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Writers Write, Part II: More on the Science Writing Field from an Editor-in-Chief

Submitted by Lori Conlan December 20, 2010
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Happy holidays, everyone! Last month, OITE hosted an online chat on careers in science writing with Mariette DiChristina, the Editor-in-Chief of Scientific American. The chat was attended by over 400 people, and some questions remained unanswered by chat's end, so Ms. DiChristina graciously offered to answer those remaining. Here are her responses to your questions:

Q: I would love to hear about what steps one should take while in grad school - i.e. prepare for a postdoc? seek out writing opps?

A: Definitely seek out writing opps if you want to be a writer. As I probably said during our e-chat, find ideas and propose them to publications. Proposals should be just a page long and should include everything the editor needs to know about the story idea: why it is important, why it is new, how long you want to write it, what art would there might be, etc. Or look for an internship. One that you can consider is the AAAS Media Fellowship, which is explicitly created for scientists who are working on a Ph.D. but are now at a point where they want to explore journalism.

Q: How competitive is the field of science writing, and how realistic is it to expect job opportunities, etc?

A: If you’re thinking ONLY of the world of consumer publishing, it’s hugely competitive, and it just got turned inside out by electronic publishing. If you’'re very entrepreneurial, and you'’re interested in running your own business as a freelance writer, you can make a go of it. You need to arm yourself with info about how to do that— and one way would be to at least use the free listserv at the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) exit icon1 to ask steady questions. There’s also a listserv just for freelancers, but you have to be a member. If you’'re looking for a staff job, there aren'’t that many opportunities unless your plan is to be an editor. If you’re thinking outside the world of consumer publishing, your opportunities are much greater. But my expertise is only in consumer publishing.

Q: Articles published in the New York Times science section, for example, vs. Popular Science are quite different. As a researcher, I find that in the NYT things are often exaggerated vs in good science magazines, it's "sold" to the reader but more realistically. Is there a difference in backgrounds of these various writers? Would a research background be applicable more to one, or not necessarily?

A: The difference is the readership and what the readers expect. Your background makes less of a difference than your ability to connect with those readers. If you have a research background, great. But that background only gives you expertise for a particular area. The art of being a science writer is to cover the entire spectrum, and to make a connection with your readers: what they need, what they know. Science magazines, unlike daily newspapers, can count on the fact that their readers are at least interested in science. In a daily general publication, however, that’'s not a given. That'’s part of the difference behind the tones that you'’ve noticed. The publications are serving their readers; —they are not serving scientists per se or serving people of particular backgrounds per se.

Q: We all hear about journalists' jobs disappearing. What do you do to keep your work unique in the digital age?

A: I make sure I keep up with things. I am now tweeting. I blog from conferences. I carry a BlackBerry, an iPhone and an iPad— usually, all at the same time—, so I can use them and think about what Scientific American should look like on different devices. (Yes, I need to play with an Android phone and other stuff but even I am only human!) I make sure my mind and eyes are open, —but I needed those skills to be a journalist anyway. Imagine doing something for a living where you will NEVER be the expert. You are always the novice, always the student when you are a journalist.

Q: If I'm a current PhD student, what actual steps can I take (aside from blogging) to wet my feet? Any internships, programs, or jobs that could break me into this world?

A: Yes, lots of them. NASW exit icon1 has a list. Another thing you can do is forget the list and simply write directly to places that you’'d like to work for. If they can'’t use you as an intern for whatever reason, you might at least be able to visit for an informational interview. If you get one of those, you can ask all the questions you want. But you'’d better bring lots of questions; —don'’t expect the editor to give you a lecture like an academic.

Q: What kind of "job track" is typical of someone working their way up to a science-writing job at Scientific American or Nature or Science?

A: I don'’t think a typical job track exists. Some people have research backgrounds. Some people have journalism backgrounds. Science writing includes both. More frequently these days, science journalists have at least a Bachelor’s in a science discipline and probably a Master’s in science writing. By the way, there are no science WRITING jobs at Scientific American. Most consumer monthlies have only editing jobs. If you want to be a writer, you’ would most likely be a freelancer.

Q: What is the best way to encourage kids in middle school (ages 12-15) to write about science?

A: I wish I knew that! I have daughters who are 10 and 14. They think science is cool, because it’'s always been in my house. I think one thing that encourages kids is to keep having fun with science. When my girls ask me a question that has some scientific answer, a lot of the time we make a game out of it. What are the questions we need to ask to find out? How would we do that? Or I walk them through the logical chain of events, instead of simply saying the answer.

Q: How should you choose a topic to write about? How do you know what the latest in the field is - by reading peer-reviewed journals?

A: That'’s one way, and a great way. But another is taking advantage of your location to visit scientists who are working on different things. Whenever I take a trip, I try to visit a local institution or two. I ask the public information officers to see if they can get me time with some scientists who are doing interesting things. Another idea is to go to conferences. But the best is to keep your “story idea” cap on at all times. I know a writer who got a great feature idea while sitting at the vet’'s office and listening to an exchange between doctor and pet owner. You can find stories everywhere, if you are open to them.

Q: Is it common for those enthusiastic about science to write about health policy issues?

A: Not all that common as a narrow category, I suppose, but there'’s a lot of call for health writing in general.

Q: Given you take the normal scientific career path, what is the optimal time to apply, i.e. after PhD, after postdoc?

A: Not sure what you'’re applying for here. If you mean for a position as an intern, then I would do that while you'’re still in school. If you'’re applying for a consumer magazine, anytime is fine. If it'’s a journal, they'’ll want you to have a Ph.D., but I don’t think they will expect a postdoc.

Q: Who are some of the big science writers that you admire?

A: Gosh, lots. If you look at Scientific American, you'’ll see them in our pages. I love people who’se curiosity and enthusiasm lights up the pages. I recommend picking up the two Best American Science Writing books each year; —the top writers are in there. One of them is best science writing and one is best science and nature writing.

Q: Back to the day-to-day description, if you're working for deadlines, how many deadlines per week, etc., are typical?

A: Depends on the job. When I was a daily newspaper reporter in the Stone Age, it wasn'’t unusual for me to write three or even four stories in a day. As a monthly magazine editor, I have different kinds of deadlines—; each element in an article has to move along. So every little piece of art, all the blocks of text, the pieces that then are going online as the online components, etc. Basically, every day there are three or four things that need to happen, sometimes more.

Q: What do science writers typically get health insurance? Is it offered through an organization like the National Association of Science Writers, or do people generally get it individually?

A: If you are a freelance writer, you buy your own. The NASW exit icon1 offers group discounts, just because of the number of members who are freelancers, but they’'re really still individual purchases. If you work for a corporation as I do, the company has to supply it if you work over a certain number of hours - —and you'’ll typically pay at least one-quarter to one-half of the total expenses, which are considered part of your compensation. If you’'re a freelancer, you should charge rates that take all of your costs into account: —for office space, healthcare, supplies, travel, etc. NASW exit icon1 members have access to a database called Words’ Worth that documents what people have been paid for different types of jobs.

Q: What about writing from an office, not from home? Are you still paid "by deadline" and by word count?

A: If you'’re a freelancer, you'’re paid by word or by job. If you'’re in an office as a full-time employee, you'’re paid by week or hourly. I am an “exempt” employee, which means it doesn'’t matter if I work 80 or 100 hours a week, I still get paid the same. And sometimes I do pull really, really long hours.

Q: Would I need to do a postdoc to become a Nature editor?

A: I don'’t think so. But a Ph.D. is the minimum requirement. Best of luck with your writing!

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