full-time until they are old enough to be in school themselves. Here’s my wonderful secret: I have two glorious days each week (thanks to grandmotherly help and other babysitting) where I get to do things for me. The wonders of the internet mean that I never need to leave home in order to immerse myself in the fantastic world of science. Having this time has allowed me to actually answer the questions I posed above. I’ve really discovered which science topics are of most interest to me, and I’ve been developing my own writing style to put a spin on research and interesting results.

    My first book is due out next month, and I’m very excited about it. In our world taking time off for motherhood is generally not looked at as a ‘smart’ career move…however, I’ve been able to use this time to focus on what I really love and to become a more mature scientist and a newbie science writer.

  43. My father is an English professor, and my mother’s dream was always to teach math. So you could say that I was destined to be a science writer from the start. As an undergad, I studied physics but couldn’t quite pull myself away from literature and philosophy classes too. I bounced around from lab to lab, never feeling fully satisfied with research work. I loved the ideas and the big pictures, but the details got to be mind-numbing after awhile. I never found something that I wanted to dedicate my entire scientific career to. Nevertheless, and perhaps against my better judgment, I ended up getting a PhD in physics at Berkeley.

    During graduate school, I discovered the Berkeley Science Review, a graduate student popular science magazine. I think a lot of universities now have publications like the BSR, and they’re a tremendous way to get a start in writing. I wrote and edited articles and eventually became the editor-in-chief. For the first time, I felt truly at home with what I was doing.

    That summer, I applied and was accepted at the Casement Intern at the Economist. I spent three months writing for the magazine in London and have been a stringer for them and for other publications for the last five years.

    In my day job, I’m still toiling away as a physics postdoc. I don’t claim to have it all figured out–the perfect balance between research, academica, writing for traditional publications, blogging, etc. I’m not sure many of us do. But I do know that writing about all kinds of science for the general public will always be a part of my life.

    So what to do if you’re an unsatisfied science grad student like I was and like so many science writers seem to have been at one point or another?

    1) Write. All the time. For free if that’s what it takes. For university magazines, maybe for special science publications like the Berkeley Science Review, where I got my start: http://sciencereview.berkeley.edu/ And show your writing to other people. You need to find out if you’re any good, if people can understand what you’re trying to say. Find out if you can handle being edited (we all hate it, but somehow manage to put up with it…)

    2) Read science papers outside of your discipline. Get the key points out of them even if you don’t understand the details. Lots of people can talk about their own discipline, but if you can get the important ideas from papers in other fields, maybe you have what it takes.

    3) Go to as many talks and conferences as possible, again outside of your disciple. Have conversations with as many scientists outside of your field as possible.

    4) Join the National Association of Science Writers and its mailing lists. They’re a great collection of accumulated wisdom. Join a local science writers group like the Northern California Science Writers Association.

    5) Put yourself out there and try for an internship. It’s crucial to get clips and to get your foot in the door if you’re really serious.

    And unless your PhD adviser is really, really cool, keep it all a secret. Remember that they don’t own you, and you don’t have to feel guilty about having other interests.

  44. Depending on the shift of the light, I trace the origins of a very odd and fascinating career back to tenth grade physics, Isaac Asimov (from a different stream in that mighty ocean than the one John Rennie followed), or to a moment of epiphany on my post-college excursion through the Far East.

    I always knew I wanted to write, long before I ever did so on a sustained basis, because I so loved to read, really to the exclusion of just about everything else (at least before the onset of puberty brought that complication into my life).

    Digression alert: If advice is what’s wanted here, I’d start with this: Read. All the time. Everything. You have no idea what will be useful; what will form a connection, the kind of surprising link between ideas or events that can turn a perfectly OK story into something special. For an example of what can happen when you read with intent, take a look at the work of one of the other writers who has already posted here: Jonah Lehrer’s Proust was a Neuroscientist, which could only have emerged from small “c” catholic reading.

    Back to origins: My first sense that science writing might be possible came through the kindness of my 10th grade AP physics teacher. I hadn’t mastered calculus yet, so I found myself scrambling for much of the year — but my instructor allowed his class to earn extra credit by reading books on physics from his library and reporting on them to class.

    I poked around his collection and found “Brighter than a Thousand Suns” by the fascinating Austrian journalist Robert Junck.

    I had no sense of the complexities of the history he related (that book was a source, inter alia, of the idea that Bohr and Heisenberg debated the German bomb effort on the latter’s visit to Copenhagen in 1941).

    But I found the combination of science, story and obvious importance intoxicating. I didn’t yet think, “hey, I can do this too.” But at least, from that time, I knew that it could be done.

    Isaac Asimov played his part, too. For me it was Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (as was) rather than his actual non-fiction science writing: I loved the idea of Hari Seldon’s psychohistory. It combined my two passions — the historian’s love of connections between events in time, and the scientists search for abstractions of explanatory power.

    All that was well and good, and no doubt helped prepare the ground.

    Still, as I left college with a B.A. in East Asian Studies and a ticket to Japan and the Philippines, I knew I liked talking to scientists; I had read a lot of history; I had written for a year and a half for a student newspaper, and I knew I did not want to be a lawyer. But that was it. What happened next was a lucky break for which those facts proved to be a perfect preparation.

    On my post-college fellowship-to-find-myself (yes, Virginia, they had those back in 1980), I fetched up in Manila with one phone number, to the home of a family friend. She turned out to have an acquaintance who happened to be the Reuters bureau chief, and by pure chance, he had just had to fire a couple of reporters. He desperately needed someone, anyone who could use a typewriter and produce anything at all that could feed the insatiable appetite of the wire.

    Even I would do. I claimed journalistic experience (op-ed. writing for a student daily!) and by the time, somewhere around my second day in the office, he and I realized just how unbelievably ill matched my confidence and my actual abilities were, it was too late — I had already claimed my perch.

    But, still, what could I possibly write? What did I know about life in Manila?

    Pretty well nothing, in fact. In desperation, I hit upon the idea of heading up to the University of the Philippines to see what might pop up there.

    That’s when I began to be a science writer, before I had any idea that that was what I was doing.

    There were some first rate researchers on campus, doing a ton of good empirical work on environmental matters, resource use, all kinds of stuff where grad students and professors would make real measurements. So I started talking to coral reef biologists, forest ecologists and so on, and I would use what they were finding out to build stories of Filipino politics and culture and so on that flowed from that knowledge. Why were coral reefs disappearing around the islands, despite some of the toughest protective laws in the world? What was really happening with mine tailings…you get the idea. Give me one real bit of data, I realized, and I could find the story that surrounded it.

    With that I was hooked. What I had discovered was that science could ground any story in a hard kernel of verifiable reality — and from that fixed point on which to stand I could lever out more or less any story that connected a given bit of inquiry to politics or culture or whatever.

    With which thought I will conclude, distilling one last piece of advice: I found my way to science writing as a craft through specific stories in which scientific research played an essential role. I’d thus recommend looking for the story first, and building yourself a beat or a perspective — the expertise others have discussed in this thread — out of those tales to which you most often return.

    And as a PS: In my current day job, I help run the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing, joining at least a couple of others in this thread who teach in such programs. Most of us who do teach in them never took such courses, but still, they may well be for you, oh reader.

    One thing you get is pure pragmatic boosts to a fledgling career: MIT and the other institutions that offer these degrees offer credentials; we offer networking possibilities; a path to creating a body of clips under the direction of supportive editors; the entry into reality that comes with internships available to those who sign up for this kind of thing.

    All of that is certainly useful, and more. But the real reason to come to MIT or anywhere else is to give yourself the space of a year or so of pure, uncluttered, uninterrupted focus on your writing and your fascination with science. It’s an expensive path in both time and money (usually), but it is a uniquely concentrated experience, and for many, an invaluable one.

    Tom Levenson is the author of four books, most recently “Newton and the Counterfeiter” and “Einstein in Berlin,” and of ten feature-length science documentaries. A professor of science writing at MIT, he currently heads the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies and the Graduate Program in Science Writing, whilst blogging in his copious spare time at the Inverse Square Blog.

  45. I am not exactly a science writer so maybe you’ll want to strike this one out. But I am a scientist who has only come relatively recently to science writing – mostly on my blog.

    I have of course been writing for all of my professional life but largely in the stilted, objective style of scientific papers and grant applications. I was provoked out of this tunnel view of my writing by a challenge from Jennifer Rohn to defend my contention that Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels should be counted as Lablit (real science in fiction). So I did.

    And I’ve not looked back since. Not yet anyway. That poke was enough to get me into science blogging, which I’d already been thinking about quite deeply, (though in part to give me a good excuse to procrastinate!) One of the things holding me back was concern that I might not have so much to say. We scientists tend to focus on the minutiae of our work, to such an extent that we leave the real world and real people so far behind that all connection is lost.

    I’m glad to be able to say that blogging — what a democratising medium — has gone quite some way to extracting me from that mindset and forcing me to think more broadly about my work and my role in society as a scientist. Added to that I’ve been pleased to discover that I’ve yet to run out of material.

    I wanted to chip in here to give some encouragement to other scientists, young and old, to have a crack at writing for a wider audience, not because it’s a duty (though that’s partly true if you’re publicly-funded) but because it will probably make you a better scientist. Go for it. You know more than you realise and, for some bizarre reason, people are quite interested to hear — direct from the front line — what scientists get up to. See here (pdf) for the longer argument.

  46. It seems to me now that my entire science education consisted of one year, seventh grade, with Dr. Kowalski, who, among other ingenious assignments, had each of us purchase a whole chicken, strip it to the bone, and then reassemble the skeleton. After that, I had a high school physics course taught by a summertime Good Humor Man, and a biology course taught by a newly-consecrated Irish Christian Brother, who found alm0st everything in biology deeply mortifying (and honestly who can blame him?). In college, I visited Science Hill just twice, first as a protester, and next for my job as a projectionist. I mostly studied poetry.

    My turnabout came at the age of 25, when a magazine agreed to let me write about mosquitoes, and I suddenly found myself appalled and delighted by the incredible surgical tools in a mosquito’s proboscis. I also managed to work a poem (by D.H. Lawrence) into the story, a practice I have tried to maintain ever since. Other stories about animals and behavior followed. Dr. Kowalski’s assignment even came back to me, when I found myself in Venezuela testing chicken caracasses on piranha populations, for my book Swimming With Piranhas at Feeding Time: My Life Doing Dumb Stuff with Animals.

    My advice to prospective science writers? Marry money. Sorry, just kidding. Read poetry. We need more people to recognize that the “two cultures” idea is bunk. And, really, take more science courses than I did. Lots more. I hear they are better now.

    Richard Conniff’s latest book, The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth, about the great age of species discovery, is due out this Fall from W.W. Norton. He won a National Magazine Award in 1997 and was a 2007 Guggenheim Fellow. His articles have appeared in Time, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, and other publications. He is a frequent commentator on NPR’s Marketplace, and has written and presented television shows for the National Geographic Channel, TBS, and the BBC, among others. Conniff is the author of seven books, including The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide (Norton, 2002) and Spineless Wonders: Strange Tales of the Invertebrate World (Holt, 1996). He blogs at http://www.strangebehaviors.com

  47. My origins story traces to a lab on the 13th floor of the Green Building on the MIT campus, where I was wearing an asbestos apron beneath a bomb-fortified roof in case the experimental petrology experiment I was working on decided to blow up.

    I was a senior and beginning to realize that research wasn’t for me. I’d majored in geology because it was so much fun (hikes on Cape Ann with ice cream on the way home! Academic credit for three weeks camping in the Nevada desert!) And I’d had many fabulous professors, like Roger Burns who taught me mineralogy, John Southard who taught me how to weld while building a sedimentary flume, and Tim Grove who talked me into that petrology lab. But the brochures for PhD programs were piling up in the corner of my dorm room unopened.

    I’d never done any proper journalism, but had spent much of college taking literature classes and working as a writing tutor. One of my writing professors, Jim Paradis, offhandedly told me that there was this little program out in Santa Cruz, California, where you could learn to be a science journalist. By the time the Oil Pollution Bulletin called saying they would hire me with absolutely no experience, I had already been accepted to UCSC. And off I went to the redwoods.

    Since then I’ve done a fair variety of science-journalism jobs, from editing at the now-defunct original Earth magazine, to being a general science reporter in the bible belt in Dallas, to running the US news operations at Nature. Much of my inspiration throughout has come from my grandfather Claude Witze, who reported at the Providence Journal and Aviation Week before becoming a columnist for Air Force magazine. His first column there, in 1958, began with this pithy sentence: “Half the watchdogs in the Pentagon should be sent to the pound.” Claude died when I was too young to remember him well, but I still pull out the three-ring binder of his clips when I need a good jumpstart.

    Much excellent advice to beginning science writers has already been given in this thread; here are a few tidbits I’d add.

    - Don’t get into science journalism if you want to bring the wonders of the universe to the unwashed public. If so, go be a teacher instead.

    - Read. A lot. This is worth repeating. Read the obvious stuff that you have to keep up with to do your job, but also venture into offbeat media, history books, science fiction. You’d be surprised what you can learn that ends up being relevant to your job.

    - Be professional. Do your homework, stick to the job, meet deadline. There is never an acceptable excuse for missing deadline. And if you think you have one, don’t bother your editor with it.

    - Be skeptical. Don’t believe a piece of information just because somebody smart or with a PhD (often two mutually exclusive groups) told it to you. Check it out.

    - Develop sources. This is how you get stories no one else has. Send sources copies of your stories, promptly, and ask to be notified next time they have something interesting coming out. Make calendar notes about checking back on particular developments in three or six or nine months’ time.

    - Learn from others. Find a good mentor. If you don’t know how, find a virtual mentor: someone whose work you follow closely, read deeply, and look for ways to extract techniques to help you in your work.

    Finally, a lot of people advise newbies to make sure they have fun. I don’t agree. I think being a good reporter is one of the highest callings a person can have. But it’s not necessarily fun.

    Alexandra Witze is a contributing editor for Science News based in Boulder, Colorado. Find her on Twitter: @alexwitze.

  48. I write things, often about science, so maybe I count?

    I wrote a textbook as a young physics professor, but it was filled with equations, so by traditional connotations it certainly doesn’t count. But it did point to the nascent graphomania within me, as it evolved out of a detailed set of lecture notes I had typed up as part of a class I taught.

    Then in 2004 I discovered blogs, and started my own. The immediate prod in that case was when I discovered Michael Bérubé’s. He was a successful and productive academic, so if he could do it, why couldn’t I? Blogging was and is great preparation for all kinds of writing. Probably most important for me was the realization that I had to actually know something about what I was saying before I said it; in the blogosphere, people call you on your crap.

    I dabbled with a few popular articles and essays, and finally took the plunge into writing a trade book. My first book proposal generated very little in the way of enthusiasm, for what in retrospect was a really good reason — I wasn’t very enthusiastic about it myself. Eventually, with invaluable help from my goddess-like Spousal Unit, I proposed a book that I really was passionate about, and it scored a contract. I had tremendous fun writing it (Alex’s wisdom notwithstanding). It’s rare that you get the opportunity, when explaining complicated scientific ideas, to really take the time to get it right. Not that I necessarily did, but I had the chance to try.

    I have enormous respect for real professional writers. It’s one thing to explain something you’ve been studying for your whole life; it’s something entirely different to illuminate a constant stream of different subjects in a way that captures their spirit without compromising their integrity.

  49. I’ve traced my circuitous route to this point in the bio I wrote for my book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to College Biology, so I’ve just pasted that in here below. In brief, I always wanted to write about science and nature because it brings together my irresistible compulsion to write, my inveterate love of learning new things (especially scientific things), and my love of teaching others. I’m in heaven that I get to do this all day, any day. Having a degree in English+journalism experience combined with the advanced science degree seems to have been the key to landing my longest-term clients and best assignments.
    ——————————————————

    Emily Willingham was born in Texas during the terrible year of 1968, but that has proved the nadir of her existence to date. Despite blowing the chemistry curve in Chem II in high school and placing out of freshman biology in college, Emily ended up earning a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Texas at Austin because (a) she was in a hurry and (b) English is her native language. Realizing that in her rush, she had failed to gain a degree that would make her marketable to prospective employers, Emily dropped her budding career in public relations to return to school, this time in her true calling: biology.

    Emily had felt the call to study life from early on, dissecting her first preserved frog from a chemistry set at age 8 and spending far too much time in the 1970s watching “Wild Kingdom,” back when there really wasn’t anything on television. Diverted from her true course by the wild idea that she could be a writer, Emily did not enter graduate school in biological sciences until age 26, emerging five years later, again from The University of Texas at Austin, with a PhD, a lot of not-very-useful knowledge about turtles, and a growing list of scientific publications. In the meantime, because the grass is truly always greener, Emily’s thoughts returned again to writing. She thought about writing even as she finished up a postdoctoral appointment at the University of California, San Francisco, that involved investigating the development of the mammalian penis, always a fascinating subject.

    Luckily, she realized that writing and science are a pair of reagents that combine into the perfect lifetime pursuit. Since that chemistry-inspired epiphany, Emily has written about science, nature, and medicine for national, regional, and local publications, including Backpacker and Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine. In addition, she has taught dozens of college-level biology classes in California and Texas, blowing the minds of nonmajors who never knew that about the platypus and engaging graduate students in dissecting the finer points of the preservatives found in that mystery of mysteries, the Twinkie.

    Living the life of a writer, teacher, and editor up to her ears in science, Emily cannot believe her good fortune. She shares that good fortune in Austin, Texas, with a direct descendent of the Vikings and their three sons, all of whom show similar tendencies to a love of all things biology.
    ———————————————-
    Emily Willingham is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to College Biology, published in June 2010. Find her on Twitter: @ejwillingham and @collegebiology

  50. I am a science writer because I couldn’t make a living working in theater or singing in a bar, and because I benefited from what seems like a sustained run of fortunate accidents.

    Unpacking that a little: I had the enormous luck to go to a high school that tried very hard to get kids interested in science, to the extent of smuggling my physiology class into gross anatomy at the local med school. I lost touch with all of that as an English major; I entered an honors program that was designed chiefly to make literature professors and that consequently encouraged its enrollees to get through the university’s science requirement with as little intellectual engagement as possible. I got out — with a degree in 16th-c theatre and 20th-c poetry, which was precisely as useful as it sounds — tried and quickly failed to make a living, and decided to go to journalism school as a transition into writing full-time.

    I intended to whack out the 15-month masters’ degree, go back to the city where I had been living, and start carving out a life as an arts freelancer. I did not expect to become captivated by newspaper journalism, but it happened. Unfortunately, there were no jobs that year, anywhere in the United States, in arts journalism, and so based on an internship I had had, I took a position writing about business and finance.

    That led to being in on the early stages of the savings and loan crash of the late 1980s. That led to being offered a job somewhere else as an investigative reporter, where I looked into cancer clusters around a nuclear-weapons plant. That led to a similar job at which another reporter and I uncovered the first signals of what’s now known as Gulf War Syndrome. And that led to being offered a job covering the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which I did for 10 years.

    Daily newspaper journalism is, or at least used to be, very good at teaching people to be journalists: to be inquisitive, skeptical, irreverent, persistent, rigorous in evaluating evidence and obsessive in pursuit of granular details. It is not at all good at teaching people about specialty subjects, except possibly politics, and so early on I realized that if I was going to pursue this emerging career as a journalist of epidemiology, I would have to get better on my own. My solutions to that were classes, mentors, a lot of self-directed study, and a series of fellowships; I’ve had six so far, several that were weeks long and two that lasted a year each.

    Of course, the deeper you go in a topic, the deeper and broader you want your writing about it to be — so I wrote a book, and then another book, and discovered that kind of work was not really compatible with newspapering, and became a magazine journalist, which is what I do now.

    My career path was such a one-off that it may not offer lessons, just aphorisms: Work nights and weekends. Seek mentors. Stay alert to serendipity. When someone wants to tell you a story, listen. Develop expertise. Distrust everyone’s motives, including your own. Always ask another question. Talk to people face to face. Rejoice in complexity, in systems and in persons, and accept that it takes its time revealing its intricacies. Try to tell the truth.

    Maryn McKenna writes for national magazines and is the author of SUPERBUG and BEATING BACK THE DEVIL.

  51. I started out as a scientist-in-training, studying microbiology and immunology. But pretty soon I figured out that I wasn’t cut out for a lab bench — too much repetitive work, too much grant writing, too little prospect of eventually making a living where I wanted to live (Oregon).
    So I quite my PhD program, and decided I was better suited to write about science than to do science. I got a second Master’s in journalism. That was the magic combo: a solid grounding in life sciences, plus a good understanding of what publishers look for.
    So now I translate rather complex science for popular audiences. My first “job” — as a communications intern at the National Cancer Institute — gave me some experience plus a few contacts for future sales. I made a bare-bones living as a freelancer writing a string of feature stories (in both the professional and trade press), dropped out to do magazine editing, then came back to write six books on science and science history. I’ve traveled the world and gotten to speak with many, many really smart people. Go science writers!
    http://www.thomashager.net
    Twitter: Thomas_Hager

  52. I am enjoying reading about these journeys taken by science writers. This will be a nice archive for future writers to refer to.

    I am quite aware that I am not your typical science writer or journalist, and as far as I can tell, not your typical blogger.

    I giggle reading the stories of people (Deborah Blum, Jonah Lehrer) turning to writing because they were terrors and klutzes in the lab. I know that would never have been the case for me as I love lab work, have great fine motor skills, and the fires I set are set intentionally. No one has ever had to feel unsafe in my presence in a lab, as I am adept at almost any lab protocol that could be thrown my way.

    My adroitness led me to realize that I can teach anyone how to do anything in the lab if only I had their attention. Over the years I have been sought after because I do just that! My forte is making complex science topics accessible to a non-technical audience. I am especially valued for explaining biological techniques to engineers. Around me, they feel no need to cower in corners faced with the ambiguity, general squishiness and uncertainty of biology. I am so confident in my ability to explain anything to anyone that I dare teach middle school girls how to do cell culture, stain cells for actin and allow them to transfect cells with GFP!

    And, yes, I used to be a professional model, which has nothing to do with my science abilities at all, but eventually matters in this story. In fact, the moment I stepped into the university, I mentioned not a word to anyone about my glamorous past! I was set on being “taken seriously”.

    I went about becoming a great educator (For relative brevity, I’m leaving out a good number of steps here. I hope you don’t mind) at the university level, and mostly succeeding, primarily because I am quite passionate about science and the scientific method as well as a fascinated with the tools and techniques we use to accomplish our goals as scientists. I’ve thrown myself into understanding pedagogy, but oddly enough, made the greatest strides as an educator by having a child with special needs. Every day was an exercise in expressing things with the most clarity I could muster to help her get from point A to B to C and help her then take ownership of that “protocol”.

    My educational philosophy developed and it is not all that unconventional. In fact, most great teachers live this each day: “I am passionate and enthusiastic about science. You don’t have to be, and I will never require it of you, but if you are intrigued enough to accompany me, I assure you that you can learn science and be successful at it, too, and probably even have fun.”

    Still none of that explains becoming a science communicator or vlogger, but it sure has helped me know science deeply and articulate it well.

    But the following does explain the new direction I chose. It still boggles my mind to this day how it happened.

    One day in class, I was introducing “Scientific American Frontiers with Alan Alda” to my students, when quite accidentally out tumbled the words “Alan Alda is doing my dream job.”

    Wait. Did I just say that? Is that my dream job? Running around lab to lab and sharing the excitement of science in front of a camera while the world looked on?

    I guess so. I just had no idea until that moment.

    I didn’t do anything with that for about two years. Then I began my website, which really was my statement to the world about what is and will always be true about me: Joanne Loves Science. Writing clearly so the general public, including kids and young adults, can understand. A bit of whimsy, a bit of the unexpected.

    And then about six months into my website, I turned on a camera. I thought I would talk about stem cells, but assumed that surely someone else had done that. I had just read a great book and decided I’d give it a quick recommendation.

    I looked at the video, shared it with friends and acquaintances and was reminded of what that crazy model scout had seen in a shy 14 year old sitting in a cafeteria so many years before, that there was a distinct measure of telegenicity that came through.

    So here I am, almost two years later, making videos about popular science books, destroying gummy bears in scientific ways and even making videos about the science behind beauty products. Real scientific concepts, not the watered down stuff they say is “science” in the fashion mags. (Pet peeve alert)

    I know the production value is not high. (To paraphrase Star Treks’ Dr. McCoy: “Dammit, Ed, I’m a lab teaching specialist, not a video producer”) But I have a good dose of American Midwest charm, the more than occasional good hair day, and some sound science to back me up.

    What are my future plans? I have many, but overall, I want to discover one of surely several formulas that will capture the attention of people so they will want to know more about science. Not fake TV science, not fake magazine science, but honest to goodness science.

    So what if you want to do what I’m doing.
    Materials and methods:

    One shy nerdy girl (tall, skinny beyond belief, and apparently cryptically attractive),
    Big cities, make-up, hair spray and gel (lots)
    cameras, runways and high fashion
    (optional: toothpaste, make-up, and feminine protection commercial ops)
    Mix for 4 years then set aside

    Study science enthusiastically at college
    Do a bit of lab research
    Teach university lab and lecture courses for about 20 years
    Simultaneously have children (4) (optional, but it helps with the enthusiasm you need).
    (ascertain that you are articulate and well liked by students before moving on to the next step)

    Turn on a videocamera. It should be pointing toward you.
    Smile and have fun. Say smart things, see the humor in science but mostly share the beauty of it all.

    Hmm this protocol took a very long time, and is very difficult to reproduce the results! The last two steps are what are most important. Inject your personality.
    Good luck. I’d love to see your work! :)

  53. I’ve been a “science writer” now for four years and yet my dirty little secret is that I am neither scientist nor writer. Although, being an engineer by training I am more scientist than I ever was writer. I never imagined myself writing, I never put much effort into it, I never cared about English class and my grades, and standardized test scores showed it. Even in graduate school where writing was a large part of what we were required to do, it was what I had to do between bouts of engineering and research. I might as well have handed my paper drafts and conference abstracts in on red construction paper and saved my advisors the time to make them red with corrections. However, I was always very good at explaining science and engineering to people who had no exposure to the field.

    Ever since high school I enjoyed working on science outreach programs, showing the cool side of science to people who thought it was nothing but bland dullness by people in sterile white coats. From science camps and lab tour days in high school, to introducing prospective engineering students to the chemical engineering department as an undergrad to getting kids excited about nanotechnology and illustrating the everyday importance of zeolites in graduate school, showing people that science was accessible, fun, and interesting was where I truly shined.

    Personally, I find odd out of the way topics to be the most interesting to write about – something that people can relate to, but never have given much thought. The first article I ever submitted to Ars Technica was about the non-linear dynamics of a corn starch and water solution, titled “The Physics of Oobleck.” It brought a bit of Dr. Seuss and fun to a field of science that many have never even heard of. I always felt that science could be explained with a bit of flair and humor and my online home at Ars Technica has provided me with an unfiltered outlet for that desire. After leaving graduate school I found I missed the interaction with students and other interested parties the most and it had left a void in me. Who would have thought that NOT talking about molecular thermodynamics with random interested people at parties and bars would be unfulfilling?!

    I was grateful that I was given a shot at Ars Technica about six months after it started its near daily science column. It provides the ideal balance of unstructured do-what-you-want-ness yet still leaves you feeling like your (at times, off the wall and random) contributions make a real difference. When I started I had no interest in being a journalist, or being a writer, or any knowledge of where it would lead me. Four years later, I am still there, and consider this to be my second career. But I still don’t really think of myself as a science journalist or writer, perhaps something more along the lines of engineering explainer.

    For those who are thinking about doing this, I say jump in. Science (and engineering, don’t forget engineering) need people who can show off what it is truly about. Science and engineering are vibrant fields where creativity runs wild (and sometimes amuck) and that needs to be shown to the general public. In my time formally writing about science and engineering I have found that while I still love the off beat research into fields the majority of the population considers too hard to comprehend, what really keeps me going is reporting on people who are bringing science to the public; articles that explain what it takes to be a good science communicator. I don’t think it is hard; it just takes someone with an interest in a given field to be brave and show that interest off to the world. While detractors on the internet will loudly have their say, there are countless others who can be reached, who have an interest, but just need someone to show them what’s cool out there.

  54. Let me join in the fun. As a child I thought I was destined for a science career (so did my family). Inspired by Mr. Wizard on TV (the Bill Nye of the Jurassic age), I did the usual geeky things: played with my chemistry set, looked at the Moon through my telescope, was horrified at the paramecia swimming in the river water magnified by my microscope. But I also wrote horrendous Nancy Drew knockoffs in my spare time. Writing and science were my yin and yang.

    “Yin” won out at first; I majored in broadcast journalism in college intending to become the next Diane Sawyer (well, truth be told, it was either Nancy Dickerson or Barbara Walters in those days). I did end up as the first female reporter at the ABC affiliate in Norfolk, Virginia, where I at times covered the science news coming out of the nearby NASA Langley Research Center. I even had the opportunity to interview Carl Sagan about the Viking spacecraft about to be launched to Mars. That’s when my “yang” started tugging at my sleeve. I suddenly realized that this was what I wanted to do all the time. No more city hall politics, no more Azalea Day parades. Just let me cover science 24/7.

    At that time the most noted science news messengers had science backgrounds, such as Sagan and Isaac Asimov. (As you might have seen in another post, my colleague Tom Levenson in the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing had similar inspiration from Asimov.) So, I left my job and went back to college, intent on obtaining a second baccalaureate degree, this time in science, that would boost my credentials. Carried away, I ended up with a master’s degree in physics and dabbled with the idea of continuing to a Ph.D.

