The Science Writers’ Handbook, Writers of SciLance
October 24, 2017
By Sarah Boon, PhD
Are you a science writer, or do you hope to be one someday? The Science Writers' Handbook should be the first book you buy. Written in 2013, the book is a timeless and indispensable tool, collating the collective advice of 35 award-winning science writers (the SciLance team) who have over 300 years of combined experience. It's more than just a book, however. There's also a website that hosts a blog and FAQ page for those looking for additional insights and information.
The book includes numerous references to concrete examples from the SciLance team's own experience, neatly linking theoretical concepts to actual events. Each chapter ends with a helpful summary of key topics from that chapter. There are also a ton of useful resources in information boxes throughout the book: example pitch letters, making a reporting plan, story anatomy, how to measure your success, work–life balance, and even "the introvert's survival guide for conference cocktail parties." Finally, at the back of the book are lists of resources for each chapter.
The book itself is divided into three sections: science writing skills, life as a science writer, and the business of science writing.
The Skilled Science Writer: Chapters 1–11
These chapters cover everything from generating ideas to working with editors. It starts with the basic questions of who can become a science writer (hint: anyone!) and how to go about it. Alison Fromme's key piece of advice? "A professional attitude and a structured schedule can help you navigate the confusing first months of freelancing."
The next few chapters focus on the nitty gritty of coming up with ideas and writing a pitch that tells a story rather than covering a topic. As Emily Sohn writes, "by getting out in the world and doing what excites you, you may find that ideas come along and grab you." For more on pitching, check out The Open Notebook's Pitch Database—a valuable tool for understanding how pitches are structured and what types of pitches are successful.
Once your pitch is accepted, there's a chapter on how to research your article, including how to put together a reporting plan, how and what to record during interviews, and even a chapter on understanding how to interpret statistics. There's also info on the ethics behind talking to people on and off the record and letting sources see your copy before it goes to print (note that in journalism this is a no-no, as the reporter has to remain independent from their sources).
After doing your research, it's time to write your article. As Douglas Fox writes, you may find you haven't captured the details required to tell a gripping story, such as people's emotions or descriptions of places and people. As Fox says "getting great narrative material involves watching people in action," which in many cases requires that you go in the field with your subjects. To facilitate this, there's some discussion of how to get the publication you're writing for to support travel.
When telling the story, Michelle Nijhuis suggests going back to your pitch and using it as a springboard for writing a rough outline for your article. Like most writers, she's a proponent of writing a first draft and then taking a break before going back and editing it.
As we all know, the story doesn't write itself, and you'll likely end up procrastinating. Anne Sasso notes that procrastination can actually be percolation: letting your mind mull over everything you've read and heard, trying to see how it all fits together. However, at a certain point you have to move from percolation to writing and she provides various techniques to do so. These include making lists to break down an article into manageable chunks or setting time or word limits that force you to sit in front of the screen and just write.
The work doesn't end once you submit your story. Monya Baker and Jessica Marshall provide some excellent behind-the-scenes insight into what your editor expects of you and how you can best work with them. It's critical that you meet your deadline and word count, are accurate, provide useful supplementary information, and write well. Robert Frederick writes that you may even want to "multilance," or report your story in more than one medium. For example, you may take your own field photos to illustrate your text or you may present your article both in print and developed for television.
At some point you may decide it's a good idea to write a book. Emma Marris's humorous chapter emphasizes that publishing a book won't make you rich overnight! But what it can do is "turn a person who has written about a topic extensively in shorter formats into an expert on that topic. This can open up career possibilities."
The Sane Science Writer: Chapters 12–18
These chapters deal with the day-to-day life of a freelance science writer. Based on their own experience, the SciLance team covers topics like dealing with emotions such as loneliness, rejection, and jealousy/envy. To manage loneliness, you could join a co-working space or develop hobbies outside of work. For rejection, remember that the editor isn't rejecting you, they're rejecting your pitch—and you should always have alternate venues in mind to which you'd like to submit a pitch. Finally, sometimes you'll be envious of the bylines that your friends and colleagues achieve. Realize that this is normal, but also note that sometimes envy is a trigger to make you look more closely at things you may want to do but are holding back on.
