Advice for beginning science writers

This document is the record of a discussion that took place on the nasw-talk mailing list from May 10th through May 14th, 1997. It deals with several issues at the core of our profession.

These include: How to get a start as a science writer. What training does a science writer need? How and whether to make the transition from scientist to science writer. How to advise somebody making that transition. The distinction between science journalism and science writing. Because of the high quality of the discussion, I've decided to preserve it here. I have made minor editorial changes, mostly in shortening the headers and the amount of material quoted from earlier messages. In addition, each a discussant's signature file is included only in his/her first message.

Information on joining or participating in the nasw-talk mailing list can be found here.

Bob Finn

The discussion started with this message from Susan Grammer:

Message From: susan grammer Date: Sat, 10 May 1997 15:30:22 +0000 Subject: New Subscriber

Hi all - I have been lurking here for about a week and am both encouraged and discouraged by the "talk" I've been following.

I'm a very, very green freelancer (actually can't even call myself such yet ;). I have spent 15 years "at the bench" doing basic immunology research - both in academic and industry settings. My husband is a university faculty member and has recently been kind enough to work his fingers to the bone doing consulting work so that I can leave my full-time job and try to get a start in a new career (at 40 yrs old with two year old twins at home! Yeah right!).

I have a BS in microbiology and have been lucky enough to work with several of the "hot-shots" in the field who nutured me to the point where I became a relatively independent researcher in their labs.
Alas, I have realized I must either go back for a PhD or change careers. Through my series of very challenging positions, I have had ample opportunity, through writing grant proposals, review articles, a number of articles for peer reviewed journals and one book chapter, to realize that not all laboratory scientists are capable of (or have any interest in) making their discoveries understandable to the general public. Since I have kind of peaked in my career, having only a BS, and absolutely love trying to simplify complicated issues so that I can get a better understanding of them, I thought that science writing might be the place for me. Currently I am just making contacts, listing ideas for future articles and honing my writing skills and reading, reading, reading........about all of the issues confronting science writers such as yourselves.

Now that I have set up my home office, I am about to pick up some part-time work writing proposals for a former employer. Until I have some income from that I am unable to put my twins into a part-time preschool, therefore unable to devote the time to research as would be necessary to get my foot in the door. Hopefully, soon......

In the meantime, is there anyone out there who got their start this way and can give me a few pointers as to how to query editors, where the best internet resources are, etc. I have done a few proposals for general interest magazines on more personal type issues, just to get my feet wet, but am not sure whether the ins and outs of science writing/editing are similar.

Thanks for listening and keep up those interesting discussions. I might as well know what's ahead before I get in over MY head...

Happy writing

Susan Grammer

grammer@herald.infi.net

Message From: Michael Kenward Date: Sun, 11 May 1997 11:46:39 +0100 Subject: Re: New Subscriber

At 03:30 pm 10/05/97 +0000, susan grammer wrote, among other things >>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Just in case you forgot what you wrote Since I have kind of peaked in my career, having only a BS, >and absolutely love trying to simplify complicated issues so that I >can get a better understanding of them, I thought that science writing >might be the place for me.

Aaaaarrrrggggghyhhhhh!!!!!

MK


Michael Kenward OBE / Phone: +44 (0)1444 400568 Fax: (0)1444 401064 Science Writer & / michael.kenward@dial.pipex.com

Editorial Consultant / http://dspace.dial.pipex.com/michael.kenward/

Message From: k.malik@ic.ac.uk Date: Mon, 12 May 1997 15:23:34 +0100 Subject: Re: New Subscriber

Dear Susan Grammer,

I am in a very similar position to you although I do have a PhD I decided to givw up active research and concentrate on Science Writing. If you get any useful tips, be sure to let me know! Good luck, I'm on my wy to make some new contacts.

All the best

Kamran Malik Science Writer

Devon, UK.

Message From: Stephen Hart Date: Mon, 12 May 1997 09:42:44 -0700 Subject: Re: New Subscriber

>Aaaaarrrrggggghyhhhhh!!!!! >MK

Could you be a trifle more specific?

Steve

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Message From: Stephen Hart Date: Mon, 12 May 1997 09:23:28 -0700 Subject: Re: New Subscriber

>Message From: susan grammer >...I can leave my full-time job and try to get a start in a new career (at >40 yrs old with two year old twins at home! Yeah right!)....

I know at least one somewhat similar case--mine. I was 40, with a 5-year-old son, three middle-school age kids, a wife with a tenured position, a half-finished home and both bench science and teaching background when I decided to dive into science writing. (I was home with the son until he was 3 and could go to child care at least parts of days.)

I attended the graduate science writing program at UCSC . (That involved a school year-long move for the entire family. Poor teenagers, they had to live 5 minutes from the beach.) In addition to teaching me to write (I never believed that old saw that anyone can write if they just had the time), it enabled me to land a summer internship at Science News. That gave me the day-to-day experience and the clips to get started freelancing.

I can't say it's been lucrative, but I have kept a small and slowly growing second income going for 8 years now.