    The writing bug, however, never left me. The entire time I worked on my graduate degree, I went around interviewing my professors and wrote up freelance stories about their research for the local newspaper. On a lark, I also wrote an essay on “Calculatoritis” and sent it off to Science News magazine. To my surprise, the editor accepted it and promptly offered me a summer internship. The clips I generated that summer eventually led to a job as a staff writer at Discover magazine, when it first started up in 1980.

    As the purpose of this blog was to find out how veteran science writers got started, I won’t digress into “how” to become a science writer (an entirely new topic). The many responses so far to this thread likely prove that there are a googol of paths. But if a prospective science writer is reading this, here’s some wisdom from my own experience: go out and do it. Interview your professors, pitch some stories to your local paper, set up a blog. For more suggestions, check out the post by Emily Anthes (a recent graduate of the MIT science-writing program). I couldn’t agree more, Emily.

  55. Like some other people responding, I think, I write about science to make sense of what I’m most fascinated to learn – about how we became human in body, brain and mind; how humans are like and unlike other primates; how other sentient creatures like apes, elephants , cetaceans, and corvids make sense of their world emotionally and cognitively in ways that can help us understand our own.

    The astounding beauty of evolution at work in our world makes me want to try (just try!) to write beautifully enough to convey it appropriately.

    It took a good while to develop confidence enough to believe that I may on occasion spark passion for science in at least a few other people. For a long time, I just wanted to observe/study/film animals, e.g. baboons in Kenya, and apes at various research places in the US. But after a while, it wasn’t enough anymore to do this and then write only peer-reviewed articles or books that circulate to other academics. Somehow the words I was writing felt too confining. Out they spilled into the academic world, to become cited nicely in other journals and books, but it was an endless closed loop. I enjoyed learning from and sharing with other scientists, but something was missing.

    So I started to take risks…. The first thing I did was to respond to an invitation to make audio and video courses for The Teaching Company on bioanthropology. So-called “lifelong learners” wanted to know about primatology and anthropology, about the processes that led from our ape-like ancestors to the evolution of bipedalism, technology, culture, language, religion, and so on. When I did this, I broke with tradition and asked my “students” to write in with questions, at my email address. It was great fun! People wrote in with smart questions, and disagreements, and agreements, all in a jumble. The thing is, I learned as much as I taught. I heard from physicists and engineers and doctors and biologists, from high school students and 82-year-old emailers.

    And from that platform, I ventured into science writing itself. I imagined that all my past correspondents still had questions about the topics I most wanted to write about — ape communication, the origins of language, the origins of culture, the prehistoric and cross-cultural nature of the animal-human bond, the list goes on. On those topics. I just started sending out anything and everything — book manuscripts, book reviews, essays that interpreted others’ breaking research data in wider context, blog posts, and much more recently, tweets. Slowly, the ratio of accepted-to-rejected pieces began to tilt in my favor… It was as if my day job (a good one, teaching undergraduates) had oh so gradually expanded into the most rewarding possible sidelight, the writing that continues to satisfy me the most.

    It’s just amazing fun. I love trawling those very same academic journals I’d mentioned above, to read the latest work of scientists and then interpret it with some sense and wit for others. I love profiling scientists whose work is so terrific, e.g. recently, Dr. Jo Thompson who has done amazing work in bonobo conservation in the DRC. Most of all I love writing about the complex emotions and thinking processes of creatures who cannot themselves write or be interviewed; while primates are my first love, I have written recently about whales, elephants, turtles (okay, maybe THEY don’t think… who knows!) and storks.

    Of course none of this pays well, and so the day job that I enjoy does make a practical difference!

    Advice? It bears repeating: to write sentences that are solidly grammatical; accurate in terms of the facts, hypotheses, and theories conveyed; and evocative of a vibrant personal voice, is no easy thing. To sustain that practice day after day is even harder. It takes practice, patience, and a thick skin.

    As I am always telling my students, please expect as a matter of course to revise your work, over and over; we all do it, endlessly. Read endlessly too, across all science genres. If you love anthropology, read astronomy. Read something technical in another field than your own, and then practice putting it into your own unique (grammatical, accurate, and vibrant!) voice.

    Read the best science writers online. I enjoy Carl Zimmer and John Hawks.

    Write about science even when you write only for yourself or for your Mom or for a friend or some other interested person, singular. When you think you may have nailed something timely, in a novel way, and when it’s painstakingly revised and really pretty good, send it somewhere for possible publication. Early on I started with my local newspaper. You’d be surprised how many local outlets crave something like an 800 word op-ed on some science topic, or an article interviewing a local scientist.

    With even a small success– a guest blog post, that local op-ed or article– circulate your work to others: Facebook and tweet it! Get it out there to science teachers, other science writers, fellow students, friends.

    It helps to remember that mistakes come with the territory, when you are just learning– being too hasty in a conclusion that turns out to be wrongly explained, or poorly worded; or being too derivative of someone else’s approach. (When it’s an out and out mistake, do rectify it publicly and with grace!) T

    he thing is to want science writing enough to put up with — no, to enjoy– the process, even the hard parts.

    I write science books myself (see website), and write columns about and reviews of other people’s science books. I blog every Friday on animal-behavior and anthropology (see that website again!), write a monthly column at bookslut.com, and tweet at @bjkingape.

  56. Like too many things in my life, my science writing career began with a Google search: “How to design exhibits for science museums”, or something like that. The first few links were all science writing programs, which I had never heard of before.

    That was at the beginning of my senior year of college. I then did everything I could to get into those programs — squeezing some journalism classes into my neuro major, writing for the college science magazine, asking my professors for contacts in the publishing world. I was convinced that I wouldn’t get in, so when I did, I just said yes without having a clue about what this science writing stuff really is or where I would end up. I can do anything for a year, I thought.

    Luckily, the program (Ann Finkbeiner’s at Johns Hopkins) was awesome, and science writing and reporting makes me feel warm and fuzzy almost every single day. I mean it.

    As for advice for newbies…the tips in this thread are amazing (it’s been particularly fun to read war stories from my own editors)! I don’t have much to add. One thing I wish I had learned earlier is that rejection is a necessary part of the job, and can actually make you better. Pitch pitch pitch.

  57. I suppose my story isn’t so different from the many you see above, although there is one critical twist. I don’t write about science, at least not usually. I am an editor.

    I studied biological anthropology in college, enough that I became almost sick at the thought of primates. (You can imagine the difficult this posed–I could scarcely look in the mirror!) Naturally my response was to try to live like Charles Bukowski, which didn’t work for a variety of reasons, not least that I couldn’t handle the postal service, although I did consider driving a cab. Well, that faded, eventually, and I–having worked on the newspaper in college–found myself a job at a financial newspaper in New York, where I worked as a copy editor. I learned quite a bit, even if most of it was about tax-increment financing, and the electoral politics of general-obligation bonds. The job, however, turned out to be a terrible basis for conversation at parties, except with people who actually worked on the deals. Let’s just say there are natural asymmetries in such a pairing–it gets expensive to drink at the same bars–and at any rate, I figured, if I was going to be compulsively autodidactic, I might as well do it in a field that a stranger might want to hear about. Or at least in a field that I wanted to hear about.

    And so I began to write letters, or emails–to carpet-bomb editorial inboxes, really, of every science magazine in the tri-state area. Nothing stuck, for several months (in retrospect, hardly any time at all), and how did I despair of my lack of a Ph.D., until there was a break. I had written what I considered the most unlikely of cover letters, about my love of the evolutionary ecology of primates, which I had regrown by that point. And it connected: Natural History magazine had a year-long opening.

    Few things since–meeting my fiance is one–were as exciting as the first day, walking into the American Museum of Natural History before the crowds even thought of showing up, or staying late after it closed, to walk the exhibits alone at night. And the library–my god, the memory of it remains enough to stir my curmudgeonly little heart. I ended up spending four very happy years there, and still miss it, three very good jobs later.

    I mention this because, as important as the how of getting that first job is to why I do what I do today, it is that feeling–the feeling of wonder at all there is to know, but even more (and this was longer in coming) all there was that was unknown–IT IS THAT FEELING that explains how I’ve kept doing it, which is even more important than how I began doing it in the first place. The two “hows” are related, of course, but I have found, as my roles at various places have changed, as I’ve been given managerial responsibilities, and have to think about things like P&Ls, that if I didn’t just want to push myself into what I didn’t know, if I didn’t want to find out what I didn’t know and question what I and others did, then I couldn’t do any of it.

    I see that this is all too long, and little of it is helpful. So let me try again: The how, I guess, is simple: learn the vocabulary, don’t give up, and never stop asking yourself if everything you have been told might be self-serving or wrong. (There, I find, are the biggest stories.) Read. Think about things on every scale you can; it’s the sine qua non of successful editorial work. Remember that, even in the age of email, some things take time, whether you’re pitching or applying for full-time work, and there’s likely to be plenty of stony silence. And if you don’t know the why, save yourself the trouble of getting started.

  58. I think my turn toward science writing began on a summer night in Arizona, when some friends and I were driving around looking for rattlesnakes. I was a couple of years out of college, dithering about graduate school and supporting myself with seasonal field assistant jobs. I’d searched for desert tortoises in southern Utah, counted frogs in the Sierra Nevada, and picked plants for an entire Sonoran Desert summer. It was sweaty, tough, fun work, and in our free time, my fellow biologists and I would do pretty much what we did at work each day — that is, we’d look for unusual critters in unusual places.

    On this particular night, we jolted down a quiet, potholed road outside of Tucson, searching for snakes warming themselves on the pavement. I watched as my friends spotted a fat diamondback, pulled to the shoulder, and leapt out, grinning and waving their cameras. I kept watching as they circled around the snake, thrilled by its size and proximity. And I realized that while they were watching the snake, I was watching them. What drove them to spend every spare moment trying to figure out the natural world, and to dedicate their lives to the scientific process — the contentious, agonizingly slow scientific process? While I liked hiking around in the desert, I didn’t have the same dedication to doing science. But I was fascinated by those who did, and I was fascinated by what they found out.

    I got an internship and then a job at High Country News, a magazine that covers environmental and natural resource issues in the western U.S. (HCN still has a great *paid* internship program, by the way – check out http://www.hcn.org.). HCN gave me a wonderful crash course in journalism, and I never looked back. I struck out as a full-time freelancer in 2001, and I’ve been writing in-depth stories about science and the environment ever since. I remain a contributing editor of HCN, and I write for Smithsonian and other national magazines.

    I still love going out in the field with scientists, and I still love grabbing slimy critters; now, I also love asking scientists the hardest questions I can think of, and weaving their findings into a story.

    Find me on Twitter @nijhuism.

  59. Jor-El, my father, placed me in a homemade rocket capsule moments before the destruction of our doomed planet. Later I got a job at the Daily Planet.

    Actually, I was sitting at a desk at the Pentagon when I realized that writing freedom-of-information requests might be more fun than answering them. I was a science policy analyst for an Air Force contractor, so I wrote a letter to Bill Burrows, author of Deep Black: Space Espionage and National Security, who ran NYU’s science reporting program. He gave me some fellowship money, so I ran off to “clown school” as one of my bosses called it, where I started on a career as a science reporter. Since I had left an astronautics program in grad school to go into science policy in the first place, changing careers again at the time didn’t daunt me. Besides I wanted to live in New York.

    More than a little clueless, I supposed I would end up as a military reporter or science politics reporter for some obscure trade publication. Instead, I interned at CBS Evening News and then Science News, where I really learned science reporting. I worked two years at HealthWeek (PBS) and started freelancing for New Scientist, Men’s Health, USA TODAY and elsewhere. I also co-founded a violence prevention research newsletter just before the dotcom boom.

    I realized I wanted to get back into print full-time, so I became the DC correspondent for Medical Tribune and kept up the magazine and newspaper work. Med Trib then hit some shoals, and a job opened up at USA TODAY, where some of my colleagues from Science News had landed. Within five years, I had gone from policy drone/engineer to a dream job for a science reporter. So much for the elitism of print journalism.

    Writing about science is a wonderful way to make a life. I am, at heart, a policy person still. My interest has alway been on the interplay of science and technology with the human condition. Natch, I dig a fun cabinet of wonders story as much as the next guy. So, reporting has provided a wonderful perch from which to observe and tell the world about the changes wrought by this very curious enterprise we call science. Plus, tell jokes.

    There is no barrier to entry in science reporting, just hard work. And it is work and hustle and smarts that make you get lucky sometimes, although my sense is that it is even harder now than it was 15 years ago, when I started. I don’t have any advice to anyone based on my own experience. Science news has gone from a profession to a trade or arts career in the last two years. If you would like to make a living doing this, size up your skills and inclinations against the opportunities still out there (internships, start-ups, schools, blog networks, crazy friends) and grab after them with both hands clenched. And hope you get lucky. You may surprise yourself. I did.

    And then you can self-promote yourself wildly by noting your weekly online column: http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/columnist/vergano/_index.htm, and your Twitter handle: @dvergano

  60. Edward Winstead

    My lucky break came when Craig Venter launched a company called Celera and wanted an online magazine about genomics for the general public. At the time, I was a graduate student in the Writing about Science program at Johns Hopkins. Dr. Venter asked one of our instructors, Barbara Culliton, to start the magazine, which would be called Genome News Network. She asked me to come along. It was a case of being at the right place at the right time.

    But I had no background in science and had struggled mightily in the Hopkins program. I once drove from Baltimore to DC to meet with Barbara and tell her that I needed to quit the program, saying I simply knew nothing about science. She resisted and later sent me a kind e-mail message that began: “As Snoopy says, writing is hard work.” There was an enormous learning curve, and the I am still writing about science because of the wonderful writers like Barbara and Ann Finkbeiner who had faith in me when I did not.

    As for advice, a favorite line comes from the headline of a NYT article on writing from decades ago. I had it taped to my desk for years. “Just write something good and the rest will happen.” I’m still trying to see if that’s true!

  61. I might be alone here, but I’m going to confess something: growing up, I never really liked science! In high school I took extra English courses to get out of taking chemistry. I avoided science in college too, and don’t think I ever even realized there was an environmental science department. But somehow, seven or eight years into my journalism career, I began to notice that every story I wanted to read or write had to do with ecology or conservation biology. I didn’t quite realize I was becoming a science writer–even as I applied to grad school in environmental studies, even when I earned my MS, even when my stories began appearing in science magazines. And then one day, there I was, a card-carrying member of the National Association of Science Writers, with clips from Seed and Popular Science. And it kind of clicked–oh, that’s what I do!

    Okay, so I wasn’t _quite_ as naive as all that. But the point is, I really didn’t set out to be a science journalist. I was a journalist first, and then it turned out that science was the thing that compelled me to keep at it.

    My advice is this: If you’re going to do this as a career, you have to love it. There are plenty of things you can do that will bring you more money and less frustration. Especially in the beginning. But I’ve thought long and hard about which of those other things I might like to do instead, and the answer is always the same: none. I love my job. I call someone who’s doing incredibly interesting and important work and ask them to tell me all about it, and sometimes I go into the field with them, to Costa Rica or Ethiopia or Montana. When I think of it that way, it just puts a big smile on my face. Which I try to remember when the check is late or I can’t sell a story I’m desperate to write or the whole media landscape shifts beneath my feet. You have to be committed. You have to really believe that what you’re writing about needs to be told.

  62. I was a bio major and writer for the college paper when I decided I would rather write about science than do it. But how? I sought advice by placing a cold call to the science editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, one David Perlman, and then visiting him at the paper. I was hooked. After graduating, I went to Washington DC on a journalism fellowship and wrote a piece for The Washington Post on the start of the “war on cancer.” I also went to my first American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting and met another great science writer and commentator, Dan Greenberg. We stayed in touch, and he later put me on to a science writing/editing job at Saturday Review in San Francisco.

    And so it went for those first few years. I met more science writers and found more jobs through that informal network, finally ending up where I wanted to be, as a daily newspaper science reporter. Started at The Washington Star and wrote across science from soup to nuts, Three Mile Island to Antarctica. Sadly, the Star folded, following suit with so many other afternoon dailies, and my “rival” and friend at The Washington Post, Vic Cohn, helped me get a job there as well.

    I guess the point of my story is to meet as many science writers as possible who are doing what you want to do. And then stay in touch. These days it can be virtual or face to face (it’s easier to go virtual if you’ve met in person). Hang out with other members of our subspecies at gatherings such as the annual US ScienceWriters meeting of the National Association of Science Writers and Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (in November this year in New Haven CT); the AAAS; global meetings like the upcoming World Conference of Science Journalists in Cairo, June, 2011; not to mention myriad local events. Get away from the screen when you can.

    As for me, I’ve been freelancing for many years and reinventing myself along the way. And now I try to meet young science writers who are doing what I want to do. And get advice from them. But it helps to know that my original mentor, Dave Perlman, now a nonagenarian, is still reporting for the Chronicle and still loving what he does. Me too.

    Cris is president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, blogs for Columbia Journalism Review’s Observatory and The Atlantic.com, and tweets @russellcris.

  63. I’m a rare case: I’ve known since I was a teenager (OK, 19) that I wanted to be a science writer. Of course, I had to get there by a misguided journey through Texas A&M’s bioengineering department, but that only lasted one semester. I learned quickly that I hated engineering. Passionately. So, I switched to journalism with no real plan; I had worked on the high school paper and thought I’d give it a try again.

    Six weeks in, Barbara Gastel, who would become my mentor and later my master’s adviser, gave a guest lecture on science and medical journalism. I knew instantly that was what I wanted to do. I went to talk to her after class; she later introduced me to one of the editors at the Battalion, A&M’s newspaper, who wanted to start a science section. The next semester I was writing (pretty bad) science news stories and loving it. After junior year, I did an internship in Washington, D.C., at a group of trade publications for the waste industry; my first professional clips were published in Infectious Waste News and Recycling Times. It was fun, though, and I fell in love with Washington.

    That year, A&M started a master’s program in science and technology journalism. I applied for it, but I also applied for a few jobs that seemed awesome enough to forego grad school. One was for a communications officer at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. A senior press officer there called me back and said I wasn’t qualified for the job (‘um, thanks?’) but they had wanted to start an internship program and I seemed like a good candidate. So, off I went to Batavia, Illinois, to spend 10 awesome weeks as Fermilab’s first press office intern.

    I started the master’s program that fall and loved that, too. At the end of my coursework, I headed off to the Washington, D.C. area again to do a in the press office at the National Cancer Institute writing press releases and articles, and taking press calls. Toward the end of those 6 months, another mentor there pulled me aside: NCI’s journal, JNCI, had been acquired by Oxford University Press, they were hiring a deputy news editor, and he thought I was a good candidate. I was about to start a job at International Medical News Group, so I couldn’t wait around for what seemed to me like a long shot. But I applied, got the job, and famously (or not … few people know/remember I ever worked there) quit IMNG after only 10 weeks.

    This was fortuitous — I learned at IMNG that I don’t love writing, which, apparently, I needed two college degrees, three internships, and a job to find out. What I love — and what I had the pleasure of doing for 6.5 years at JNCI, 1 year at Science News magazine, and 3.5 years (and counting) at Science’s online career magazine, Science Careers — is editing, particularly the part where I learn about new and interesting science/ideas/people, research it, hand it off to someone else to do the wordsmithing, and then hone their words to tell a compelling story. As Graham Lawton said at last week’s UKCSJ, we editors are like managers for rock bands, working behind the scenes tending to all the details to make sure the frontman — or, in our analogy, the copy — shines.

    The advice part:
    1. Find mentors. Seek out people who are doing a job you’re interested in and talk to them. Start with the people on this page. Many (all?) of us got to where we are because of support/advice/encouragement from other science writers, whether that came from a single short conversation or a long-lasting relationship.

    2. Read. And write. A lot.

    3. Always apply. If there’s any lesson from my story, it’s that you should always apply for a job that makes your skirt fly up, whether you think you’re qualified or not. Maybe nothing will come of it, or maybe something unexpected will. Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll get the job.

    4. Be excellent. If you are not diligent, considerate, conscientious, well-read, critical, open-minded, and curious, you will not make it as a science writer. The rock stars of science writing make it look easy. It’s not. This is a tough business, and to succeed, you have to be excellent.

  64. Peter Rodgers

    I’m mostly an editor rather than a writer these days so I will keep this brief.
    Always loved science at school, especially physics and maths. Worked on student newspaper at university and loved the whole mechanics of producing something every week (without computers!). Paper itself contained little or no science writing.
    Did PhD and then research (and some freelance music writing) for a few years before joining Physics World magazine, where I stayed for a long time (commissioning, writing, editing), before becoming chief editor on Nature Nanotechnology.
    Advice to anyone looking for a job as a science writer/editor/whatever on a magazine: you need real evidence to show that you really are interested in doing this as a career. It’s not enough to say that you have a real passion for communicating science to a wider audience blah blah blah – you need to back this up with examples from student papers, in-house publications, blogs, successful competition entries, outreach activities, “real” magazines and newspapers, etc etc. At Physics World I employed a couple of graduates of the masters at Imperial (and was very pleased with them), and also gave placements to students on the masters at Bath (and was very pleased with them).
    Getting an interview/job on a research journal is another matter for another time . . .
    Peter Rodgers (@drpeterrodgers)

  65. Enjoyed the rest of these, so here’s one more…

    My dimly recalled schoolboy self was not very socially adept, non-conformist (I fancied) but also alarmingly good at taking exams. Peculiarities of the English I: you had to specialise after 16 (that was after 1971 in my case – it’s better now, but not much). So final high school exams were all science, even though I’d always loved English. That was mostly as an inveterate reader, though. Don’t think it occurred to me one could also write books and things oneself.

    Then on to a science degree, at UCL – a good school where I returned decades later to teach. But I was a pretty immature undergrad and did not get as much out of the course then as I might have. I also sensed in time that the basic science department offer – allow us to teach you one way of thinking, get a first, and do research like us – wasn’t for me. Did a history and philosophy of science option in my final year. Hm, that was quite exciting. More, please?

    That led to a couple more degrees in Manchester. Peculiarities of the English II: We discover every few decades that scientists can’t communicate with the rest of humanity, and try and do something about it by rounding their education. Hence the foundation of a department at that university with charmingly 1960s title of Liberal Studies in Science – it isn’t there any more, though some of the people are.

    Four happy years immersion in what I would now call science studies ended when no-one wanted to fund the postdoc. As well as feeding lots of intellectual interests, I’d discovered I could write a bit, even after five years of nothing but science. Lots of academic writing, in an implausibly long Master’s thesis and an even longer doctoral tome, not then completed. And bits and pieces about jazz, then as now my favourite antidote to the everydayness of everyday life, for the local arts newspaper.

    Worked for a year back in London for a Community Health Council (odd beasts which were supposed to be the patients’ voice in the UK National Health Service), then got the chance to see if I could turn writing into money working for Doctor newspaper. Interesting place. Huge weekly freesheet, plump with drug company ads. Many, many pages to fill. Staffed by a splendidly tense mix of bright young things on the way up (they hoped) and half sozzled (more than half after lunch) Fleet Street hacks on the way down. Also some very solid, competent journalists working rather hard, who you could learn from.

    After all that education, I had everything to learn. Surprisingly, it turned out that writing a PhD – which was still being finished in the evenings – and writing, subbing and laying out for a tabloidish newspaper were different. But with my trusty copies of Newsman’s English (Harry Evans) and Daily Mirror Style (Keith Waterhouse), and unlimited practice, I got it together. There was a little training, including shorthand which I thought pointless in an age of tape-recorders and still do, but the main thing was the endless pages. We got the paper out by working all day then taking extra pages home to sub in the evenings, for a few extra quid. Never worked so hard in my life.

    All quite good fun, but after a year or so I was ready to move on. Saw a vacancy for Science Correspondent on the Times Higher Education Supplement. That’s the trade paper for HE, a bit like the Chronicle of Higher Education in the US. I figured the job was mainly about science policy, and claimed in the interview I knew all about it. Not even nearly true, but I knew people who did. Just as well, as they gave me the job.

    Peculiarities of the English III. There are policy journalism slots where you play a kind of game, trying to get people to reveal stuff which is officially confidential but no sane person would want to keep secret. As everyone knows it is a game, it isn’t too hard to play, and oddly rewarding in its way, at least for a while. I set about finding out more about UK science policy than anyone else, which wasn’t too hard either as hardly anyone else covered it then, and got a reputation for breaking stories. It was (is) a small world, and I am still surprised when people say, “didn’t you work for THES?” getting on for 20 years after I left the place.

    It wasn’t really “science writing” in a way. As my friend David Dickson said, we specialised in the second derivative – talking about people talking about science. But it was a fantastic place to work, and I got to write maybe a thousand news stories and scores of features, about all kinds of stuff. I also had enormous fun as features editor for some years, which ranged across all the disciplines, but got pulled back to sciency things in the end. The outfit also allowed me to switch to part-time working when my partner and I decided that, having two small children, we wanted to look after them ourselves rather than work to pay someone else to do it – that’s another story but I mention it because not all careers are so flexible.

    I’ve had several other great jobs since, which don’t need detailing here. Nowadays, I’m freelancing, kids grown, out of London, and mainly writing books plus working on assignment, usually when people ask.

    What did I learn? If something seems like the most fun you can have at the time, it’s probably the right decision for you (duh). It can be helpful to diagnose your own temperament. I have an idle streak, counterbalanced by a strong aversion to boredom. I find it easy to get interested in almost anything, if I can find the right angle to think about it. I don’t particularly want to run anything, but I do value being part of the conversation. Writing fits those traits pretty well. Originally, it appealed because I would be able to hide behind my typewriter (remember them?) most of the time – but the people I’ve met, places I’ve been, have been as rewarding, on the whole, as the actual writing part. On the other hand, I like people well enough but am, in truth, probably more interested in ideas – so I had to work on the gregariousness a little to survive as a writer, even a science writer…

    One final thing. When I was starting, and occasionally long after, I wrote lame or ill-judged stuff. That was OK. I was learning. It was ephemeral. Newsprint, you know? I’d do better next time. Not true any more. Some of my mistakes are safely buried. A few happened recently enough to stay in the internet archive (don’t look). Now, I assume that nothing ever goes away. It makes me, in some ways, a more considered writer. Whether it makes the stuff more interesting to read is anyone’s guess.

  66. I fell in love with biology in high school and decided I wanted to become a doctor. But after having the opportunity to shadow several doctors (in primary care, ER and OR) for a semester, I realized that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life under fluorescent lights and surrounded by sick people.

    I was still enamored with science though, and decided to become a biologist. The only problem was, I couldn’t narrow my interest to the kind of single minded focus one needs to complete a PhD. After college, I bounced around among various research jobs trying to figure out whether I wanted to study ecology, evolution, molecular biology or pharmacology for my doctorate. During a stint at a biotech company, I’d often sneak away to the company library and devour its copies of New Scientist magazine. I started writing a column for the company newsletter and the editor, a former freelance science writer, asked me if I’d ever considered science writing. It had never occurred to me that I could escape the drudgery of data collection without leaving science. I enrolled in the Santa Cruz science communication in 1997 and have been a freelance science writer ever since.

    The best piece of advice I ever received was from my first mentor, Joe Alper. He told me to figure out what I wanted to do and then go do it. That’s pretty much exactly what I did. I ignored all the advice that said I had to put in some time as a staffer before going freelance. Instead, I started writing query letters. I sold my first piece to New Scientist magazine and decided that this was the life I wanted. I landed some steady work from ScienceNOW and Health magazine, and that was the beginning of my freelance career. I’ve made a very nice living from this path for more than a decade now.

    Over the years, I’ve written for dozens of publications ranging from the journal Cell to O, the Oprah magazine. I love the freedom and flexibility that freelancing gives me and I absolutely love that I learn something new with each assignment. I’m still a science geek at heart, and science writing allows me to pursue knowledge and expertise in any subject that tickles my fancy.

  67. My origin story is one of adaptation from the disappearing habitat of British drug discovery into interesting and unusual niches of the scientific and technology media. In my larval stage – studying chemistry in Southampton, UK – I edited the university music newspaper. From there I matured into a chemist at a contract research organisation manufacturing large numbers compounds for high throughput screening.

    For over six years, in this fertile environment I grew into writing about music for local free publications, and published fanzines that brought together my interest in music and science. I entered the Telegraph Young Science Writer competition in 2004 and although – unlike the auspicious host of this thread – I didn’t win, it did lead to my first ever paid feature. From there, I remembered that at least one of the science publications I had abortively tried to get work experience at during my degree wasn’t completely dismissive. Thankfully that magazine – aimed at A-level chemistry students – still had the same editor, who was happy to pay me for articles I wrote as a hobby.

    By 2006, the formerly fertile island of chemistry I inhabited began to sink beneath a rising tide caused mainly by decreasing numbers of drug approvals, but partly attributable to increased outsourcing to developing countries. This was when I first seriously began to entertain the idea of science writing as a career. I swam on to equally unsustainable islands researching biodiesel and adhesive production, gradually learning that the ongoing writing work could be the key to my survival. Eventually, in 2007, I found comparatively solid ground working for Institute of Physics (IOP) Publishing in Bristol, in my first full-time paid writing job for the improbably named Compound Semiconductor magazine. By this time I had learnt that being able to swim comfortably was useful, and begun to freelance for an adhesive industry website outside of IOP. So, with this added buoyancy, when IOP decided to sell Comp. Semi. in summer 2009, I was fully prepared to dive back into the ocean, and see where I landed.

    I’ve now been a freelancer for just over a year, inhabiting the comparatively small evolutionary niches in the media industry provided by magazines like Physics World and Chemistry World, and even more specialised publications. However, I’ve gained a lot of confidence in this time, and from my work for A-level students a desire to bring this specialised knowledge to broader audiences. On that basis I’ve set up a blog where I interview climate change researchers to try and and get their findings across as simply as possible. I hope to try and reach even more people in higher profile publications, in due course.

