National Geographic

A Note To Beginning Science Writers

From time to time, I get letters from people thinking seriously about becoming science writers. Some have no idea how to start; some have started but want to know how to get better. I usually respond with a hasty email, so that I can get back to figuring out for myself how to be a science writer. I thought it would be better for everyone—the people contacting me and myself—to sit down and write out a thorough response. (I’m also going to publish a final version of this on my web site, here.)

First a caveat: I am probably the wrong person to ask for this advice. I stumbled into this line of work without any proper planning in the early 1990s, when journalism was a very different industry. The answer to “How do I become a science writer?” is not equivalent to “How did you become a science writer?”

I was the sort of kid who wrote stories, cartoons, and failed imitations of Watership Down. By college, I was working on both fiction and nonfiction, majoring in English to learn from great writers while trying to avoid getting sucked into the self-annihilating maze of literary theory. After college, I spent a couple years at various jobs while writing short stories on my own, but I gradually realized I didn’t have enough in my brain yet to put on the page.

In 1989 I wrote to some magazines to see if they had any entry-level jobs. I got a response from a magazine called Discover, saying they needed an assistant copy editor. I got the job but turned out to be a less-than-perfect copy editor, which means that I was a terrible copy editor. Fortunately, by then my editors had let me start to fact-check stories, which is arguably the best way to learn how to write about science. I got a chance to write short pieces, and I realized this was an experience unlike any previous writing I had done. I was writing about the natural world, but in nature I discovered strangeness beyond my own imagining. And scientists were willing to help me come to understand their discoveries. I stayed at Discover for ten years, the last four of which I was a senior editor there, and then headed out on my own, to write books, features, and other pieces.

In other words, I did not know in college that I wanted to be a science writer. While I took science classes because I enjoyed them, I didn’t get a degree in science. I didn’t go to graduate school for science journalism. I only had the good sense to recognize that I had fallen into a deeply satisfying kind of work.

That’s one reason to take my advice with a grain of salt. Another is the fact that for the first five years of my career, I did not have access to the Internet. I did not have email. At the time, magazine publishers did not see the point of rigging their computers to telephone wires. So my on-the-job training in science writing started in the antediluvian age when magazines and newspapers held a near-monopolistic control over science writing. The only alternatives were crudely printed zines which attracted only a tiny fraction of the circulation of large magazines, and none of their big-ticket advertisers.

All of that has changed, of course. BoingBoing, one of those crude zines, is now a hugely successful web site. It took a very long time for many in the science writing world to realize that change was coming, and many tried to ignore it once it had arrived. Just as I had stumbled into science writing, I stumbled into its online world. In the early 2000s I began enjoying the handful of blogs about science. When Natural History decided to stop publishing my essays, I realized that the essay genre was going to be a hard sell to other editors. So I set up a blog where I didn’t have to pitch someone beside myself.

At the time, blogs seemed like odd distractions. Along with everyone else, I had no idea that they would end up at the heart of science journalism. I also didn’t realize that traditional science journalism—and journalism in general—was undergoing a drastic change. Depending on who you talk to, a better word might be metamorphosis. Or collapse.

That’s why, as I write this note in 2013, I personally feel very lucky to have ended up making a living as a science writer, but I am very cautious in recommending it to others as a line of work. If you have decided that you want to become a science writer, make sure that your impression of the field is accurate. If you have a hazy sense of journalism as it was circa 1990, then you have to update your perceptions.

American newspapers enjoyed a great boom after the end of World War II, but that boom crested around 1990, and newspapers now employ fewer people than they did in 1950. During the boom years, newspapers hired lots of science writers for weekly science sections. At their peak, in 1989, there were 95 in the United States. Now there are 19. When newspapers try to stay profitable through cuts (never a wise strategy, but one that makes the books look good in the short term), the science section is often the first to go.

The same goes for magazines: if your image of science journalism in magazine dates back to the Reagan administration, it’s time to take stock. During the 1980s, there was an amazing boom of magazines dedicated solely to science–Discover, Omni, Science Digest, and on and on. The big magazines like Time and Newsweek had full-time staffers who wrote only about science. Yes, that’s right–I just called Newsweek a big magazine. Today they may be imploding, but once they had a building in Manhattan with their name on it. Like newspapers before them, magazines are now sliding. Many of the science magazines of yore have shut down altogether.