I'd suggest thinking about a sabbatical for your husband at UCSC. There was an excellent pre-school on campus then, at least. It's a beautiful place to spend nine months, and IMHO there's no better place for a scientist to learn science writing.

Steve

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Message From: Rick Borchelt Date: Mon, 12 May 1997 13:11:14 -0400 (EDT) Subject: Re: New Subscriber

Susan -- I got my start in science writing in just the way you describe, with a BA in biology, a couple years of grad school in entomology behind me, and the coaching of some good friends and mentors who suggested I was wasting good writing skills in the lab.

My "break" came in the form of a co-op education program writing news releases and feature articles for our State extension service and scripts for a cable home & garden show (now H&G Network!). It was a painless transition, but I had a monetary cushion and no dependents, so you'll have other concerns.

As a new subscriber, you may not be familiar with the new NASW book from Oxford U. Press, A Field Guide for Science Writers. Highly recommended; lots of your initial questions are dealt with there ...

Good luck,

Rick

Rick Borchelt Manager, Media Relations Lockheed Martin Energy Research Corporation Oak Ridge National Laboratory POB 2008 MS 6416 Oak Ridge, TN 37831-6416 423-241-4208 (p) 423-574-0595 (f) http://www.ornl.gov

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Message From: susan grammer Date: Mon, 12 May 1997 14:04:00 +0000 Subject: Re: nasw-talk V2 #102

Michael Kenward At 03:30 pm 10/05/97 +0000, susan grammer wrote, among other things > >>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Just in case you forgot what you wrote >Since I have kind of peaked in my career, having only a BS, > >and absolutely love trying to simplify complicated issues so that I > >can get a better understanding of them, I thought that science writing > >might be the place for me. > > Aaaaarrrrggggghyhhhhh!!!!! > > MK

Trying hard not to take this one personally........I did receive no less than 5 personal messages from subscribers who were very supportive and friendly. Which welcome is the norm around here?????

Maybe I'm just oversensitive since my 13 year old dog died this morning.

Thanks to those who sent their support and encouragement. Be back with you later.

Susan Grammer

Message From: "Joel N. Shurkin" Date: Mon, 12 May 1997 12:29:49 -0700 Subject: Re: nasw-talk V2 #102

> >Trying hard not to take this one personally........I did receive no >less than 5 personal messages from subscribers who were very >supportive and friendly. Which welcome is the norm around here????? >

We are actually helpful, friendly. courteous, kind, obedient, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent, in other words, scouts one and all. Don't let an occasional curmudgeon discourage you.

And Aaaargh to you too, Michael.

j

Joel N. Shurkin 500 Jupiter Terrace, Santa Cruz, California 95065

Phone: 408-438-3877 Fax: 408-438-4848 E-mail: joel@nasw.org http://web.wwnorton.com/engines.htm

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Message From: John Ludwigson Date: Mon, 12 May 97 15:51:11 -0400 Subject: Re: New subscriber

Susan Grammer asked: >Which welcome is the norm around here????? > >Maybe I'm just oversensitive since my 13 year old dog died this >morning.

a.) The welcoming welcome is the norm.

b.) Deepest sympathy about your dog. We have a bunch (pride? gaggle?) of live cats and four late cats up on boot hill behind the garden. They're family...and it hurts when one dies.

c.) Glad to see you got lots of good advice. Read the Field Guide, and join DCSWA if you're in these parts.

Best wishes,

John L.

John Ludwigson Scienceworks Gambrills, Maryland

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Message From: Michael Kenward Date: Mon, 12 May 1997 18:17:27 +0100 Subject: Re: New Subscriber

At 09:42 am 12/05/97 -0700, Stephen Hart wrote, among other things >>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Just in case you forgot what you wrote >Aaaaarrrrggggghyhhhhh!!!!! >>MK > >Could you be a trifle more specific? >

Not unless you want to see some real sparks flying.

Did I tell you about my dreams of becoming a brain surgeon? It is pretty obvious to me that my career as a science journalist is on the wane. I don't have a degree in journalism. My peak is behind me. No one has suggested that I become this year's answer to Walter Cronkite, or even David Dimbleby. I don't know any medicine. I haven't done any surgery. But I am pretty good at carving the turkey at Christmas. What do you think of my chances?

MK

Message From: "Joel N. Shurkin" Date: Mon, 12 May 1997 13:37:04 -0700 Subject: Re: New Subscriber

> >Did I tell you about my dreams of becoming a brain surgeon? It is pretty >obvious to me that my career as a science journalist is on the wane. I >don't have a degree in journalism. My peak is behind me. No one has >suggested that I become this year's answer to Walter Cronkite, or even >David Dimbleby. I don't know any medicine. I haven't done any surgery. But >I am pretty good at carving the turkey at Christmas. What do you think of >my chances? >

You might want to work on your bedside manner a bit.....

