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Relearning how to write

Anxiety. Stress. Uncertainty. Ugh! These were all things I was feeling when I began trying to write for the public after completing my Ph.D. in conservation biology.

I had thought that writing for the public could be a stimulating career option that would keep me connected to conservation and promote those efforts to the public. It would also provide me the flexibility to stay home with my kids and the transferability to move around the country every few years as a military wife. I’m a good writer, I thought, or fairly good, and my scientific background should have prepared me to cover most biology topics.

But I hadn’t covered writing for the public in school, and I realized that I didn’t know how to start. I could just pick a topic and write, but how would I find an audience? Aiming for established venues would help, but what if they didn’t like the topic I wanted to write about? I felt stuck.

I’ve come a long way since then. I’ve written for blogs, and created one of my own. I write regularly for a conservation nonprofit’s website, and I’ve written a feature article for a magazine. I love doing what I can to encourage a passion for conservation in others and provide them with the knowledge and tools they need to help save the environment. As I’ve returned to teaching and considered moving into university administration, I’ve also found that it’s a nice addition to my CV.

But getting my writing skills up to speed was not an easy road. It has taken years of hard work to modify the technical writing habits that were instilled in me during my scientific training so that I can successfully write for the public. It has been worth it, though. I’ve learned so much from editors, I’ve met great people I hope to work with for a long time to come, and I enjoy sharing information with the public about critical efforts to save species and habitats around the world.  

A rough beginning

My first attempt at writing for the public started with my blog. I gave it a catchy name, Dissecting Science, but I didn’t know what the focus should be. I didn’t know who I should be aiming for as my audience, and I definitely didn’t know how to attract them. After 8 months of hemming and hawing—and moving across the country, and having a baby—I decided to put the audience question aside and just write.

I figured that it would be best to begin with something I knew well, so I chose a topic related to my dissertation that I thought would be interesting to a broader audience: the impact roads have on the environment. Now, 3 years later, I can see the problems with that piece. It was a good topic, but it was poorly executed. I didn’t really know who I was writing for, so I ended up resorting to a stiff, uninviting academic tone. The piece was also full of citations—25, to be precise. At the time, I thought these were necessary to validate my points and avoid plagiarism, but now I see that they are distracting and unnecessary. I had to learn how to write like I was writing for a friend, not for an academic audience, and how to give credit to others without disrupting the flow of the piece with all my citations.  

I kept at it, and I think my posts improved over those early months—but still, no one was reading them. I needed to start looking for an audience. I reached out to potential readers on social media. I also signed up for a free service to track how many times my posts were being viewed and where readers were coming from. This data helped guide my decisions about future topics to hopefully attract more readers. All of these efforts were important for growing my blog, but it also meant that the time this project demanded was increasing considerably, beyond what I wanted to spend on it. I needed a different approach.

Exploring other options

While I was struggling with my blog, I happened to start chatting with a neighbor who also ran a blog, which published posts from several regular writers—and had an audience that was actually growing. She was interested in expanding into science, and I became a contributor.  

Writing for her was stressful at first. I was worried that my drafts might not be up to her standards, and the idea of having hundreds of readers viewing my posts, while exciting, made me a little nervous, too. What if they didn’t like them, or I got something important wrong? But writing for a more established venue, with the input of a more experienced writer, ended up being a huge help. It was nice to write regularly, have an audience, and receive feedback that improved my writing. I worked more on moving away from the academic tone that was stifling my previous articles. As I began to relax and feel more comfortable, my writing did too.

During this time, I also started coming up with ideas for other venues and reading about how to “pitch” potential stories to editors. The pitch is critical. You need to thoroughly research the publication to get an idea of its style and tone, make sure your pitch is a good match, and check that a piece similar to yours has not been published recently. I learned a lot from The Essential Guide to Freelance Writing and other books about writing for the public, such as Writer’s Market's annual publication.  

My early pitches mostly elicited generic rejections or—more frequently—silence. But, several months in, I got a positive response for a feature article in a magazine! I was thrilled, but also a little nervous to take on this new challenge that was going to push me beyond my newly established comfort zone.

For one thing, I needed to interview a scientist, which I had not done before, and I was nervous about saying something wrong. I decided to send him an introductory email explaining the piece and my scientific background to justify myself as someone who could cover his work with the knowledge and respect it deserved. I was hoping to set up a phone interview with him; I had read up on interviewing, and everything said to avoid email interviews unless there was absolutely no other option, because they don’t allow for a real conversation and the written responses can often be very stiff and formal. But that plan was complicated by the fact that he lived in a distant time zone across the world, and my own availability was limited as well. So, I included the questions I wanted to ask in the email (which can be helpful even for a phone or in-person interview, because some scientists like to know in advance what will be discussed) and suggested that, if we could not coordinate a time to talk, he could respond to my questions in writing. He responded right away with written answers to my questions, which allowed me to write my article—but I could have learned much more if I had simply asked for a phone interview.  

Having performed phone interviews for other projects, I can now say firsthand that they are much more effective. They offer a better feel for the person I’m talking to. I can hear the excitement in their voice. I can ask more detailed questions and explore their answers. Put simply, if I’m really engaged in a conversation with a scientist, I have a better chance of writing a captivating article for my readers.

I still have a lot to learn about writing for the public. But, in my 3 years of exploring this world, I’ve picked up a few pointers.

Know your audience. For any piece of writing, it’s crucial that you know who your audience is so that you can shape the piece to fit their wants and needs. When you’re writing a scientific manuscript, for instance, you know that your audience is other experts, so you use technical language and dive deep into details. However, when you’re writing for the public, your audience—and what they are interested in reading—will depend on the venue. Regardless, remember that your audience is smart, and in many cases not so different from you. Your readers’ specific interests and knowledge may be different, but don’t talk down to them. Think about how you feel when you’re reading about a new topic. What do you want to know?  

Provide details, but don’t overdo it. If you are writing about a topic you know well, it is easy to get sidetracked with extraneous details. You may find these details interesting, but spending too much time on them is an easy way to bog down the article and lose your audience. Aim to give your readers enough detail so that they can assess the information themselves, but not too much detail to distract them from the article’s main focus. Along these lines, get rid of your citations. Scary, right? How do you avoid plagiarism if you can’t use citations? The truth is, you don’t need to cite information that is general knowledge. You can explicitly mention publications and sources if they’re a crucial part of the story, and you can also use links when writing for websites.

Tell a compelling story. Ease off the technical writing you normally use in journals and instead focus on active, engaging language. Make the article into a story interspersed with interesting facts. Use characters. These tactics will grab readers’ attention and help them connect to the topic—which is your ultimate goal. Focus on how you can make the topic personal for others and evoke passion in them. Including quirky personal details and emotions can help.   

As you find your route to writing for the public, consider starting with smaller websites or magazines to increase the chance of getting an editor’s attention. Start writing, learn from your mistakes, and see where it takes you.

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