    My story is unapologetically long-winded, because much of the advice I have to give to budding science writers can be derived from it. First and foremost, if you want to write about science, just do it. It doesn’t matter if you have to give it out on the street. That’s what makes you a science writer. Secondly, if you want to do it for a career, don’t get discouraged. If you can forgive me changing metaphors, it can be a long and winding road to get to where you want to go, but as the road is paved with lots of fascinating science stories, it’s an enjoyable one.

    Look at what the science writers you admire are doing, emulate them, then improve on that. To this end, find out if there are associations that you can join or conferences you can go to where they will be, and then go to see what they have to say. In the UK the Association of British Science Writers is an excellent means to do this and membership is open to students.

    To do the job well and get the information you need you will need to be confident. If you’re not naturally confident – and many scientists are not – that is a challenge, but it is one that can be overcome. You just have to decide to go on and do the things you are nervous about. It will get easier. I still get this. I am nervous about posting this here. However last week I interviewed a Nobel prize winner. Go figure.

    Andy (@andyextance) is a freelancer working for numerous different chemistry, physics and environmental industry publications and blogger at Simple Climate.

  68. My advice is to consider corporate writing as a way to write about science or get into journalism – it shows you can write and it’s well paid.

    My first job was as a copywriter for a PR agency representing medical device and biotechnology companies. If you’ve ever wondered how busy CEOs and famous scientists find time to knock out opinion pieces and features – I have the answer. They get a professional writer to do it for them. I also wrote marketing brochures, reports and even advert copy.

    My boss began his career as a golfing journalist (!) after dropping out of a biochemistry PhD. He taught me loads about writing. The skills I learned and the job on my CV has helped me secure internships and convince sceptical editors to give me a try when I had few bylined clips. I’ve also had some amazing freelance copywriting projects, including ghostwriting a national newspaper opinion piece for a public figure I idolise.

    So how did I get this job? Something of an accident. My childhood dream was to be a field scientist studying rivers, glaciers or sand dunes. But, after doing a PhD in climate change monitoring, I realised I didn’t have the single-minded focus to be an academic.

    After leaving academia, I cluelessly applied for jobs at environmental NGOs that I was woefully unqualified for. Eventually, I was accepted onto an internship at a science policy think tank – Newton’s Apple. My epiphany came while I was helping write and edit a report on cancer care policy – I absolutely loved it. Newton’s Apple was based in the Institute of Biology so I asked the news editor of their members’ magazine if I could do some writing. I reported on a couple of events and got the news journalism bug.

    From there, I pitched a news story to The Ecologist magazine and they invited me to do an internship. I spent a month finding and writing news stories, and became really keen. I volunteered to cover the Climate Camp at Heathrow and went into the High Court to report on BAA’s injunction hearing against the Camp.

    Court reporting without knowing any media law, however, filled me with fear. So I decided to do an NCTJ preliminary Certificate in Newspaper Journalism – the UK’s professional exam for journalists – to learn about libel. Unfortunately, I’d run out of money and my husband was struggling to finish his own PhD. I needed a full-time job to pay for the NCTJ course. Luckily, I heard about the PR copywriting job through a graduate recruitment agency. Despite only having GCSE biology, they hired me. They were impressed by my experience editing the cancer policy report.

    For the next nine months, I worked full time while doing my NCTJ on Monday nights and weekends. I used my holiday allowance to do my professional exams. Six months after joining the agency, I was faced with a dilemma – I didn’t have enough leave to do the work experience I needed to finish my NCTJ coursework. By this point, my husband had a job so I gave in my notice. But the agency didn’t want me to go. They agreed they wouldn’t replace me, provided I could fit my full-time job around my work placements.

    I did work experience at several local newspapers and then started applying for jobs as a local newspaper journalist. But it was the depth of the advertising recession and the few traineeships available had thousands of applicants. So I continued interning and freelancing for my previous employer. By March last year, I had picked up work from other PR agencies in the same group. By summer, my husband – who does my accounts – told me I had doubled my full-time, permanent salary. I decided to stay freelance.

    I’ve now been freelance for a year and a half. In January, I felt secure enough to drop some of my copywriting clients so I could focus on doing science journalism. My CV is starting to look like a ‘proper’ science and environmental journalist. I’m loving every minute and working with some great editors.

    Vivienne (@vivraper) is a freelancer and part-time science editor at BioNews. Among her writing credits are pieces in the Financial Times, How It Works, Nursing Times, Science Careers and Ethical Living.

  69. I’m that cliche of a science writer: a failed scientist. A slightly dopey one at that – having failed spectacularly at lab work during my undergraduate genetics degree at UCL, I then ping-ponged between various academic flirtations. One moment I wanted to study bioinformatics, the next, I wanted to do a PhD on fruitflies. It was only when I found myself halfway through a neuroscience MSc at UCL that I realised I was like one of those poor souls on Pop Idol who think they can sing when they actually sound like a donkey with a sore throat.

    Luckily, a friend showed me an advert for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial. Once on the course, I began to write like my life depended on it – film and book reviews for Imperial’s university newspaper, press releases at medical charities, anything that would make me put pen to paper. After an internship at BBC Radio 4, I then did an internship at The Lancet, which led to a job as a manuscript editor at the journal.

    Although my day job at The Lancet meant wading through dense technical papers, immersing myself so utterly in the subject matter that I could think of nothing else, my nights were spent writing (for free) for the journal’s news pages. The only way I can explain surviving the sheer lack of sleep is that I was 24.

    Later, I worked as a commissioning editor for SciDev.Net, and as environment editor for New Scientist. At some point, I became convinced I wanted to spread my wings as a freelancer, and I’m still happily working away in my pyjamas for all the publications I’ve been a staffer at, plus others like the British Medical Journal and the WHO. Right now, I’m in Mumbai on a 6-month stint of travelling around India and reporting on public health. Get in touch at priya4876@gmail.com

    Top tips:

    (1) Work like a beast – the world doesn’t need more science writers, so if you want to be one, you’ll have to put in the hard graft.

    (2) Learn to take criticism from editors. They don’t hate you, nor are they trying to ruin your life, but behaving like a prima donna when you are a newbie writer (or even if you are an experienced one) will not make them want to commission you again. Obvious, but many writers forget this.

    (3) Network, but not shamelessly. Science writers need to schmooze like any other journalist, especially when they are freelancers, but chasing the stories you love and writing for publications you respect will get you far more in the long run than anything else.

    (4) Write about the science you love, but don’t get too comfortable. A science journalist should be able to tackle most subjects. I’m a biologist by training, but some of my proudest moments have been writing or editing a story completely out of my range of expertise, and doing a good job of it.

  70. Kat

    I’m Kat, and I’m a science communicator and blogger for Cancer Research UK. In my secret double life, I’m a musician, itinerant cake baker, knitter, and freelance broadcaster and writer who blogs at the aptly-named You Do Too Much. Here is my story.

    In the beginning was the word. Lots of them. Way before I realised I loved science, I loved reading and writing. I devoured books far beyond my years, thanks to growing up in a literary household full of creaking shelves stacked with fragrant old paperbacks. I wrote endless stories, plays, poems (most of them all extremely bad) from a very young age, and edited and wrote for various community, school and university magazines as I grew up. But I had no desire to study English or literature – writing was just something I did – a means to self-expression.

    From about the age of ten or eleven onwards I got into science. I don’t know why – something just clicked and I became fascinated with understanding the world around me. It made sense, it was practical, and I was good at it. Being underendowed in the maths department, I studied biology and chemistry, ending up doing a degree and a PhD in developmental biology at Cambridge. It was here that I first did any proper science writing, outside the bounds of college assignments.

    I entered the Daily Telegraph Young Science Writer competition a few times (utterly failing to be placed anywhere, unlike Ed), and wrote some pieces for the university newspaper about science-related issues. During my PhD, I hooked up with a bunch of guys who were broadcasting a science show on local radio – now better known as the Naked Scientists – and enjoyed talking about research, and writing pieces for their website. But writing and talking about science was still just something I did as an unpaid hobby – it didn’t ‘count’, and it certainly wasn’t as worthy as scientific research.

    Next step was an utterly miserable post-doc in London. I was still doing bits of freelance writing and broadcasting, which took my mind off the utter despair caused by continually failing experiments. My ‘break’ came when I read an article on Science’s Next Wave website – an irritatingly smug piece about how to be a great group leader. At the time I was extremely depressed about my future in science, so I dashed off a vitriolic (and funny) 500 words about “How to tell if a career in science isn’t for you”. To my amazement it got published (!), I got paid (!!) and I got offered a monthly column (!!!).

    The Next Wave gig also led to other paid freelance writing work , such as writing News & Views for a journal. Around this time I also got involved with the Association of British Science Writers, and after some vigorous networking and effort landed myself a few science stories on the BBC News website.

    By now, my scientific career had ground to a halt and I knew I had to leave the lab. After a lot of soul-searching – and coming to terms with the fact that leaving research didn’t mean I was a total failure in life – I realised that I might actually be able to make a go of it outside the lab. So I started applying for jobs in science publishing and pharma company comms departments. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

    Then I saw a little advert in the back of the New Scientist for a job at Cancer Research UK in the Science Information team. It sounded like my dream job, so I wrote a letter, sent off my CV and crossed my fingers. Following an excruciating interview that is now the stuff of in-house legend (involving me waving around hot pink knitted DNA) I got the job.

    Six years later, it’s still my dream job. I write and talk about science all day (mostly writing for our website, blogging, making audio and video, and doing media work), and it’s a great organisation to work for. I still broadcast for the Naked Scientists, and do the odd bit of freelance writing when I have the time. I’m busy working on the world’s first chick-lit science novel – packed with sex, drugs and PCR – and I’d love to do more proper science blogging and freelancing (hello? any editors listening out there?).

    But the most important thing I’ve discovered as I made my transition from being a lab rat to a science writer was the fundamental truths about my talents and skills. I’m not a scientist. I don’t have the logical mind, the insight, or the patience and dogged determination. I’m a creator – of words, audio, video, music, cakes, socks, whatever… Coming to terms with this was tough, especially dealing with the severe feelings of failure over leaving lab science after so many years of training. But I’m much, much happier now.

    Advice that helped me:
    -Network, network, network –and follow up on your leads. Collect business cards, stalk people on Twitter and blogs, and generally make a nuisance of yourself

    -Write, write, write. Writers write. That’s what they do. If you call yourself a writer, then just write, dammit…

    -Read voraciously, widely and critically.

    -Be arsed. If someone gives you the opportunity to write something, do it! (especially if you’re starting out). Follow up on your leads.

    -Don’t expect to be paid at first. Or for quite a while. Or – in some cases – ever.

    -If you’re in the UK, join the ABSW http://www.absw.org.uk/

    -Learn from others. Ask people whose skills and opinions you respect to read your stuff critically, and if you’re lucky enough to be commissioned by an editor, learn from their red penning. The biggest gift an editor ever gave me was an hour of their time, explaining exactly how to construct a news story. Until then, I’d never realised that there was a ‘formula’, and it made me a better writer overnight.

    -Courses in science communication/science journalism etc are no substitute for experience and practice.

    -If you are working in a lab and miserable as sin, just quit. Life is too short.

  71. It was a cold shock half way through a 5-year physics masters degree when I realised I probably wasn’t cut out to be a scientist. I was doing a summer project in a lab with a ‘real’ research group when I realised that not only was I not up to scratch but I didn’t enjoy the tedium of experimental work. There was no way I was going to face an additional 3 years of this to get two letters in front of my name on (almost) minimum wage. Deep down I really loved science and particuarly scientific research. I looked on the bright side of things and started thinking about what type of career someone has when they maintain real interest in science and a good science background but with ‘non-scientific’ skills in communication. We had a module in our degree called ‘transferable skills for physicists’ aka ‘social skills for physicists’ which involved us writing lay summaries and giving talks – at least I aced that module.

    I started writing a few bits and pieces (mainly for free) for various learned society student mags and science blogs and started a newsletter/paper for my physics department. As my experience grew I found that people were willing to pay me and I spent my final year at university working hard for a few science magazines and book projects. My lecturers always used to comment on how often they saw me in the library and yet my grades were not improving…

    As graduation loomed I started to think a little more seriously about my career and decided that full time freelancing was not for me – too insecure and lonely I though. So I went down the science policy route first working at the Research Councils and now at a University where I get to stay in academia but do the things I am good at and enjoy to help research. Meanwhile I still do some freelance work which gives me a great excuse to keep up to date with the science news and it makes for some handy pocket money. Its good to eventually find a speciality and now I mainly write about science policy.

    Leila Sattary (@LeilaSattary)
    Full portfolio at http://www.leilasattary.com

  72. I became a science writer by accident.

    I knew I would have to be a writer by the time I was ten, but I went in vain search of a topic until I turned 28 and found myself on an archaeological dig. In 1997, after I’d been a working archaeologist for better than a decade, I found an opportunity to go back to writing, through the website then called The Mining Company, now About.com.

    In 1997, I told myself that the Mining Company gig was a way to communicate information about recent archaeological digs in the world (a “public archaeology” outlet). But I soon found myself writing about the science of the field, reporting on recent scientific findings and breaking news stories; writing tutorials on scientific dating techniques and stable isotope analysis; developing domestication histories for various plants and animals; and compiling guides to cultural areas of the world, among lots of other things.

    I have freelanced, writing pieces for Science and Archaeology magazines, but find I am interested in too many tiny little aspects of archaeology, aspects that are not particularly big sellers in the public domain, aspects that even Archaeology magazine doesn’t consider worthy of spilling ink. I think I may be constitutionally driven to report on these lesser-known aspects of the field.

    The other thing I love to do is create context for news stories. Because I have a fairly extensive background in archaeology, when archaeological new stories break, I can supply a deep level background that other science writers without that background really can’t. Often I’ve read the literature enough to know who to talk to and what the essential nut of the problem is. I love that!

    If you have a love of science writing the way I do–of uncovering small pieces of the human puzzle, highlighting little-known topics and creating background stories that build context for breaking news, be prepared to consider your career a part-time gig.

    To make a living as a science writer, however, I think one needs to cover broader areas than I do, to select your stories based on what will sell to Science and Nature and other science news outlets, and to aggressively market your work.

    I love what I do, but I’m realistic that the things I love to write about are not madly popular across the world, so I feel incredibly fortunate that About.com exists and is owned by the New York Times Co. (and thereby as stable as anything today), and has paid me to do what I love for the past 13 years.

    K. Kris Hirst (archaeology.guide@about.com, http://archaeology.about.com)

    K. Kris Hirst is an ex-archaeologist and science writer, responsible for the Archaeology section of the About.com network

  73. Powdered macaroni and cheese sauce, and farts.

    These smells are the first things I think of when asked about my journey in science writing. Since Ed has (unwisely) given us no word limit, please allow me to explain…

    Growing up, my parents provided a fertile environment for any nerd to blossom in — chemistry sets, sea monkeys, venus fly traps, legos, science museum trips,tools to dissect dangerous electronics, etc. The whole nine nerdy yards.

    Soon enough I was 18, working in a university research laboratory and on my way to being a career biologist. On a typical work day, I mixed agar powder in water-filled beakers, which I’d later pour into petri dishes for growing E. coli bacteria. The agar smelled like musty mac-n-cheese powder. The bacteria, after having had a chance to grow, smelled like farts. On the rare occasion I got to extract and amplify DNA for sequencinging, I was ecstatic — if nothing else, than for the change in smell (rather, the lack thereof).

    Six months later, my scientist dreams were fizzling out.

    It’s hard to pin down why, but certainly the mundanity of repeating experiments, seeing how exasperated my coworkers were (post-docs who worked ~80 hours per week) and witnessing the hair-pulling drama of fighting for grant money all contributed. (Not to mention those damn smells.)

    The scientific life wasn’t for me.

    Some years still left in college, I figured I could press the reset button. I recall reading Discover Magazine when it occurred to me that this whole writing-about-science-thing was my dream job. Earle Holland, my unofficial mentor at “the” Ohio State University, helped nudge me in the right direction when I had no idea how to get from point A (no journalism experience) to point B (science journalist). (I owe you many beers, Earle.)

    To get to point B, I added a journalism degree to my coursework in addition to the biology and cut my teeth at the student-run newspaper. They didn’t have a science section, so I offered to start one for free (editors were paid, but they had no budget).

    Nearly graduated, I headed to the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) annual meeting. In addition to landing a bunch of freelance contacts, I secured two internships (Fermilab and Discover Magazine) at the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) internship fair. After spending some time under Holland’s wing at OSU’s Research Communications office and freelancing stories, I got my first full-time job at Space.com/LiveScience.com (the company formerly known as Imaginova).

    The rest, as they say, is history.

    So here’s some general advice:
    1. Expect chaos.
    Science journalism (note: different from science writing) is an industry in flux — for now, anyway. I’d argue no company has really found a viable, long-term and/or reliable solution to this little problem of finding $ to pay writers. Nonetheless, there are budgets out there for freelancing. So don’t get too discouraged if at first you encounter gridlock. Keep pressing.

    2. We’re very collegial.
    The pool of people who write about science is pretty small, and fairly tight-knit. If you don’t play nice, word can spread quickly — and that may cost you freelance work or a potential full-time job (the ones that remain, anyway). Not saying to kowtow/brown nose everyone you meet, just don’t be an ass.

    3. Schmoozing is crucial.
    I can’t overstate how important it is to physically meet other science writers, editors, scientists, etc. Digital networking is one thing (i.e. using social media services to introduce yourself), but pairing that up with “oldschool” networking of shaking hands and sharing an alcoholic beverage (or eight) will take you places. One of the best events to get face time is the aforementioned AAAS meeting. Go there, and next to writing about stuff (blog on your own if no one will pay you), schmoozing should be your next priority.

    4. Get a mentor.
    I’m assuming you’re young, as I still am. By no fault of our own, we lack a few decades of institutional knowledge about pretty much everything. So befriending an unofficial mentor — someone you really admire/respect in the industry — is a fantastic step to take to help gain untold wisdom and insight. NASW has a great mentor program, but you don’t need to wait around for that! Stake out your own mentoring prey.

    5. Be bold.
    You won’t g.e.t. until you a.s.k. That goes not only for pitching story ideas, but also going for jobs that you may perceive as out-of-reach.

    6. RTFP.
    For those of you familiar with “RTFM,” just replace “manual” at the end with “paper.” You need to know what is going on scientifically before you can ask the right questions. It’s fine to get interested in a story idea via press releases, but don’t rely on those for context. You need to track down the scientific paper and, at the very least, read the abstract, conclusion and diagrams.

    7. Remember your sources.
    Don’t let the people you interview slip away! Add their names, contact info, keywords the person is an expert on, etc. to a spreadsheet/database of sorts. If you ever need a source in a pinch, you’re set. If you are low on story ideas, skim your contact list and you’ll find someone whose work you could follow up on. Presto, story ideas.

    8. Writing well means reading well.
    Another thing I can’t overstate: read other writers’ stuff. All of the time. Every day. Every hour. You need to stay abreast in what is being covered out there, and at the same time you can build your signature style/learn new writing approaches by seeing how the best of the best get it done.

    9. Brand thyself, pt. 1: Tweet and blog.
    This is a relatively new addition, but it’s becoming an increasingly powerful way to network, get story ideas, find sources on the fly and improve your writing. Even if you don’t get paid for it, start a blog.

    10. Brand thyself, pt. 2: Build a website.
    If you’re both a good writer AND you know how to build a website, congratulations: you’ve exponentially increased your value to potential employers, especially if you’re doing online writing. That’s because more often than not, you have to find the links, format the code, cut the images, and post everything on your lonesome. After writing the story, of course.

    11. If you freelance, you may want to find side work.
    Right now, based on my own experience + chatting with very good freelancers, it’s tough to make enough money to keep a good roof over your head. If you’re getting started and can get paid part-time for something else (i.e. web design, consulting, etc.), go for it. That way, you can have a baseline income to build off of. Better yet, find an institution or organization to write for (one that won’t be a conflict of interest for your beat), since they often pay very competitive rates and have oodles of work. Plan B: move in with a well-paid boyfriend or girlfriend. Plan C: your parents (ace!)

    12. Take time off.
    You can get lost in the whole science writing thing and lose focus of what’s important. Make sure you have a social life, take vacations when you can, have hobbies, etc. That will not only keep you in better touch with your audience (“normal” people), but will help you relax.

  74. Claire Ainsworth

    I found my calling as a science journalist thanks to an exploding appendix and a maggot’s bottom. That’s the long version of my story, which I’ll tell you over a beer if you really want me to.

    Here’s the short one:

    Having left school with a burning ambition to be a scientist, I went to study Natural Sciences at Cambridge, where I became fascinated by developmental biology.

    I went on to study for a doctorate and the Wellcome Trust, which generously funded me, ran a science communication course for its students. One of the tutors suggested that I get involved with my university’s student radio station, Oxygen 107.9FM. I did, and spent many a happy evening geeking out in a studio and inflicting my brand of science radio on the citizens of Oxford. I was lucky to have a PhD supervisor who both supported by science communication efforts and made sure I spent enough time with my nose on the lab bench to pass my viva!

    By this point, I had been bitten by the science journalism bug and entered several science-writing competitions (Daily Telegraph Young Science Writers’ Competition, the Wellcome Trust Essay Competition), with some success. On completing my doctorate, I secured an internship as a subeditor at New Scientist magazine.

    Although I had to sit a subbing test to apply, I’m sure my student radio and science writing competition experiences helped me land the job. I’d advise anyone who wants to get in to science journalism to be as proactive as possible in getting some experience and collecting a set of cuttings/ radio broadcasts/ podcasts/ writing competition gongs etc. These are all evidence of initiative and motivation: key qualities in a good journalist.

    Training as a subeditor taught me a great deal and I owe a lot of my writing skill to the New Scientist subs team. Subs are the unsung diamond-polishers of the journalism world, which may explain why learning their craft is seen as an unconventional way in to becoming a journalist. It shouldn’t be—try it.

    Much as I enjoyed subbing, however, I still hankered after writing. Alun Anderson, then editor of the magazine, gave me my first writing break producing copy for the graduate careers supplement. This then led to a job as a reporter in New Scientist’s news section.

    I later moved over to the features department as an editor, where I found my métier in long-form writing, again mentored by my colleagues, and won a number of feature awards (including an ABSW award). After 6 years at New Scientist, I joined Nature’s team of journalists, where I wrote and edited biology features. It was a fantastic experience, so making the decision to leave and go freelance wasn’t easy. I now divide my time between writing and running a company that offers science communication training courses for scientists.

    My experience as an editor taught me to be cautious of taking on new, unknown writers. If they turn out to be good, that’s great, but if not, there is a huge amount of time-consuming, frustrating work involved in turning the copy into something publishable. So if you find yourself being rebuffed, it may just be nervousness and time poverty on the part of the editor, rather than cliquishness or snobbery.

    This means that it really helps to get yourself known by getting an internship or work experience placement (some science communication/ journalism courses offer these), or some kind of endorsement via a science writing award / glowing reference from another editor. Failing that, an editor may be more willing to take a punt on a 200-word news story than a 2000-word feature by a new writer, so think about starting small and working up.

    Lastly, I always get asked if you need to have a PhD to become a science journalist. The short answer is no. I’m glad of mine, however, not least because I spent four years being happily absorbed by a fascinating problem (how developing cells decide what cell types to be when they grow up). It also gave me a good grounding in scientific method, how to read papers and an extensive background knowledge that helps me unearth new stories.

    I can also claim unique expertise in the area of maggots’ bottoms, but if you want to know more, I’ll need that beer first.

  75. I knew I wanted to be a journalist from primary school days and was finding class or school magazines to edit or contribute to even then. As a teenager in the late 1960s I began my first column in a proper publication, the East Kent Critic. I sometimes wonder now what readers of this radical, left-leaning monthly thought of this regular dose of astronomy in their political diet. I went from college straight to newspapers, breaking that career after just two months to take on my one scientific post as a civil servant, living above the clouds in the Canary Islands for three months to check weather and sky conditions for a planned major new observatory which now stands on La Palma.
    Back in the real world, I rejoined local newspapers including spells on the Western Daily Press and the Evening Argus where I switched from general reporting to subbing and also once manned the barricades with a Roy Greenslade (I wonder whatever happened to him). On a voluntary basis, I also edited the magazine and other publications for the UK’s leading organisation for beginners to stargazing, now called the Society for Popular Astronomy. In 1979 I made the leap to Fleet Street, working as a staffer at The Sun, Daily Mirror, Today and then back to The Sun. During that second coming, I wrote a spread about the Pathfinder landing on Mars which seemed to go down well and got me the unofficial byline of Sun Spaceman.
    Despite remaining a sub, I began to try to promote more space science stories and the byline began to appear regularly although I remained a sub. Eventually, as I tired more and more of the Big Brother and celebrity culture that passed as news, I decided to go freelance and to concentrate on popularising science stories. It seemed to me that whereas the “heavies” were well served with their own science staff, there was a niche to be filled at the popular end of the market.
    The Sun is still my best customer and I have kept the Spaceman byline, though the result of my writing a couple of features about Brian Cox resulted in him being appointed the Sun Professor (sometimes labelled the Sun Particle Physicist) and stealing all my work. I jest of course, and see this as a raising of science’s profile. Rightly so too, as I have long been convinced that people are much more interested in the wonders of science than they are given credit for.
    I have no formal science qualification other than an Astronomy O-level which I had to ask to take while at school but which gave this lazy scholar his only grade A. But I enjoy trying to put over science stories in plain English without the jargon and reckon that if I write so that I understand something then perhaps the ordinary reader has a chance too!
    Researching and writing a couple of astronomy books and regular features for magazines such as BBC Sky at Night Magazine have been rewarding in keeping up with latest space research. It sometimes feels like doing an astronomy course and getting paid for it. I also maintain my own news blog, http://skymania.com/wp which I am steadily expanding to offer a resource for amateur astronomers.
    As for advice, I would say that the basic requirement to be a science journalist is the same as for any other journalist – the ability to write well and clearly, avoiding jargon if it is for the mainstream press. Basically, remember your audience.

  76. I became a journalist because it beat waitressing. I became a science journalist because it was less dreary than covering reauthorization of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. Little did I know that combining journalism and science would be the best gig on earth, sending me birding with Roger Tory Peterson, climbing live volcanoes in Kamchatka, explaining how DNA was used to identify the victims of 9/11, and investigating the safety and effectiveness of treatments for autism.

    Science and medicine is the best possible beat, chronicling the world’s smartest people as they struggle to solve the mysteries of the universe and alleviate the suffering of humankind. I learn something new every day, and get paid to do it. I’ve worked as a small-town TV and newspaper reporter, as a congressional reporter in Washington, D.C., and as the science editor for US News & World Report. I’ve freelanced successfully, and am now blogging, podcasting, and publishing via social media. Next month I think I’ll be writing text for the iPad.

    Science writing continues to challenge me as a writer and thinker. I majored in English Lit, and the skills I honed studying Yeats and Joyce – the ability to research, analyze, think logically, and explain concepts – turned out to be ideally suited to explaining science and its often-fractious relationship with society. Now that I’m teaching science writing at Johns Hopkins, I’ve come to think that key writing tools like metaphor, description, and narrative find some of their finest expression when put to bringing clarity to complexity.

    These are tough times in journalism, and wildly exciting ones; we are in the midst of inventing the future of our craft. That means we have to work at the highest standards, whether we call ourselves journalists or not. For me, that means: Be ethical, be transparent. Be a fact and grammar absolutist. Tell sources and the public our rules for fairness and accuracy. Admit it when we mess up, and fix it.

    If you’re just starting out, find the corner of science writing that suits you best; science may be a niche beat, but you can work it in almost any setting and medium. Ask for help; there are great jobs out there. We don’t all have to become bloggers or freelancers or entrepreneurs, but we do need do need to support each other in becoming great science writers, and in making science writing great.

  77. I trained and worked as a veterinarian in Spain, my home country, and what an unhappy vet I made. When I quit and went back to school to study journalism, I swore I would never, ever have anything else to do with science. I even skipped the single science journalism course offered at my school.

    Fast-forward two years, and there I am, at my first job as a reporter. Out of the blue, a journalism teacher who remembered I was a vet gives me a call and assigns me a science story for a widely-circulated Sunday magazine. I take the assignment (extra money!) and I find myself enjoying my interviews with scientists immensely: they’re smart, they’re passionate, they don’t mind spending a couple of hours explaining their science to dumb me.

    So I apply for a two-year fellowship for graduate studies in the US and move to one of the prettiest places on Earth, Santa Cruz (California), to enroll in a science communication graduate program. During my studies, I have six half-time internships (one at SETI’s podcast, two at local newspapers, two at press offices, and one at a film-production company) and a final, full-time summer internship at The Chronicle of Higher Education. I need a lot of practice, since I am not only changing reporting fields, I am also switching to writing in a foreign language.

    In October 2008, I get my first (and current) job as a science writer/press officer for the largest association of Earth and space scientists, where I combine the work of a traditional press officer (writing press releases, organizing press conferences) with creating new media and doing science communication training. I’m having a blast!

    My advice to newbies? Don’t be upset if you make wrong choices in life: there’s always a way out and in the end, it all comes together. Also: embrace change. Our profession is going through a metamorphosis, and who knows what the science writer of the future is going to be like. (PS: And the internships! Don’t forget the internships!)

    Cheers, MJ (@mjvinas)

  78. I’m a former science editor and children’s book author now transmogrified into some new combination of writer and editor for hire and agent. Maybe that makes me the publishing equivalent of the Feejee Mermaid, but so far it works for me.

    As a storyteller, I am particularly interested in the intersection of storytelling and science, and how the arts can leverage science literacy in new and exciting ways. Graphic novels and animation are particular interests of mine, and so is citizen science with a Popular Mechanics/Maker/DIY bent.