Joel N. Shurkin

Message From: Jim Kling Date: Mon, 12 May 1997 14:20:16 +0000 Subject: Re: New Subscriber

Michael Kenward wrote:

> Did I tell you about my dreams of becoming a brain surgeon? It is pretty > obvious to me that my career as a science journalist is on the wane. I > don't have a degree in journalism. My peak is behind me. No one has > suggested that I become this year's answer to Walter Cronkite, or even > David Dimbleby. I don't know any medicine. I haven't done any surgery. But > I am pretty good at carving the turkey at Christmas. What do you think of > my chances?

I think they're pretty good, Michael, if you're anything like me. I went into science writing from a career as a chemist with pretty much that approach, and I've succeeded nicely -- no journalism school, just hard work, lots of reading and thought, and the guts to go forward when people around me suggested that my ambition was ill-conceived.

Let's face it, writing is not brain surgery. Some folks have a knack for writing, others do not but can learn the craft through some coursework. But kicking sand in the face of someone with an outstanding science background and an inkling to communicate it is self-defeating. After all, if she fails it will be with or without our encouragement, if she succeeds she might make us all look bad.

Jim


Jim Kling science/medical writing Bellingham, WA jkling@pacificrim.net

http://nasw.org/users/jkling

Message From: Michael Kenward Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 09:12:56 +0100 Subject: Re: New Subscriber

At 02:20 pm 12/05/97 +0000, Jim Kling wrote, among other things >>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Just in case you forgot what you wrote coursework. But kicking sand in the face of someone with an >outstanding science background and an inkling to communicate it is >self-defeating. After all, if she fails it will be with or without >our encouragement, if she succeeds she might make us all look bad.

Over the past quarter of a century I have advised dozens of people on how to become science writers. My first piece of wisdom is "don't do it if all you want is a way out of science". I have heard too often the comments "My professor says that I won't make it in research and I should consider science journalism."

My next piece of advice is always that you have to passionately want to be a science writer. It isn't something you fall into. And to suggest otherwise insults the whole profession. Maybe that doesn't bother you.

There are lots of very bright people who could go on to be great scientists but who whose to be science writers. They really do want to find out about science and to communicate it. These passionate believers people elbow aside the 'force majeur' brigade with little trouble.

A further piece of advice would be that you do yourself no favours by suggesting that you have been pushed into this business. Even if it strictly isn't true, you should come on like you have wanted to do it all your life and you will get plenty of good advice.

Finally, anyone in the writing game has to learn how to take criticism. For heaven's sake haven't we all me the editor from hell? I know, I was that soldier. If you rush off and cry the first time someone criticises what you have written, your career will be very short.

MK

Message From: Michael Kenward Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 08:34:01 +0100 Subject: Re: New Subscriber

At 01:37 pm 12/05/97 -0700, Joel N. Shurkin wrote, among other things >>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Just in case you forgot what you wrote >You might want to work on your bedside manner a bit..... > >

Yes. I will have to learn how to be grumpy and to ignore the complaints of patients. That seems to be the pattern with medics in this country.

MK

Message From: gstrobel@warren.med.harvard.edu Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 08:26:23 -0400 Subject: Re[2]: New Subscriber

Why be so testy toward people who you think are not in it for the right reasons, your right reasons?

If simply wanting to get out of science does seem naive at first blush, anyone who seriously tries science writing will soon enough come up against its difficulties. She will find out quickly if she is cut out for it, but good advice helps her do that even if she wasn't.

When I started out in this business, my confidence as a writer needed quite a bit of pampering and I generously got it, from Joel Shurkin. I would not have made it otherwise, but that did not mean it was not the right job for me. It is. Plus, there is room for different types of writers in this business.

Yes, one has to take criticism, but "aarrgh..." against a novice isn't exactly that.

Gabrielle Strobel Science Writer Office of Public Affairs Harvard Medical School

Message From: "Gene Charleton" Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 08:21:39 CST6CDT Subject: Re: New Subscriber

> Date sent: Tue, 13 May 1997 09:12:56 +0100 > From: Michael Kenward > Subject: Re: New Subscriber

> A further piece of advice would be that you do yourself > no favours by suggesting that you have been pushed into > this business. Even if it strictly isn't true, you should > come on like you have wanted to do it all your life and > you will get plenty of good advice.

I wouldn't go so far as to say I was pushed, Michael, but I did get into this business almost by accident -- during a beat shakeup at a former shop where I'd written about everything except science.

But I'd be the first to admit, hell, proclaim, that it was the best thing that ever happened to me, writingwise. I discovered I have a knack for explaining science and technology. And better than that, it was FUN. Almost 20 years later, it's still fun. And once in a while I even have a chance to do some good work.


Gene Charleton Science/Medical Writer Texas A&M University Office of University Relations e-charleton@tamu.edu (409) 845-4644 charleton@nasw.org (409) 845-6237 "Even Peter Pan had to grow up, but I'm fighting it every step of the way."

