One of the most common questions I get asked is how to become a science writer. How do I get started? What skills do I need? Is it possible to make a living at it? Science writers arrive at the career by various paths, plus the job depends largely on the type of science writing you do. So, it’s difficult to generalize, but here’s what I know.
About My Writing Career
First, it may help to learn how I came to science writer. I was trained as a research scientist. I wrote scientific papers and contributed to books — the usual stuff. Writing was not on my radar, except as a means to publish results. When I graduated with my doctorate, the economy was dismal, with many lay-offs and no money for new hires. So, I took a job writing abstracts for scientific papers so they could be indexed in government databases. My education had covered all the bases in science, with bachelor and advanced degrees in difference disciplines, so it was interesting and comfortable work. From there, I went into research and teaching. In addition to writing papers, I also edited and reviewed work by others. Once again, times became tough, so in 2001 I picked up a part-time gig writing about chemistry online for About.com. I picked up many freelance jobs and started writing independently before the About.com job became full-time. In 2017, I’m a science writer for ThoughtCo (the new incarnation of About.com) and I own and write Science Notes.
Skills Needed to Become a Science Writer
Most science writers come to the profession with either college degrees in journalism or technical writing or else degrees in science. It’s not impossible to be a writer without college education, but it’s much harder to land opportunities. No matter what, you can expect any potential employer will ask to see samples of your work. If you have a portfolio of articles, it’s easier to find new opportunities, but many companies still want to see an example of writing that is specific to the job.
You will need:
- Either a degree in science or journalism or at least writing samples.
- Exceptional writing skills. Journalism majors often excel here, yet struggle with content, while science majors may have trouble writing. Mastering grammar, spelling, and punctuation is not enough. You need to be able to write for the intended audience. You could write the best scientific paper in the world, but if a contract calls for a popular science article in an unrelated field, you may feel out of your depth!
- An interest in and understanding of science, appropriate to the level of the article.
- The ability to meet deadlines and other requirements set by a publication.
- The capacity to wait for payment 🙂 If you get a regular full-time job, this might not be an issue. Many writers are freelancers, meaning it’s not uncommon to get paid 30-45 days after the deadline (or later).
It’s a digital age, so it helps if you have:
- Social media accounts and a following.
- Photography and graphic artist skills. You may be asked to source or produce images to accompany articles.
How to Get Started Writing
There are many ways to get started writing. If you’re still in school, offer to write for the school paper or else write a blog. It doesn’t really matter whether you write about science at this point. Hone your skills!
If you’re not in school, start writing. You could write a blog, pitch article ideas to the local paper, pitch articles online, or search online for writing jobs. Don’t expect to land your dream job immediately and don’t expect any single job to pay a living wage. It’s certainly possible to make a good living as a writer with a single contract, but risky (all your eggs in one basket) and relatively uncommon. So, start small. Consider writing for Fiverr or search opportunities at places like Indeed, Upwork, science publications, or any place that lists jobs. If you have an idea for a great story, pitch it to any publication that seems like a good fit. With time and experience, you’ll be on your way.
Also, network with other writers. Seek groups on Facebook or LinkedIn or just get together with friends who have a similar interest. The connections will help you find opportunities and training.
What Kinds of Opportunities Are There?
Science Magazine has a great article that describes the types of science writing jobs out there. Basically, you can work from home or in a traditional office space. Any discipline is fair game. Broad categories include science journalism, medical writing, and editing.
A Final Word of Advice
A science writer (or any writer) writes. You simply can’t help yourself. So, if you’re interested in pursuing it as a career, just start writing. The trick is to get paid for it, but if you’re good and you keep at it, the money will follow. Share your work with friends, families, strangers… whoever will read it. Accept criticism gracefully. Write more.
Got questions? It might take me a few days, but I do try to respond to comment.