    I have two blogs, Science + Story on BlogSpot about my science interests and Glass Salamander, also on BlogSpot, about children’s books. I think about a third on the topic of free-range parenting and then my family stages an intervention.

    Recently I’ve been using Science + Story to showcase science in the field, and that may be its primary format moving forward. Kate Jackson’s post about little brown snakes in vats in Paris is up now; stay tuned for Richard Wragham on the evolution of carnivory and global barbecue.

    I tweet as Elefolio and am looking forward to following all of these many interesting sciencey folks.

  79. I wish I could point to something really glorious, say a brilliant grade-five school project in which I learned to recreate the Elgin Marbles with just toothpicks and Wite-out. Or that I spent my summers as a child in the south of France, mastering Mousterian flint-knapping.

    But the truth is considerably more humble. I grew up in an oil-boom city in northern Alberta where all the architecture looked as if it had just been shaken loose from packing crates. Everything was bright and new and oh so determinedly modern. There wasn’t a single building standing in my home city that dated back more than 100 years. As a result, I grew up thinking that Alberta had very little history, and no prehistory at all.

    I loved to read, however, and I was fascinated by the past. And as a young teenager, I stumbled upon the shelves of historical novels in a little local library, and began hungrily quaffing these books down. Before long, I had devoured stacks of novels on Tudor England (I particularly loved Henry VIII’s complicated sex life), Renaissance Italy, ancient Egypt, classical Rome, and classical Greece. I read just about every book Mary Renault ever wrote.

    I didn’t know it at the time, but many these novels were often thinly disguised social histories, lovingly detailed tableaus of royal court life, say, or ancient Greek temples. At university, I majored in history and studied English literature, particularly Victorian novels, with their detailed portraits of 19th century British life. When I finally graduated, I snagged one of the coolest jobs on the planet–as a research assistant in the history department of a major museum.

    As historical archaeologists know, it’s a very small jump from history to archaeology and when I finally began freelance writing in the early 80s, I gravitated to writing about archaeology: I’ve never looked back. I guess the conclusion to be be drawn from all of this is that there is no set career path to becoming a science writer. Nearly any road can lead to Rome.

    Today, after nearly three decades of laboring in the trenches (literally and figuratively) as a archaeological writer, my view of the world has changed radically. I now see invisible worlds–of the Minoans when I walk in Crete, the Nasca when I drive the Pan-American, and the Lapita people when I fly over the turquoise waters of the South Pacific.

    I know now that Alberta has a long and rich prehistory, stretching back nearly 11,000 years. Thank you, Mary Renault. Thank you, Henry VIII, for opening my eyes.

  80. On my way to a 10-week term in Costa Rica and Jamaica during my senior year in college, I imagined that this would be my first in a long history of trips as an ecologist and some-day tenured professor who would spend half of each year conducting research in some exotic place somewhere. All I had to figure out was where that field would be and what, exactly, I would be studying: Gorillas in Africa? Dolphins in South America? Koalas in Australia?

    What I loved about that very intense semester was all of the traveling and question-asking I got to do. I even enjoyed spending a day or two collecting data. But I hated analyzing that data. With each project we did (and we started a new one every few days), I was relieved to have the results in hand, which I could then write up and present to the group. It became very clear very quickly that I did not want to spend six years studying the fighting behavior of ants or the mating habits of birds in order to get my PhD in science. I wanted to learn about something new every day and I wanted to tell other people about what I had learned. I still had no idea that there was such a career as science journalism.

    After graduation, I spent some time traveling, some time teaching astronomy to kids at a hands-on environmental education center in the high desert of California, and some time leading teenagers on outdoor adventure trips in Colorado and the Pacific Northwest. On one beautiful hike up a mountain somewhere with a bunch of complaining but hilarious 13-year olds trailing behind, it hit me: I wanted to write about science. Maybe I could even write for kids. I thought I was the first person to come up with this idea.

    I mentioned the idea to a friend. She knew about the Santa Cruz Science Writing program. After an illuminating year there, followed by internships at The Dallas Morning News and U.S. News & World Report (and a two-month trip to Asia in-between), I landed a job as the science writer on a multimedia expedition team that traveled around the world for a month or two at a time. Each trip attempted to address major mysteries in science and history. Through reports, videos, pictures and other features often sent via satellite from bug-infested jungles, we shared our adventures through a website with hundreds of thousands of kids, who helped direct our trips from afar. This was it. I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing: Traveling, writing about science for kids, and getting paid to do it.

    When funding for that project ran out, I went freelance. I spent five years as the main writer (on a freelance contract basis) for Science News for Kids, which was brand new at the time. I am now a contributing writer for Discovery News, and my stories have appeared in a range of publications, including the Los Angeles Times, Health, Self, Smithsonian, Prevention, Men’s Journal, Wildlife Conservation, Momentum, and Minnesota Monthly. I’ve also written a dozen books for young people, including some science-themed graphic novels.

    Now 10 years into the business, I feel like I’m transitioning from early-career to mid-career, but I still think it’s the best job in the world! Advice: Live life, write about it, be tenacious, ask more questions than you think you need to, triple-check every detail, never miss a deadline, and always carry a pen.

  81. I backed into science and environmental writing because I was bored with my work as a politics and government reporter at a large newspaper. There was something incredibly attractive about covering topics in which the key driver was evidence, not bluster. Of course, there’s plenty of bluster in science, too, but the verification process makes it possible — usually… eventually… — to separate the legitimate from the illegitimate. It was an intellectual challenge, too, which I appreciated after hanging around politicians for too long.

    When newspapering was riding high, the environment/science beat was a great place to be because it was a messy clash between science and the larger culture, between the pursuit of knowledge and the necessity of making policy based on incomplete information. It was possible to write stories that had both impact and nuance, which is a wonderful thing.

    When the industry changed, I took a job running one of the oldest and best science journalism master’s programs in the world, the SHERP program at NYU. It’s a wonderful job. The students are brilliant and enthusiastic, even in the face of the tremendous challenges facing professional journalism. The job also leaves me time to time to write books and magazine pieces, which I’ve loved.

    Now that I’m running a science/health/environmental journalism grad program, I’m constantly asked to give advice to budding reporters about career paths. Web or print? Grad school or straight to work? Staff or freelance? Specialized or general? Multimedia or ‘old style’? Before I answer, I tend to ask my questioner a lot of questions to assess where she/he is coming from. Our field, despite its obvious troubles, is now so much more diverse than it used to be, and there truly are many entry routes. The trick is to position yourself in the marketplace in a way that separates from the pack, because if you’re doing what everyone else is doing, you’re going to struggle. Getting those distinctive skills — whether in j-school or in some other way — is absolutely essential in this tough environment if you expect to be paid for your work.

    If you have the requisite skills, passion and writing ability, and if you’re sufficiently flexible in your aspirations, you can succeed. It happens every day, even now.

  82. Mary Knudson

    I became a medical writer in an instant when I returned to The Sun in Baltimore from a leave of absence and my editor told me I was the paper’s medical writer. Just like that. No prior experience or training. The Sun’s longtime medical writer had left without much notice and the hole needed filling. I had previously covered police and then Baltimore County government for The Sun. I did a few health stories out of the county.

    In college I planned to be a film producer who would make documentaries, but my senior year I won an internship at NBC News, Washington Bureau, where hard news is much more in demand than documentaries. Correspondents I looked up to all had newspaper backgrounds and they urged me to spend a few years at a newspaper before going into television production or news. They said it was the only way to develop a good news sense and learn to write well.

    Right out of college I landed a job at a small daily, the Annapolis Evening Capital — I’m not sure how, having never worked for my college newspaper or written any articles (no clips). All I could show was the report I wrote on NBC News as an intern that looked at the news organization in a critical way. But NBC had liked me and that got me into the Capital. There I did everything except science and medicine, covering the city council, politics, and state legislature, and even writing a few editorials. Did I say it was a small newspaper? And then The Sun noticed me and offered me a job.

    Once I got past the shock of being a newbie medical writer in a town that was home to the famed Johns Hopkins Hospital and medical school and was a 45-minute drive from the National Institutes of Health, I found that I liked covering health and medicine a lot. I was always learning something new and interesting and I got to interview very interesting people. What I liked most was writing different types of stories — narratives, features, breaking news, analysis for the Perspective section, sports health, profiles, and, as I grew in the beat, investigative series and explanatory pieces. Writing about health and medicine never got boring.

    My perhaps untypical entry into medical writing doesn’t qualify me to give advice on how to become a medical writer. Only to say be open to walking down a path you did not plan to take.

  83. Beth Azar

    As an undergraduate bouncing around from engineering to math to biology, but loving my writing classes more than anything else, I thought I had invented a profession when I decided to combine my interests and become a science writer. I talked my way into an over-enrolled journalism class, made friends with the head of the journalism department and convinced him to let me do an unprecedented “minor” in journalism as I finished up my biology degree.

    As graduation loomed, I discovered that there were actually graduate programs in science journalism! I applied to all three and settled on NYU’s Science and Environmental Reporting Program. That summer, I applied for an internship at the Economist in London. The man I interviewed with scoffed at the idea of going to graduate school to learn how to write. “The only way to learn how to write, is to write!” he blustered. I didn’t get the internship but, his words stuck with me. I was glad to go to grad school — in part because I met my husband there — but I was never quite sure that it wouldn’t have been better to save all that money and just get an internship somewhere and start writing.

    That said, the NYU program has a great intership program built into it and that landed me a job working in the National Science Foundation’s press office. This was a stretch because I had to commute from DC back to NYC for a semester, but it was great experience and taught me a lot about federal science funding and the politics of science.

    From there I moved to an editing/writing job with one of the Beltway Bandit government contractors, working for a publication put out by one of the NIH institutes. Another great experience in learning the ways of science politics and gave me a great understanding that there are many ways to make a living as a science writer if you don’t care as much about the prestige of publishing in a big-name publication.

    From there I moved to the American Psychological Association to cover science for their monthly membership magazine. They thought I was too “green” but reluctantly hired me anyway. Though not the mainstream media job I’d always dreamed of, it was a fabulous place to work with amazing benefits and incredible freedom. I got to decide, within reason, what to write about and published as many as 5 features and a few news stories each month. After a few years, they promoted me to assistant editor and I got to write and edit.

    I gave up my full-time job and all the benefits when we had our first child in 2000. By then we lived in Oregon, but all the contacts I made in DC over the nine years I lived there have paid off. I’ve had steady freelance work as both a writer and editor, and maintained the flexibility to be an attentive mom.

  84. There’s a lot of time to think when you’re riding shotgun in a dented blue Toyota Hylux bouncing across yet another bleached Andean lunarscape with a belly bloated from its last encounter with what passed for Peruvian road food. A normal person’s thoughts might turn to the next lousy meal or what new kind of horror lay waiting at that night’s motel or even whether they were off on yet another expensive dead-end search for some mineral bonanza that was more prospector pipe dream than quantifiable ore deposit. Instead, my mind was constantly narrating.

    Geology seemed like the perfect career. Within weeks of starting my undergrad studies at McGill University, we went on a field trip. I was out in the crisp fall air wandering through stands of maple and oak near Bancroft, Ontario happily banging on rocks with a hammer, searching for brown garnets, purple amethyst and flashes of elusive blue-green amazonite. If this was school, I’d take it.

    I’m not sure when my mental narrator appeared. She wasn’t around for the summer spent hiking the volcanic landscapes of the Yukon’s St. Elias Mountains. She didn’t commute by helicopter or eat fresh-caught Arctic char on Somerset Island in the high Arctic or battle hillsides infested with Devil’s Club in British Columbia’s Coast Range. But by the time I had my Ph.D. and was living in Peru and consulting to international mining companies throughout South America, she was well established. Then she hijacked my career.

    It started innocently enough with once-a-year Christmas letters chronicling the strange driving habits of my local field assistants and horseback excursions to thin-aired, sun-blasted elevations in the Argentine Puna. Then, slowly, regular emails emerged that told of my encounters with the neckless policia of the El Carmen police station and their astounding typing skills. Soon I was invited to write a travel column for a small magazine. Then I took over its science column. I wrote features for a woman’s surf magazine. I started pitching Outside and National Geographic—I didn’t know any better.

    By 2001, I was working as few geology consulting gigs as I could, and surfing and writing the rest of the time. I caught my first mainstream break with a small piece in Backpacker. Then I landed an assignment with Discover, where I was edited by Joe Treen who became a mentor (although he would laugh at the idea). My byline in Discover opened all kinds of doors. I’ve been freelancing fulltime ever since.

    Joe Treen was instrumental in helping me to better understand editors. Here’s a classic piece of Treen advice: “Your personal interest and background and education are all in geology and you want to do a story on geology. I understand that. But the signals you are getting from the editor are that the interest is in archaelology, not geology. So you have to adjust. You have to say to yourself I’ll do an archaeology story now and save the geology story for another day and another publication.”

  85. Adam Rutherford

    Hey you guys. I joined Nature after my PhD, a brief junior editorial job at an obscure journal, and 8 different applications. During my 10 years there, I persuaded management that we should experiment first with podcasts, and subsequently with film making; these two strands are now the most downloaded content that Nature produces. I also have the liberty of doing occasional freelance writing for the Guardian, and presenting for BBC Radio 4, 5Live and BBC television. These are tough things to break into, and in truth, in my experience, there’s not much one can do to get a break into radio or TV, other than getting notice for being good at other stuff. Or get incriminating photos of commissioning editors. And being really really, ridiculously good looking. Making TV programmes is hard, sometimes boring, frustrating, often intellectually vapid, and worst for a writer, it’s a distancing process over which the presenter has limited control. It’s also sometimes awesomely good fun. Even in this era though, it’s remains the single most effective way of science communication to the masses. Deny that at your peril. Done right, TV can be beautiful, story telling at its greatest.

    Skip to the end: Learn your trade. The culture of journalism has changed, possibly fundamentally in recent years. It is now easier than ever for people to write, record, film and opine in the public domain. Nevertheless, it is a craft, and the principles of good journalism, radio and TV remain. There is a chasmic difference between potential and excellence. That difference lies in learning your trade. It doesn’t have to be formal (but that works for many). Writers need to do two things: read a lot, and write a lot. Film makers need to watch a lot of films and learn how to script, use cameras, lights and edit. Inexpertise is a hot ticket to mediocrity. For heaven’s sake, never be dull.

    The new world makes it easy to create content and publish it, but you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake. Publishing online is not an entitlement to be read, or valued, or employed. Be aware of the shoulders on which you stand: not necessarily reverent, or respectful, but keenly aware. When you’re on the cutting edge, it’s not a bad idea to know how to use a knife.

  86. Mike Lemonick

    I fell in love with science at an early age, probably because my father was a physicist and made elementary particles and distant galaxies seem so exciting. I assumed this meant I should be a scientist–even though I never enjoyed any science course I ever took. What I did enjoy was reading about science at a sophisticated popular level. But it never occurred to me that I should become a science writer, despite the fact that I had a flair for writing. In part, that was because the profession was largely invisible during the 1960s and early 1970′s.

    I was able to remain delusional until I flunked the intro physics course during my sophomore year of college. It wasn’t until several years after graduation (with a degree in economics, which was laughable on many levels) that I realized science writing might be a good career. I was helped along by the fact that Science Times, Discover and several other popular-science venues appeared at the time, exposing me to the very existence of this field (this was the start of the so-called Golden Age of science writing, which some thing has now ended).

    I was further nudged by the fact that a friend knew Bruce Schechter, one of Discover’s original writers. I met Bruce, who was just a regular person, not that different from me except that he happened to have the most terrific job imaginable. This helped me believe I might be able to do it too. In order to overcome my lack of even a little bit of experience, on top of the fact that I had no science degree, I went to grad school at Columbia. I discovered there that I actually had some ability, which was a relief.

    From Columbia, I went on to Science Digest, where I took Andy Revkin’s old job (he’d just been promoted). And after three years at SciDi (where I worked not only with Andy, but also with Jeff Kluger, Elisabeth Rosenthal, Paul Hoffman and several others who are still in the business), I moved on to TIME.

    I no longer feel very confident giving advice to young writers, since the world in which I made my career has shifted drastically. If you want to get into science writing circa 1983, I’m the one to ask. If you want to do it today, I’ll refer you to my own recent students from Princeton and from the SHERP, Columbia and Johns Hopkins program, who are out navigating the evolving world of science writing and making it work.

  87. It’s strange how many science writers seem to have fallen into the profession by accident. I was a graduate student in English at Columbia University and got a part-time job in the software department at HarperCollins Publishers (then Harper & Row) answering tech support questions from professors who used the test-generating software that came with many of Harper’s textbooks.

    It looked to me like the editors were having much more fun than the software people, so I applied for a job as an editorial assistant and dropped out of graduate school. I helped edit English textbooks for a year or two, and, almost unbelievably, was asked to “write” one of my own. Though I was technically the author, the book, 80 Readings was actually a collection of essays. I picked the essays and wrote intros, but nothing more.

    After several stops and starts, including two Master’s degrees, stints at teaching high school science and college English, and writing more textbooks, I finally realized that what I really wanted to do was write. All I needed was something to write about. I saw that many authors seemed to do pretty well for themselves by coauthoring books with experts. If only I knew an expert in something, I thought, I would have it made. Then I remembered that I was married to an expert in psychology, so we decided to write a book together. We decided to keep notes for it on a blog. That blog was Cognitive Daily, which ended up being one of the most popular psychology blogs on the net. We never did write that book.

    Cognitive Daily led to the idea for ResearchBlogging.org, which led to my column with Seed Magazine. Although I never really planned it that way, I ended up being a “science writer,” and now I can’t imagine doing anything else.

    Oh, and you want advice? Get yourself a good education, and never stop learning. Write regularly, and never stop revising.

  88. I started writing because I lost a bet. In 2005, my students at the University of Maine were interested to continue our science policy discussions after I left campus to begin a congressional science fellowship. When they suggested blogging, I laughed and said I’d do it when “the Dems took back the House and Senate” because that would never happen. Then on November 7, 2006 it did. And go figure, the students remembered. So I started a blogspot called The Nexus where I privately posted 1-2 times a month. Then a funny thing happened. I realized blogging could serve as a constructive way to engage non-scientists in important science and policy conversations.

    In 2007, Chris Mooney went on vacation so I guest posted at The Intersection for a week and it went rather well. When he asked me to stay I agreed. My writing style has evolved online which is interesting to look back on. I’ve never taken a journalism course in my life, so it’s been interesting to learn the ropes in the blogosphere.

    I’m not a full-time writer, but it’s a title I’m more comfortable with these days having now written two books. The best advice I can offer to those considering this trajectory is to follow what you are most passionate to pursue. Remember that it’s okay to wander off the well-trodden path that’s expected–and that goes for any field. Sometimes, it just might lead you on a trajectory you never anticipated, but open up a world of new opportunities and experiences.

  89. How I got into science writing: My mother. As the daughter of a science writer, growing up I’d hear about her articles and interviews, from Jonas Salk and Jacques Cousteau to Sally Ride and Rene Dubos. Her “inside” stories made these people real to me. At first I resisted writing. It was, after all, my mom’s profession and therefore something to avoid. After getting first my Master’s and then PhD in public policy from Princeton, I worked on wildlife and environmental management both from a policy perspective and on the ground. But, always, the underlying thread was there: good policy had to be based on good science, and in order for the science to have an impact, people had to know about it and understand it. Eventually, one story – on the little known but big world of wildlife trafficking – wouldn’t stop buzzing around in my head and I wrote ANIMAL INVESTIGATORS: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species. To do it, I ultimately switched careers, which subsequently has led to more writing and also hosting and producing The WildLife radio show and podcast, a program that explores the mysteries of the animal world through interviews with scientists and other wildlife investigators.

    In terms of advice, I’ve learned that accuracy and preparation are key. Scientists can be shy about opening up if they’ve been burned before. Make sure what you write is accurate. Verify it. Get several perspectives. Most of all, love what you’re learning and writing about. That way, it will never be a chore. Your only “problem” will be too many ideas to pursue!

    Laurel is a freelance writer, author of ANIMAL INVESTIGATORS: How the World’s First Wildlife Forensics Lab is Solving Crimes and Saving Endangered Species, and host of “The WildLife” radio show and podcast. (www.laurelneme.com)

  90. What would I be doing if I could afford to do nothing? What do I do, in my free time? As I came to the end of my science degree, these were the questions I asked myself. I was a geeky student, so the answers were: read books (both fiction and popular science or science textbooks), learn about the world, dabble in philosophy, explain things to my friends, play sport, correct spelling and grammar, and seethe at inappropriate jargon, irresponsible journalism, and unclear writing.

    So my reasons for wanting to be a science writer were very simple and very selfish. It’s a way to get paid doing what I would be doing anyway. Apart from the sport – but I’m not so good at that!

    My 4-year career in science journalism: after a summer internship at Sense About Science, which taught me how to cold-call, I got a 3-month internship at Nature. That was the key start from which I got my first reporting job, at Chemistry World, a small magazine which gave me experience in writing, commissioning and editing, with a great team. Two and a half years later I jumped back to Nature, where I am now.

    Advice (though I am a newbie in this list): Work incredibly hard – as you will, naturally, if you really want something. Always back yourself: if you don’t get a job you’ve applied for, it was probably their loss – or you have not found the right position for your skills. Always ask for constructive feedback. And never stop learning.

  91. I spent a few years after getting a degree in political science/history mostly avoiding “work.” And by work I mean all the things my fellow graduates did — banking, mortgage brokering, teaching, sales, with the occasional law degree thrown in. I didn’t know anyone could BE a writer. I joined the Peace Corps. Taught English in Japan. Waited tables on both U.S. coasts. Travelled Europe. Took a job as a newspaper reporter in the wilds of British Columbia because no one else wanted the job. How hard could it be? Well, sure enough, my first week there I watched a big glossy dog lope down Main St. Gosh it was big and glossy. Being from New Jersey, it took a minute to register it was a bear, and I had no film left — I had shot a lot of dahlias at the fall fair, held in August. A bear running through town, however, was not a hot news item, so losing the photo opp was not going to make my editor crazy — really, who was going to scoop me? I bounced around newspaper jobs for a few years until about 15 years ago I decided to focus and thought hard about what I liked to read most: evolutionary biology/physical anthropology stuff. So I enrolled at the local university, studied anthropology, started writing freelance articles (and reviewing books, go figure, right place right time) for newspapers and magazines, didn’t make a lot of money, then lucked into a job as managing editor of a kids science magazine, YES Mag. After 10 years, I still find it fun, and to spice things up I write science books for kids, and do the occasional freelance piece for grown ups. And for even more fun, I’m working on my master’s in anthropology. Moral of the story: Keep busy, and think hard about what it is that satisfies you. Then do it.

  92. I came in by what might be an unusual route, but it could be of interest to those not ready to write full-time. I had two long-running interests, space exploration and zoology. I started with professional papers on space and then went on to articles. With zoology, I saw a market for a book that collected scattered information on my interests in new, rediscovered, and mystery species, much of it from journals, for the general reader. I worked with some historians in the space area and got a NASA contract for a book on the Sputnik race of the 1950s. I have a job in consulting which restricts the time I have for science writing but allows me freedom in that I don’t have to worry about profitability. The most important lesson I learned is that you don’t have to be a degreed expert in a particular field to make a worthwhile contribution to it, but you do have to be very thorough in your research. The other lesson is that experts, in general, love to talk about what they do, and they will answer questions from an unknown writer. So work hard and write about what you love.

  93. I definitely did not want to be a writer.

    By sixth grade, I knew I wanted to be a geologist. That year, I was so captivated by a book about plate tectonics that I can still picture its brightly colored red, yellow and blue cross-section of the Earth.

    Writing came more easily than math, but I sailed through my science classes as an undergrad and ended up on the Ph.D. track at Caltech. That’s when I started to flounder. At a less rigorous school, I might have finished my degree before realizing I didn’t like being a scientist. Instead, after months of hiding out in my office, reading papers and poring over maps, I figured out that I liked learning about geology more than practicing it.

    I dropped out and tried environmental consulting, which was horrendously boring to me. After about a year, I heard that my former officemate’s roommate (Lila Guterman) had also dropped out and gone through the UCSC program. I had never heard of this or any other science writing program, but it sounded perfect.

    Science writing works for me because I like to do something different every day, finish it, and move on to the next thing. I fall in love with every new topic I write about.

    Tip #1: Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and talk to a stranger. The biggest mistake any reporter makes is not to talk to a live human being before filing a story.

    I got into the UCSC program because I was brave enough to convince the editor at the Pasadena Star-News to let me write a story on spec about some biology research at Caltech. That story was a required part of my application.

    My first real job after UCSC was as a city reporter for the Star-News. The paper had a track record of hiring Santa Cruz grads, and they were kind enough to take a very green writer under their wings. After a year, the science reporter left and I jumped at the spot. It was my dream job, and I will probably never have another like it again. (The science reporter position was eliminated sometime in the past couple years.)

    Tip #2: Having experience as a grad student helps me be a better science reporter because I know all too well that scientists are people too. They have foibles and flaws and axes to grind. Get over any lingering awe or fear of researchers you may have. Don’t let anyone intimidate you or browbeat you or make you feel stupid because you don’t understand the research. The best scientists are the ones who know their topic deeply enough to reduce it to its simplest elements.

    Tip #3: I got a lot of positive attention at the Star-News for writing about science as a business – looking into funding and budgets, access to data, the insider debates about big projects like the Hubble. I think there’s still a lot of uncovered ground out there for writers interested in this angle.

    Tip #4: A lot of people recommend blogging as a way to break into science writing. I think most writers, starting out, do better with some actual mentoring and training. I certainly did.

  94. It was a serious accident. I smashed parts of my lower spine and completely crushed my left foot. I was trying to be a bad boy. During my undergraduate studies in biology and philosophy, I spent most of my time at pubs. It was not that I didn’t want to study; it was more that I thought that it was better to save the hard work and serious life for later. All that the intoxicated moments of chemical bliss got me was a smashed spine and a crushed foot. Its not important how and why the accident happened, it was just so stupid and unnecessary. Lying in the hospital bed, I decided it was time to take my life more serious. It took a few years, but the accident surly was a turning point. I’m also thankful that modern surgery could stitch me up.

    It was time for hard work. For me hard work and a serious life meant going back to my earlier interest in science and philosophy. If I couldn’t get a career in science, I would go for making science more accessible for the general public. In my mind the both alternatives were equally attractive, but I had to try with science first for my future peace of mind. After I got my PhD in evolutionary biology I applied for various post-doc scholarships, but all I got was some minor grants. I just didn’t have enough merits, but I though I had formulated really good hypotheses (but, as one reviewer commented, “albeit not at the very cutting edge”). It kept me going for a year, and during that time I won first prize in a science writing contest held by the leading popular science magazine in Sweden magazine (Forskning och framsteg, “Science and progress”). At the end of that same year I was head-hunted by a small natural history museum in Uppsala, Sweden. Now I had a job and could continue my general quest for making science more accessible. I wrote the majority of all the texts used at the museum, both at the webpage and in the exhibitions, and started to write a blog for the same science magazine that kindly enough gave me the prize.

    I think my best ability as a writer is to put new scientific discoveries into perspective, into context. Reading philosophy has really helped me in understanding the importance of the broad perspective, and that scientific discovery is not (only) about finding out cool stuff and publishing articles in high rated magazines. The really cool discoveries usually have far reaching consequences for our general understanding of the world. One such thing that has amazed me in recent years is epigenetics; the control of gene expression above the DNA level. I am so thankful that some far-fetched arguments of epigenetic inheritance that has been put forward in media have turned out to be false. So even though I have a smashed spine and can not run, I can smile and enjoy when my kids, at age two and five, can out-run me. The genes that have been un-activated in the nerves of my lower body have not been passed on to my kids. Or to say it in a more scientific way; the gene expression patterns in the cells of my lower body have no pathway to pass this on to the germ line. Accidents matter.

    Twitter: @EmilNilsson

  95. I was interested in science, electronics and science fiction in my teens, and wound up majoring in electronic engineering at Caltech. I also started writing for the campus newspaper, where I got my only formal journalism training from courses Ed Hutchings, head of the Caltech news office, gave to introduce us to the basics of journalism and give us a few credits for working on the paper. I wound up as the paper’s business manager, which turned out to be a very useful experience in the economics of publishing and running a small business.

    Caltech was a very intense experience; by the time I graduated I was burnt out on science, and wandered off to a graduate program in education, where I fit very poorly, and left to face Mr. Nixon’s little depression in the early 1970s. Jobs were few and far between, but I had enough writing experience to eventually land a job writing computer manuals for Honeywell. It paid the rent, but was even worse than it sounds. I sat around writing science fiction and sending out resumes until I stumbled on a tiny ad in the Sunday Boston Globe looking for a job as assistant editor at a little laser magazine. To my delight and amazement, they hired me. My technical writing background was a drawback, but I had actually worked one summer in a laser lab at Caltech, and was interested in optics.

    It turned out to be a very good fit. My boss was an old-style journalist who had worked for McGraw Hill and various other news organization, but didn’t have a technical background. So my technical training nicely complemented his journalism experience. I learned journalism on the job, and worked hard – he was the editor but also functioned as the publisher, so he spent a lot of time on the business side. I quickly became the managing editor and sole full-time writer/editor, meaning that I wrote or edited virtually everything that went into the monthly magazine. I stayed there seven years, and wound up with four people working for me when the magazine was sold and management changed. It was, I decided after a few months, time to go.