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Message From: Rick Borchelt Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 09:45:22 -0400 (EDT) Subject: Re: New Subscriber

> >Finally, anyone in the writing game has to learn how to take criticism. For >heaven's sake haven't we all me the editor from hell? I know, I was that >soldier. If you rush off and cry the first time someone criticises what you >have written, your career will be very short. > >MK >

With all due respect, Michael, aaaarrrrgghhhh! is not criticism, constructive or otherwise. It was merely gratuitous venting of no help to the new subscriber or of value to the discussions here. The thread that resulted has been very interesting, and for that I appreciate your comments, but I too question your bedside manner. It's not a matter of grumbling at the patients; it's a matter of blaming patients for their illness and refusing to tell them your diagnosis.

IMHO,

Rick

Message From: Sally Fran Pobojewski Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 10:56:53 -0400 (EDT) Subject: Re: New Subscriber

Hi, Susan! I started freelancing when my son was 18 months old, so I understand what you're going through. In my opinion, it's actually a good way for a new writer to build writing experience, since you'll be limited initially to the types of assignments you can accept. Try to stay away from anything with a tight deadline, which may rule out writing for publication.
Is there a college or university near your home? If so, I suggest you contact their public relations office and inquire about freelance assignments writing brochures, grant proposals, etc. Since most scientists have minimal writing skills, you could build up a sizable freelance business, develop your skills and get writing samples for your portfolio. Advertising agencies and small-to-medium sized businesses often hire freelancers, also. This type of writing pays well and it's an excellent way to get experience. Try to find some daycare arrangement for the twins even if it's just for two afternoons a week. Schedule your writing time during those blocks of time. Naptime and the middle of the night work well, too. You'll need to become compulsively organized and extremely protective of your writing time. You will often be exhausted and discouraged. You'll have to work very, very hard. But it can be done. As the kids get older and you get more experienced, you can gradually increase the number of assignments and perhaps try some magazine or newspaper articles. Start small with the local paper and build from there. By the time your twins are old enough for you to pursue this as a full-time career, you'll have the experience and confidence you need to be giving advice on nasw-talk, instead of asking for it. Good luck!


Sally Pobojewski Phone: (313) 647-1844 Sr. Science Writer FAX: (313) 764-7084 News and Information Services E-Mail: pobo@umich.edu University of Michigan


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Message From: Lisa Bain Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 12:03:31 -0400 (EDT) Subject: Re: New Subscriber

Hi Susan, Let me add my welcome to the group. I started out as a science writer (with an M.A. in immunology and a baby at home) by enrolling in the Science Communication graduate program at UCSC in 1983. The program was great and led to an internship at the Milwaukee Journal, where I decided I wanted to be a reporter. But after my internship, it became clear to me that the job I thought I wanted wouldn't let me be the kind of mom I wanted to be. So, for about 10 years I freelanced. I wrote for a variety of publications: magazines and other publications from academic medical centers, training manuals for pharmaceutical companies, an occasional mass-market magazine piece, editing a few books and grant proposals, and finally writing three books in conjunction with a children's hospital.

I feel pretty lucky that I've been able to do so many different kinds of writing, and most of the time it was exciting and interesting. But mostly, I feel lucky that during that time I was able to be at home when my kids got home from school, volunteer to help out in their schools, and hang out with kids and other moms. I didn't make enough money to support my family on my own, so eventually I did have to go back and take a full-time science writing job (in public afffairs), which I also enjoyed. Now I'm doing research (and a little freelancing on the side), which I hope will eventually lead to another book or two.

The great thing about freelancing is that it's flexible. So I encourage you to stick with it (it sounds like you have made a good start already) and be open to new possibilities.

Lisa Bain

lbain@mail.med.upenn.edu

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Message From: slatta@shout.net (Sara Latta) Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 11:24:46 -0500 Subject: Re: New subscriber

>Trying hard not to take this one personally........I did receive no >less than 5 personal messages from subscribers who were very >supportive and friendly. Which welcome is the norm around here?????

I hope Michael Kenward's reply was an anomaly. I thought Steve Hart gave you great advice-if I could do it over again, AND I had the mobility, that 's what I'd do too. My situation was similar to yours. I got a BA in microbiology, got my master's in immunology, and worked as a technician in a lab for a couple of years before I realized that benchwork was not for me. I was fortunate enough to be hired-with no formal writing experience-as a science writer at my (then) local university's medical school PR office. Lots of on-the-job training, and while I learned a lot about the art of writing there, I learned little about journalism or the business of publishing. Still, whether you're on staff or freelancing for a university PR office, it's a good way to get clips. Studying science writing at a place like UCSC would definitely had shortened the learning curve, though. Like you, I also had twins (they're now 8-you WILL get a good night's sleep again, and it does get easier!) and am now freelancing.

So, hang in there, and good luck. Believe me, we're not all jerks.

Sara Latta


Sara Latta Science writer 1101 West University Avenue Champaign, Illinois 61821 slatta@shout.net Phone: 217-352-0288 Fax: 217-352-0289

============================================================= Message From: Michael Kenward Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 15:52:45 +0100 Subject: Re: New Subscriber

At 09:45 am 13/05/97 -0400, Rick Borchelt wrote, among other things >>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Just in case you forgot what you wrote With all due respect, Michael, aaaarrrrgghhhh! is not criticism, >constructive or otherwise.

