17: The Science Writers’ Handbook

The Science Writers' Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital AgeThe Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital Age by Writers of SciLance

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bought new at Chapters on Robson.

Read in July 2013.

View all my reviews

In the event that the never-ending dissertation does eventually come to an end (positive thinking!), I’ve been thinking about the future. If you pay attention at all to academic things, you’ll have heard some variation on the theme that doing a PhD is crazypants because traditional academic jobs (tenured professorships) are going the way of the dodo and the majority of new PhDs are doomed (doomed!) to careers as underpaid adjuncts.

I guess I’d find this more alarming if a) it wasn’t the story of my entire life (Jobs? What jobs? I once got rejected by McDonald’s. McDonald’s! Doesn’t get much more deflating than that.) and b) I’d actually started this with the expectation that I’d end up a tenured professor. See a). At no point did I ever have that expectation. I’m an optimist (I’m doing the PhD!) but I’m also a realist (some may say cynic). Temporary is the new permanent.

Which is the tl;dr way of saying I went into this open to any possibility afterward. Apparently this is odd. I’ve since learned that for PhDs, any non-tenure-track job is considered “alternative.” Oookay. Pretty narrow view of what you can do with a PhD, in my opinion, but I’ve always been a bit of an oddball, so I’m happy to roll with it.

So I’ve been making a list of possibilities to pursue. And one of the things that’s bubbled to the top is science writing. Why science?

  • In part it’s because I’ve become increasingly annoyed by intelligent people, people with advanced degrees, joking about being innumerate. That’s not ok.
  • In part it’s because of the general lack of understanding of science—you don’t  get to choose to “believe” in evolution or climate change. It’s not ok to teach creationism in biology class or to deny climate change because you want to keep driving your gas guzzling SUV without feeling bad about it.
  • In part it’s because of the current Canadian federal government’s muzzling of scientists. Grrr. #standup4science

On the one hand, all you hear is STEM, STEM, STEM. And on the other hand, non-scientists’ understanding of science and math is regressing. Right now, it seems like science needs all the voices it can get that can translate it into everyday language even the innumerate 😉 can understand. And why not me? Science writing = science, writing, educating, communicating… even law. Perfect fit, right? (The only thing I can’t figure out is why I didn’t have a eureka moment post-undergrad when I spent all my time at the library reading university course catalogs—were science writing programs not a thing back in the day?)

The Science Writers’ Handbook is written by a group of science writers who call themselves SciLance (science + freelance). They have an excellent blog that I’ve been reading for a while so I knew the book would be worth buying. After reading it, I’d call it an essential reference if you’re interested in science writing/communication, and useful for any freelancer (a lot of the material is applicable to any kind of freelance writing).

Miscellaneous notes:

  • Be able to distinguish between topics and stories. A story has:
    • characters
    • journey or conflict
    • series of linked events (beginning middle end)
    • discovery or resolution
    • hook –> why now?
    • connection to a larger idea
  • Play first, write later. In other words, get out in the world and do stuff and meet people and you will find ideas. At the same time, you’re always working because anything can become a story idea (but same is true for all writers).
  • Pitch = story idea + relevance + timeliness + execution + extras + author.
  • As an editor, I enjoyed this: “Distaste for email attachments just may be the one thing all editors have in common.” (Thomas Hayden, p. 29). 🙂
  • Interview one source for every 250 words.
  • Notetaking: remember not to just write down quotes, but describe people, surroundings, sounds and smells, overheard dialogue, etc. so you can set the scene.
  • Toolkit for field reporting: digital recorder, notebook, camera—take photos for notetaking purposes, video clips of subjects… but you probably won’t be able to listen to all the recordings you make.
  • The one-sentence pitch!
  • Story anatomy—newspaper-style:
    • headline (hed) – clear sense of story
    • news lede – who what where when how
    • most important point – fleshes out lede
    • substantiating points – decreasing order of importance
    • background / context / reactions
  • Story anatomy—magazine-style:
    • headline – catchy
    • dek/standfirst – subtitle/clear sense of story
    • lede – lures reader into story
    • billboard/nutgraf – partially summarizes the story
    • body 1 – context / history / explanation
    • body 2 – what happened?
    • etc.
    • kicker – ending that ties the story together
  • Multilancing = reporting a story in more than one medium.
  • Creative procrastination (necessary, productive) vs. distractive procrastination.
  • Business: Start as sole proprietor, see how it goes. Incorporate if all is going well and you want to continue.
  • Email, email, email… you also have to talk on the phone and go to conferences and such but lots o’ email. (good for introverts)
  • Contracts: if you are uncomfortable with the language in a clause, speak up, suggest an alternative that would be acceptable, especially re: liability, rights, payment.
  • Ethics. If you’re reporting on a topic you shouldn’t also be doing PR for same topic. But you could report on Topic A and do PR for Topic B. Also disclose existing relationships, etc.
  • Blog. Just do.
  • Science communication (vs. journalism-style writing): companies, universities, nonprofits.
  • Look for mix of work: good pay but not as interesting balanced with stuff that excites you.
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