    I had been trying to write science fiction since my teens, and while I was on staff managed to sell a few short stories – the first to a computer magazine, plus two others to anthologies. But I also had sold a science-fact article to Analog Science Fiction, and started writing free-lance for High Technology magazine. My science-fiction contacts led me to Omni when it was new, and I started writing science articles for them. Then one of the Omni editors asked me if I wanted to write a pop science book on lasers with him. So by the time I got tired of the magazine, I had a busy free-lance business on the side, a book in press, and lots of contacts to work with.

    Having spent seven years living and breathing lasers, I used that as my starting point for writing books and articles. It’s a huge advantage to know some field well when you’re starting out, because that sets you apart from other writers. I also started looking around for other neat and interesting things to write about. I queried other publications, and eventually settled down to working regularly with a few of them. I find it easiest to work with editors I know, though I’ll cold-call when necessary. I’ve continued writing about lasers and optics over the years, but also broadened my range considerably – following some other fields closely, and doing some more general science journalism. I still dabble a bit in science fiction, but it doesn’t pay well enough for me to invest huge amounts of time.

    What’s helped me survive free-lancing for nearly three decades is to be flexible and adapt to changing markets. Write to your strengths — subjects that interest you, and draw on things you’ve already learned. If you can’t develop an interest in a subject, you’re not going to interest your readers. You don’t need any formal education in the field — I never took a single course in geology or paleontology, but I write about both regularly. In fact, if you’re writing for a general audience, it’s often easier if you don’t have formal training; if you know the field well, it’s too easy to slip into the jargon. But following a field regularly helps tremendously because you know who to call when a story breaks, giving you a head start on the story.

    One lesson I’ve learned on the business side is that it’s possible to hustle new projects faster than I can write, so be careful of backlogs and schedules. You need some backlog, but don’t let it get out of control. You do need to promote yourself, but once you’re in print regularly, you don’t have to promote yourself as hard. I don’t have my own blog, or use Twitter, and won’t as long as I’m keeping busy enough with other projects. Your situation may vary.

  96. I was bitten by a radioactive zombie Mark Twain. BLAM! That was it, I became a writer.

    No really, I think everyone is a writer – or at least a communicator at some level. I have always enjoyed communicating – probably because I like to bring attention to myself.

    But for the blogging stuff, that started a few years ago. As a learning facilitator for intro physics classes, I tried to get students to work on projects and to critically think about their lab reports. After trying to help them, I decided maybe I should make a couple of examples. That was a bad idea. Two short projects later and I was addicted. I kept telling myself I could stop at any time, but who was I kidding?

    So, that is what I do. I mostly try to share my enjoyment of physics and stuff.

    Now, about writing: I think the most important thing I have learned is to just write stuff. Sometimes the stuff is not so great, but that is ok. It helps a lot if you write about things you love and know a lot about – that makes it really easy.

  97. I entered via the science side– found I both enjoyed and was better at explaining other’s work than just doing my own (admittedly brilliant) research. Ironically, the larger my audience (e.g. blogs, books) the lower the rate; the smaller the audience (e.g. whitepaper) the higher the pay. Go figure. I may have peaked, getting on NPR for ‘Project Calliope’, so now my challenge is ‘stay relevant’– which is a task I think science research as a whole needs to tackle.

  98. I find this thread fascinating!

    I think I need to look at the influence of my family. My grandmother was Czech. She got a degree in Philosophy at the University of Prague (at the same time as Franz Kafka and Max Brod). My grandfather came to Prague from Sarajevo, Bosnia. He received two degrees at the University of Prague: in architecture and in civil engineering. The two met at the University, fell in love, and upon graduating got married and settled in Sarajevo where my granfather designed and built a number of buildings, some of which (including the first skyscraper in the Balkans) are now under protection as cultural and historical monuments. Being a part of elite circles of Sarajevo, they lived under the illusion they were safe. Thus, unlike their siblings who fled the city (and even the country) at the beginning of WWII, they were caught by the Nazis and placed in the concentration camp where they perished close to the end of the war.

    Through smart and fast action of some friends and relatives, their daughter (my Mom) was saved and many years later she wrote a wonderful piece about her memories of the War which was published in a book. At the end of the WWII, at the age of twelve, she was adopted by her uncle (her father’s brother) and brought to Belgrade (then Yugoslavia, now Serbia). Thus it is my great-uncle and great-aunt who were the “grandparents” I actually knew and grew up with. They both had a profound infuence on me. She was a Czech-born ballerina, a world-famous ballet choreographer, and the founder of the first and (still to this day) most influential ballet school in Yugoslavia, in Belgrade. He was an Army colonel, with two degrees from the University of Prague: chemistry and chemical engineering. They were both world travelers and fluent in several languages.

    My parents met at the University of Belgrade. My mother was studying English, and my father was studying Philology. They both also studied a variety of foreign languages. My mother taught English for a while, but spent most of her working career working in the depths of the Serbian government. My father, together with a few friends, owned the only printing press in Serbia right after the War. After it was nationalized, he worked as editor and copyeditor for various technical publications. Occasionally he would take me with him to the printers, where they treated him like God (“one of the last old-school copyeditors who does it right” they would tell me) and where I could stare for hours at the printing presses, marvelling at the engineering, enjoying the sounds and the smells and smudges of ink on my fingers.

    Needless to say, both our house and grandparents’ house were full of books. We were all big readers of books. And we were all big readers of newspapers and magazines as well. When I was very little, I would just read the comics page, the weekly kids section, the weekly nature section, perhaps the movie and TV schedules, but as I was growing up, I made sure to turn every page and read whatever piques my interest, which was more and more as I was getting older.

    My father was a language perfectionist and he made sure my brother and I learned to speak and write perfect, grammatically correct Serbian. My mother made sure we were started on English as a foreign language early on (when I was about 5). My father was also a choir singer and taught us proper diction, which is why my favourite medium is radio.

    Both our house and our grandparents’ house were always full of fascinating people. Theater people, of course, from opera singers to ballet dancers to directors. Artists. Art photographers. Linguists. Gay couples. Writers. Physicians. Journalists. A professor of anatomy at the vet school. A food scientist who spent her entire career doing research on chocolate. A philosophy professor who later got elected into Serbian Parliament and ran for President. Many an evening the guests stayed late into the night discussing politics and all sorts of other topics, with my brother and me allowed to stay up late and listen and soak up all of that interesting intellectual discourse.

    I always loved animals and planned to do something with them, perhaps become a biologist or a veterinarian of some sort. But I was also always reading and writing and discussing stuff, so a career that involved the use of language was not an unthinkable proposition. And I had a brief stint in journalism – in my middle-school newspaper where my job was to draw doodles and line-drawings (usually of animals) as fillers of empty spaces.

    Life interfered – I was in vet school when the war broke out in 1991. I escaped the country a week before, on one of the last trains out before the borders closed, sanctions were imposed, and the country descended into a decade of chaos. I found myself in North Carolina and, after a couple of years of getting my bearings, decided not to pursue veterinary medicine any more, but to go back to basic science – biology at North Carolina State University.

    After ten years of grad school, I realized that things I was good at – thinking, connecting ideas from disparate research traditions, designing clever experiments, observing animal behavior, animal surgery, discussing, teaching, placing my work in historical and philosophical context – were going out of fashion. Instead, biology was becoming more and more an excercise in things I was bad at – pipetting all day and running gels, following recipes, doing what I am told to, working at the bench in complete silence for 13 hours a day seven days a week, getting all secretive and competitive.

    So I bailed out. While I was still finishing up my last experiments, I started blogging politics. When the Kerry/Edwards ticket lost in 2004, I switched to blogging about science. The rest is history.

    While much of what I do these days has something to do with writing and publishing and the media, I still find it strange to think of myself as a science journalist. I don’t even blog about recent scientific papers very often any more. I write more meta-stuff, e.g., about science communication, science blogging, science journalism, science publishing, science education, media in general etc. I have not published any articles in legacy media and while I am open to that possibility, I am not actively doing anything to make that happen – I feel at home on the Web.

    Yet just last week I was granted membership in the National Association of Science Writers (my initial application was rejected as they had to follow their old “printed on paper only” rules, but this prompted them to revisit and revise their rule to allow for online-only publications). So I guess I am now officially a science writer (and will be on a panel at the NASW meeting in November).

    Advice? No idea what to say. I write what I feel the urge to write, and it seems some people like it and appreciate it. Perhaps that can work for others as well, I wouldn’t know.

  99. I’m not a science writer. I’m a scientist who also writes a bit about science. I don’t really know if that’s an important distinction!
    I’m a plant scientist and my research is focussed on the biological control of plant pests. I also teach general biology, biotechnology and a variety of plant topics at University College Cork. However, in my (increasingly dwindling) spare time I like to update my personal blog (www.communicatescience.eu) which discusses all manner of science topics, with a special emphasis on how science is communicated by scientists, media and the general public.
    Writing in general terms about science is a nice break from the more focussed scientific writing that takes up most of my time. It’s fun and a distraction as well as being highly rewarding. Feedback from readers is a big bonus and helps to push you on to improve your posts and try to innovate.
    I find that science writers, and bloggers particularly, are a pretty friendly bunch and anybody looking to start could do worse than to read lots of the blogs out there and see what works and what doesn’t. I was, at first, reluctant to embrace Twitter but immediately after starting to use it, I found it almost essential for keeping an eye on whats going on and for getting your own writing out there.
    My best piece of advice for people wanting to start science writing: Just Write!
    It’s the same thing I tell my students. You can edit out the terrible stuff later (and there will be lots of it!). Just write, write, write. If you don’t, you’ll be for ever planning and thinking about it. Just Write!

    Follow my blog: http://www.communicatescience.eu
    Follow me on twitter: @blogscience

  100. I grew up wanting to be a paleontologist or a paleoanthropologist. By the time I was a senior in college, though, I realized that my attention span was too short and my quantitative skills too deficient to be a good scientist. I’d always enjoyed writing so after receiving my bachelor’s degree in anthropology I entered journalism school with the intention of becoming a science writer. After completing my master’s degree I worked for a small daily newspaper in southeast Kansas for nearly two years, where I covered health, social services and the police beat, depending on what day it was. I covered science whenever I could, but at that point in my career I was essentially a community journalist.

    Since then I’ve spent most of my career (25-plus years) as a science writer for major research universities (Arizona State University, University of Georgia, and currently the University of Chicago). Along the way I’ve also done some free-lancing and wrote a book, Killer Rocks from Outer Space, for adolescent readers. My career has been challenging, interesting and fun. I recommend it.

    Someone, I don’t remember who, once said that the difference between a published writer and an unpublished one is that the latter gave up. To aspiring science writers I just say: Make it so.

    Twitter: @mrmeteor

  101. As some others, I would not consider myself as a scientific writer and are not even sure if I want to be one. I am a scientist, which simply believes that we can create better science, if we share what we know on multiple levels, not only scientific articles.

    How did you make your start?
    I started as open source developer being the only one with that scientific topic in my department. Since I figured I can not lift this alone I jumped early into communities helping me to get up-to-speed with the science for allowing me to publish. Some things are simply to heavy for being lifted alone, and especially in science this is more relevant than ever “Communication is the essence of science” [F. Crick]

    What advice would you give to people in the same position?
    Start looking for experts around the world and check if you can talk to them from time to time. Please mind that learning requires much more than just reading articles and doing the hard work. Sometimes great ideas come from informal discussions you might not have even started thinking about, if the other person would not just have written an obvious blog post about it. In other words, whatever tool you use for having informal scientific discussions on a high-level, a blog, Twitter, FriendFeed, Mendeley, FaceBook, whatever, tools are as different as are people, check what suits your needs and do not be shy asking others what they would recommend. I think many people are more than eager to help you getting started.

    Now more about myself …

    I have studied chemistry and have a PhD in computer science, so you could call this a ‘classical’ computational chemistry and life science background. Still, I would consider myself these days more as a social and data driven, not as a method driven person.

    After that I made my postdoc at Tibotec (Johnson & Johnson) on drug resistance prediction for HIV on a structural biology level using geno- and phenotype information. Now, I am working in antiinfective drug design for Tibotec (Johnson & Johnson). My main function is drug design, medicinal chemistry, and structural biology project support. I am involved in multiple antiviral drug targets, and I assume most of you have heard about HIV and HCV, and they are clearly on the list ;-)

    People knowing me might confirm that I am strongly engaging in science collaboration, communication, and innovation communities, especially if related to social web 2.0 technologies for making this efficient. Some are even considering me as an expert on those topics and consult me in those areas.

    What kind of community work am I involved in?
    I co-founded the blue obelisk movement in 2005 (early adopter), and are a member of the ChemSpider advisory board (community for chemists). I also got involved in the science3point0 community as community advisor. Within other science and enterprise networks my peers know which role I have and what I contribute.

    Any more “needs”, let me know how I can help! Knowledge=Information+People, that includes all of us, you and me!

    You can find me in the public as
    Joerg Kurt Wegner, PhD
    Home http://www.joergkurtwegner.eu
    Blog http://miningdrugs.blogspot.com
    Twitter http://twitter.com/joergkurtwegner
    Mendeley http://www.mendeley.com/profiles/joerg-kurt-wegner

    P.S.: I really think each scientist should have at least a Mendeley account, Knowledge=People+Information, so lets ensure staying connected with more than just articles.

  102. I grew up constantly curious in things and how they worked…

    The first year at high school I was thrown out of religious studies classes for constantly asking why and what evidence existed for the claims made in the stories? By 12 I converted my mothers kitchen into a mini chemistry lab from a kit my uncle gave me and made stink bombs while they were out shopping (oops, not too popular). At 13, we had to write an English essay on what we were going to do with our lives so it seemed sensible, given my fascination with sport and life sciences, to declare an interest in going to University (the first in my family) to study sport science with a major in biochemistry.

    This scientist never looked back after completing a Ph.D in respiratory physiology and medicine. Eventually I ended up on the dark side in the Pharma and Biotech industry focusing first on immunology then oncology. The latter involves biochemistry and the structure of proteins, which still fascinates me, albeit a long way away from those stink bombs of my youth ;)

    However, I’m neither a science writer nor a journalist, but a scientist who happens to blog about the science and biology of cancer and oncology drug development in my spare time, although like Bora, I am a member of the National Association of Science Writers. I started blogging partly out of frustration and exasperation with poorly written articles on science topics by journalists that had no analysis or the writer frequently didn’t understand science. My original goal was to explain complex issues more simply and offer some meaning or context in the wider scheme of things for those interested in cancer. The other main reason was that creating a static website for my then fledging life science consulting business didn’t appeal – a blog after all, is much more dynamic, interactive and fun.

    My advice to those who are really interested in writing about science is simply just do it. A blog is easy to set up and a little space in the corner of cyberspace where you can be yourself and find your own voice. Who knows where it might lead?

  103. J. Michael Quante

    I morphed into science writing unexpectedly, although I’ve enjoyed technical writing throughout my 30 year career.

    My loves are natural products organic chemistry, astronomy, and meteorology. Was a research chemist primarily in health care products industry. Got swept up in the lure of computer-aided chemistry tools, especially molecular modeling. Learned Unix on my own back in the 1990s. Discovered what “gophers” were, and then, hearing about the Web, realized something big was coming. Got out of the lab and became a webmaster contracting with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences for two years. I then rode out the internet boom and bust, until landing my current gig as technical editor and webmaster for the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists in 2003.

    Adaptability is the key to success in today’s world. I would have never guessed ten years ago that I would have enjoyed being an editor. It was a “hidden” talent, until the opportunity presented itself. Even more surprising was finding out that I could write for the public! I had long desired to do this, but didn’t think I had the ability. Two mentors at AATCC convinced me otherwise. I am so grateful to them for helping me get started.

    I’m writing articles for AATCC News, the association’s newsletter, relating to textile science. This includes its intersection with the larger world of textiles: including fashion! Can you imagine: science on the runway! It’s both fun and challenging. I have lots to learn from those more experienced in this craft.

    My advice: Do what you love, no matter what, but don’t hesitate taking opportunities to test new skills that broaden your experience. If you want to write, start on Twitter. It’s a great place to meet like-minded people and get your feet wet. Finally, be sure to keep a sense of humor about yourself and what you do-it helps when times are tough.

    Twitter: @jmquante

  104. I am a scientist and medical doctor writing about science, particularly science communication and publishing. In that sense I wouldn’t consider myself a science writer, and I also started blogging fairly recently. When I discovered science blogging in 2007 (reading an article about blogging in the journal Cell), it really opened my eyes. But I was reading tech blogs before, and have been involved in communicating via the internet since the early 1990s. I started out as an assistant sysop on a CompuServe bulletin board for the MacUser computer magazine, and then started building websites both about the AppleScript programming language and for the university departments I worked for. It was fascinating to watch how technology was changing over the years, always making it easier to cummunicate without big funds or technical skills (visual HTML editors, dynamic websites, RSS, blogs, microblogging, …). During all that time I continued worked first as a postdoctoral researcher in cancer reasearch, and then as a medical doctor. When I discovered science blogging, I finally found the platform to combine these various interests, and this is the main motivation for my writing.

    As my primary language is German, I often struggle with finding the right words in English. I’ve never written German language blog posts just as I have never written a scientific paper in German. I think that the language of science communication is English, but writing continues to be hard, and this has only changed a little bit after writing a blog post a week for three years.

    My advice to people that want to start science writing: simply do it. Reading the comments of all the people before me, it should be obvious that there are 100 different ways to do science writing. But the amount of time and money required to get started is so low, and this is the easy part. The difficult part is to continue doing it, and to develop skills and expertise. And the really difficult part is to make money with what you write. But there are so many different ways you can use your science writing skills, that not everybody has to do this as a full-time job. And that is the difference to 20 years ago when there was no easy way into science writing.

  105. I’m an astrobiology researcher at UCL, but alongside my academic stuff I find the time to work as a freelance science writer. I write news stories and features articles for NewScientst, BBC Focus, Sky at Night, and Cosmos magazines. My first popular science book, ‘Life in the Universe: A Beginner’s Guide’ was published in 2007. But how did I get into science writing in the first place?

    Well, the short answer is bloody-minded persistence. I, like everyone else on this list here, obviously started very small: writing short pieces for my university rag. I spent a few years pitching article ideas to everyone and anyone I could think of, as well as entering every writing competition I heard about. I landed my first paid commission in 2003, an article about mathematics and the strategies for winning different games, and I got my first real break the following year when I was placed second in the Daily Telegraph Young Science Writer Award. My winning article (about the astounding camouflage of cuttlefish) was published in the newspaper and I was also send to the British Science Association festival. I met my PhD-supervisor-to-be at the science festival, and was contacted by OneWorld Publications after they read my article in the Telegraph and was signed up for a book deal. So not a bad result from writing 700 words about cuttlefish!

    Freelancing is much like climbing a ladder, always reaching upwards for more regular commissions and for more prestigious publications. But the difficulty is in getting onto the bottom rung in the first place and convincing that first editor to accept your pitch. The Catch-22 scenario is that you will not be taken seriously unless you can show a handful of previous clippings, but you cannot start building up a portfolio until the first editor takes a chance on you! The trick is to try to soldier through the seemingly endless rejections in the beginning before you start hitting the right publications with the right pitches, and developing a knack for a higher success rate. From there, you’ll find that one thing feeds into the next and writing starts running away from you…

  106. I launched my freelance writing career nineteen years ago TODAY. Yikes.

    I’m another “accidental” science writer. I was an environmental biology major in college, here in Boulder. I had vague notions of working for the Forest Service or an environmental group. Truth is, I had no idea what I’d do after graduation. I’d never heard of being a science writer.

    Through a New York Times ad, I landed a job at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in New York. I was opening the donation envelopes. Hundred of envelopes every day, plus the occasional brick that someone would wrap in a business reply envelope, just so they could make NRDC pay for it. After a few months I started working with the communications department, writing newsletters and such.

    Then I heard about NYU’s Science Health and Environmental Reporting Program. I thought NYU could help me take my writing to next level, so for two years I worked at NRDC full time and did SHERP nearly full time. It was crazy and I absolutely loved it. I’d finally found my niche.

    One of my professors at SHERP, Gary Soucie, was executive editor at Audubon magazine. He and Les Line offered me a job and soon I was working with some of the best writers around, fielding queries, coming up with story ideas, etc. It was great, but after about 18 months, we all got laid off when a new editor came in. That was the start of freelancing. 19 years ago today.

    I started sending out query letters. In the mail. With SASEs. So last century. I was focusing on environmental issues, but also pitching science stories to women’s magazines. Early on, one of the Audubon writers, Jon Luoma, introduced me to a New York Times science section editor, and that was a huge boost to my career. I wrote a dozen or so stories on environmental issues for the Times over the next few years. Soon I was also writing regularly for Discover, Smithsonian, Cosmopolitan (yes, Cosmo), Self and other magazines. I was also doing a lot of freelance work for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Eventually I found myself focusing on health issues, mostly because there is a big market for it, but also because everyone was pretty much over the environment at that time.

    In the last few years I’ve been doing a lot of “corporate” medical writing – medical devices, mental health, cancer patient education, etc. — along with a bit of magazine work and some fun projects for the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service. I loved writing features, but the magazine business became pretty frustrating (shorter stories, lower pay, all-rights contracts, etc) and many of the editors that I’d loved working with moved on. But now I think it’s time to swing the pendulum back a bit. There’s nothing like having an archaeologist give you a personal tour of his dig site, or watching a rescued whale be returned to the sea, or spending an entire month on one story. (Okay, editors, let’s just say I’m available!)

    I’ve been writing for websites for years, and last month I launched a blog. http://www.GoodHiker.com. I’m going back to my roots, I guess: I’m writing about hiking and outdoor-related environmental issues. I’m having a lot of fun learning WordPress and making use of social media. And I do have some other exciting writing projects “in development,” shall we say. We’ll see how it goes.

    Maybe that’s the essence of being a science writer, especially a freelancer: “We’ll see how it goes.” We’re always looking for something new, always wondering what is around the next corner. Always ready to jump into the next project, whatever it might be. If you want a steady, predictable career, this is not it.

    Advice for newcomers? Be flexible. Grab the opportunities that come your way. And network like crazy, but not in an obnoxious way. Get involved in science writer organizations, be friendly, be open, and get to know other writers. Nearly every project I’ve done came via a personal connection. I think that NRDC ad in the New York Times was the last time I ever got work through an advertisement.

    Great thread!!

    Cathy Dold
    Boulder, Colorado

  107. I’ve always felt kind of outside the mainstream of science blogging. I mean, I do blog about science, but Eruptions (http://scienceblogs.com/eruptions) tends to be a lot of news and less essays – I hope my blog provides new information, corrects misinformation and, well, keeps people entertained. Funny things I started it as almost a whim – it was started because I couldn’t find any good information about the just-started Chaiten eruption in Chile in 2008, so I thought somebody better start collecting information and digesting it … and why not have that person be a geologist/volcanologist. From there, the blog has grown past any of my wildest imaginings.

    I think if I’ve learned anything out there in the blogging world is that people want good information that is not biased, not glammed-up for the MSM, delivered clearly and correctly. Sounds hard, eh? That is exactly what drew so many people to my blog during the Eyjafjallajokull eruption. I mean, it was news is supposed to be. I tend to think that many bloggers get bogged down trying to be too clever for their own good, adding lots of personal information and rants – which are all well and good in the right times – but take away from the science they are trying to convey. If anything, anyone who wants to blog should have a clear focus, stick with it and not get wrapped too much into the us-vs-whomever mentality that the internet tends towards.

    I love blogging about volcanoes and hope to keep on doing it for a long time. I have no idea where it will take me, but there are a lot of options right now in the highly volatile science blogging universe right now – might as well have fun while I can.

  108. I’m one of those recent Princeton students that Mike Lemonick (#86) is likely to refer you to.

    I came to Princeton to get my Ph.D. in chemistry and to become a chemistry professor. But by halfway through I realized I didn’t enjoy doing chemistry as much as I liked reading about it and talking to other people about it. Networking with my lab’s alumni and their friends eventually led me to meet a science writer, and I liked what I heard about that career. Not long after that, I showed up for Mike’s course at Princeton, which turned out to be my only classroom training in science writing.

    After Mike’s class, I tried to write for anybody I could think of. I submitted my writing to contests. I begged my advisor for a Saturday off so I could drive to Baltimore and network at the National Association of Science Writers meeting. This was on top of working over 70 hours a week in the lab. I still wanted to finish my Ph.D. because I wasn’t sure the whole science writing thing would pan out. I figured the advanced degree would leave more doors open.

    Rejections abounded in those early attempts at writing, but there were a couple of bright spots. I pitched a few ideas to that very first science writer I met, and she eventually gave me a shot at writing profiles at her publication, AWIS Magazine. I pitched ideas to Princeton’s press office and they let me write news stories with help from their staff. I wrote for the Princeton chemistry department’s alumni newsletter. And I started my own blog, She Blinded Me With Science, where I wrote about papers I thought were interesting, life in the lab, and explainers about some of the fancy equipment I used every day.

    When I was close to finishing my degree I applied for dozens of jobs and internships all over the country. I lucked out. Among all the rejections I got one job offer- from Chemical & Engineering News magazine. I’ve been there for nearly three years now. Most of what I do is write for the print edition of the magazine, but I also blog about the chemistry of the pharmaceutical industry at The Haystack, I tweet @carmendrahl, and I dabble in other sorts of media, like video. I have no idea what science writing as a career will look like in 5 or 10 years, but I hope to keep on top of whatever the next wave of new media may be, and continue building my skill set.

    My advice for breaking in is to use all your contacts and constantly make new ones. I think it’s harder to be a science writer if you’re shy, if you’re not willing to introduce yourself to a stranger and start asking them questions. Your break is likely to come from someone you’ve already met, though it might not be who you expect. Maybe you don’t know very many science writers yet, but maybe your roommate knows someone who runs a gardening newsletter, and they might enjoy a story on how pesticides work, or an expose on the pesticides leaking into a local stream. Good luck!

  109. As far back as I can remember I loved to read and I loved the wilderness. In fact my favorite times were reading in the wilderness, preferably in a tree near our mountain cabin, high enough where my brothers could not reach me with stones or snowballs.

    I did not think much about being a writer myself until long after I was a scientist.

    My first opportunity came when Scientific American asked me to write about a discovery my laboratory had recently made. I loved writing in a different way to reach a broader audience.

    That was in 1997.

    From that time on I occasionally would write an article or review for a magazine if asked but not much more.

    Then in 2005, I was approached by a publisher to write a book about a class I was teaching called Genetics and Society. I agreed readily as it seemed like it would be a great project and then did nothing about it. I was quite busy with teaching, research, writing papers and grants.

    The editor was quite persistent and finally convinced me to put in a proper book proposal. By that time the project had morphed into a joint project with my husband, an organic farmer.

    It seemed that every time we went to a party, someone wanted to talk about genetic engineering and organic agriculture as both were hot topics at the time. That gave us the idea of the join project. We would write a book about our experiences as a geneticist and farmer.

    The proposal was accepted and then we sat around some more.

    Finally when we received the contract we started moving. We first attended a writing workshop, which helped get us in the groove of writing for non-scientists. The only non-fiction teacher was a memoir writer. At first our project seemed completely incompatible with her expertise. But, by the end of the class, you guessed it, our project became a memoir.

    Once the book came out we found many opportunities to write. For example, the Boston Globe and the New York Times both asked for opinion pieces. That was quite fun because I had been politically oriented for years but never had any of my letters to the editor accepted. Then my friend and colleague Jonathan Eisen informed me that as a writer I must have a blog and taught me how to set it up. That led me science blogs, which has been a lot of fun.

    What next? I did start a novel…

  110. Where to begin? Well, I showed an aptitude for science (especially zoology) from the very beginning. Being raised my a dentist father and a former lab technician mother, it was no wonder that I got into science.

    That’s not to say my parents didn’t encourage other activities, I just naturally gravitated to science. I wanted to learn anything and everything I could about the natural world and science. I was like a sponge! I absorbed information at an alarming rate and understood it all perfectly, no matter my age. I was always inquisitive and had the type of brain that just latched onto science.

    When I got to university, I took every class that dealt with Ecology and Zoology possible (and even dabbled in Microbiology and Chemistry), but my heart was always with animals. So, I pursued that and loved every minute of it. After I did my thesis on frogs (where I discovered I loved actually working and creating science), life got in the way.

    As always, life manages to throw curve balls, so I took a detour and ended up getting a Master’s degree in Journalism (in addition to my Honours Bachelor of Science). So, now I am writing about science and other news for various websites, as well as writing a novel.

    But my dream is to work as a science journalist or blogger for a well regarded magazine, such as Nature, Science, National Geographic, Scientific American, and the like. Being a recent graduate, I know the road is hard, but like a good scientist (and writer) I am determined and not going to give up!

    Wish me luck, and any help would be greatly appreciated from you, my peers :)

    Thank you

    Follow me on Twitter: @davidmanly
    Follow my blog: http://davidmanlysblog.blogspot.com/

  111. Roger Highfield

    Margaret Thatcher and Chernobyl played starring roles in the story of my career, though there was a vast supporting cast and, if it had not been for them, I am not really sure where I would be today.

    My career began in Oxford in the late Seventies, where I found that student journalism, first at Radio Oxford (when Timmy Mallett worked there!) and then at the university newspaper Cherwell, was an entertaining way to fill in the dull bits of my doctorate on bouncing neutrons, when I always seemed to be waiting for data, designing experiments or writing software. Journalism was an extension of a very natural instinct to gossip.

    In retrospect, student media plays a critical role. A surprising number of people I met at that time were destined for great things (among them the late comedy genius Harry Thompson, TV guru Charlie Parsons, Bafta award winner Eamonn Matthews, historian Niall Ferguson, columnist Nick Cohen, plus Bridget Kendall and Evan Davis of the BBC). I met two future book coauthors (Paul Carter and Peter Coveney) too. I fell in love with my wife, Julia, who now works for the Times. And I got in terrible trouble with the university computing service, for a story that was picked up by the nationals.