I did not realise that it was a capital offence to take offence at crass comments. My reponse was a scream of anguish at someone who was suggesting that the career I have pursued for a quarter of a century was a bit like knitting, something to be taken up when the mood takes you.

I expressed my views as I did because I knew that the thought police would step in and would complain about anyone who has the temerity to criticise someone else.

Perhaps you can devise an alternative way of correcting the original error without upsetting the writer.

To coin a phrase, people who don't want to get shouted at, shouldn't shit on my doorstep.

MK

Message From: Michael Kenward Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 15:44:37 +0100 Subject: Re: New Subscriber

At 08:21 am 13/05/97 CST6CDT, Gene Charleton wrote, among other things >>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Just in case you forgot what you wrote > Date sent: Tue, 13 May 1997 09:12:56 +0100 >> From: Michael Kenward >> Subject: Re: New Subscriber > > >> A further piece of advice would be that you do yourself >> no favours by suggesting that you have been pushed into >> this business. Even if it strictly isn't true, you should >> come on like you have wanted to do it all your life and >> you will get plenty of good advice. > >I wouldn't go so far as to say I was pushed, Michael, but I >did get into this business almost by accident -- during a >beat shakeup at a former shop where I'd written about >everything except science. > >But I'd be the first to admit, hell, proclaim, that it was >the best thing that ever happened to me, writingwise. I >discovered I have a knack for explaining science and >technology. And better than that, it was FUN. Almost 20 >years later, it's still fun. And once in a while I even >have a chance to do some good work. >

Gene

I should have been more specific. I was writing about scientists turned writers. You clearly set out determined to WRITE. That is exactly my point. This has to come first.

I have come across science writers of the (really) old school who started off as crime reporters! (Not sure that the hallowed Dan Greenberg didn't pursue that beat for a while.) Some would say they didn't really change when they got into science.

It sure doesn't sound like something that you were pushed into because your career had hit the buffers.

Mike

Message From: ADold@aol.com Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 13:08:24 -0400 (EDT) Subject: Re: nasw-talk V2 #104

>> My next piece of advice is always that you have to passionately want to be a science writer. It isn't something you fall into. And to suggest otherwise insults the whole profession. Maybe that doesn't bother you. Since most scientists have minimal writing skills, you could >build up a sizable freelance business...

I guess it must also be true, then, that since most journalists have limited science skills, Susan could build up a sizable business in helping them with their science.

In my experience, and given that Susan has no writing portfolio of any kind, the approach Sally suggests is only feasible if Susan has friends in the business who are willing to throw her some work. There are very, very few assignments available to someone with no experience and no credential, except as a personal favor.

I go with Steve Hart's suggestion of a sci-j program. I think you learn the day-to-day skills faster than is possible as a mentor-free independent contractor, you make contacts (with a good program, at least) and you get credibility. Mike Kenward's monosyllabic response to Susan's initial query may have been rude, but I guarantee that if Susan makes the same pitch in looking for writing assignments, it'll get the same reaction, though perhaps phrased more diplomatically.

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Message From: awach@friend.ly.net Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 14:19:38 -0400 Subject: Re: New Subscriber

At 09:45 AM 5/13/97 -0400, you wrote: >> >>Finally, anyone in the writing game has to learn how to take criticism. For >>heaven's sake haven't we all me the editor from hell? I know, I was that >>soldier. If you rush off and cry the first time someone criticises what you >>have written, your career will be very short. >> >>MK

>With all due respect, Michael, aaaarrrrgghhhh! is not criticism, >constructive or otherwise. It was merely gratuitous venting of no help to >the new subscriber or of value to the discussions here. The thread that >resulted has been very interesting, and for that I appreciate your >comments, but I too question your bedside manner. It's not a matter of >grumbling at the patients; it's a matter of blaming patients for their >illness and refusing to tell them your diagnosis. > >IMHO, > >Rick > Let's look at aaaarrrrgghhhh! from an anthropological perspective. I hypothesize it's an alpha male reaction to a perceived threat. Alan Wachter, freelance medical writer.

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Message From: ShaunaR989@aol.com Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 15:37:35 -0400 (EDT) Subject: Re: new subscriber

In a message dated 5/13/97 10:45:02 AM, Michael Kenward wrote:

Michael, from the various online NASW discussions here and previously on CompuServe, it's clear that some NASW members have become freelance science writers so they can have both a career and a family. Others have chosen this path so they can have a career despite having a chronic illness. These seem like good choices to me, both from the viewpoint of society (talented people are making the world better instead of being unemployed or trapped in mundane part-time jobs) and from the viewpoint of the person (they are living the richest and most fulfilling life they can). Many science writers I know, both freelance and staff, came to science writing because of an inability to find a job in the science field they were trained in, not because of any passionate longing beforehand to be a science writer.

I'm one of the people who stumbled into science writing accidentally and stayed here because of personal circumstances. But I don't think if you met me that you'd really think I was an insult to the profession--I work hard and take pride in what I write, just as I'm sure you do.

There's room in science writing and in NASW for all of us. Our varied backgrounds allow us to help each other to become better writers than we would be if we all had identical training and identical trajectories through life.

