FAQ for new and aspiring science writers

Over the years, many people new to the field of science writing have queried the NASW membership on topics ranging from the freelance science writing market to the best science writing programs to just how to get started in the business in the first place.

Compiled here is a list of questions — and what we hope are good answers — collected from veteran and novice science writers alike. It's far from complete — new questions will be added as folks offer them to us — but we hope it addresses some of the questions you may have as someone new to the science beat as a reporter or public information officer.

Some items on this list have been discussed in great detail on the NASW listservs, and those conversations are available online. But if you can't find what you're looking for here or there, we encourage you to contact NASW's Education Committee by e-mail at mentor@nasw.org.

We would also encourage you to get a copy of A Field Guide for Science Writers: The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers. With more than 45 esteemed contributors — people who work for such leading news outlets as Scientific American, Popular Science, Discover, Smithsonian, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal — this book is an invaluable resource for new and aspiring science writers.

You may also want to consult another NASW-funded publication, The Science Writers Handbook, where 35 leading science writers share everything you need to survive and thrive as a science writer.

Q: Do I need a degree in science to be a good science writer?

A: This oft-asked question was the subject of an excellent discussion on the nasw-talk listserv about advice for new science writers, available online. Also check out the new to science writing page on NASW's site.

Q: I am majoring in the sciences, but I am interested in getting into writing. How do I start?

A: This question is also discussed in the conversation available online.

Q: I majored in journalism. What is the best way for me to break into science writing?

A: As with many of these questions, there really is no right answer for this one. Perhaps the best thing to do is to dive in with a story in a science field that interests you. If you're already working in the news media but are assigned a non-science beat, talk with your science editor about taking on some assignments. If your outlet has no science editor, have that talk with your managing editor or assignment editor. If you're not yet working full-time, an internship is often a good way to load up on experience and build your portfolio with science writing samples. If it's a career in public information you're interested in, approach the news or communications director at the institution you'd like to call home and ask them for an assignment.

Q: What does a new science journalist do to get noticed?

A: For an answer to this question and others, read this post by Scientific American blog editor Bora Zivkovic.

Q: How do I find out about science writing jobs?

A: An archive of the NASW jobs list, along with a list of ongoing freelance opportunities, are available for NASW members only in the job/assignment ad archive.

Q: What kinds of internships are available for young science writers?

A: One resource for members only is the NASW job/assignment ad archive.

Q: I write for a small newspaper and would like to do more science writing. How should I start?

A: Writing for a small newspaper can actually present an enterprising would-be science writer with many opportunities. Topics on the environment, health and astronomy are often of great interest to individuals in communities of all sizes — which means they'd make an easy pitch to your editor. Check in with your local hospital, stargazers group or environmental organization to see what issues are on their dockets. Another avenue is to localize national science stories by calling on experts in your coverage area.

Q: I am interested in going from a day job to freelancing. How do I start?

A: Check out NASW's All About Freelancing page.

Q: I want to switch from writing for print media to writing for broadcast outlets. How do I go about it?

A: We turned to NPR Science Correspondent and former NASW President Joe Palca for this one: "Some people find the transition from print to broadcast easier than others. In my opinion, it depends whether or not you are used to saying the words you write aloud as you write them. When you do that, you immediately hear word combinations that are either hard to say, or easy to misinterpret. But that's just a start.

"Writing for broadcast has to be very linear. You can't raise a topic, veer away from it for a while, and then return to it. Everything has to make sense coming out of what went immediately before it.

"You also have to write in sentences — or at least very clear phrases — that the human lungs have enough capacity to read. And you have to learn new ways of using people in stories. When you read a quote in print, you don't know whether the person spoke in a boring, lackluster way, or whether he or she was a dynamo that would captivate an audience. A quote that looks good on paper may sound terrible when spoken aloud. So you have to pick your tape for style and content.

Needless to say, that's just a start. One good thing about writing for broadcast is you don't have to worry about spellling.

Q: What are the key conferences science writers should consider attending?

A: There are several annual meetings designed especially for science writers. Among them are those hosted by the National Association of Science Writers, the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the American Medical Writers Association.

Depending on the exact areas of science you cover, you may also wish to attend annual meetings hosted by such science organizations as the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association, or the American Psychological Association. Services such as EurekAlert! and Newswise offer thorough listings of upcoming scientific meetings.

Q. Where can I find a list of undergraduate and graduate degree-granting science writing programs?

A: Sharon Dunwoody at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has compiled the Directory of Science Communication Courses and Programs.

Q: In addition to degree-granting programs, are there any workshops or fellowships to help me develop my science writing?

A: Several such programs are offered throughout the year, including the Santa Fe Science Writing Program, Knight Fellowships at Stanford University and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. For members only, NASW also maintains lists of science writing fellowships and workshops.

Q: How can I learn more about science writing from the pros?

A: If you can attend the annual AAAS meeting in February, make sure you apply for the "Mentoring at AAAS" program. The program matches a veteran journalist or public information officer with a novice science writer or a student in a graduate science writing program. The mentor and participant meet during one of the days of the AAAS conference, and the participant will follow his/her mentor as he/she works the meeting until roughly dinnertime. Of course, both are free to negotiate other times during the meeting to get together, or to part ways for short periods if there are divergent interests at the meeting. Applications for the program are generally available in late December or early January and will announced on NASW-Talk. If you can't attend the AAAS meeting, contact the education committee by e-mail to discuss other opportunities.

Q: Are there any books on writing about science for the public?

A: Hundreds. Some of our favorites include A Field Guide for Science Writers, edited by Deborah Blum, Mary Knudson and Robin Marantz Henig; The New Science Journalists, edited by Ted Anton and Rick McCourt; Best Science Writing: Readings and Insights, edited by Robert Gannon, and Best American Science and Nature Writing, which comes out with new editions each year. There's also The Science Writers Handbook and probably as many recommendations for books as there are science writers.