Science Writing Combines Expertise with Communication Skills
A Path to Science Writing
My friend Richard Sima enjoys a good story. He says, “Science stories can be the best stories out there. You learn something new about the universe and your place in it, but these stories can also have a human component that adds emotional resonance.” The best science writers combine these two aspects masterfully.
Richard is a Neuroscience student at Johns Hopkins University and the co-founder of Johns Hopkins Science Policy Group. I recently spoke with him about his interest in a career in science writing. Richard has enjoyed reading and writing about science for a long time—he remembers reading books by Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman when he was young and recalls how it opened his eyes to the wonders of the world around us. He wrote for his high school newspaper, and in college he was a writer and editor for the Harvard Brain, a student-run journal. This experience combining his love of neuroscience and communicating it to others stuck with him even when he entered graduate school.
Richard originally considered a career in academia, with science writing as a hobby. However, a recent experience has made him decide to pursue a career in science writing full-time. The Johns Hopkins Professional Development and Career Office (PDCO) sponsored Richard and two other students to attend the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop. The PDCO vetted applications from students at Hopkins who were interested in this opportunity. When the top three students were chosen, the PDCO then helped them prepare their materials to apply to the workshop. All three students were selected and attended the workshop this past May.
Before the workshop started, Richard was assigned to summarize a Nobel Prize winner’s research in less than 50 words and in a haiku! The assignment challenged him to “distill complex concepts into common, everyday language, which is something all good science writers need to master.” Throughout the workshop, Richard and the other attendees got feedback from each other and from their instructors, who were all seasoned veterans of science writing with many published articles and books. Richard noted that each instructor had their own philosophies on how to approach communication of science to the public, and he noticed how that influences their writing styles. This perspective has helped Richard think about his own personal philosophy as he discovers his own preferred voice and style.
Science writers can come from any background, but they often have to be flexible about what kinds of stories they tell. Richard noted that although his preferred field of neuroscience has a lot of exciting lines of research, he was eager to push beyond his comfort zone at the workshop when he had the opportunity to critique pieces about “black holes, subway microbes, and contagious cancer in Tasmanian devils.” At the end of the day Richard says “science writing is about sharing our understanding of the universe and the excitement of that quest of discovery. And I want to lend my voice to this endeavor.”
How to become a science writer
I asked Richard to share ways that trainees can prepare for careers in science writing while they are still working in the lab. His number one piece of advice it just to write! Fortunately, there are a lot of outlets to get that practice in. Richard suggests starting a personal blog, or finding a blog to write for regularly. Many university press offices will gladly accept help from trainees who want to hone their skills, or they may have an outlet like the Biomedical Odyssey blog here at Hopkins. Some societies publish blogs or magazines that accept submissions from members, such as ASBMB Today. Massive Science is an outlet specifically geared towards trainee writers. Lastly, keep an eye out for essay contests like the Lasker Foundation Essay Contest or the AAAS Science & Human Rights Coalition Essay Contest.
If you want more formal training in science writing, there are a number of ways in addition to the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop. There are graduate programs in science writing at universities including UC Santa Cruz, NYU, Boston University, MIT, and Columbia University. AAAS also offers the highly prestigious Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellows Program annually. Be sure to check out professional associations like the National Association of Science Writers (who host an annual conference), The D.C. Science Writers Association, and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. The Open Notebook has tons of resources for writers at all levels. Finally, Richard suggested two books to help guide future science writers: The Science Writers’ Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Pitch, Publish, and Prosper in the Digital Age and A Field Guide for Science Writers: The Official Guide of the National Association of Science Writers.
Richard Sima can be found on twitter @richardsima. Keep an eye out for this budding science writer’s work!