Shauna Roberts

Message From: susan grammer Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 15:19:21 +0000 Subject: Thanks for welcome

Hi all,
I'm sorry to tie up this list with much more on this topic, but I wanted to thank all of those who either posted their encouragement to the list or sent me a personal message. Thank you to Kamran Malik, Stephen Hart, Rick Borchelt, Joel N. Shurkin, John Ludwigson, Jim Kling, Cathy Dold, Bob Holmes, Alison Mack, Larry Krumenaker, Robin Meadows, and sorry to anyone who I forgot......I will be writing to several of you for more information eventually, once I check out all of the books and resources you suggested.

Since my post seemed to fuel a small brushfire, I thought I'd clarify my "dreams" a little. I've written personally to the person I offended with my belief that I could leave one career and make use of it to build a career in science journalism, but in case anyone else out there took offense, let me say that I have been a "writer" forever........just haven't tried to turn my talents in your direction yet.

I have been writing since I can remember. At six years old I submitted a poem to the school newspaper. They didn't publish it and called my parents to report that I must have plagiarized it because a six year old can't write like that. In the end I was vindicated, but it did leave some scars.....

In my freshman year of college I took short fiction and literature classes instead of freshman english and was often encouraged to go into writing/journalism. The problem was that I loved science and found "science" writing at that time to be more of a tool for communicating within my chosen field and "creative" writing a hobby to pursue when I had time. Little did I know there was a career in which the two could meet. During my research career, I became aware of a severe lack of communication between most laboratory scientists and the "real world". I was constantly filing away ideas for articles I wanted to write on topics that I thought the general public should be more aware of. I then started noticing how many of you out there are doing such a fine job of communicating many of these issues.

I spent the morning today negotiating with a former boss in the biotechnology industry who needs a grant written this summer and is familiar with my writing abilities. I am most excited about this job, not because of the job, but because of the opportunity it will give me to do background research on the topic of immunotherapy of parasitic infections. May not sound like a great topic for most science writers, but you'd be amazed at the mechanisms parasites such as malaria have evolved to evade the immune system. I could go on and on about the incredibly intricate balance the immune system maintains to keep our bodies from being destroyed by external forces or destroyed from within by anti-self immunity..............The malarial parasites have developed a way to trick the body and make use of it's self-protective features to maintain an infection. Not only that, millions die from such infections each year and travelers to areas where malaria is endemic would be happy to hear that inroads are being made in prophylactic measures to prevent this infection.

So you see, I am not exactly asking to do brain surgery with out the requisite education and practice. My writing experience will take a bit of developing, maturing, honing, whatever -- but writing about science on one level or another has been a major part of my 15 year career.

That's why I wrote to this forum. For help and guidance from others (and apparently there are many) who have approached this career in a similar manner. I intend to make a go of it. Whether I suceed remains to be seen.

Have a good day......

an aspiring science writer, searching for inspiration, criticism, encouragement and an occasional dose of reality.....all of which I've received through this encounter

Thanks.

Susan Grammer

Message From: susan grammer Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 16:09:59 +0000 Subject: Thankyou part-two

Just after I sent the previous post I checked my mail and found volume

104 and the continuing saga of support for this fledgling science

writer......What better way to get name known in the field!;);)

In response to Michael's list of "pieces of advice"

> Over the past quarter of a century I have advised dozens of people >on how to become science writers. My first piece of wisdom is "don't > do it if all you want is a way out of science". I have heard too > > >often the comments "My professor says that I won't make it in > research and I should consider science journalism." > > My next piece of advice is always that you have to passionately want >to be a science writer. It isn't something you fall into. And to >suggest otherwise insults the whole profession.

I hope it is clear from my post of a few minutes ago that I am not trying to "get out of science". I truly have no desire to insult a profession in which I hope to be successful. Actually, writing about what I've been doing was the most challenging (and therefore most satisfying) part of my research career - the reason the most recent positionwas so unsatisfying to me.

Michael, can you imagine the perserverance and acceptance of criticism I have endured to be "allowed" to publish as primary author in peer review journals, to write review articles, patent applications and a book chapter in academia. Believe me, without a PhD I've had to prove my abilities time and time again...In my original post I was consciously trying not to "blow my own horn" about what I have considered quite a successful career - I only want to get out of it because I want more flexibility (when I burn the 2 am candle I want it to be at home after dinner with my kids, not in the lab) and because I absolutely LOVE to tell "non-believers" all the amazing and wonderful things about the natural world.

I could chose a multitude of other careers at this point, or I could work as a nine-to-five bench scientist and pretend not to care about science. But, as I stated above, and more clearly in the personal message I sent to Michael, I've been waiting years for this opportunity. After all, I could be sitting in front of the TV watching soaps and eating bons bons during my twins nap. Instead, I'm trying to convince someone who isn't even considering paying me that I have the experience and drive to break into a new career. A career in a field which I believe is one of the most important in forming the public's view of science and the wonders of technology - a world in which my children will be growing up and later living as adults.
Science policy has been dealt a difficult hand in years past.
Technology forged ahead too quickly for those without a science background to keep up - hence, they pretend it isn't important. Isn't it the responsibility of those who have chosen science as a career to find a way to communicate their discoveries and to answer the "So What?" question for those who are unable to decipher those papers in Nature and Science.

