From time to time, I get letters from people thinking seriously about becoming science writers. Some have no idea how to start; some have started but want to know how to get better. I usually respond with a hasty email, so that I can get back to figuring out for myself how to be a science writer. I thought it would be better for everyone—the people contacting me and myself—to sit down and write out a thorough response. (I’m also going to publish a final version of this on my web site, here.)
First a caveat: I am probably the wrong person to ask for this advice. I stumbled into this line of work without any proper planning in the early 1990s, when journalism was a very different industry. The answer to “How do I become a science writer?” is not equivalent to “How did you become a science writer?”
I was the sort of kid who wrote stories, cartoons, and failed imitations of Watership Down. By college, I was working on both fiction and nonfiction, majoring in English to learn from great writers while trying to avoid getting sucked into the self-annihilating maze of literary theory. After college, I spent a couple years at various jobs while writing short stories on my own, but I gradually realized I didn’t have enough in my brain yet to put on the page.
In 1989 I wrote to some magazines to see if they had any entry-level jobs. I got a response from a magazine called Discover, saying they needed an assistant copy editor. I got the job but turned out to be a less-than-perfect copy editor, which means that I was a terrible copy editor. Fortunately, by then my editors had let me start to fact-check stories, which is arguably the best way to learn how to write about science. I got a chance to write short pieces, and I realized this was an experience unlike any previous writing I had done. I was writing about the natural world, but in nature I discovered strangeness beyond my own imagining. And scientists were willing to help me come to understand their discoveries. I stayed at Discover for ten years, the last four of which I was a senior editor there, and then headed out on my own, to write books, features, and other pieces.
In other words, I did not know in college that I wanted to be a science writer. While I took science classes because I enjoyed them, I didn’t get a degree in science. I didn’t go to graduate school for science journalism. I only had the good sense to recognize that I had fallen into a deeply satisfying kind of work.
That’s one reason to take my advice with a grain of salt. Another is the fact that for the first five years of my career, I did not have access to the Internet. I did not have email. At the time, magazine publishers did not see the point of rigging their computers to telephone wires. So my on-the-job training in science writing started in the antediluvian age when magazines and newspapers held a near-monopolistic control over science writing. The only alternatives were crudely printed zines which attracted only a tiny fraction of the circulation of large magazines, and none of their big-ticket advertisers.
All of that has changed, of course. BoingBoing, one of those crude zines, is now a hugely successful web site. It took a very long time for many in the science writing world to realize that change was coming, and many tried to ignore it once it had arrived. Just as I had stumbled into science writing, I stumbled into its online world. In the early 2000s I began enjoying the handful of blogs about science. When Natural History decided to stop publishing my essays, I realized that the essay genre was going to be a hard sell to other editors. So I set up a blog where I didn’t have to pitch someone beside myself.
Read the rest of the column here.