The SciLancers also talk about the home office, which should work for you both aesthetically and ergonomically. You'll also want to maintain some semblance of work–life balance—especially when you have a partner and/or kids. Make sure your family is aware of the rules around your working at home. Bryn Nelson writes that he had never explicitly told his partner that he didn't like them coming into his office without knocking. "A simple conversation cleared up months of misunderstanding," he says. The challenge of dealing with kids is deftly covered in chapter 18 by Amanda Mascarelli. Unfortunately, sometimes you may have to turn down work to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
The Solvent Science Writer: Chapters 19–26
These chapters cover the business side of being a freelancer—usually the part that freelancers enjoy the least. While many of the tips are US-focused, some are transferable to a Canadian context. It starts with a chapter on business structure (S Corp, LLC, or other) and bookkeeping basics, including doing taxes and getting insurance. Networking merits two chapters: chapter 20 focuses on how to deal with editors, connect with other writers, meet people in person at conferences, and local events, and chapter 24 is all about social networking—including how to decide what platforms to join and making sure they don't turn into a time sink.
In chapter 21, Robin Mejia tackles the issue of professional development—specifically finding fellowships and residencies to support your work so that you have more time to delve into a topic and write a strong feature article. One interesting side note is that, even if your application for a fellowship is unsuccessful, it gets your work in front of new eyes and can lead to other opportunities.
While your eyes may glaze over when you have to deal with contracts, Mark Schrope writes that it's in your best interests to go over them in detail and make sure they don't have some of the red flag clauses that he translates into plain language in chapter 22. His best tip? Always ask for more money. The worst they can say is no. And always maintain a friendly but firm tone during negotiations—no self-righteousness, please!
One thing that beginner science writers may not be aware of is the ethics of science writing. Brian Vastag's chapter is worth a close read, as it includes eye-opening examples of conflicts of interest and other ethical considerations. For example, Vastag notes that "if you're writing about the people who pay you…you aren’t practicing journalism. You're practicing public relations…don't turn around after writing a press release and then pitch the same story to a news outlet as a journalist. That's a big no-no.”
This is particularly important if, as your science writing career progresses, you begin to take on a mix of clients. As Sarah Webb writes, non-journalism clients may help you maintain a steady income, as they often pay more than straight journalism. Finally, Jill U. Adams talks about sustaining your science writing career, which often requires that you take stock of your clients and assignments annually to make sure you're still doing what you want to do, how you want to do it. As a freelancer, you have the ability to switch up how you do things so that you're more engaged. In Adams's case, she realized she had to carve out more time for creative pursuits.
Hats off to the writers of SciLance for putting this book together to share their expertise with others. While I thought the chapter order could have been improved upon (for example, Sohn's chapter on procrastination would fit better after Nijhuis's chapter on writing the story, and Emily Gertz's chapter on social networking would fit better after Cameron Walkers's chapter on networking for the nervous), this book contains answers to any question you might have about science writing and provides resources to turn to if you can't find the answer in the book.
By digging deep into the details of the science writing process, from generating ideas to publishing an article, and also discussing the life of a science writer and the business of science writing, the book is a comprehensive guide to everything it takes to build a successful science writing business. I found myself rereading specific chapters just to ensure I'd absorbed all of the relevant information, which this book has in spades. If you can't afford to take a science writing course, working through this book is likely a close second. If you can afford to take a science writing course, this book will be an excellent complementary resource.
Sarah Boon has straddled the worlds of freelance writing/editing and academic science for the past 15 years. She blogs at Watershed Moments about nature and nature writing, science communication, and women in science. She is a member of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association and the Editors’ Association of Canada, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2013. Sarah is also a founding member of Science Borealis. Find Sarah on Twitter: @SnowHydro