    At that time, as a result of Thatcher’s cutbacks, academia looked a forlorn career prospect and my supervisor, Bob Thomas, encouraged me to turn to journalism instead, offering to give me a post doc if it didn’t work out.

    I began professional journalism in 1983 at Pulse, the GP’s weekly, and was utterly hopeless, taking about a week to write a single story. Fortunately, I worked for features editor Patrick Scrivenor, who was happy to invest inordinate amounts of time in helping me improve, but also felt that drinking a few bottles of wine at lunchtime was a much more diverting pursuit. At the same time, I was encouraged to freelance, notably by Alice Barrass, Alex Wyke and Matt Ridley at the Economist; the wonderful Tim Radford of the Guardian (who published my first piece in Fleet Street); and Olivia Timbs of the Observer.

    In 1984 I moved to Nuclear Engineering International with Jim Varley and Andrew Cruickshank. I was still pretty hopeless but I did – I think – become the first British journalist to find out about Chernobyl (alarms went off when I tried to enter a Swedish nuclear plant with a group of Scandinavian journalists and, later that same day, the national inspectorate told us the radionuclides that triggered the alert were typical of a Soviet RBMK plant).

    Unsurprisingly, it pays to be in the right place at the right time. Chernobyl was one of the biggest stories of the Eighties and my knowledge of nuclear (I had worked in three reactors for my doctorate), plus my freelance portfolio, plus a kind recommendation by John Roberts of Pulse, got me to The Daily Telegraph – eventually.

    Fleet Street was nepotistic in those days and I was not related to anyone on the paper, didn’t know any of the staff and had not slept with any of them either. A relative outsider, I was asked to write several long articles before being summoned in 1986 by the great Max Hastings and – to my disbelief – offered the role of technology correspondent. I found myself in Fleet Street in a book-lined, smoke filled office with Adrian Berry, David Fletcher, John Delin and Gulshan Chunara. The place was populated with some extraordinary characters, such as Bill Deedes, Guy Rais, Hugh Massingberd, John Keegan and the blind sage TE Utley. And, of course, there was the boss, Conrad Black.The emotional core of the Telegraph could be found in the King and Keys pub, where there was a hotline to the news desk.

    Surrounding yourself with talent is better than any formal training. I worked with some brilliant operators, from Matt the pocket cartoonist to Andrew Knight to Peter Greenhalgh, chief sub, and the likes of Jim Allen, Charles Clover, George Jones, Alec Russell, Ben Fenton, Samira Ahmed and Don Berry. There were many more. The science team expanded over the years to include Steve Connor, Chris McGourty, David Derbyshire, Robert Uhlig, Aisling Irwin and Nic Fleming.

    Gurus come in pretty handy too. Of all the people at the Telegraph, David Johnson played a central role in helping me to set up the scientists meet the media party, as well as lobbying for science supplements, Gallup polls on public understanding and mass experiments with the BBC (Megalab and LiveLab on Tomorrow’s World, earlier incarnations of Bang Goes the Theory), where I worked with some impressive people, notably Simon Singh, Raj Persaud, Richard Wiseman, Saul Nasse and Jana Bennett.

    David and I set up a long running science writing competition and it is notable how many winners over the years went on to greater things: Yfke Van Bergen; Claire Bithell; Lewis Brindley; Kate Ravilious; Lynn Dicks; Anjana Ahuja; Harriet Coles; Stephen Battersby; Sharon Ann Holgate; Jon Copley; Laura Spinney; Ian Sample; David Bradley; Paula Gould; Bob Ward; Nick Flowers; Katie Mantell; Tom Wakeford; Charles Cockell; Clive Oppenheimer; Per Ahlberg; Francesca Happe and Sarah Jayne Blakemore; Sanjida O’Connell; Lewis Dartnell; Colin Barras and more besides. I seem to remember a chap called Ed Yong too. Winning a gong, such as an ABSW or British Press Award, is a great confidence booster.

    But I find it harder than ever to predict the effects of technology on journalism – it is best to grab an opportunity when it arises. I did a lot with Radio Four from the mid Nineties until recently, notably with Science Now and the Geoff Watts of Leading Edge. That would help ease my move to integrated journalism. Overall, I took part in the transition from hot metal in 1986 to Atex in 1987 to the launch of the Electronic Telegraph in 1994 and then integrated journalism around a decade later, when it was not unusual to write half a dozen stories and a video in a single day, while working on the weekly science page with Robert Colvile.

    After many thousands of cuttings, half a dozen books, endless online clips and hundreds of science pages, it was time for a new challenge. Today, though I still write on occasion for the Telegraph, I am extremely lucky to edit the world’s leading science and technology weekly magazine, New Scientist http://www.newscientist.com , which has a fantastic team of science writers and editors.

    Final thought: I applied to work for the magazine several times in the early Eighties, but was rejected every time. What would have happened if they had offered me a job back then?

  112. How did I become a science writer? Well; if I can flatter myself by saying that I am one, it’s a story with at least four beginnings, as well as lots of luck.

    I first actually wrote a science piece for an actual newspaper, or at least its website, in December 2007 – an article for Telegraph.co.uk, where I had just started working, about a new theory in astrophysics, suggesting that “dark energy”, the strange phenomenon which is still baffling scientists, could be explained if it was postulated that time itself was slowing down. The piece was just rewritten from the wires, with little extra input by me, but our then science editor (now editor of New Scientist), the illustrious Dr Roger Highfield, liked it enough to take it further. He chased a few physicists for comment and extended it, which flattered me enormously. Since then I’ve done various things within journalism but I have consistently come back to writing about science, and the Telegraph has let me follow my instincts. Now I am one of our regular science writers, especially online.

    I’d got a start at the Telegraph by sheer fluke: I’d just found myself at a loose end, after my PhD course came to an abrupt and premature end. I vaguely wanted to get into journalism, but had no idea how. My cousin suggested I speak to a friend of hers who worked at the Telegraph website; I got two weeks’ work experience, didn’t suck too badly at it, and got offered a few paid shifts. Despite doing several incredibly stupid things, I somehow managed to turn it, eventually, into a job.

    Before that, though, I had been drifting towards science writing for a while. The PhD I’d been doing had been in the ethics of science journalism. I didn’t, in all honesty, really know where it was going, and when my funding application was declined after a year it came as a sort of relief – a chance to quit without dishonour. Looking back, it seems ridiculous that I would try to write about how best to be a science journalist without first having been a science journalist, but the research I did – into the philosophy of science, and reasonably in-depth looks at climate science and epidemiology – gave me some decent working knowledge. I did philosophy in my undergraduate degree, so I am extremely glad to have caught up a bit with science.

    As for what inspired me to go this way: I blame two people. One is Richard Dawkins, for writing The Blind Watchmaker, which I read when I was 13 or so and convinced myself I understood it. I went on to read pretty much everything he has ever written, and became fascinated with the workings of the real world. That love affair is still going on; I’m a voracious reader of pop-science books, and am currently reading 13 Things that Don’t Make Sense, by Michael Brooks. The second was Ben Goldacre, author of the Bad Science columns in the Guardian, who brought my attention to the shoddy reporting of scientific subjects in most newspapers. MMR was the obvious example. In my youthful way I got extremely exercised about these things.

    Regarding advice: I’m almost loath to give it, because my own path was so reliant on luck and serendipity. The one thing I would say, though, is: whatever you want to do in journalism, if you get work experience somewhere you would actually like to work, for God’s sake take it, and be incredibly smiley and happy and nice and hardworking and grateful for everything. Sing with happiness if you get allowed to write a picture caption. Offer to get cups of tea, all the time. You want these people to like you. I managed it, somehow. Three years later I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been.

    Tom Chivers, blogger and journalist, The Daily Telegraph and Telegraph.co.uk
    Blog: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/culture/author/tomchivers/
    Web: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/journalists/tom-chivers/
    Twitter: https://twitter.com/tomchivers

  113. For a long time, doing science was fun. I loved the ideas, the thrill of discovery, the satisfaction of an experiment that worked. I was fascinated with marine biology, and I loved the field trips, from measuring tree distribution in the forest to collecting crabs on beaches and mud flats. At first, I even liked the benchwork. It was thrilling to me that you could pick up a crab out of a crab pot, pull out some fluid with a syringe, and learn something new and unassailably factual about nature by running gels, running columns, putting your samples in spectrophotometers.

    I did undergraduate research projects on salt uptake in turtle bladders, the process of mutation in bacteriophage, and the aforementioned crab proteins, then worked lab tech jobs for a couple of years. Then I spent six years at Johns Hopkins studying hydrogen uptake in nitrogen-fixing bacteria from soybean roots. I kept going with a postdoc at the University of Illinois studying fascinating, evolutionarily ancient salt-marsh microbes that produce methane.

    But somewhere along the way, science stopped being fun. The labwork became drudgery and significant discoveries seemed few and far between. I found myself looking out the window a lot and taking hour and a half lunches. I knew that I needed to get out of the ivory tower and into the world. But I’d done science since I was a teenager and didn’t know what else to do.

    Some conversations with a local public radio reporter at a weekly volleyball game convinced me that his job was a lot more interesting than mine. I’d been told by several people that I had a knack for teaching and writing. I approached the head of the journalism department at the University of Illinois. It was late July. I figured I’d take a class and keep working at my research job. He told me there were two spots in the master’s program for that fall. Did I want to apply? Two weeks later, I was accepted into the program, and two weeks after that, I quit my 12-year science career and enrolled in J-school.

    I knew immediately that I’d made the right decision. The reporting was exhilarating; the faculty top notch. I purposely steered clear of covering science because I wanted to learn how to cover subjects I knew nothing about. I picked the poverty beat, and my most memorable story was a day-in-the-life profile of a homeless woman. It was a long way from science, and that was just fine. I figured I could always cover science later.

    Lesson One: Learn how to be a reporter. That means recognizing what’s a good story and what isn’t, learning good sourcing and interviewing skills, thinking skeptically, and meticulously checking everything out. If you don’t know how to do these things, find a gig (J-school or internship) that lets you learn from people who do. It’s not nuclear physics, but it is a skill that must be learned and practiced, and it’s the bedrock skill of the profession.

    Lesson Two: Some of the best advice I got in J-school came from the late Bob Reid, a tough former newspaper editor who’s a legend among U of Illinois journalism alums. A journalist should regularly push himself beyond his comfort zone, Reid said. Regularly try something new—an investigative piece, foreign reporting, a new beat, an ambitious narrative feature.

    In J-school I enjoyed news reporting, but gravitated quickly to long-form journalism. I decided that magazines were my medium. You could dive deep, tell a good story, affect a reader’s heart as well as his head. I vowed to master the craft as best I could. I signed up for a class with Walt Harrington, a well-known literary journalist, whose writing still inspires, and whose high standards for feature writing raised mine. Fourteen years later, I’m still trying to elevate my ideas, reporting and craft to meet those standards.

    Lesson Three: Treat writing as the craft it is. Whatever form or medium you gravitate to, learn the craft as best you can.

    I graduated in the late 1990s, smack in the middle of the dotcom boom. Life was good where I was, and I didn’t want to move, so I started freelancing—first for the late, great HMS Beagle, soon after for ScienceNow, and then for Science, where I was named a contributing correspondent. Despite my utter lack of medical knowledge, I was also writing medical news for the outfit that became WebMD. There was plenty of work, I was making good money, and having fun. As I learned after the dotcom crash, I’d been born into the profession on third base, and thought I hit a triple.

    Over the years, as I moved from science news into magazine feature writing and now into books, I’ve always tried to remember to take Bob Reid’s advice and challenge myself regularly. The latest challenge (warning—shameless plug alert!) was a book on the health impacts of climate change that I coauthored with Paul Epstein, a public health expert at Harvard Medical School. It will be published next spring. Not only I had I never written written anything that long, but I’d never done any foreign reporting or been to Africa or Central America. I did all of that for our book, and it changed my life.

    Lesson Four: In science writing, there’s always something new to learn, some new adventure to try. Keep a beginner’s mind, look for new adventures, and have fun. — Dan Ferber (danferber.com, @DanFerber)

  114. My foray into science writing and ultimately becoming Deputy Editor of Astronomy Now magazine is somewhat convoluted, but here goes, from the very beginning…

    My interest in astronomy began when I was about eight, at a school open evening run by local astronomy societies – I got to look through telescopes at the Moon and Jupiter and its satellites, and I remember being wowed by how fast the satellites moved. And I won a signed copy of Patrick Moore’s Universe for the Under Tens – I was hooked on all things space-related since that moment. Later on I was involved with school magazines and loved the media section of my english language GCSE.

    I did a fairly eclectic choice of A-Levels (Geography, French, Physics and AS Maths), and then found my dream degree in planetary science at University College London, where I stayed on to do a PhD in impact cratering. During my PhD I got involved with the Society for Popular Astronomy – my supervisor, Ian Crawford was the then-President and took me along to a discussion meeting about how to encourage more young people to join the society. I promptly became Editor of the (now discontinued) Prime Space supplement, was co-opted onto the SPA council, and subsequently set up an under 16s section called the Young Stargazers, which celebrates its third birthday later this year, and which I still operate.

    At the same time as the Young Stargazers was evolving I was also starting to write up my PhD, and realising that I was getting far too much enjoyment in the writing up and paper writing stages than was deemed normal, and, moreover, I appeared to be better at writing about my research than actually doing it! Two things then happened at about the same time which bolstered my decision to move into science writing rather than stay in research. 1 – I was given the opportunity (by simply asking the editor, Ted Nield) to write short planetary science news stories for the Geological Society of London’s magazine, Geoscientist. 2- As a result of my efforts with the Young Stargazers launch, which was featured in an issue of Astronomy Now, I was approached by Keith Cooper (editor of Astronomy Now) to help with his International Year of Astronomy project Starlight – an eight page glossy newsletter about space which was sent to school children and science centres in the lead up to and during IYA (five issues in total, reaching out to 120,000 school children). After I’d written my first piece for Starlight, I then showed Keith some of my Geoscientist articles as evidence of my ‘grown-up’ writing, and asked if there might be an opportunity to write for Astronomy Now. I wrote my first commissioned feature about how gas giant planets are formed, and the trickle of Astronomy Now commissions over the following few months helped fund my living in London while I over-ran on the PhD.

    About two weeks after I handed in my PhD thesis in March 2008 I started a full-time position as Astronomy Now’s Website Editor, and in the two+ years that I’ve been there I’ve written hundreds of news stories for the website and numerous features for the magazine. In July 2009 I also took on the role of Deputy Editor, which means I take care of some of the regular sections of the magazine. I still have moments where I can’t quite believe I’m writing for a magazine that I had been reading for much of my adult life!

    I’ve only been in this business for a short time, but the best piece of advice I can offer to someone looking to break into science writing is to not be afraid to ask people for work experience, and to accept the fact that you might not get paid for it. I started by writing for society magazines, and for free, just to build up my portfolio, but the writing I did for Geoscientist and the SPA resulted in Astronomy Now offering me a feature commission instead of “starting me off with a news story”, which eventually led to me having a full-time position there. If anyone would like the opportunity to write news for astronomynow.com, I’d be happy to offer some guidance. Contact me through @AstroEmz on Twitter.

  115. Many of the stories here tell tales of frustrated scientists who found journalism a handy way out of the lab. I’d trace my origins to the opposite trajectory – genus: writers; species: science.

    One afternoon at junior school – I must have been about 10 – our teacher asked the class what job they wanted when they grew up. I toyed with ‘gymnast’ before writing ‘journalist’. That might strike many as an odd choice for such a young soul, but I knew I liked writing, I devoured books, I asked A LOT of questions (you can fact check that with my parents) and I was already really anal about spelling and grammar.

    That bent towards the literary bubbled away, but eventually I found my way to science. Despite having chosen a mix of A Levels that included not a single traditional science subject (though I had done psychology) – I got a place to study Human Sciences at Oxford.

    Which I loved. In fact, the subjects at the more sciencey end of the spectrum – genetics, neuroscience – I loved the most. But I hadn’t forgotten about journalism, and got involved writing little pop science pieces for the Cherwell in between tutorials on Durkheim and lectures on Australopithecus.

    I stayed in Oxford for an MSc in Neuroscience, which did two things for me: it proved to me that the ‘real’ science of endless experiments and data analysis was not for me (boy, is that a common sentiment on this thread); and it gave me a beat when, two years later and now a graduate of the Imperial MSc in Science Communication, and with a cumulative few weeks of work experience at New Scientist, the Times Body&Soul, and the Telegraph under my belt, I began an internship at Nature. I was to be working on the nascent Nature Podcast and writing a few news stories (where possible, I wanted them to be about brains).

    I was uncertain at first about plunging into podcasting instead of focusing on print, where all my prior experience lay, but I now see how valuable it is in today’s media to be a multi-trick pony. If I meet students who want to get into journalism, but they’re adamant they’re only interested in writing, I tend to feel a bit uneasy about their prospects.

    I’m now responsible for much of Nature’s audio output, which under Adam Rutherford’s direction keeps expanding (see 85 for details). This includes the monthly NeuroPod – half an hour of neuroscience news and research – which is basically my dream geek project.

    While trying to get into science journalism, it got pretty annoying that people kept trotting out the ‘right place right time’ piece of advice. But in my case it proved to be accurate; I now find myself saying that to people asking me about my origins. I’d also say: get stuff published. It doesn’t really matter what, or where – just show willing. I see familiar names from the Oxford student papers in newspapers all the time. Kat Arney at no. 70 sums it up well: ‘be arsed’.

    Some people find the formal SciComm courses a helpful grounding, and more than that, a good leg-up and way to make contacts. Once you have those contacts, go for a mix of friendly and persistent, and if it pays off with assignments or a placement, be flexible, show willing (again) whatever the task, and don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions. Ask them of fellow journalists, and they’re a good way to learn the craft (I still rely on others’ tips and advice all the time), and ask them of interviewees, and they will often yield the most useful and interesting answers.

    ~Kerri Smith, Podcast Editor, Nature
    @minikerri

  116. Dad wrote editorials for the Birmingham News, and his newspaperman status pointed me towards science. He was also a stringer for Time, Life and Fortune at the time. He’d bring home information packets from press junkets to Redstone Arsenal (way before the time of the Marshal Space Flight Center), review books on astronomy from Harvard Press, and wire stories on new discoveries ripped off the paper’s AP machines. Every couple of weeks, we’d hike the hills back behind our house for hours as he pointed out the wildlife. I caught and kept snakes and lizards and frogs and such, built a massive rock collection and eventually shifting to chemistry. I made chlorine and bromine in a bedroom lab, filling the home’s downstairs with poisonous gas. I even made picric acid once but knew enough to keep it wet and stable.

    Aside from the freebies from Dad, I cared little about writing and only about science. But I also hated school, mainly for its inflexibilities in the 1950s. After high school, he twisted some arms and got me provisionally admitted to Auburn University, in spite of my grades, and I planned to major in what all guys did at the time — engineering. Mathematics, boredom with lecture classes and too much time in gymnastics led to two academic dismissals. Intending to avoid the draft at the time, I enrolled in a local junior college and, during registration, met a young English instructor who taught journalism. Turns out, he’d been recommended for a Neiman Fellowship by my father and he saw my signing up for his class as a kind of payback. He also called the managing editor at the Birmingham News (Dad had died by then) and finagled an entry job for me doing nightside reporting, learning old-school journalism from the ground up.

    After five years doing general assignment and covering the police beat, now married, we decided to return to college for a degree, this time in journalism. Once graduated, I landed a writing job at the engineering school and spent five years writing news stories, press releases and publications about engineering research. In 1978, I was hired to be Ohio State University’s first full-time staff science writer and thought we’d stay north for two to three years and then move back South to the “real world.” Now, 32 years later, I run the science writing unit at OSU and, along with three other science writers, write about science underway at one of the world’s largest universities.

    I’ve interviewed dozens of Nobelists and counted several as good friends. I’ve spent nights in observatories, hung out in countless labs, sat in during surgeries, and even spent a month in Antarctica, all so I could write about science. I’ve written two long-running newspaper science columns — one syndicated — and taught a couple of hundred graduate students how to do science writing over two decades. It has taught me more than that engineering degree ever would have.

    As for advice for would-be science writers, be a journalist first. Understand what is — and is not — news. Also, understand that most of science is a mystery story and people love mysteries. Use that to your advantage. And revert back to how you were as a tyke when every answer you were given elicited another question and another. Focus on the “why” and the “how” more than the “what.” And see if you can project those questions into a logical stream of consequences, “what will happen next” and “what does it mean?”

    Above all, don’t give in to the tendency to learn only what you need about a topic to do the story. That’s the great mistake that the “new media” has pushed us towards. Everything you learn goes into your mental library for later use.

  117. At the age of about eight, I began keeping my first diary and I’d have to say I was a writer from then on. That element of the equation was never in doubt. But the science part flitted in and out till my late 20s. And it truly was my love for wild nature that led me back to science. As a child, I trolled for redfish in the Gulf of Mexico with my parents. In winter, we slogged across mudflats in the freezing dawn for stone crabs, and in fall we donned masks and snorkels and floated over shallow grass flats to scoop up scallops. On dry land, I explored our small backyard and developed an affinity for plants and animals. All of those experiences shaped me to pay attention to, and value, nature.

    In high school, I went to marine biology camp at Seahorse Key, Florida. For one week each summer, we spread out across the island thinking up experiments. One night, I found myself in a canoe at 2 a.m. sitting atop a freshly collected drift net, with a large stingray stashed securely below my tush. Bioluminescent algae winked at us where our paddles broke the glassy surface. It was thrilling. In college, I started out as a general biology major with a vague idea of going into marine biology. But over the course of many semesters and two colleges, I flitted between physical anthropology, geology, art and architecture. After a few years of professional work in the real world, I returned to graduate school with a single idea: to explore all my loves and interests through the lens of writing. Why choose just one field, when I have an entire lifetime to write about all?

    I began writing about natural history when still a graduate student, at the University of Florida, when I was hired as a staff writer to cover science news and on-going research at the Florida Museum of Natural History. My graduate studies blended education in natural resources management and ecology with training in journalism. But my job with the museum taught me how to apply what I was learning and to practice the craft of science writing. It would have been better, perhaps, to work for a media outlet first but this path worked for me.

    In 2009, I began freelancing and today I am working almost full time on a book acquired by the Univ. of N.C. Press. It’s exhilarating and terrifying all at once. I contribute to the Charlotte Observer’s Sci-Tech section too. My science and nature writing career is still in its infancy, and I still have a l-o-n-g way to go, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

    - T. DeLene Beeland :: @tdelene :: http://www.delene.us

  118. Most of the voices thus far have come from “real” science writers – those with degrees, published books, external legitimization. But there’s a pretty significant voice, especially in the science blogosphere, of less experienced, young bloggers trying their best to share their thoughts. So while I may not technically qualify as a “science writer” (whatever that means), I’ll share my story (if you’ll have me) as a tiny part of the youthful science writing community.

    In high school and college, I worked and volunteered as an elementary school science educator. This forced me to really think about how to teach science to people who knew nothing: how to frame the big picture and scale down, then creating activities or games that exemplified the main points I was trying to demonstrate.

    Throughout college and after I graduated, while talking with friends, I realized how little they knew about science (despite their brilliance in other fields). I started teaching my roommate about epigenetics and other various science topics and had such a great time. It hit me: how can I get involved in adult science education while keeping my day job?

    Thus my blogging was born. An attempt to create a backlog of interesting topics, well-researched, essentially to show up in google searches one day. (Though now I have higher hopes.) It also serves a more selfish purpose: to keep me in touch with science and learning (via generational learning). I had no idea what kind of world I was diving into, but I’m glad to be here.

    Thanks to all you science bloggers out there for your support.

    –Hannah Waters

  119. I basically staggered into science writing.

    While I grew up in a newspaper family — my dad and both uncles had worked in the business — I had no intention of following in their footsteps. I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up, and most of my academic career was devoted to studying the physical geography, specifically the biogeography, of our planet.

    Nevertheless, I always needed money, and after high school I managed to repeatedly find jobs helping out sports departments, first as a copy boy, then as either a copy editor or correspondent.

    In the mid-1980s I found myself in medical school. But I was also working nearly full time as a sportswriter. In my first conflict between science and journalism, I chose journalism and quit med school in February 1987. I got laid off from the newspaper six months later, but I didn’t regret the decision to abandon medicine.

    Little more than a year later, I returned to science — back to geography — and avoided newsrooms. I finished a master’s degree, then moved on to a Ph.D. program in environmental sciences. I knew I would need additional money (again), so found my way back to the sportswriter’s life. Over the next three years — from 1991 to 1994 — I found myself frustrated with the academic life, yet exhilarated by the newspaper life. For the first time I began to seriously consider combining my two loves, science and journalism. Again, in the conflict between science and journalism, journalism had more appeal.

    Given my passion for teaching — for spreading the scientific word, so to speak — the greater appeal of journalism comes as no surprise.

    I didn’t act on the impulse at the time, but in 1996, while working for the Tree-Ring Lab at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory — a part of Columbia University — I took advantage of my employee benefits to attend Columbia’s journalism school for free. That lasted only one semester as I was laid off from the lab, but I stayed with the journalism school and with journalism in general.

    I survived J-school, got kicked out of the Ph.D. program, became an author with two books published and a third in the works, and built a bizarre career that has allowed me to switch to one side of the science/journalism divide when I wear out my welcome on the other side. If I had to choose where I best fit, though, I’d have to say it’s on the journalism side.

    Why journalism? The journalism world is, or at least used to be, more tolerant of misfits like myself. It enables me to indulge all of my interests — I fear I would go mad if I got trapped in some dead-end alley of a scientific specialty. I get to learn, to develop expertise in, some new discipline, or some new aspect of a familiar discipline — an opportunity I think is lacking in a lot of academic fields. Journalism gives me leave to learn about the personal, rather than just the professional, lives of the scientists. To me, personal experiences are just as important as professional publications, but all-too-often, the personal angle is considered unworthy of academic inquiry.

    To others who hear the call of the Sirens and think they want to steer toward a science writing career, I’m not sure what to tell you. Given the state of journalism today, it might be safer to lash yourself to the mast. But if your curiosity overwhelms you, and your need to learn — and more important, pass on — the story is stronger, cast off the ropes and steer toward the sound. I hope you avoid the rocks on shore. But I’ve been around long enough to have run aground several times in my career, yet survived to sail again.

    The adventure, the opportunity to learn and to share, and the satisfaction that comes with telling a good story and telling it well is worth whatever perils I’ve encountered on my creative odyssey. I’d be a hypocrite if I looked at you and told you to just say “No.”

  120. I became a science writer because of a short attention span. During my PhD (at the University of Sussex), it slowly dawned on me that, though I was interested in what I was doing, I was equally interested in what other people were doing: not exactly the singleminded head-down narrow-focussed career researcher type. On top of that, my supervisor was somewhat – ahem – difficult, and made a career in research seem like a fast track to insanity. By the time I was writing up, I had decided to find something else to do. Somehow, and I still don’t know exactly how, it popped into my brain that I should become a science writer.

    I had written a couple of pieces for the student newspaper, and entered a couple of writing competitions, so there was some desire there, I suppose. But I can’t claim it was a consuming passion. It just seemed like a good use of my interests and skills.

    On completing my PhD I applied for an internship in the Press Office at Sussex (to my supervisor’s utter disgust). I got the job, and spent the next year roaming campus, interviewing researchers (not just scientists), writing up press releases and articles for the University magazine, and trying to interest the national press’s science editors (or anyone, for that matter) in the research going on at Sussex. It was excellent practice: writing, re-writing, and re-re-writing for a year can do you a lot of good. I’m a great believer in learning through doing.

    After that year, I spent two years in West Africa doing VSO. Occasionally, I would write something and send it off on spec for publication. I even managed to get a piece in the Guardian Weekly about the illegal transport of manatees from Guinea Bissau, but that was more by luck than judgement. I wrote it as a humorous piece about tracking down what the astonished locals were calling “fish with breasts”; it turned out the manatees were being trapped and taken to a Japanese zoo without permits. Or something. I didn’t realise what a hoo-ha the piece had caused until I got home. I did some writing and editing for VSO’s magazine too: a special issue on Guinea-Bissau. Writing, of any sort, stands you in good stead; it doesn’t have to be science writing to be useful.

    Once I had finished VSO, I set myself up as a freelance writer. Looking back, it seems I had balls: I cold-called people at New Scientist and the Guardian (in the days when Online was a science and technology supplement) to see if they had any work for me. Hazel Muir at New Scientist was particularly nice to me and offered loads of invaluable advice on finding stories. Bill O’Neill and Tim Radford at the Guardian were also very helpful (though waiting for Bill’s reaction to your copy was like waiting outside the headmaster’s office for a caning. I imagine.).

    The bottom line was, if I could prove I could write coherently, and could find good story ideas, there would always be space (I’m not sure that’s true any more). Before too long I was writing regularly for New Scientist’s news pages, and the Guardian’s science supplement pages. Then I got a phone call from Jeremy Webb, who was running New Scientist’s features department: he suggested I started writing features as well as news. A year or so later, New Scientist offered me a job editing features.

    It feels now like I got it served up on a plate, but perhaps it was harder than that. I’m fairly sure, though, that it was easier then (and I’m talking 10 years ago) than it is now.

    My advice for anyone starting out:

    1. You’ll probably have to do some stuff, even if it’s just top-drawer blogging, for free. It’s a cost worth paying if this is what you really want to do. The problem you face is that there are loads of people who want to be professional science writers these days. You might be a gifted writer, and have a specialism that’s much in demand, but often the only way in is to get on the inside before there’s any money involved. There’s a thing called the Matthew Effect: to them that have, more shall be given. It works in science funding, and it works in science journalism. But look at it this way: the practice doesn’t hurt.