All that being said, some venues for science writing are thriving. They include traditional publications that are working out new ways to stay in business. And they include new publications that are not burdened by the bruising history of journalism. These old and new outlets will probably never support the same number of science writers there were the 1980s, for the simple reason that an article in the Los Angeles Times and an article in the Boston Globe are no longer separated by the 3000 miles that divide the two cities. They can sit side by side in two tabs on the same browser. On the other hand, it would be absurd to extend the trend in science journalism in a straight line from the past decline until it reaches zero.

If you have developed a clear-eyed view of science journalism, the next question to ask yourself is, “Is this a field I want to enter?” Once you set off into science writing, you do not automatically receive a staff job, a retirement package, and a list of great stories to write for the next fifty years. You enter a fierce competition, either for an entry level job or freelance assignments. Pay can be lean, even at high-profile publications. Find in yourself the strength to cope in this environment. Rejection is not a career-ending catastrophe in the world of science writing; it is a regular part of experience.

If you remain determined to go into the field, you may now be asking, “How do I start writing about science?” The answer is you start writing. It’s a bit like playing the trombone. If you walked up to a jazz band and announce that, after much thought, you think being a trombonist would be fun, they probably won’t hire you on the spot. They want to hear you play. A trombone teacher can help you become a better player, as can performing in school bands. But what matters most of all is those hours, day in and day out, that you spend alone practicing the trombone.

I direct this advice in particular at those graduate students in science who think that writing about science is more fun than doing it. I share your view. But that doesn’t mean that your hard work in graduate school has prepared you very well to write about science for a popular audience. The kind of writing that gets a paper published in the American Journal of Botany is not the kind that will get a story published in the Atlantic. Learning how to write about science takes work. To embark on that work, you should begin doing research for stories and writing several hundred words every day. Don’t be discouraged if, after several months, you still feel like you’re just getting the hang of writing about physics for a wide audience. It’s not easy.

One valuable way to learn how to write is to reverse engineer great science writers. If you like John McPhee, plow through Annals of the Former World and look at how he assembles his stories. If you want to be a scientist-writer, check out the best work out there, like the books of  Siddartha Mukherjee or Steven Pinker. Or check out this crowd-sourced list that Loom readers put together in 2009.  Don’t wait for someone to give you an authoritative set of instructions–they don’t exist.

Of course, in order to build up your skill at writing, you need something to write about. Fortunately, there’s no end of things that are happening in the scientific world, from new research to new controversies. You can sift through press releases, plow through journals, or just talk to people to find out what’s new. Don’t feel an obligation to write about what everyone else is, unless you have something new to say. It is remarkably easy for most journalists to ignore the real crux of a story, so don’t be afraid to pursue a different line.

Each budding science writer has to decide which path to take. I took the blind, twisted path I described earlier, but I’ve watched others take very different ones that led to solid careers. Some have started their own blogs, where they’ve taught themselves how to write in public. Others have simply boostrapped themselves as freelancers, starting with small publications and using those clips to get into bigger ones. Some have gone to graduate school for science journalism, where they’ve been trained by seasoned veterans and have been placed at leading publications as interns. Some scientists-in-training have become AAAS Mass Media Fellows. And other people veer off in unexpected directions. They started out in science writing and became radio producers, for example, or made animations, or built apps. These days, it’s vital to be prepared to go in a direction you couldn’t have predicted at the outset.

Along with strong writing in articles themselves, another important skill that often goes unappreciated is learning how to write a good proposal. You have to entice editors to get them to give you an assignment. And that requires a few things. First, you have to understand the story you want to write clearly enough that you can describe it in miniature in a pitch. You also have to understand the spirit of each publication you approach. Some magazines pride themselves in their intense nerdiness, while others see themselves as magazines for people who are curious but lack expertise. Some care most about a gripping narrative, while others put scientific detail above all else. Know the difference. And find stories that the editors can’t find themselves, the stories that they crave on their pages.

I could go on, but others have already done so and I shouldn’t replicate their fine efforts. Here are a few places to continue reading and learning:

On the Origin of Science Writers. Fellow Phenom Ed Yong crowd-sourced hundreds of stories of how people got into the business.

Pitch Publish Prosper: This site is the online home of an excellent book, The Science Writers’ Handbook.

New To Science Writing? The National Association of Science Writers has a collection of articles for people starting out.

Advice for Aspiring Science Writers: Kristen Delevich, one of the students who took my workshop at Yale, distilled some of my remarks about the craft of science writing (such as choosing your words carefully and building paragraphs like cathedral arches) in this blog post.