Excuse the rambling format of this message as I now have two naked two year olds in my office begging for me to read to them......nap time is over! And this afternoon's chore, as yet unfinished, was to fire off to my first potential "client" a detailed fee structure for his approval -- if it's approved I have my first "job" since I've been out on my own. This will allow me to put my two year old twins into a preschool three days a week, spend two of them (and many long nights) on his grant proposal and the other day on the "stuff" I've been waiting these ten long years to write.

Hope some of you have the opportunity to edit and critique the *&(^$#%&^ out of something I write someday. Sounds like you have some good ideas.

I PROMISE I will never again tie up this list with such personal issues - have just been trying to prove to others that I can write something they don't think I'm cabable of for 34 years -- ever since that first grade poetry incident, during 15 years doing "PhD level" work without a PhD and now at the NASW-talk forum......I was successful at the first two........this one remains unresolved (for the moment!)

Thanks again,

Susan Grammer

Message From: Warren Kornberg Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 17:35:58 -0700 Subject: Re: New Subscriber

Lisa Bain wrote: > > Hi Susan, > Let me add my welcome to the group. I started out as a science writer (with > an M.A. in immunology and a baby at home) by enrolling in the Science > Communication graduate program at UCSC in 1983. The program was great and > led to an internship at the Milwaukee Journal, where I decided I wanted to > be a reporter.

Risking (again) the likelihood of embracing curmugeonhood: I don't approve of Kenward's hormonal response, but I do wonder if there's anybody left out there--except for Bain who tried and couldn't make it fit--who started out as a reporter and learned the trade from that aspect. There's a healthy skepticism and an ability to dig beneath the surface of a story that comes with a news background--and I suppose even the kind of news background I'm talking about may be hard to come by these days--that may be even more important than having studied the science. I used to advise young science reporters (you see: I fall into that word better than the other) that a couple of years on a police beat, even for a used-to-be microbiologist, would do a world of good. I know that doesn't make any sense to a new mother of twins, but journalism is more than interpreting complex material and making it palatable. I guess science writers can cut their teeth doing odd bits for the local college PR office. Reporters have a whole different trade to master, but I think the become better journalists--science or otherwise--in the process. This isn't meant in any way to pull back the welcome mat the I'm-not-Kenwards have put out. It's intended, rather,

to add another dimension to the discussion.

Warren Kornberg kornberg@ix.netcom.com MOSAIC MAGAZINE Science Article Archive

http://www.nasw.org/users/mosaic

Message From: dhayes@ukans.edu (Dann Hayes) Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 17:05:34 -0500 Subject: Re: New Subscriber

>Risking (again) the likelihood of embracing curmugeonhood: I don't >approve of Kenward's hormonal response, but I do wonder if there's >anybody left out there--except for Bain who tried and couldn't make it >fit--who started out as a reporter and learned the trade from that >aspect. There's a healthy skepticism and an ability to dig beneath the >surface of a story that comes with a news background--and I suppose even >the kind of news background I'm talking about may be hard to come by >these days--that may be even more important than having studied the >science. I used to advise young science reporters (you see: I fall into >that word better than the other) that a couple of years on a police >beat, even for a used-to-be microbiologist, would do a world of good. I >know that doesn't make any sense to a new mother of twins, but >journalism is more than interpreting complex material and making it >palatable. I guess science writers can cut their teeth doing odd bits >for the local college PR office. Reporters have a whole different trade >to master, but I think the become better journalists--science or >otherwise--in the process. This isn't meant in any way to pull back the >welcome mat the I'm-not-Kenwards have put out. It's intended, rather, >to add another dimension to the discussion. >= >Warren Kornberg

Warren,

I started as a reporter (sports) and moved on to editor (sports) and jumped to outdoors (writer/editor). I then started work at a DOE site in Colorado as the editor of a newsletter, moved into community relations, and am now at the University of Kansas as the science writer.

I got the science bug when working the outdoors beat in Colorado.

I don't have a science background. Heck, I didn't have a background in journalism until I started at a small weekly and just kept moving up. I've won a number of awards (national, regional and state) and wasn't trying to win.

I really don't know how I got to where I am. I just enjoy what I am doing.

See ya'

>

Dann Hayes University Relations, University of Kansas (913) 864-8855, FAX (913) 864-3339 E-mail: dhayes@ukans.edu

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Message From: Stephen Hart Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 16:31:24 -0700 Subject: Re: As we're all taking offense and cheap shots

A reader of the list lately could take lots of offense:

At John Gever's "I go with Steve Hart's suggestion of a sci-j program." The UCSC program prides itself on not being a "sci-j program," but a science writing program!! Harumph.