    2. Don’t say no for at least a decade. Say, “next month, I could”, or “I’d have to juggle a few things – is there any way to extend the deadline?” No, when someone’s offering you exposure, is a luxury you can’t afford yet. And the practice is always good. Especially practice under time pressure.

    3. Make yourself indispensable: one of the best pieces of advice I ever got was to supply so much copy, so regularly, on time and in good shape, that a Brooks-shaped hole starts to appear – a hole that everyone is waiting for you to fill.

    4. Don’t think too much about the money. It’s not a well-paid profession; the rewards come in a different form. In what other walk of life do you get to talk to the world experts on quantum theory in one week, and the world experts in synthetic biology the next?

    5. Once you’re in, exploit your expertise before you become a generalist. Everyone knows something about everything; set yourself apart.

    6. Understand that your editors are under enormous pressure. Don’t be a prima donna: do everything you can to make their lives easier and they’ll love you (and give you work) forever. If you have an idea for a graphic, mention it. If you have a list of relevant web links, send them through with your copy. Don’t be precious about what is “yours”.

    7. Enjoy it, or get out. It’s not meant to be a drudge!

    Twitter: @DrMichaelBrooks

  121. I began as a mainstream broadcast reporter and moved into science communication from there. My undergraduate degrees were in journalism and international studies, but I also did some university-level biology and chemistry within these degrees as I enjoyed science – I really enjoyed the theory, though I was rubbish at lab work.

    During my journalism degree I volunteered at a community radio station, which played a big role in landing my job at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation before I graduated. I’d also been working as a sub-editor for an environmental newspaper; I got that job in my second year of university because I was one of only two applicants who made no spelling or grammar errors in their CV.

    I had some great mentors at the ABC with whom I talked about my career goals. It seemed either I’d need to spend several years working in general news before crossing over to science, or I could leave and specialise in science independently, then return later. So I left to volunteer as a journalist at a conference in the UK, then to work in communications for an Australian genomics organisation.

    I enjoyed working in science communication so much that I haven’t gone back (yet). I moved to Cambridge where I worked on books and podcasts, then moved back to Australia to finally do a postgraduate research degree in science communication, which I’m finishing now while living in South America, doing freelance translation and editing work.

    There are a lot of entry-level science journalism and editing positions that require a degree in science, such as those with New Scientist or ABC Science. Given my background I was ineligible for those. However coming from a broadcast news and print editing background, there were other opportunities (which generally paid better) that people with a straight background in science wouldn’t have been suitable for.

    If you have your heart set on working for a particular organisation, I would contact them and see what qualifications they expect graduate-level staff to have. Though before you plan your career around the preferences of an organisation, I think you should read George Monbiot’s career advice (Google it).

    Twitter: @cobismith

  122. How did I start? Kind of blundered into it blindly. My first real exposure to science outreach was being involved with the Cambridge University “Time Truck” during National Science Week. We visited loads of schools in the area and I spent happy hours teaching children about rocks and fossils. I particularly enjoyed getting them to lick the coprolites, in direct contravention of health and safety.

    I did a lot more outreach, from the Mammoth Site in South Dakota to the Academy of Science of St Louis’ “Speakers for Science” programme, and it was by far the most rewarding aspect of the varied activities in which I participated.

    In late 2006 I began a blog, but it lacked focus – it probably took about a year before I really found a niche, at a time when there were few palaeontology blogs around. That has since taken off, and many of the bloggers I mentored and encouraged have by far superseded my prowess as a blogger.

    I am not a great science writer – I have a confrontational attitude and do not take criticism well. I find it difficult not to call creationists, expanding-earthers and homeopaths all sorts of names. Increasingly it is difficult to keep up with all the current palaeontology research, and having been through the process of giving up the PhD (for the second time) it is not where my writing is strongest.

    Instead, I have adapted my blog to focus on my real strengths – science education. I am a better science speaker than a science writer, and I now try to write as I speak. This makes for a less sophisticated blog, but hey – my students, non-scientists and most importantly my husband all understand the concepts I explain.

    The advice I would give would be to just get writing, and a blog is the perfect place to start. Yes, you will look back on stuff you wrote a year ago and cringe. But you will get feedback almost instantly, and the inhabitants of the interwebs are relentless editors. You will learn what works and what doesn’t – for example, most of my highbrow palaeontological posts get very few responses, but stick up a photo of an ostracod wang and everyone wants to comment!

    The confidence I have got from blogging and from lecturing over the past year (along with some encouragement from my graduating students) has got me thinking about trying my hand at a biology book, so watch this space!

    Twitter: @morphosaurus

  123. In my case, a science writer was made, not born. Sure, I took one science-writing course in journalism school, but after I got my degree, I became a copy editor at the Cincinnati Post (guess I passed the test that Carl flunked). Then I worked for six years at The Spokesman-Review as a copy editor, assistant city editor and features editor. Then I worked for about a decade at the Seattle P-I as features slot editor (does anybody even know what the slot is anymore?) and foreign desk editor.

    During my stint as foreign editor, I traveled to various parts of the Soviet Union and wrote about that amazing political transition. I also helped organize a couple of East-West media conferences in Moscow, in 1994 and 1995 . That led to an invitation to India, to talk about information technology with Pacific Rim journalists at a UNESCO conference. My experiences in international media development led me to believe that online journalism was the next big thing, and so I made the jump to MSNBC.com as a general-purpose writer-editor in 1996.

    Within a year, I found myself regularly writing stories about UFOs, comets, crashing spaceships and Mars landings. People seemed to like the stories … and more importantly, editors did too. They gave me free rein to do more along those lines, so I took on the title of science editor. Eventually I expanded my portfolio beyond space news to take in subjects ranging from dinosaurs to stem cells. And the rest is history.

    My advice to budding science writers would be to find a way to follow your bliss, even if the standard “science writing” jobs aren’t available. In traditional journalism fields, reporters on the business, education and tech beats can follow their scientific bliss fairly easily. And if you find yourself on a non-traditional path, identify the fields you’re passionate about, learn as much as you can and join the online communities that focus on those fields. Look for opportunities to contribute, as well as opportunities to learn even more.

    I’ve been doing a lot of on-the-job learning over the past 14 years, and I don’t think the learning will ever stop. Maybe that’s the best part of the job.

    Alan is science editor for MSNBC.com, the blogger behind Cosmic Log and author of “The Case for Pluto.” Twitter account: http://twitter.com/b0yle.

  124. At 16, I published my first article of science writing, a profile my high school chemistry teacher—also a part-time caterer— for the school’s literary magazine. At the time, I thought of myself as an educational sponge rather than a writer. I was a math and science geek who also loved language and literature. But I had no idea that I could combine the two. Instead, I pursued chemistry, fascinated by the machinery that powered life.

    That interest fueled me for almost a decade until I was 5 years into a Ph.D. program at Indiana University. It was 2002, and I felt like academic science was pushing me to learn more and more about less and less. I knew I wanted to finish the Ph.D., but I had to figure out what I would do next.

    I read the “alternative careers” books for scientists. I volunteered and later worked on staff at a hands-on science museum. But I also contacted Holly Stocking, a (now retired) professor at the IU journalism school, about her science writing course. That class changed my course completely. Over the next 2 years, I wrote for the campus newspaper, applied for internships, and finished my Ph.D.

    A month after my Ph.D. defense, I moved to New York City for an internship at Discover magazine, followed by an AAAS Mass Media Fellowship at WNBC-TV. In the last 6 years, I’ve been freelancing for publications such as Discover, Science News, ScientificAmerican.com, Science Careers, Nature Biotechnology, and a number of science and health publications for children. I’ve also worked on science exhibits, serving as the research coordinator for the permanent astronomy exhibits at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

    I love the opportunity to learn about new ideas, talk with interesting people, and put those pieces together to tell a story. I’ve written about my advice to new science writers before—particularly those with extensive training as scientists. More on that here: http://bit.ly/zMg6m

    Sarah Webb– @sarahwebb, http://www.sarahannewebb.com

  125. The summer of 1967 started off an anxious one for me. I am among those in science writing who abandoned a science career for journalism. But my transition was more abrupt than most. I’d been studying astronomy at UC Berkeley and had one semester of a fifth year to go to satisfy requirements. I was what one might charitably describe as a distracted student – and without a grade point average likely to get me into a good graduate school. I was spending that summer, as I had the previous year, working at Mt. Wilson Observatory’s headquarters in the Carnegie building on Santa Barbara Street in Pasadena. A solar astronomer had taken me on as a summer research assistant. I was in near despair, not terribly suited for the grinding sit-down-and-work-damnit world of actual science, charting sunspots and trying to program an automated, Fortran-driven system for recognizing and mapping sunspots from taped data. This is it, I thought – I’m a career research assistant.
    An astronomer in the next office one day told everybody on the second floor that he was expecting an article in the Pasadena Star News about his work. It was an afternoon paper. The office staff downstairs knew to bring it up to him when it arrived. I heard him get it, and he shut his door. I was nodding off in the usual afternoon torpor of the place when I was surprised to hear a loud sigh through the wall. Then a groan, then a goddamit!, and worse. I supposed that the story wasn’t what he’d hoped for.
    Finally he shouted. “What this world needs is some good science writers!” No kidding, he said that. I’d never heard of a science writer, had never dreamt of working for a school paper or anything of the sort. I’d stuck with science because it was hard. In my callowness, I suppose I figured that the greater glory comes from doing something that doesn’t come easy. But I was desperate, and when my neighbor asked for science writers, the clouds parted, the angels sang, the trumpets blared. I’ve told the story of this epiphany many times. It was the real deal. In an instant it occurred to me that one ought to choose a career that suits the available talent and temperament. I’d never understood why creative arts, history, and literature majors belly ached about writing papers. Writing had seemed too easy to take seriously. But now I was seriously in a panic.
    I went back to Berkeley. At what was then called the radiation lab its p.r. guy, Dan Wilkes. assured me yeah there really are science writers out there – one of them is over in San Francisco at the Chronicle, Dave Perlman. I took a journalism news writing course from a local TV reporter named Ed Arnow (Channel 5, I think). It was a further revelation. Declarative sentences, active voice, keep it interesting. That made sense. I was still nervous as can be about doing it, but the possibility of an escape from the dead-end that I’d entered as an astronomy major was something I clung to with all knuckles white.
    I got myself into the University of Southern California j-school graduate program, took a course from the LA Times’s Irving Bengelsdorf, and had a ball in the newswriting course there.
    I never finished grad school but got fantastic grades in my second semester. Half way through selective service drafted me. Professors signed off on my course work most sympathetically. In Vietnam I wound up the Public Affairs Office of the 1st Air Cavalry Division thanks to the officer running it, the immortal MAJ J. D. Coleman. He plucked people from the infantry with any journalism experience. I landed in a nest of the most grateful ex-grunt reporters one can imagine, and became an Army war correspondent. Following discharge I landed a job in 1970 at the Livermore Herald & News, covering the lab there.
    I finally met, while in Livermore, Dave Perlman. We both covered the announcement of something called Planet X by a hopeful lab scientist. No PLanet X, but before too long I was at the Chronicle as Dave’s back-up science writer. And all because, I am certain, some science writer – I have no idea who – at the Pasadena Star News screwed up. Now that I think of it, it was another science writer’s screw-up at the Chronicle, where he lied to the city editor about why he was calling in home sick while actually at a bridge convention, that opened the slot. That’s another story. My early years at Berkeley were no waste either – I love reporting astronomy still.
    My advice? Three things – before an interview, study up like crazy, read old clips and pertinent papers, do due diligence. Then during the interview do NOT turn all that preparation into complicated semi-boastful questions. The studying is to give one a head start in understanding answers. The best answers tend to be to simple questions. Second, don’t ever ever forget to get the phone number, email address, anything else to be able to reach again every single person you interview or encounter on the story, whether they have a PhD or not. When one sits down to write, the most vivid examples and color often arise from memory of the little things, stray remarks or parting comments or hallway chatter or the person to whom you’re fleetingly introduced and makes some wise crack about the topic of the story. That’s when extra contact information comes in handy. Third, don’t think there’s a perfect way to write the story and it’s up to you to find it. There are an infinite number of ways to do a story right (alas, a bigger infinity of ways to do it wrong but never mind that.) Just write,. And remember the editor, whether a cruel tyrant or not, is your friend.

  126. First, I’m not a science writer in the sense of most of the folks here, I’m a fan. I just wanted to add my thoughts for what it’s worth. I’ve just written a lot about science purely as an amateur, mostly because for me it is a part of my learning process rather than for other people to read. I think of science writing for me as more a way of thinking than a social activity. I like hearing the deep thoughts of people thinking about scientific topics in clear ways and willing to share their thinking. Professional science writers and good amateurs are among my heroes. I don’t count myself among them, I just enjoy their company.

    Writing is a way of forcing myself to organize my thoughts. When I want to learn something, I write an article about it, or read a book and then write a detailed review. If it turns out to be really interesting, I create a manuscript or add to an existing one. For me writings end up serving as an organized (well more or less) external reference for my own thoughts. I share some of them, but I rarely go through the publication process. Probably a holdover from my youth when the publication process was much more intimidating and subject to exploitation. I became very frustrated with professional publishing houses decades ago and never had the motivation to write articles for a wide audience. Nowadays it seems so easy to share something with everyone that publication has lost a lot of the value it once held, and time for writing is more scarce. So I remain an enthusiastic fan.

  127. I’ve been writing daily since May 2007, which isn’t very long. But I’ve been committing my thoughts to paper for much longer. During medical school and residency, I would write down my thoughts and experiences into brief stories and send them off to friends and family—usually on a piece of paper in an envelope with a stamp, because that’s how we rolled back then.

    My writing quality was spotty, and I realized it would never improve if I didn’t commit to doing it regularly, so I started a blog. At first, I was the only reader, but eventually, by commenting on more popular blogs and making sure I was creating content regularly, I become more widely read, and was eventually picked up by a larger blogging network.

    I know I will never make a living as a writer—I am a full time physician and there is no way I can devote the time to writing that I would like to or need to in order to, say, write the books I have in my head.

    But I love the feel of the keyboard, and I love looking up at the page to see what I’ve made. If others like it, I’m quite pleased. If they don’t, I still have my day job.

  128. Like many other writers on this thread, I did not initially set out to become a science writer.

    It is difficult to pick an exact starting point, but the spring of 2006 is as good as any. At that time I was taking a Rutgers University class on communicating marine science to the public when I was assigned to teach a group of fifth graders about marine biology. Most of the lessons were pre-made by my professors, but for the last session I was allowed to construct my own. I chose to focus on the evolution of whales.

    The principal of the school in question did not approve. He did not want offended parents calling him and complaining about some college student undermining the faith of their children. I was shocked. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would have a problem with evolution, and I started to educate myself about what creationism and evolutionary science (of which I knew relatively little) to better understand the public controversy.

    Then, in the fall of that year, I saw that the website ProgressiveU.org was running a “blogging for progress” scholarship and I thought I had a good shot at winning. I focused on writing about evolution and criticizing creationism, and I was surprised when my blog wound up in second place. By the time the contest ended I was addicted to blogging, and I started writing on my own over at WordPress. Within about nine months I was picked up by ScienceBlogs.com (which I recently left during the Pepsi-catalyzed diaspora). A year after that, Smithsonian magazine asked me to blog for them about dinosaurs (http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/dinosaur/), and I have been maintaining Laelaps and Dinosaur Tracking simultaneously for almost two years now.

    But blogging was not the only medium I was interested in. Even before I started blogging I had decided that I wanted to write a book about evolution, although it took me quite a while to understand what I was getting into and figure out what kind of book it was going to be. Over time, I kept trying to fine-tune my online writing so as to appear more professional, and last year I started to branch out beyond my blogs. I was able to sell my first freelance articles, my first book got picked up (Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature – due out Nov. 1), and I did a few radio interviews about science. Most of this came out of the public controversy surrounding the Darwinius fossil – I was able to use the event as a springboard to land a few articles and better establish myself as a science writer.

    For me, the trick has been finding a balance between the various outlets for my writing. Right now I work at a job unrelated to my interests for 9 hours a day, and I must squeeze in work on my books, generating new article pitches, and feeding both blogs during the few hours I have at home each evening. I’m at the stage where I am starting to meet with some success, but I do not yet make enough to ditch my day job in favor of writing. It is a very frustrating situation, but I am trying to use it as motivation to pitch more freelance pieces rather than let it grind me down.

    Furthermore, determining where certain stories should go can be challenging. Would a particular story be of interest to a magazine/newspaper, or is it better presented on a blog? Case in point – a few months ago I was riffling through some new journal issues in search of interesting research when I came across a report that margays (a small jungle cat) mimic the calls of monkeys to confuse their primate prey. I thought it was a neat little report, but I doubted that many people other than me would be interested in it, so I wrote up a quick little summary for my blog. Months later the story started appearing in a variety of news outlets, and I was quite surprised that so many people had shown an interest in the paper from an obscure journal on neotropical primates. I might have been able to develop the story into a freelance piece, and I missed out when I assumed that others would not be very interested in the story. On the flip side of that, I have proposed stories that I thought would be perfect for particular popular science periodicals only to have them promptly rejected (for reasons from “We covered this three years ago” to “The editor hates stories about creepy-crawly things.”) In a way, pitching science stories is like blogging about science – you can never be sure what is going to be a hit until you see how other people react.

    I don’t have very much advice to give. Even though I have been blogging for about four years now, it has only been in the last year or so that I have taken science writing seriously, and I still have a lot to learn. Nevertheless, my experiences so far have underscored the importance of finding a way into the community of science writers. From providing advice to simply putting me in touch with the right agents or editors for my ideas, I owe a lot to a number of exceptionally-skilled writers who have been enthusiastic about helping me develop as a science writer. Without their help, I probably would not be able to rightly call myself a “science writer” today. Be it through blogging, attending conferences, or some other route, I think it is essential for new writers to find a way to plug into the larger science writing community (and many thanks to Ed for creating a thread on which so many writers have come together).

  129. My story is similar to many of the others above … like Mark Henderson, I was initially assigned by my bosses to cover science, and like Alan Boyle, I am a former Foreign Editor. And like most mainstream journalists in North America, I had no science training, no real science education (aside from high school physics and chemistry, and an introductory course in anthropology at McGill University), and very little science knowledge. To quote the wonderful science writer, Natalie Angier, I didn’t know a proton from a photon.

    I actually studied theater and drama at university, and worked for a year as a professional actor when I graduated. My father had been a fairly well-known newspaper and magazine writer, and I tried to avoid walking in his very big footsteps. But I was steeped in journalism from an early age, and couldn’t resist the allure. I started out freelancing newspaper features and radio stories, and was soon hired as a producer by CBC Radio, Canada’s national public radio network. I worked my way up in current affairs and radio news, eventually becoming Foreign Editor, and then Executive Producer of our major morning newscast.

    Then, about a dozen years ago, my manager asked me to take charge of our weekly radio science program, Quirks & Quarks. The program, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this season, is an institution in Canada, and it’s an understatement to say that I was somewhat intimidated. The learning curve was incredibly steep, but I was immediately bitten by the science bug – even when I didn’t understand half of what I heard on my own program. I read as much as I could, and went to some Knight Science Fellowship Boot Camps, which were extremely helpful. And now I find myself actually teaching science journalism at
    the university level.

    One of my esteemed colleagues always says he not a science journalist – he’s a journalist who writes about science. And I think that points to the best advice I can give to aspiring science writers. Science journalism requires the exact same skills as any journalism: critical thinking, lively writing, original ideas, and lots of curiosity. I am truly fortunate that someone pays me to come to work everyday in order to indulge my curiosity.

  130. Oh go on then.

    I started writing out of annoyance at first. I didn’t know anything about science blogging, or science writing, or even read other blogs at the time (February 2008), but I’d been involved in debating 9/11 Truthers, and I had a long standing gripe (as someone with a degree in AI) with some researchers who made extravagant claims about human-level intelligence coming in the next few years.

    So blogging was to scratch an itch really, but then over the following months it become more serious, and I began doing a lot more original research on posts, rather than just commenting on news stories. Inspired by people like Orac, Ben Goldacre and PalMD I started digging into bad science, and took an interest in its spread in the developing world. I also found myself digging into science policy more, and looking at the science behind issues like torture, drug policy, economics and so on.

    Then something bizarre happened – I got noticed. As I moved into my second year of blogging, opportunities began to open up. They were small at first, guest posts here and there, but then editors came calling, I found that I had science editors following me on Twitter, and when I cheekily asked if they’d like me to do something they agreed. Pretty soon I found myself published in The Guardian, working on science policy with Frank Swain, and the rest is history – now I’m a regular columnist, with all sorts of exciting new paths opening up for me.

    I’ve taken a bit of a hiatus from regular blogging in 2010, but I have a new blog launching soon at The Guardian, and I’m planning to post a few times a week. But I also want to get beyond blogging now. Through writing I’ve had opportunities to give talks and podcasts, and I’m keen to get into video blogging. The advent of tablet computing will be (imho) revolutionary for blogging and science writing in general in a few years’ time, and I’m keen to explore that format, and how we can adapt our writing to it.

    What amazes me though is how many opportunities there are. Through starting one small blog, suddenly an entire universe of possibilities has opened up. Nobody tells you how to succeed at it, and I don’t really think there is a set way to do it, but we seem to inhabit a world now where people with something interesting to say can find a hundred different ways of expressing it, and entire communities of like-minded people to join. That, in many ways, is a miracle of the internet age, and I feel lucky to be a part of it.

  131. rpg

    The similarities between a certain PI and the Dark Lord of Mordor did not escape a few of us in that lab. I had already started keeping what was essentially a weblog for the group, back in 2000, but when some core members went to greener pastures I wrote semi-regular emails keeping them up to date on what was happening in the lab.

    These stories were well received–I was likened to a ‘modern day Herodotus’ at one point–and once I started placing them on the web I collected a not unsubstantial following.

    This came to an end when I left that lab, and I started writing collaborative web-stories at various other places, but the ‘big break’ came when the University of Sydney said it wanted its staff to keep blogs. So I did that for a while, and then came the invitation to write for Nature Network, when such an invite actually meant something. That propelled me to notoriety and in turn directly led to me leaving bench science and taking up a position with Faculty of 1000, where I managed a website project and kicked off our social media involvement.

    That changed when we took over publishing The Scientist magazine. I’m now an editor for the Scientist, and I run Naturally Selected. I also produce content for the print magazine, and am currently looking at developing our multimedia offerings.

    Advice? Simply do what you love with all your heart, and when opportunity knocks, grab it.

  132. Fred Furtado

    During part of my doctorate in biology at the Harvard School of Public Health (I originally enrolled at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), I realized that a future life as the head of a laboratory or an advisor did not appeal to me — I could barely pilot my own life, how could I offer advice on others’? So I started looking for alternatives. I still wanted to be involved with science, because I liked it. Since I also liked to write, I thought that science writing might be an option.

    When I came back to Brazil to finish my thesis, I found out there was a lecture cycle called Chá Pop at the university. Held biweekly, it focused on science communication. I started attending and eventually contacted the organizer, professor Roberto Lent, who was also one of the founding members of Brazil’s first science communication magazine: Ciência Hoje. We talked and one month after defending my thesis, I landed a job as a reporter for the magazine. I’ve been there for eight years now.

    It’s a great job, by the way. I usually tell my friends that the great advantage of being a science journalist is that not only do I get paid to learn about science, scientists actually take the time to explain their work to me. When would that happen if I wasn’t writing about science? ;] Also, I get to know about all the research fields, everything from biology to physics, medicine to economy, history to nanotechnology and so on.

    As I said above, I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask advice from, but if you want to become a science writer, I’d tell you to try to learn by doing it. There’s a technique to journalistic writing, but it’s no seven-headed beast, as we say in Brazil, meaning that itsn’t all that difficult to learn. Brazil doesn’t have a lot of venues for science writers, but if you are an undergraduate, you probably can find an internship at a science institute, like Fiocruz, or a news company. Now that you no longer need a degree to be a journalist here, you may find an easier time getting some hands-on experience, even if you don’t come from a journalism course. This is also true if you are a researcher who wants to leave the lab bench, like I did.

    That’s it. I hope I helped at least one of you. If I didn’t, I’ll just believe that my story was as entertaining as the other 130 before it. :]

    Tchau!

  133. What a fantastic thread this is. Thanks, Ed, for starting this (and to rpg for drawing my attention to it). I am occasionally asked the same question by aspirants, and can now direct them to this resource.

    I wasn’t aware I wanted to be a science writer, but hindsight reveals that this was always likely to be a career choice. I always loved writing, and I always loved science. When I was a child I was always working on a story, and always wanted to be a zoologist. The actual career path, however, was a much more random business and relied on (a) having good people to back you up (b) being in the right place at the right time.

    While a graduate student at Cambridge in the mid-80s, doing a PhD in vertebrate palaeontology, I found myself writing copiously for the college magazine, and editing a small newspaper for graduate students. I submitted a piece to New Scientist (spiked) and a review of a Motorhead concert to Cantab (printed). I enjoyed writing much more than my PhD work. I decided that research wasn’t for me, so I decided to put myself around as a potential journalist.

    I visited the New Scientist offices where I met Pallab Ghosh (now at BBC TV) who encouraged me to submit stories to NS; and took the opportunity of going on a summer course offered by my funding agency (the old SERC) showing us graduate students that there were career choices out there apart from science – including journalism.

    One day, as I was writing up my PhD, my PhD Advisor put an advert on my desk – for an assistant manuscript editor at Nature. I was interviewed, but rejected for the job. However, there happened to be a vacancy opening for a writer, who’d supply science copy to the Times under Nature’s banner, and was I interested? I wasn’t to know this, and I am still not sure of the details, but the person the Editor of Nature initially asked to do the job declined … but happened to know one of the course tutors on the SERC course, with whom I’d struck up a collegial relationship. I expect you can see where this is going.

    I was then interviewed by the Editor, the late, great John Maddox, and we got on like a house on fire. On the strength of my spiked story for New Scientist (I didn’t send him the review of the Motorhead gig) I was hired, at a weekend’s notice, as a junior news reporter. Initially I was on a three-month contract, during which time Maddox would teach me my craft.

    I arrived at 9.30 on my first day, the 11 December 1987. My first task was to write a news story on radiological production guidelines, concerning which I knew nothing.They gave me a desk, a telephone, and a portable typewriter. ‘When do you want the story?’ I asked. ‘Noon’, they said. ‘No pressure’.

    The three months passed, and Maddox wasn’t happy with my progress – but rather than fire me, he gave me another three months. At six months, he still wasn’t happy … so he gave me another three months. At seven months, he decided to hire me permanently. I’ve been there ever since. Maddox taught me all I know … and my first piece in a newspaper appeared in January 1988 on the Op-Ed page of the Thunderer, probably underneath a piece by Bernard Levin. It felt like being picked up to play for Manchester United after doing nothing but kick a ball about in the street.

    Maddox’s mentoring style was to give you a few nuggets of sage advice – and then throw you at a job, leaving you to learn on the job and make your own mistakes. I must have gotten away with murder, but I learned a great deal in a short time. While I was busy at Nature I started writing books, and also doing some freelancing – much under the patronage of the wonderful Tim Radford at the Guardian, whose nurturing of young writers is legendary.

    Almost 23 years later I am still at Nature, more as a manuscript editor than a writer, though I have a blog, and do the odd bit of freelancing, and write books.

    My advice?

    Write. Write all the time. I am convinced that the best writers don’t choose this as a career choice. Writing chooses them. It’s a compulsion.

    Find mentors.

    And be lucky.

  134. (Twitter – brianclegg)

    As a teenager I didn’t fit with the school’s ideas of how students should be streamed. I wanted to do English and science, but that wasn’t an option towards the end of my school career. So I put the writing to one side, writing stories as a hobby.

    After a masters and a number of years working for an airline, that urge to write started bubbling up again. I was working in IT at the time, so started sending articles off to computing magazines, concentrating on the weekly magazines on the theory they needed more copy. Before long I was writing regularly for PC Week.

    When I left the airline I was giving training sessions in business creativity. I was enjoying the magazine writing, so thought I’d push it further and wrote a book on creativity, that ended up as the first as a string of business books. But all the while, my original interest in science was pushing through.

    I was a fan of popular science books, and as books became a more important part of my writing career, pushing the training into second place, I thought I’d have a try at combining the two, writing my first popular science title, Light Years.

    I haven’t looked back. I now spend most of my time writing science books and articles, and giving talks to schools and public gatherings on science. For me this is a dream combination. I get to write (and, sorry journalists, but there is nothing to compare with the thrill of seeing a book in the bookstore – magazines can’t compete) and I get to dig into science in areas that interest me. Unlike a real scientist, I can flit around – I’ve covered topics as wide as quantum entanglement, infinity and the origins of the universe – and investigate the areas that really interest me.

    Financially it’s no picnic, and it’s getting worse. I regularly write technology pieces for a well-known women’s magazine, and they are now paying 70% of the amount they paid 5 years ago for an article. Similarly, book advances are generally declining. But it’s not something I would ever give up unless I had to.

  135. Eva

    I’ve worked as a freelance science writer during and after my PhD, and I’m currently community manager for the Node, a group blog for and by developmental biologists run by the journal Development. I write news articles and interviews for both the journal and the Node.

    I got here mostly by chance and serendipity, and it’s only when looking back that I can identify a few key career points. None of them were conscious career-related choices. I was just having fun.

