Ask TON: Breaking Into Science Writing

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Welcome back for another installment of Ask TON. Here’s our latest question:

I’m a new science writer and I have very few published clips. What types of stories, and what types of venues (or specific ones) are best for someone like me to pitch to? And what are some good strategies for finding ideas that won’t be pitched by a ton of other writers?

Maggie Koerth-Baker, freelance journalist and author; science editor, BoingBoing:

Start by pitching the short stuff and the newsy stuff—less-than-1,000-word departments in the fronts of magazines or at online sites, daily news sites like National Geographic News, that kind of thing. When the word count is short (and when the editor has an editorial hole that needs to be filled regularly) they’re more likely to take a risk on somebody whose work they don’t know. It’s also a good idea to pay attention to less glamorous stuff. When I was starting out, I did a lot of stories for trade publications. Building Design & Construction magazine, Consulting-Specifying Engineer magazine, and Architectural Products magazine were my big clients (they all paid roughly $0.75 a word) and I also did work for places like (which was still paying $1 a word as of the last time I talked to them … 2009 or so). That work wasn’t sexy, but it got me clips, and it paid me well enough that I could cover my bills, take a deep breath, and put some energy into using those clips to pitch longer things. What you really don’t want to do at this stage is burn yourself out doing tons of work that pays less than $0.50 a word, but doesn’t keep you financially solvent enough to think beyond the next scramble for cash.

As for finding stories, there are a couple of things that worked for me, in the beginning.

  • Devote a couple of hours over two or three weeks to paying attention to which press releases from the big email lists (EurekAlert! and the like) get picked up by everybody and which don’t. If you watch that for a while, you’ll start to see patterns and you’ll start to get pretty decent at figuring out which journal articles aren’t going to have as much attention lavished on them. Those should be a niche for you to jump into. They’re easy finds and there are good stories there. It just takes a bit of practice to learn to resist the knee-jerk headlines, and pay more attention to the stuff that other people are going to pass up.
  • Do a lot of those breaking news/newly published journal-article-of-the-week type stories … even if that’s not the kind of writing you want to be doing in the long run. Writing about breaking stuff will leave you with story ideas, because you can’t fit all the good stories and all the good information from your interviews into the 500- to 700-word, quick-turnaround piece your editors will want for breaking news. This tactic will be especially successful if you don’t let the press release guide what the story will be about. Do half-hour phone interviews, ask the “stupid” questions, get the background on why the researcher is studying this topic and approaching it in this specific way. Not only will that information make your newsy stories better, it will also start filling up notebooks with stuff you want to come back and pursue later.
  • Think about big, broad topics and fields that you just happen to think are interesting. Then start Googling. Use Google Scholar to get an idea of what’s going on in that field (you’ll find debates, controversies, and breakthroughs you’ve never heard about). Use plain old Google to see what other people are writing about that field. Read those stories. And start thinking about the questions they don’t answer or the ideas they bring up, but don’t really follow through on pursuing. All of that can be starting points for your own story ideas. Also read researchers’ websites. Some of them are terrible and useless. But other times, you’ll find story ideas buried in descriptions of what so-and-so’s lab is doing.

Lisa Zamosky, freelance health journalist and Los Angeles Times columnist:

The best stories to pitch are those that both interest you and seem to be a good fit with the publications you most like to read and/or in which you wish to see your byline. It’s really hard to otherwise pin that down for you. It’s a good idea to check out the TON Pitch Database for some guidance. And, sites like Mediabistro offer a database of publications, what they’re looking for from new freelancers and who to pitch.

When it comes to ideas that other writers aren’t likely to pitch I’ll suggest two methods. One is: As you read stories on topics you might be interested in writing, look for sub-topics or facts that are not the main story but that might warrant further investigation. And, the best way I’ve found to uncover great stories that no one else is likely to pitch is by cultivating relationships with experts in the field about which you’re interested in writing. They’ll have information and be on top of trends that you aren’t likely to find elsewhere.

Cassandra Willyard, freelance science writer:

  • Become an Intern: Perhaps the best way to get your first clips is by doing an internship.
  • Start Short: Editors aren’t likely to assign a feature to an unknown writer, so start by pitching shorter news stories. Online outlets that publish several stories each day are a good bet (for example, ScienceNOW). It’s fine to pitch a story based on a journal article, but try to pitch something the editor won’t have already seen. Bypass big-name journals like Nature and Science and comb through more obscure publications. Or better yet, attend an obscure meeting that won’t be mobbed by journalists and pitch some stories from there. But make sure you do your homework. You don’t want find out after your pitch has been accepted that everyone in the field thinks your scientist’s research is junk.
  • Pitch What You Know: Did you get a master’s degree in ecology? Great, pitch some ecology stories and tell the editor about your background. An editor wants to be able to trust that you know what you’re talking about. And if you actually know what you’re talking about, you’re more likely to write a compelling pitch.
  • Write a Blog Post: Sure, the pay may be low (or nonexistent), but so is the bar for getting a pitch accepted. And a clip is a clip.
  • Be Fearless: If you have an amazing story, pitch it. Don’t worry about whether you’re a new writer. Don’t worry about having few clips. Editors have an insatiable appetite for great ideas. What’s the worst that can happen? (Make sure you read all of TON’s excellent advice on pitching and make use of TON’s Pitch Database).