Probing the Passions of Science: Eric Michael Johnson, a fine writer on things anthropological, interviewed me at length about science writing for his blog at Scientific American

If you like audio, I have also spoken to audiences about my own experiences in science writing. Here’s a talk I gave at the University of British Columbia. And here’s a talk I gave at Story Collider, which was later aired on Radiolab.

So…this is about all I can think of as a response to the letters I get. I’m not sure if that covers everything, or if I’ve left something huge unaddressed. Feel free to leave a comment below, and I’ll update this post accordingly.

There are 24 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. John Y. Jones
    June 24, 2013

    An excellent article, Carl, but you left out one key element: reading good science writing. Lots of it.

    Writers like Atul Gawande, Brian Greene, Siddhartha Mukherjee, and E.O. Wilson (the latter of two of whom have won Pulitzers) are both at the top of their respective fields and outstanding wordsmiths. I would personally urge anyone who wants to write about science to read them (and you, of course) if they want to see how it’s properly done.

    Reading excellent science writing is a must for any writer who wants to write about science, just like reading the best novelists is crucial for aspiring Hemingways and Austins.

    In fact, I’d love to see you put together a recommended list of top-notch science writers. Perhaps in a future post?

    [CZ: Good point. I'll add some comments. I already have a crowd-sourced list I posted here in 2009.]

  2. minusRusty
    June 24, 2013

    Carl, +1.

    Thanks,

    -Rusty

  3. Henry Gee
    June 24, 2013

    DEAR MR ZIMMER – When I was 26 and still at graduate school I fell into Nature as a junior news reporter on a three-month contract. I still don’t know what I want to when I grow up. Can you help? (PS I am 51. I have been at Nature for 25 years.)

    [CZ: Maybe try a classic rock band?]

  4. Daniel Sprockett
    June 24, 2013

    Thanks Carl! I’ve recently started science writing for public consumption again, and I’ve been thinking about emailing you a few questions. Thanks for saving me the trouble!

  5. Sandhya Sekar
    June 25, 2013

    Dear Carl,
    I have been a fan of your writing for a long time, and this piece gives me an insight into how your career started off, so thanks for sharing!
    I am one of those PhD students who thought writing sounds like fun. Difference being, I am from India; I am now doing an MA in science journalism from the UK, and writing bits and pieces on the side.
    In many ways, Indian publishing is where the US was when you started off; with respect to science, it is not *yet* there. It is going to be an uphill task for me to create a market for myself, and this article is something I will go back to and re-read when I feel like the world is a bad place :) thanks again.

  6. Signe Cane
    June 25, 2013

    This is a terrific article, thank you very much for taking the time to write it. I have recently started out, and am happy to see confirmation about what the industry looks like, what the pay looks like, and what it’s going to feel like.

    None of that deters me. Hopefully I’ll make it in the wild freelancing world out there!

  7. Sibusiso Biyela
    June 25, 2013

    Thank you very, very much, sir for this. You’ve no idea how much it’s helped me. Again, thank you

  8. Bill Burton
    June 25, 2013

    One more caveat for young scientists:

    You can be a researcher who occasionally writes for a general audience.

    But science writers do not regularly get to dabble in doing science.

    you leave the laboratory, pull the door shut behind you and turn out the lights–you won’t be coming back.

  9. Carol Savonen
    June 26, 2013

    Thank you for this. It is wonderful to read, as a science writer of 30 plus years. I started in the early 80s as a biologist who wanted to communicate with the public. Did AAAS Science and Mass Media Fellowship, a wonderful start. THen freelanced enough, for several years, to get a job at a big university being a “science communication specialist.” It fed me, bought me medical insurance, a house, a life. Staff jobs as science writers are a good gig if you can get behind the institution. Now I’m a retired public employee, gardening and garden writing. It has been a good life. I didin’t know my path, either.

  10. yael b.
    June 26, 2013

    Thanks for a truthful and very useful piece on entering (or contemplating entering) the profession of science writing. To the list of great writers you suggest reading, I’d like to add Oren Harman, who writes fabulous essays in The New Republic, and whose book, “The Price of Altruism” – which won the LA Times Book Prize for best science book of the year – is absolute wondrous science writing, mixing history, biography, philosophy and science in ways that are both highly entertaining and brain-expanding.
    Thanks again for your wonderful and candid advice!

