Photo: Fotolia/Naty Strawberry
Often we are asked, how do I become a science writer – what abilities do I need, should I study journalism, is the career detour really worth it? One of our freelance writers, Alex Reis, tells her story.
As a child, I remember trying to dissect every kind of slimy creature I could find in the garden. Or “re-building” the skeleton of the chicken my mum had bought for dinner. I was naturally curious about science and wanted to learn everything I could about the natural world.
When I grew up, I embarked on the traditional academic route: degree/Master’s/PhD, and eventually landed a postdoc position. During this period, even though becoming a science writer was never (consciously) on the agenda, I discovered a love for writing I never knew I had. I guess I should blame my PhD supervisor, who taught me to never be happy with anything else other than the perfect word for every occasion.
I really enjoyed my time in the lab but, after a few years, my partner and I decided to move away and start a family. I took some time off while our children were young babies but as they grew up, I found myself with some free time on my hands. I remembered my love of writing and I started putting some of my ideas to paper, mostly for free and in obscure science blogs.
Every time I read those first few articles now, I cringe. Surprise, surprise. It wasn’t quite as easy as I first believed it would be. It turns out that writing a PhD thesis or a scientific paper is totally different from writing for a general audience. I never thought I needed formal qualifications in journalism but I realised that, if I wanted to succeed, I had to learn quickly. I did what I’d always been good at: I read books. Lots of books. And I wrote. A lot.
More luck than good management, I ended up with a few assignments in a small online newspaper. This was perfect to get those elusive first clips and I also got some help from a supportive editor. At this stage, I started calling myself a freelance science writer and used these initial clips to get better ones. Ones that I was proud to put on my CV. With varying degrees of success, I contacted many news outlets with my ideas. One of them was Lab Times, for whom I still write today on a regular basis and hope to continue to do so in the future.
My background in science actually turned out to be extremely useful. It’s not so much what I know about a particular subject, but more the fact I know how research works and I can read a manuscript with a critical eye. For every paper that goes through my hands, I can decipher what I understand and what I don’t and, more importantly, what questions to ask.
In those early days, I’ve made more than my fair share of mistakes. Some were worse than others but thankfully nothing too serious to kill my aspirations of becoming a science writer. Besides, within a few weeks, I was so addicted to scrutinising the latest papers and press releases looking for that hidden gem, that I couldn’t stop. All of sudden, writing about a wide range of subjects was a lot more fascinating than the narrow approach offered by academia. After all, there’s an endless source of material jumping out of every lab around the world on a daily basis. You just have to take your pick.
First, however, I needed to master one last technique to become a fully fledged science writer: the pitch. It turns out editors don’t just hand out assignments because you ask them nicely. You actually need to write a “miniature article” to describe your ideas. It’s important to understand each publication: its audience, its style, its scientific detail, to name just a few. It’s a vital part of my job to know these differences.
For me, undoubtedly, the hardest thing to learn was how to deal with an editor heavily editing my work or rejecting one of my pitches. Some editors will tear apart your work and the sooner you accept this, the sooner you become a successful writer. It took me some time but, eventually, I realised there was no point in feeling upset about it. Instead, I forced myself to turn criticism to my advantage and use it to write better pitches and better articles. After all, hearing a no is not exactly the end of the world (even though it may seem so on the day it happens), it’s run-of-the-mill stuff for every freelance writer.
I’m naturally quite shy and the idea of hiding in my office all day sounded like heaven. However, as every writer and reporter knows, articles are only as good as their sources. As a result, networking and contacting strangers to ask questions about their work soon became an unavoidable part of my day.
To my surprise, this has become the best part of being a science writer. I get to approach the best scientists in the world and question them about their latest discoveries. I find that if I show a genuine interest in what they’re doing, they will invariably take some time out of their often busy agenda to talk to me. If I ask the questions that I want to know the answer to, the article will almost write itself and it’s much easier to create a story around their results.
Of course, this needs to be done in a respectful manner towards scientists and their work. The attention to detail, being scientifically accurate in the article, all these go a long way to be recognised as a trustworthy science writer and someone with whom scientists will discuss their work.
Overall, I can genuinely say that meeting researchers across the world (even if it is just over the phone) has been as rewarding – if not more – than the actual writing. I hope this reflects in my work as I believe that, even for science, good writing should include the people behind the discoveries. It cannot be just about dry results but it also needs to focus on the researchers themselves, to captivate and excite the readers. Nowhere is this more accurate than in Lab Times, where there’s always space for that personal touch!
At the end of the day, it’s not easy but I love being a science writer. I get a chance to write short articles. And feature articles. And interviews. And blog posts. And I fall in love with every single article that I write and I always learn something new. From biology and medicine, to chemistry and technology, no two articles are the same. In addition – the icing on the cake – working from home gives me flexibility to be there for my children. I can easily plan my day around their activities, and work evenings and weekends if necessary.
There was never a grandiose plan for my science writing career. Yes, I decided to start writing full-time a few years ago but after that stuff just happened. I suppose I would describe my career as a series of lucky events, which allowed me to pursue interesting opportunities as they popped up. Even now, I really don’t feel I need a long-term strategy. My only plan is to keep doing the things I love and keep learning about science.
Moving without a plan may seem like crossing the wire without a safety net, but I think this flexibility is essential for freelancers like me. In a constantly changing world, with new technologies popping up on an almost daily basis, it’s vital to be prepared to go in a new direction in the blink of an eye. For those searching for a steady and predictable job, my advice is to keep looking. Freelance writing isn’t it!
As a curious person, I’m always eager to try new projects. In addition to traditional print, the Internet opens up a myriad of new opportunities: podcasts, vlogs, social media and the list goes on. As my children grow up and start showing their inquisitive minds, I would love to explore the idea of writing something dedicated to the younger generation. But I suppose, for the time being, this is just a pipe dream.
Most of my friends don’t really understand what I do but I feel very lucky. I make a living of being curious. I make a living of asking the great minds of this world about their research. And then I get to write about it.