Charles Choi, freelance science writer:

The best kind of stories to pitch as a new science writer are short ones, either 150-or-so-word briefs or 500-or-so-word articles. In magazine parlance, these are known as “front-of-book” pieces, since they often appear in the front sections of magazines, while longer features are in the back.

Short articles such as these are good ways for editors to judge your abilities—your ability to tease out what is most important and what is most interesting about research, your ability to organize ideas in a coherent manner, your ability to come up with an enticing opening—with a safe amount of time and money invested on their part. Longer pieces, on the other hand, require more editing, more money for the writer, more fact-checking, and probably also photos and graphics, which also require more money.

It can actually be harder to write 150-word briefs. You have to trim stories to the bone, leaving the necessities and no less while still keeping the piece as interesting as possible.

What are good venues to pitch to? LiveScience, New Scientist, and National Geographic News’ site comes to mind, or any front-of-book section of magazines you like. Perhaps Science and Nature‘s online news sections as well. Inside Science and Scientific American run slightly longer, 700-word piece news stories. For technology pieces, consider IEEE Spectrum and Technology Review. Be sure to read the places you are pitching to know what news they have just run (which you don’t want to pitch them) and what kind of stories they want and do not want.

So what are good strategies for finding ideas that won’t be pitched by a ton of other writers? That’s what surviving as a freelancer is all about—you’re essentially constantly an enterprise reporter, finding stories others don’t know about.

To start with, you can usually rule out writing about news from major journals such as Science, Nature and PNAS, as staffers will usually write about those. There are exceptions to this rule—sometimes the major journals do not write press releases about interesting papers that run in them, so if you notice a paper is running that is interesting and inexplicably does not have a press release popularizing it, you can pitch that. (PNAS is often chock-full of such work.)

You can also usually rule out research that has a press release appearing in EurekAlert! Still, you might get lucky—you might try pitching the work and see if it an editor will take pity on you. This can be one way editors give aspiring science writers a test.

So that’s the low-hanging fruit. What’s next?

Try relatively obscure journals with research that often does not have press releases written about it. PLOS puts out tons of papers, with many interesting pieces lacking press releases. Elsevier, Wiley, Springer, and ACS [the American Chemical Society] also put out lots of papers. Subscribe to their RSS feeds and get a good RSS feed reader and comb them regularly for story ideas. (Alas the departure of Google Reader, the best RSS feed reader I’ve ever seen.)

Go to conferences and report on research there. Oftentimes news outlets don’t have the money to send reporters out anymore, so you can be a correspondent for them and write lots of stories that way.

Sometimes it’s good just to pick the brains of scientists at universities as well as government or nonprofit research institutes to see if there’s anything in the pipeline that might be interesting. You can try contacting their press officers, or even just the scientists themselves, if your research suggests they might be doing interesting work.

Cheryl Platzman Weinstock, freelance health and science writer:

You will find that the best stories are in your own background.  Investigate what’s going on with your science curriculum in your local high school and middle school. Investigate food trends in your school cafeteria. Investigate health trends at your gym. Ask your doctor what disease he has recently been swamped with. Ask your health department if the unusually hot summer has brought about a surge in specific diseases.  IF those stories turn up nothing, place calls to your local hospital PR people and arrange to have a sit down coffee with them to talk about what new things are going on there.

Most all of my stories began on the local level and then I expand upon them nationally. PR people are among my best friends and usually lead me to great stories. Staff writers usually write stories about what they find in recent journals so don’t look there for ideas, but do look at in-house hospital publications. They can be a wealth of information. Also, I find that many publications love stories about new trends in dieting and diseases, new therapies and stories that highlight the differences between the sexes. Often the easiest stories to write are ones that come from your own personal life.

If you are struggling with a health, food, or psychological problem, write about it. Chances are someone else will benefit by it, and it could be cathartic for you, too. Most importantly if your first pitch doesn’t work, don’t get discouraged. Try again. Before you do, ask specifically about the kinds of stories an editor is looking for. They’re usually more than happy to tell you the kinds of stories they want and need. Good luck!

Lucas Laursen, freelance science writer:

A new writer can break in even at top media with the right story. You need to find gaps the publisher’s staffers or regular contributors are missing. You can try to compete on stories about recent results in the major peer-reviewed journals, because those stories are easy to find and if you pitch enough of them well enough, an editor may decide to give you a chance. But I opened more doors when I brought editors something they and their readers couldn’t get elsewhere.

I’m not saying you need to be the only reporter on the first manned Mars mission. A story which makes you wonder why you didn’t know that before and which other reporters are unlikely to pitch is a good start. I got my first proper exclusive when a tipsy physicist at a party mentioned that her work involved learning oceanographic lessons from oil survey data oil companies would otherwise throw away. I liked the element of rescuing overlooked information and my ears perked up when she said, “No, I don’t think anybody’s written about it yet.” That tip landed me my first bylined print story for Science, my first story for Scientific American, and one of the first feature stories of my career, which was also my first story for Earth.

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