  11. Tiffanie Fowlkes
    June 26, 2013

    Carl, Thank you for the laying out the realities as well as providing resources. I am a PhD student who loves cells and parasites in particular (think Magic School Bus type of zeal) but although working with these little guys answers my child-like curiosities I still don’t want to be at the microscope forever. I have been thinking for a few years now that science writing may be an avenue to pursue. Unlike most of my peers I really enjoy getting to write something, anything really. However, wanting to be something when you grow up and the reality of that something are different things. All of that to say, thank you for the encouragement to keep my wheels turning about this potential career as well as making it out as more than a pie in the sky fantasy.

  12. Indian Botanists Blog-o-Journal
    June 27, 2013

    When Indian Botanists Blog-o-Journal approached to some senior and/or established Science writer they simply didn’t responded. When approached to young aspiring graduates who were interested and curious writing about plant sciences for common man, they lack the ability (not capability). Some of them put similar words before us as stated by Zimmer, “Its really difficult to make the articles non-technical and interesting read, especially those published in high impact journal journal”. I would like to share the above thoughts of Carl Zimmer, the references mentioned by him to the science graduates interested in science writing. We also invite from senior Science Writer a similar article specific to plant sciences research. Contact us through @indianbotanists on twitter

  13. Misha Angrist
    June 27, 2013

    Thanks for supplying the perfect assignment for day one of my syllabus!

  14. Jen Lynch
    June 28, 2013

    A brief note: young science writers shouldn’t overlook small scientific societies as a valuable resource. Attending conferences in your area will expose you to new research and give you access to experts in the field. Most societies are trying desperately to communicate the great work coming from their members, but not every society can afford to operate like the AAAS.

  15. Raphael Rosen
    June 28, 2013

    Thanks for this post. I’m currently a freelance science writer, and while it’s a challenging profession, it’s very satisfying. I definitely have to work on my proposal writing, though, and on being persistent.

    As for good science writers, I have to recommend Jerry P. King, who is one of the best math writers I’ve ever encountered.

    Raphael

  16. Susan Fairbairn (nee Kirk)
    June 28, 2013

    And for budding Aussie science writers. Join the Australian Science Communicators http://www.asc.asn.au

  17. Chris Parsons
    June 28, 2013

    Public science education facilities, such as museums, science centers, aquariums, zoos and nature centers are also great places for science writers. I’ve had an interesting 30-year career writing for them, in-house and freelance.

  18. Phil Esslinger
    June 30, 2013

    First off, I have no intention or desire to become a science writer. I’m a scientist and I like what I’m doing with no intention of changing. But what I would ask is exactly how do you make a living as a science writer? If I can log on and read your blog for free, who pays you, how do you acquire the money necessary to continue to afford the basics, food, housing, etc

    [CZ: I am paid by the publications I write for, and I also write books that people can buy.]

  19. Raphael Rosen
    June 30, 2013

    Chris, can you tell me a little more about how you built a career writing for science education organizations? I used to work at the Exploratorium, where I did some writing and communications work, and I’d love to re-enter that world. If you like, you can reach me at raphael@raphaelprosen.com.

  20. bill
    July 2, 2013

    It seems to me that getting an education in the field you wish to write about is essential, particularly in science. Language, math and writing are part of the toolbox that any good scientist will have. I submit it would be far easier for a scientist to move to science journalism than the reverse. In fact, I find it insulting at times how popular “journalists” report on topics they clearly do not understand…even the basics like the difference between energy and power, or voltage and current are routinely confused in the popular press. The hubris is stunning since the correct information is only a google search away.

  21. O.R. Pagan
    July 5, 2013

    Thanks for the article; it is full of useful information. Personally, I got the “science writing blog” very recently by reading a blogpost by Brian Switek that advised blogging, as well as an actual article by Dr. Mark Changizi on writing popular science books. I started a blog a little more than two years ago and based on the response from the audience I decided to write a book proposal and sent it around. My first book should be published early next year (:-). I decided to write about what I know best. I am a scientist and university prof working on a very interesting animal model and I am basically using it as the main character in a popular science book on neuroscience and pharmacology. It is much more work than I thought, but it is much more fun too. I intend to keep writing, but I also intend to keep learning about nature firsthand by doing research… Again, thanks for the article!

  22. Agung Wibawa
    December 6, 2013

    I had my very first attempt turned down nine years ago. I left for another occupation instead, but I’m planning to give it another shot soon. Wish me luck Carl! :-)

  23. leonard
    January 1, 2014

    Thank u help me get contact of editor of papers on zoology

    • Indian Botanists Blog-o-Journal
      January 4, 2014

      If any one interested to write about plant sciences and its interdiscipline. do contact us indianbotanists@gmail.com. No spam please.

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