When I tell other science writers that I write for women’s magazines, their reaction is typically something along the lines of “Whoa. What is that like?” Writing for magazines like Glamour and O: The Oprah Magazine and Family Circle is certainly a different experience than writing for Nature—but it’s fun and challenging in its own way, and in my opinion it’s possible to cover science and medicine for these publications with integrity and accuracy.
Perhaps the biggest difference between a women’s magazine and a science magazine is audience expectations. While readers of Scientific American or Nautilus have a strong interest in basic science, women’s magazine readers may not. And women primarily read magazines like Good Housekeeping and Real Simple for their service—actionable information or advice on how to live happily or frugally or healthily (depending on the magazine). So while these publications do sometimes cover science, they only do so if the science applies to their readers’ everyday lives in a direct way that fits with the focus of the magazine. As science writer and editor Emily Laber-Warren, who worked on staff at Women’s Health in 2006, recalls: “Many of my ideas got no traction because I could not answer ‘where’s the service?’ to [the other editors’] satisfaction, even though I thought that our readership would be interested.” Laber-Warren now directs the Health & Science Reporting concentration at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
The service that a women’s magazine provides has to apply to its audience in an age- and sex-appropriate manner too. As health and lifestyle writer Virginia Sole-Smith explains, “Many women’s magazines only want to feature research that has been done about their particular demographic—women aged 25 to 45, for example. This makes a certain kind of sense because the health issues of a 30-year-old woman are pretty different than a 50-year-old man. But there is a huge bias in health research; scientists like studying men because in a lot of ways, they are simpler—no periods, pregnancies, menopause, etcetera to factor into the results. So it can be frustrating to cover a topic like, say, heart disease, and realize how little of the data applies to your audience.”
To solve this problem, Sole-Smith communicates frequently with her editors during the reporting process about what she can and cannot provide in her story. Sometimes editors come to writers with only a vague idea for a piece and hope that the writer can find the meat of the story on his or her own. As Sole-Smith puts it, “The editors have decided what they want the headline to be, and then they want you to find the story to match.” In these situations, clear communication is also essential. “This doesn’t happen with every assignment, and I’m sure it happens with other types of magazines, too, but it is a recurring problem in our niche. As the writer, you constantly walk a line between needing to please your editor and needing to stay true to your sources and reporting,” Sole-Smith says. Likewise, it’s also up to the writer to ensure that the research mentioned in the piece is characterized and applied accurately, especially if it gets incorporated into service. If a small trial reported that cognitive function improved in elderly patients with dementia who ate an ounce of dark chocolate every day, the article shouldn’t tell its twenty-something readers that eating a Milky Way Dark every day will boost their IQ.
Finding a Voice
It can also be a challenge for a science writer—okay, for any writer—to emulate the casual and familiar voice characteristic of women’s magazines. But there are tricks that can help. As Sole-Smith explains, “I have a couple of very smart, very hilarious best friends—so when I’m writing, I imagine that I’m telling them the story over a glass of wine.” Laber-Warren suggests keeping contemporary fiction near your desk that “has that chatty girlfriend-y voice,” such as Waiting for Birdy. Open it to a random page when you need inspiration “and just absorb the style,” she says.
And not only do you need to keep your own prose light and conversational—you also need your sources’ quotes to fit with the magazine’s voice, and this isn’t always easy. At the start of interviews, I usually explain to sources that I need them to avoid technical terms and that they should try to explain concepts as if they’re talking to guests at a cocktail party. Still, I often end up with stiff quotes that don’t jibe with the rest of the prose, and my editors will sometimes rewrite the quotes to make them smoother. When this happens, I first check the new quote against the original quote. If it seems to capture the right sentiment, I’ll typically go back to my source and run the revised quote by him or her. If the new quote seems way off base, I’ll try to rework the quote with my editor; then, when we’ve agreed on something, I’ll go back to my source with it. “But,” Laber-Warren warns, “if it’s a more investigative piece where it’s not advisable to do this, then you better feel comfortable with your editor before embarking on it and set some ground rules from the start.”
Some women’s magazines try to solve the dry-quote problem by relying on media-savvy sources, but this can be a problem too, because these sources aren’t always experts in the fields about which they’re commenting. “One thing that really surprised me when I went from being an editor at Popular Science to a popular women’s magazine,” Laber-Warren says, “is that when I asked interns or assistant editors for research help, they would call personal trainers or media-savvy dermatologists or gynecologists and consider them expert sources. They seemed unaware of the scientific research community and the wealth of actual experts out there.” This issue can be overcome with respectful communication, she says. “You can point out: Hey, this guy is quoted all over the place but he really is just selling his products. I’ve got these other sources who are less biased and better equipped to talk about these issues from an unbiased perspective.”
The editing and revision process at a women’s magazine can be a bit of a shock to science writers who are used to a lot of back-and-forth. Although most women’s magazine editors run changes by their writers, a few do not. Ask your editors to see the piece at every stage in the revision process and always request to see page proofs when it is still possible to make changes for accuracy.
“Any editor worth their salt should do this and it is totally legit to be demanding about that,” Laber-Warren says. “Your reputation and that of the magazine are both at stake in terms of the accuracy so you and your editor should share this goal.” It’s not a bad idea to mention these requests when you first accept the assignment.
One final piece of advice: Always respect your readers. Writers sometimes talk about the need to “dumb down” science for general-interest publications, but I find this attitude defeatist and disrespectful. It’s possible to write about science and medicine in a nuanced manner for any publication; you can even discuss the process and limitations of scientific research as long as the issues are relevant to the story and you make it clear why. Science is integral to everyone’s day-to-day life, and writing for a women’s magazine gives you a unique opportunity to prove that point.
Melinda Wenner Moyer is a freelance science and health writer based in Cold Spring, New York. She has written for Scientific American, Nature, Glamour, O, Fitness, and Prevention, and is Slate‘s parenting advice columnist. Follow her on Twitter @Lindy2350.