    I started blogging in 2000, about travel, random things, and daily tidbits with some science mixed in. In 2005 I started a science-only blog, because I really wanted to show non-scientists the fun side of science. I posted pretty pictures, linked to science-themed art, and went to a lot of outreach events that I later blogged about. I reviewed a play that was set in a lab, and then wrote to Lablit.com to tell them about the play. At the time, LabLit’s editor, Jenny Rohn, was working at The Scientist, and she commissioned a full-length play review for their art section. That was my accidental first freelance science writing gig.

    Nature Network invited me to blog on their site, and on that blog I reviewed a panel discussion I attended about the TV show ReGenesis, which made heavy use of science consultants. The people responsible for some of the science outreach related to the show found my blog post, and I was hired to write the science fact sheets for the entire fourth (and last) season. Again, the crucial blog post was just something I wrote out of my own interest. I didn’t try to get work, I just wrote.

    Other than writing, much of my current job involves community management. I had experience in that through some events I did for student organizations in undergrad, but the majority of my recent “cat herding” work was through organizing SciBarCamp in Toronto (an unconference event for scientists). The concept of SciBarCamp as an independently run version of SciFoo came from a lunch meeting with Michael Nielsen. Michael had just moved to Canada, and to get to know the local science community he just browsed the internet and contacted science bloggers in Toronto. So again, if I hadn’t had my blog as writing outlet, I wouldn’t have had this experience that turned out to be very valuable for a career in science communication, but I never really *tried*. It just happened.

    I suppose my advice would be: write because you want to write, not because you want a job.

  136. I’m not sure my story is a typical one, at least nowadays, but ten years ago to the month I left the lab. I had been studying the genetics of hypertension for several years, with a decent, though hardly stellar, publication record, and I was offered a good grant that would take me down the lectureship track. Though I had enjoyed my work, the idea of hopping precariously from grant to grant for an unremarkable wage didn’t seem like a wise lifeplan, and a lectureship didn’t feel like the right long-term direction for me either.

    I spent almost an entire year working out what to do next. I knew exactly what I didn’t want to do, but I had little idea of what I did want to do. Then out of nowhere, a friend asked me if I would be interested in a health journalism job for a small start-up website that her work colleague was setting up. It turned out to be the UK arm of WebMD, and as it turned out the person starting this up wanted someone from a scientific background who was willing to dive in the deep end and learn how to write on the job. This couldn’t have been a luckier break for me. My editor Grant Feller remains the best editor I’ve ever had: patient and encouraging, though ruthless with the red pen.

    But with it being the web and with it being the year 2000, the bubble burst and so we were made redundant after a year. And to cut a long story short my path progressed as follows: I was a freelance science writer; copyeditor at [i]Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology[/i]; and then started up and ran the news section at [i]Nature Reviews Drug Discovery[/i] for over 5 years.

    Since the mid-2000s it was becoming increasingly obvious how the world of journalism was moving and so I wanted to do more in the online world. So eventually I became the web editor at [i]The Scientist[/i], and then moved on to my present job as senior editor at Nobelprize.org. I can’t see much that links all these jobs, except for an enjoyment in telling stories, a desire to tell them at places that value credibility as much as impact, and an enormous degree of luck.

    On this enjoyable meander, there are some things I’d pass on to people who want to enter the field:

    1) Blog and tweet
    Around 5 years ago this used to be my final tip to aspiring science writers. Now it’s my first. The traditional routes (e.g. student newspapers, internships) are still good routes, and you shouldn’t ignore them, esp. because of the writing/editing lessons you’ll receive and the contacts you’ll make. But blogging has lowered the entry barrier to publishing so much that this is something that you should be taking advantage of.

    When I began writing, people looking to enter the field often talked despondently about the vicious cycle of not being hired because they lacked experience, yet not being able to get experience if no-one hired them. Blogging provides a solution. Blog about a field or a cause that is dear to your heart (or indeed one that you would like to develop knowledge and expertise in), and comment on blogs written by people you admire. Even if you are wary of starting your own blog, get a feel for it by commenting on other people’s blogs. Interact with these and other people on Twitter. There’s never been an easier time to show people what you know.

    2) Network in the real world too
    Join societies, such as the [url=http:www.absw.org]ABSW[/url], [url= http://www.nasw.org/NASW/url, [url= http://journalists.org/ONA/url, and the [url=http://www.eusja.org/]EUSJA[/url]. They not only provide guidelines and advice, they provide opportunities for face-to-face meetings with writers and editors. Or go to meetings like Science Online in [url= http://www.scienceonline2010.com/index.php/wiki/North Carolina[/url] or [url= http://www.scienceonlinelondon.org/London/url, go to talks like [url= http://skeptic.org.uk/events/skeptics-in-the-pubSkeptics in the Pub[/url] or [url= http://www.biochemistry.org/PublicAffairs/Events/ScienceBloggingTalkfest2010.aspxScienceBloggingTalkfest/url, or to local tweetups like #ukscitweetup.

    It sounds obvious, but the more familiar you are to writers, editors and the community you wish to be a part of, the more likely they are to answer your emails.

    3) Read, read, read
    Learn what makes a good 300-word or a 3,000-word article through the best examples of published work. This means outside your subject area too. See, for example, how other pieces successfully bring a human element to a story or effortlessly explain technical terms to a non-specialist audience, and see if there is something you can learn from this. I don’t mean copy styles here, you need to find your own voice, but analysing how respected writers and bloggers build narratives and arguments will make you a better writer (and, in general, this form of analysis is something I’d like to see more of online).

    Reading a lot will also tell you what is getting published, help you to see what new angles you can bring to the mix, and you’ll be amazed how a piece of information that you read about years ago might be the crucial piece of information that makes your next pitch or piece a success.

    4) Have the right attitude
    If you are working for a newspaper or magazine, editors will rip apart your work. If you are a freelancer you will receive a host of rejections. If you create a blog you will pour unplanned hours in to it and undoubtedly get little traffic to begin with.

    Rather than losing hope or being precious, learn how to take criticism from editors and use this to help you create better articles. Learn what editors need and use this to help you create better pitches. Learn how to become more active within your community and use this to help increase the impact of your posts. And never stop learning.

    5) Make the most of opportunities
    Many writers, including myself, describe their career as being a sequence of fortuitous circumstances rather than a grand plan to get to where they are now. For me, the path has been less about reaching a defined endpoint and more about pursuing interesting opportunities as and when they crop up.

    Thanks to the internet the ecosystem of science journalism is changing rapidly – and now even the ecosystem of science blogging is evolving – so think about the new opportunities that this is providing, whether it is creating blogs/social media channels for traditional media operations, moving into multimedia content, or joining new blogging networks.

    Sometimes you have to create your own opportunities. For example, if an institution/company says they want to embrace the web/social media/etc. but lack the appropriate vision or resources, do it yourself outside of work and show them that it can succeed.

  137. For me luck, a science background and a long-term desire to be a writer. Any kind.

    The science background I covered by passing the test to go (for those not in NYC tri-city area this was a big deal then) The Bronx High School of Science and winning three city-wide science fairs.

    The desire to be a writer? I found I always was a very curious kid, also liked telling people stories and answering questions. Unfortunately sometimes to being obnoxious -”Hey we didn’t want to know all that.” This is were I learned the power of editing.

    Then luck: Standing on a street corner in Manhattan, met a friend from HS who was writing for a science related trade magazine. As opposed to other people who wrote for trade magazines she really worked on her articles. Wanted to use them to show science editors she could cut it. And after all she went to college for it.

    At my college I almost failed my biochem course. Flunked Calc. It was like a switch was turned off, I just didn’t care anymore. Switched major to theater, my minor. Yeah I know what a combination.

    She and I became friends again. She stuck it out in the trenches of journalism, and got a job at a science magazine rose to be an editor. I was writing plays and screenplays. Collecting rejection letters. We lost contact, then met again when we both moved, now both married to Forest Hills.

    Honestly, not thinking I was pitching a story to her over dinner, I mentioned something about what I thought she would be interested in for an article, she just said “why don’t you write it?” “No deadline give it a try.” I did, got it in fast, and then kept pitching her ideas. When I had more than I could write my wife became a science writer. (Heck, she was the better writer in the house ). Knowing the topic? Yes. But a lot of times I found asking questions from a lack of knowledge got me a better story.

    M. Mead once said, “If you can’t explain your work to a 12 year old, go back the lab.

    From there I started to concentrate on environmental issues, wrote for NYTimes, magazines. As I said I learned as I wrote. Also about the topic, though I tried to do my homework, background as best I can. (This is pre Google) My first editor was also great in giving me tips on structure, etc. Though sometimes I swear she would return an article with the words “A H.S. student could do this.” Then rewrote it, not knowing what was wrong, and getting not the article back, but a fax “Genius.” Never get the courage to ask her what I did to earn the promotion?

    Then a series of bad things happened, my fault and fate. The dip in interest in science was not because of science but an undiagnosed case of bi-polar, heavy on the depression, that I now can trace back to elementary school. During a high level Stephen Jay Gould screwed me with an article by agreeing to answer certain questions on the phone and changing his mind when we met. The article was for The New York Times and it had a definite deadline. He agreed to talk science, his past, his book, instead he talked about growing up in the old neighborhood. Did two articles for two magazines, Health and Longevity, then they folded. (I swear not my fault). My bi-polar went to the depressed level. Still undiagnosed though I went to doctor, to shrink, the works. And here was the biggest error I still tried to maintain amount of writing I did. Didn’t tell my editors, stigma.

    So I committed probably the worst crime in journalism -not delivering material on time, and not fact-checking. And as I said I didn’t tell editors about problem. So I didn’t give an editor a chance to understand, extend deadlines, lower workload. Everyone was telling me not to tell, the stigma.

    Bridges burned, I did some environmental writing and lobbying. Ten years ago I founded a non-profit organization HerpDigest.org that published a free weekly internet only newsletter on the latest news on reptile and amphibian science and conservation. Readership 30,000 plus, all over the world.
    Bi-polar, depression? I have pills for that, though they, say, 90% of the time work. Also I’m the publisher/editor so I make the deadlines. And even when depressed I have 2-3 hours a day of clarity which I dedicate to HerpDigest. When you are doing a full-length article, involving a lot of interviews forget it. Your drafts are not even H.S. level.

    So I am aswering not the question how you get to be a science writer, but how you overcome obstacles to stay one. It’s Andy Rooney and Judy Garland time, “Hey Let’s put on a play in the barn”

    But it’s the net this time.

    My ability to find stories also enabled me to find niches, areas stories weren’t reported. In Herpetology there was only the journals and one hobbyist magazine. Nothing in between, no report on odd, but interesting discoveries, or techniques -like you can train a dog to sniff out not only box turtles, but different species of snakes. This information, if accepted, might make the journals in a year. And most important conservation, none of the journals reported regularly on it, even though the organization would have a “Conservation” chair.

    I find journalists use my newsletter as a tip sheet, that the media call me for suggestions of whom to interview, (Natgeo called once for suggestions of a snake expert in Australia, for a possible show.) And I’ve been interviewed on TV, print, radio, you name it. Even told a reporter how to properly care for the turtle he just bought for his 8 year old.

    Yeah I’ve somehow combined my three loves writing, science and theater.

    So you want to be a science writer? A real reporter. I find most science writers are more fans than reporters, see Apple. Though some publications are getting tougher on him, especially his business model. The net is the answer. blogs, newsletters like mine. Who knows what invention will be next to help science writers. Yeah but I hope they will be there to cover it. Un-biased

    Allen Salzberg

  138. I agree with this thread that science writers have diverse backgrounds and everyone comes to this field from a different place. And this is certainly the question I am most often asked.

    My background is in science (BS and MS) with a handful of creative writing and journalism courses to satisfy the right side of my brain, with an MFA expected in 2012. I’ve been lucky to land jobs with the actual title of “science writer,” but I think part of that luck is knowing what you want and sharing your goals with others. Don’t be shy about wanting to be a writer. The science background helps me feel comfortable around scientists, when interviewing and conducting research. But someone with a writing background can do just as well.

    The best advice I can give is the best advice I received from my own mentors: if you want to write, just write–but start small. My first awful stories were in the campus paper, then the newsletter of a state wetland scientist association. But they provided practice, and clips for getting bigger jobs. Also remember the reader, your audience, and always ask yourself the “so what?” question.

    This profession takes courage, honesty, and time. Lots of time.

  139. Sorry for the delay in answer…

    For my physic’s laurea (before Bologna process: it is equivalent to master degree), I wrote some web pages about cosmic rays and muon’s life time for my physic’s department. This little work seeds the passion for science writing, so when I discovered Wikipedia, I signed in and started to write physic’s pages.
    In the end of 2008 I decided that Wikipedia wasn’t sufficient, so I proposed to Blogosfere to restart an old scientific italian blog. They accepted my propose, so now I regulary write science!

    I have only two advices for people who start science writing: passion and expertise. Expertise is necessary to understand research language, also in different fields from our, and passion is important to feel something to our readers.

    I recently start to write in english: http://goo.gl/qAzXY

    My twitters: http://twitter.com/ulaulaman | http://twitter.com/sciback

    Thanks to Ed, and sorry for my english!

  140. Wendy Barnaby

    At school, journalism wasn’t on the list of careers we were told about. I didn’t know there were such things as journalists. I did enjoy writing, though, and I was interested in what was going on.

    At the end of the 1960s I intended to read English at Sydney University, but changed to Politics when I discovered how boring the teaching of English was. After graduating, I joined the Australian Dept of Foreign Affairs and was posted to Stockholm.

    Journalists impinged then as gloriously independent (OK, I was naïve). In contrast, we rule-bound bureaucrats had to write bloodless memos, and read similar fare which arrived every week in the bag from Canberra. The Embassy was accredited to Finland and Norway. As the most junior diplomat in the post, I was asked to look after Australia’s relations with Norway (there were none, which was why I was asked to look after them). That meant I could travel through fell and fjord and ask people there what was going on. My eyes were opened when I went to see the then Editor of the Bergen Tidende, who talked with what seemed like intelligent abandon after the guarded phrases of my opposite numbers in Oslo. This guy – I’ve long since forgotten his name – was enthusiastic and opinionated about politics in Norway. Journalism suddenly seemed attractive.

    A few years later I had the opportunity to write for the front end of Nature, from Stockholm. I hadn’t done any science since I was 16, but I reasoned that science policy would be like the other policy stuff I’d been writing about: less science, more policy. I was exhilarated to see what I wrote in print. Thanks to the indulgence of David Davies, then Editor of Nature, and later Robyn Williams at the ABC in Sydney, I was able to get enough taste for journalism to wake up, at 30, and say, “This is what I want to do!”

    Since then I’ve been entranced by science itself. How did I miss all this at school? I’ve freelanced in various media and have had a ball.

    I’ve read the advice other journalists in this thread have given, and agree that you should just do it however you can: blogs, podcasts – whatever. It’s amazing to be able to publish yourself, on the web. Ask people everywhere if they can help. Keep on the look-out for opportunities. If you can afford it, go on a journalism course. If freelancing appeals, get a job and make contacts before you launch out. Spread your favours. Good luck!

  141. Why I got into science writing? Well, my best buddy in chemistry at Newcastle somehow managed to drop a filter paper full of sodium hydroxide pellets down the front of his trousers. The screaming and panic convinced me that I too had probably had enough of the inherent risks of lab work. It was either that or a lifetime of checking my labcoat was properly buttoned up…his wasn’t…he still smarts.

    The slightly more serious answer to the question complete with my long-haired mugshot from decades ago:

    http://www.sciencebase.com/science-blog/two-decades-of-science-communication.html

  142. Daniel Stolte

    I have never considered myself a writer. To this day. When I was 7 or so, I typed a couple of short stories on a type writer. But only because the typing was cool. The stories sucked. Instead, I went outside whenever I could, watched birds, explored abandoned mines or snorkeled in the lakes around the area I grew up in in Germany. An “educational sponge” -Sarah Webb nailed it. That’s how I have felt throughout my life. I have always felt more as an explorer than a scientist. Born a couple of hundred years too late.

    Torn between a knack for languages and a never-fading interest in science (but a complete and utter failure at math), I started my college years majoring in Spanish, taking biology on the side. After a couple of semesters, I discovered that loving to speak a foreign language is very different from spending weeks debating the motives of an author who died several hundred years ago. So I made biology my major, but kept linguistics as a minor. Fascinated with science, I saw my future as a researcher.

    The further I got along, though, the more I realized something that, again, Sarah Webb described perfectly: “I felt like academic science was pushing me to learn more and more about less and less.” Sure, I was passionate about my major, developmental biology, and found the question of how a single egg cell makes a whole organism the most fascinating question I could think of, but during my graduate research I found myself forced to think in terms of pipetting protocols, test tubes, and dull, boring method papers more than the great wonders of life in its making. Around the same time, I noticed that whenever my fellow science geek friends and I talked to non-scientists, I seemed to be the only one noticing how their eyes glazed over, until I took a stab at explaining what we did. I seemed to have a certain feel for where they were coming from, and what mattered to them.

    Still, I didn’t enjoy writing at all. Plus, I really didn’t care too much about what other people think about the things that interest me. Bad prerequisites for a science communicator, no? During my master’s thesis research, I got a chance to write articles about all kinds of research at my university (Freiburg University) for the local paper, which gave me the opportunity to fuel my own interest and learn about all kinds of things outside my day-to-day workings, such as particle physics, epilepsy or nano-technology. As much as I loved learning about those things, writing about them still was a drag. But hey, it was the price I paid for being able to walk into someone’s lab, point my finger at fancy-looking machines and ask all kinds of, uh, basic questions.

    At one point when I was nearing my thesis, a friend of mine who, unlike me, knew she wanted to be a journalist and nothing else, pushed me to apply to Germany’s most competitive journalism school (2000 apply, 45 get in). “Yeah, right, I said, that’ll work. Me? Don’t be silly. I don’t even read the paper every day.” She replied, “Come on, you have to apply just once, only to be able to say you did it.” – “Ok,” I said, “but only because you said so.” – Unbelievably, I got in. For some reason, they must have liked the idea of a science geek who didn’t give a damn about daily politics wanting to tell others about science. I guess. I still don’t know what they were thinking.

    During an internship in the science department at a German newspaper, I realized that the pressure of day-to-day reporting wasn’t for me. Personally, I don’t really care too much if I hear about an interesting story the minute it breaks or tonight when I get home, or even tomorrow. If it’s cool, who cares? I know, doesn’t bode well for being a news reporter. So I crossed that off my list. My second internship took me to the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg. Free from the pressures of daily deadlines, I got to learn about cool science. Works for me, I thought, even though the limited topic got a bit old after a while.

    Finally, through some unlikely and happenstance circumstances, I was offered a job as a science writer at the University of Arizona in Tucson. My main motivation behind that move was the fact that I had hopelessly fallen in love with the wild nature of the American Southwest during a year spent as an exchange student in Flagstaff, Arizona. I wanted to live there. What I did, was, well, not that important (Anything but flipping burgers, I guess). And here I am. Writing about science that is not my own, in a language that is not my own. Weird. But it seems to work, at least so far.

    Writing is still the hardest thing for me, so hard as a matter of fact that I sometimes doubt myself. Why am I doing this? If I truly were a writer, wouldn’t writing come easily and be a blast? On the other hand, once I have finished a piece with a lot of blood, sweat and anguish, I get encouraging feedback. People seem to like my angle and the way I boil down even the most abstract and arcane stuff.

    At this point, I consider writing the price I pay for being a “science tourist” who gets to learn and tell others about cutting edge science during my day job and explore the wonders of the world in one of the most beautiful places on the planet on the weekends. For now, I’m happy. In the long run, I am hoping to put my skills to use for the better of the living world, though. I am most passionate about the ocean. I teach scuba and take every opportunity to dive in the Sea of Cortez, one of the world’s most amazing oceans. Hopefully I can do my small part in protecting it in some way, somewhere, someday.

  143. Tuan C. Nguyen

    After spending my twenties working in the tar pits of the film business, I felt something was amiss and decided to move to New York and reinvent myself as a writer. Silly and naive, yes. But if I had known that, I wouldn’t have done it.

    I went to journalism school and after mulling it over chose to cover science because, as a mentor once explained to me, science is the beat of “everything in existence.” And when I really thought about it, very few other topics I read about left me with that feeling of just having absorbed something profound and universal. So I see what I do as reporting on the sometimes small, but often really, really big questions.

    It was intimidating at first because I had thought you needed something like two PHDs and fluency in all sorts of esoteric knowledge to write about science. And I’m sure having a science background helps. But at school, I was encouraged to learn that, at the most fundamental level, journalism was about distilling all kinds of complex topics down to its very essence. It’s also reassuring to know that all the theories, apparatus and dizzying volumes of research that scientists employ are used to produce a few nuggets of insight.

    I think as a science writer it’s best to keep in mind what Albert Einstein once said about science and simplicity: “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”

    Also, I believe wholeheartedly that writing is most unforgettable when it involves people — the characters that entertain, fascinate, shock, inspire, move, enthrall and affect us. And the greatest science stories are the ones where readers can follow along with the people who are taking that faithful journey of discovery.

    Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist and a contributing editor to the online magazine Smart Planet. Follow me on twitter @ ReporterTuan

  144. Catherine Brahic

    Ed contacted me six months ago asking me to contribute to this and I declined. When people ask me why or how I became a science writer I always say the same thing: my father is a scientist, my mother is a writer and I was doomed. That just seemed too short and unhelpful for this blog, so I politely told Ed thanks but no thanks.

    The essentials haven’t changed since last year. My father is still a scientist, my mother is still a writer. But in the meantime, several more budding young writers have approached me wanting to know: how do I start, where do I start. Two came up to me last week after I gave a lecture at UEA and I forgot to say one thing to them, so I’ll put it here instead.

    Editors don’t commission you because you’re a great writer. They commission you because you have great ideas. Yes, style helps, no question about that. But if your prose is stunning and your stories are not you don’t stand a chance in hell of getting a commission.

    There are two lessons to take from this. If you’re not a great writer, that’s not the end of the road. Get out, find some cracking, mind-boggling, earth-shattering stories about little-known science then pitch them to a publication. Great story ideas are like shiny objects to science editors. We just can’t resist them. In fact, if it really is mind-boggling and earth-shattering, pitch it to us.

    And if you are a writer, you are blessed. You’ve got an edge, but my advice is the same. Get out, find cracking, mind-boggling, earth-shattering… you know the drill.

    Good luck. I look forward to reading your work.

    Catherine Brahic is New Scientist’s environment news editor

  145. I guess it all begun with a three year old blond girl and a question: “Why?” My daughter´s curiosity was easy to satisfied at first: Why do icebergs float? But then she made a leap, and a very big one: she asked me how do you know that? She wasn´t asking where I learned that from, she was wondering how did we, as human beings, came to that knowledge. And I wonder myself.

    From that moment her curiosity turned into yearning and forced me to investigate, to learn, to listen. Somehow she send me back to the begining: I started asking questions myself. Slowly I quite flirting with travel journalism and married science writing. I moved from Argentina to Spain and begun writing for a science magazine here. That was seven years ago.

    Now my daughter is a teenager, but the seed of her curiosity is still there forcing me to find an answer to the questions that some day, I hope, she will ask me.
    I´m fortunate. I live of asking questions to the minds that area changing or explaining our world. I make a living of curiosity and learning. And my job is to infect people with the same need to learn, the same will to understand. I guess I started in science journalism because of my daughter, but
    I´m still here because her curiosity turned out to be contagious and I want to spread it.

    So, if you want to be a science writer you´d probably have two choices: either search fo the questions or the people that are asking them…Or have a daughter.
    Both ways you´ll be very lucky.

    Juan Scaliter is a science editor in Quo magazine, Spain.

  146. Hi, science writer Robin Smith here. My thoughts are for the busy grad student or postdoc who wants to break into science writing, but can’t find the time. I can relate. I was a PhD biologist struggling to get my foot in the door. I now run the newsroom at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, and am flexing my freelance muscles in various magazines and newspapers. Breaking into a new field can be daunting, especially when your PI expects you to be in the lab 60 hours a week. If you love writing about science, there are ways to break into science writing while still slaving away at the lab bench.

    Here’s how:

    *You still gotta eat. Don’t eat alone. Use meal times to network with other science writers. You don’t even have to leave campus. Find faculty who’ve written popular books or started blogs and invite them for coffee. Figure out who covers science in your university news office and ask them to join you for lunch. Call the editor at your university research magazine and bribe them with beer. Many of these people are seasoned former journalists. Ask them what they do and how they got where they are. One of these writers may become a mentor.

    *You still gotta go to talks and conferences. That means you have something most science writers would kill for: access to the newest science. Use talks to find sources and story ideas that no one else has covered. Play reporter. Buy a cheap digital voice recorder or take notes. Invite the most interesting speakers for a follow-up chat, and ask if you can write about their research. Translate their work into engaging prose and pitch them to your university research magazine or institutional news office. The news editor you had lunch with last week may well be willing to publish your work, or give you pointers for next time.

    *You still gotta call home, and generally talk to people outside your lab. Use those moments to practice telling your newfound science stories in plain English. If your cousin doesn’t get it, or your little sister doesn’t think it’s cool, you’re not quite there yet.

    *You still gotta do lab work. And let’s face it, in lab work there’s a lot of down time. Use the time while your gel is running or your DNA is thawing to write a guest post for your favorite blog, or to polish that piece you pitched to your university research magazine. Remember the book, “Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day”? Other kinds of writing projects can get done that way too.

    *You still gotta publish. If the journal editor asks you if you’d also like to submit a press release to go with your article — and more and more journals do — say yes. Use it as evidence that you can write for broader audiences.

    *You still gotta find a postdoc, or otherwise support yourself post-PhD. Consider applying for a nontraditional postdoc teaching undergraduate writing. There are a number of university writing programs across the country that recruit newly-minted PhDs from across the sciences and humanities to design and teach writing courses in their field. I got my start in the freelancing world while teaching writing through Duke University’s Thompson Writing Program, but UPenn’s Critical Writing Program and the Princeton Writing Program offer similar fellowships. If you’ve never taught writing before (which I hadn’t), keep in mind that teaching is the best way to learn. What better way to see if you can make science accessible and interesting to a general audience than by convincing a group of 18 year-olds that science―and writing―are interesting at 8:30 a.m.? Another option is to take the summer before your next gig to work as a science reporter. Graduate students and postdocs in the sciences and engineering are eligible to apply for 10-week summer fellowships though the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows Program. The deadline for the AAAS Mass Media fellowship is Jan. 15 each year.

    Happy writing.

  147. I was in fact looking for something totally different than On the Origin of Science Writers | Not Exactly Rocket Science | Discover Magazine but in some way My partner and i wound up on this site. Celebs get all of our particular attention due to the fact we expect these individuals to be extraordinary in each and every aspect of what they do and the way these people live. The truth of the matter is that under the hood these are common individuals and possess common complications, just as the everybody else. My partner and I often look at http://friendfeed.com/rodelscuebe since it is kept up to date day to day with all the most current news of celebrities so you may like to try it out.
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  148. I think the reasons that people move into science writing is due to many factors, and I think it says something about the nature of scientific research (which we get a taste of in graduate school). Scientists have to have an unwavering passion for their work and be able to stomach all of the dead ends that come along with the exciting results. Usually answering one question leads to ten other questions, so scientists have to be willing to focus on a hypothesis for as long as necessary. I couldn’t always wrap my head around these aspects of research – especially the idea that you’re never actually “done” with a project, that there’s always one (or twenty) more questions to ask and answer. Additionally, I really began to recognize the need for more accurate and responsible reporting about science and discoveries. My writing centers around peritoneal mesothelioma treatment. Maybe others have felt that same way about research or science news and decided to redirect their passion for science into writing?

  149. I loved writing from a very young age—when I was in the fourth grade, I wrote a monthly magazine for my friends for about a year, just for fun—but I also always loved science. When I got older my creative passions turned to music, and I got a bachelor of music in composition in addition to my bachelor of science in cell & molecular biology. But as much as I loved writing music, I realized that I wasn’t crazy about my potential career path: doctorate, academic position, teaching. So instead, after graduating, I moved to London and began working in marketing for a biotechnology firm.
    That’s when I started reading New Scientist religiously. I wasn’t wild about the business side of science and found myself fantasizing about being a science writer. I reached out to a handful of writers I admired and asked them for advice. Did I need to get a Ph.D. to write about science? Did I need to go to journalism school? One New Scientist writer I contacted advised me that a journalism degree might not be a bad idea to “cleanse” myself of my business / marketing past. I got a response back from John Gribbin, too, who told me that I didn’t need any advanced degrees; I just needed to start writing. I remember how excited I was that he took the time to write me back. It made the possibility real. I can do this, I thought.
    I ended up in NYU’s SHERP program the next year and loved every minute of it. Then I did a short stint at SEED, but I knew that I wanted to write, not edit. So in February of 2007 I quit and I’ve been freelancing ever since. I’m always learning about the most amazing things. I love my job

  150. Just discovered this post. Great idea, Ed (although I’m ethically ambivalent about encouraging youngsters to aspire to science journalism now). Like some other folks here, when I was a kid I was torn between wanting to be a scientist (sub-teen, I was really into collecting rocks and fossils, later, when I became a neurotic teen, leaned toward brain science) or a writer. Only in my late 20s–when I finally graduated from journalism school after detours into hippiedom and house-painting and lots of bad unpublished poetry and short stories–did I realize I could write about science. I started late, got my first job at 30, but never regretted it. I love covering science as much now as I ever did. I talked about our groovy endangered profession in (much much much) more detail in a chat with Lee Hotz of the Wall Street Journal at NYU last spring, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eRuZwL78yH0.

  151. All throughout my years in school and then grad school I was going back and forth between writing and lab work. I always enjoyed writing and, especially,explaining complicated scientific topics to those who were not in scientific professions. My hobby stuck with me and now I write scientific posts for various biotech companies.

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