At Mike for implying that if you lack passion, you disgrace the science writing club. I mean, what else can you do with a master's in biology in Port Angeles, Washington (except the job my wife has teaching biology at the community college)? I mean, it's better than being a McDonald's manager, isn't it? And what ever happened to the old saw "It's worth doing well"?

At Mike's detractors for failing to see the (probably inadvertent) insult in the original post. Mike's response expressed my feelings exactly. I've gotten variations of this as a teacher and as a writer--"Those who can't, teach." "Anyone can write, I just don't have the time."--and I rail every time.

At those who suggest that the original poster "just freelance" for a while. Freelancing's a job, just like being a beat reporter or PIO, only harder and more poorly paid. Furthermore, suggesting that someone just get a few freelance jobs with no writing experience (at best) aims that poor person toward the kind of jobs professional freelancers work so hard to eliminate: the ripoffs that pay $0.10/word.

Most science writing's a job. Some do it well, some do it poorly. If you start out with too much passion to tell the Joe Sixpacks of the world the "truth," you'll fail, just as miserably as if you start out bitter that you got slaughtered during your PhD oral exams. I hope we all have a sense of mission--as Warren alluded to--but I hope we all have a sense that we're doing a job as well. Balance is the key. Too much mission and you work for peanuts--and screw your colleagues. Too little and you publish pap or frank falsehoods--and screw your readers.

Now that I've offended everyone, I'll resign from NASW.

Steve

(Some of the above written with tongue applied firmly to the lingual surface of the buccinator. The astute reader will distinguish seriousness from frivolity.)

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Message From: "Joel N. Shurkin" Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 17:44:20 -0700 Subject: Re: New Subscriber

Warren wrote:

>Risking (again) the likelihood of embracing curmugeonhood: I don't >approve of Kenward's hormonal response, but I do wonder if there's >anybody left out there--except for Bain who tried and couldn't make it >fit--who started out as a reporter and learned the trade from that >aspect.

Yeah, me - and my generation. We became science writers largely by covering the space program. But before that I was a national correspondent for Reuters, a reporter and war correspondent and bureau chief for UPI. I was always a reporter, who wound up specializing, as opposed to a specialist who has to learn reporting. But that largely is a gone era. Now you get people, many of them scientifically trained, going directly into science writing. Indeed, most of my best students at Stanford were science-educated people, many of them once on a Ph.D., track who wanted to become science writers. And they were and are terrific. You all just heard from one, the amazing Gabrielle. It's just part of the increasing specialization of everything.

Joel N. Shurkin

Message From: "Joel N. Shurkin" Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 17:49:41 -0700 Subject: Re: As we're all taking offense and cheap shots

Okay, guys, you want offensive?

Steve writes:

> >At John Gever's "I go with Steve Hart's suggestion of a sci-j program." >The UCSC program prides itself on not being a "sci-j program," but a >science writing program!! Harumph.

Yes, and that's its biggest weakness.

> >At Mike for implying that if you lack passion, you disgrace the science >writing club. I mean, what else can you do with a master's in biology in >Port Angeles, Washington (except the job my wife has teaching biology at >the community college)? I mean, it's better than being a McDonald's >manager, isn't it?

Not last week it wasn't.

> >At Mike's detractors for failing to see the (probably inadvertent) insult >in the original post. Mike's response expressed my feelings exactly. I've >gotten variations of this as a teacher and as a writer--"Those who can't, >teach." "Anyone can write, I just don't have the time."--and I rail every >time. >

I actually took the same offense for exactly the same reason. But I assumed it was coming from someone who had the serious disability of youth, and Mike K. didn't have to say anything. Folks, particularly the unworthy young, should be encouraged not discouraged. Mike was right; he just should have had the kindness to hurrumpf to himself. I did.

j

Joel N. Shurkin

Message From: Jon Franklin Date: Tue, 13 May 1997 20:24:01 -0700 Subject: changing careers . . . arrrgh!

Without judging specific cases, I do have a recurring experience with scientists deciding that the grass is greener on my side of the fence. Three or four times a year some PhD chemist, say, will come in, plop down in my office, and announce that he's going to take the summer off and become a science writer. I used to just sit there, stunned. But now I usually say I'd like to help, but I won't be teaching this summer. I plan to take it off and become a thin-film physicist.

The closest I have come to the opposite was once when, frustrated at not being able to get good information from Johns Hopkins, I lashed out at the dean of the medical school, "What the hell do I have to do to get into this damned place?" For two or three minutes the poor guy thought I wanted to go to medical school there, and he almost fainted.

Then, on third thought, I practice psychiatry all the time.

cheers, Jon Franklin

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Message From: Michael Kenward Date: Wed, 14 May 1997 09:34:08 +0100 Subject: Re: New Subscriber

At 05:35 pm 13/05/97 -0700, Warren Kornberg wrote, among other things >>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Just in case you forgot what you wrote palatable. I guess science writers can cut their teeth doing odd bits >for the local college PR office. Reporters have a whole different trade >to master, but I think the become better journalists--science or >otherwise--in the process. This isn't meant in any way to pull back the

Have I ever mentioned my theory about the two different types of science hacking? (There