Getting started

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Getting started

It starts with the cover letter, Slate's Katherine Goldstein writes after reading 500 of them in five years. The résumé and clips won't matter if the cover letter doesn't open a door: "Many young people seem to have no idea how to apply for a job. What I see time after time from young media hopefuls are not the classic no-nos, like misspellings and typos, but what appears to be a fundamental lack of understanding of how to sell oneself to a prospective employer."

It started when "my PhD imploded," Virginia Gewin writes about her introduction to the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship in an essay on the companion web site to the Science Writers' Handbook. Gewin, who spent her 10-week fellowship interning at the Oregonian, writes: "I proved to myself that I could find a story, get the details and write on deadline. Any doubts that this career would make good use of years of scientific training were gone."

The Open Notebook collects answers from six science writers in reply to a beginning science writer's query: "What types of stories, and what types of venues (or specific ones) are best for someone like me to pitch to?" The most frequent advice: Keep it short: "When the word count is short (and when the editor has an editorial hole that needs to be filled regularly) they’re more likely to take a risk on somebody whose work they don’t know," says Maggie Koerth-Baker.

Christine Brunkhorst, a former English teacher in Minneapolis, writes in the Star Tribune that working for free might give you a toehold toward your career, but comes with a cost for society: "Unpaid internships give a leg up to the well-off. As a teacher hoping to send students into the larger world with sympathetic imaginations — and if not yet a kinship for people of lesser means then at least an awareness of their plight — I find this omission disappointing."

Next summer may still be a year away, but Poynter's Dan Caterinicchia says it's not too soon to start preparing for the hunt: "That preparation should include meticulously researching markets where you may want to intern and establishing portfolios with examples that show you’ll be ready to start producing professional-grade content from day one." Caterinicchia's guide includes helpful "do" and "don't" tips from editors at three intern-hiring journalism organizations.

The veteran science writer and National Geographic blogger discusses his "blind, twisted path" into journalism and offers advice for other would-be science writers on developing their skills and navigating changing media markets: "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."

The gateway to many top-tier journalism jobs consists of working full-time for free in high-rent cities like New York and Washington. That's a problem, David Dennis writes in the Guardian, because it ensures that newsrooms are populated by children of privilege: "The practice of asking recent graduates to spend their days working for free while paying rent and living in a city like New York is a barrier for entry to students from mid- to lower-class backgrounds."

Poynter's Beth Winegarner lists a half-dozen ways for freelancers to build their businesses. Many of them boil down to finding a network and making the most of it: "Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, connecting with fellow freelancers has never been easier. Knowing who’s writing, and who they’re writing for, gives you a good sense of which publications are open to taking freelance work," Winegarner writes. Also, do your homework, and "pitch more than you can write."

"Technical writing sheds truth; science writing breeds understanding," Kristina Bjoran writes on her blog, where she gives examples of both (a pharmaceutical insert for the former; a CDC web page for the latter). She also offers tips for beginners who want to break into either field: Get an education, get experience, and network. "Science and technical writing exist on a spectrum — sometimes it’s the stuff in between in which you’ll find your perfect happy place."