How to Become a Science Writer

Pixabay photo by grebmot. Atacama desert, Chile

Asking for Help

A biology student arrived at a friend’s table at a local university‘s annual Science Day. A young researcher, she wondered how to get started in writing and communicating science. Because I have work experience in the area, my friend waved me over — and I talked about The Open Notebook, a site dedicated to helping science writers improve their skills; and several books I love and find helpful. I’ve linked those below.

Lifelong Learning

That info was top-of-mind for me, because I’m always reading, watching videos, and trying to take in studies and interesting stories. If you, like me, sometimes feel the need to work double-time to catch up on your subject, you’re not alone; I’ve heard similar takes from scientists who taught themselves to write, and now worry they don’t do it as well as others. Those who arrived after reporting on other topics include Carl Zimmer, New York Times columnist and author of 13 books about science, who wrote about his background in his 2013 National Geographic essay, “A Note to Beginning Science Writers.”

Bringing Our Strengths

You may be a trained research scientist who likes talking with others about what you’ve learned; or maybe you have a nose for news and responsible sourcing; or perhaps you have creative ideas and can learn skills in graphics, video, and audio to share those with others. You may be a combination of them all. Either way, you can help the world if you communicate well-sourced ideas and continue to learn. Read more here about science writers’ wide range of backgrounds.

Where to Begin

Information’s all around, but I’ve tried to collect some favorite sources here.

Websites

Getting Started in Science Writing, from Open Notebook

Books

I frequently refer to chapters in both of these, or just read them with avid interest:

A Field Guide for Science Writers, The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers

The Science Writer’s Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital Age

I’m also very interested in The Craft of Science Writing, published by Open Notebook.

Reading a ton (whether in articles, websites, or books) puts me in touch with scientific studies and news from professional sources, improves my writing, and fills my head with stories and characters.

Please consider shopping at local bookstores on Indiebound.

Podcasts

Writers’ Co-op. Co-hosts Jenni Gritters and Wudan Yan address concerns “like finding clients, time management, diversifying income streams, balancing multiple assignments at one time, creating a budget, the ins and outs of taxes, negotiating higher pay, marketing your business, building authority and trust with clients, securing mentorship, work life balance, and more.”

Organizations

Writer organizations often have useful websites, discussion forums, and networking. And in many cases, they provide opportunities to share your books, ebooks, and other accomplishments in newsletters and social media. Hearing about others’ work can also bring opportunities to collaborate, or inspire new projects.

I’m a fan of joining local science writer organizations. In their gatherings or online, you can network and meet local folks doing interesting work. Also, many groups have field trips to area science organizations (such as the zoo, museums, institutes, university departments) that can provide learning opportunities or story ideas. Some host active job boards. If your area doesn’t have such a group, you can find them in nearby regions or cities.

National Association of Science Writers. Their website has resources for writing books and training; e-chat groups for various types of science writers and journalists; and info on their lively annual conference.

Society of Environmental Journalists. Many environmental reporters and writers swear by SEJ for conferences, a pithy newsletter, networking groups, and other information.

Others. Networking with a sizable group of freelancers and other writers can be really useful, especially if you go into freelance content marketing or institutional writing. These include:

American Society of Journalists and Authors. A regional conference of ASJA I attended included editors from Slate, Mother Jones, and others. While I’m still getting acquainted with the organization, I’ve talked with many freelancers who found clients in ASJA’s conferences and virtual one-on-one editor meetings with consumer and trade publications, content agencies, and others.

FreelanceSuccess. This organization has a useful industry-tips newsletter and active writer discussion forums.

Conferences. Look up scientist conferences in your town or city and attend to listen in, learn more, and get ideas.

Internships and trainings

If you have the time or money, Nature Publishing lists interesting science journalism internships here.

University of Rhode Island’s Metcalf Institute offers environmental journalists and others training sessions here.

Santa Fe Writing Workshop has journalist trainings in science.

Free and inexpensive classes

The Poynter Institute for Media Studies has free online classes here.

NPR has a group for science communicators of all skill levels. It also allows scientists and engineers to send pitches and receive feedback on their writing and editing.

NPR free training info is here.

Your local library website may offer Lynda.com (also known as LinkedIn Learning) classes free with card access to the site.

Coursera generally offers free classes for the first 30 days. Skillshare has a free trial period as well.

Specific Topics

If you want to learn more right now about COVID-19, SEJ compiled these resources and NASW has a page on that here. And you may want to check out this site from respected medical publisher Elsevier.

Want to see other resources on this page? Send me an email at cb daht arnold at gmail dot com, or subscribe to my newsletter on the blog page. And let’s connect here on Twitter and Linkedin or using social icons at the page bottom. Also, check out a few resources I’ve collected on making a living writing.

Or are you ready to move on? Check out some of my work in environment and public health, journalism, or editing.

*Sometimes I share products, courses, and books that have made a real impression on me and perhaps changed how I do things. In some cases, I may be an affiliate and may be compensated if you click through and take action on those links. In most cases, I bought those products on my own. In a few cases, I checked out books from the library but did not buy them. I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for me to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

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Catherine B. Arnold is a hired pen writing about science, health, urbanism, and wildly unrelated areas. She’s published articles in the Washington Post, Seattle Times, Science Careers, Bicycling, and NBC Health; and does content marketing for NGOs, universities, organizations, and companies.