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Science Writing: What are the Markets?


When it comes to science writing niches, the highest profile publications -- the best of the newsprint and science publishing world -- probably spring to mind for most researchers.

But those markets don't tell the whole story. The latest science, rendered accessible to a variety of audiences, with all its implications, is needed and desired by a spectrum of publications.

Where are these publications? Where can beginning science writers with good ideas go to sell their wares?

For this week's feature, Next Wave spoke to an array of seasoned professional science writers who have tapped into various markets. They offer insight on how and where they found assignments and the pros and cons of the various niches.

Newsprint, Broadcasting

Newspapers, radio, and television are arguably the highest-profile venues for science writers. The downside? "It's a wannabe market," says Toby Murcott -- a former biochemistry postdoc who has, among other things, worked as a science correspondent for BBC World Service radio and a columnist for U.K. broadsheet The Times. Murcott is currently the chairperson of the British Association of Science Writers (ABSW) and has his own science-communication company. He believes that most of these publications or broadcasting networks have limited -- and much sought after -- opportunities for those who wish to pursue a writing career.

To catch the eye of an editor in one of these markets, Murcott feels, "you got to stand out." He recalls the contrasting approach -- and results -- between students he encountered at a M.Sc. science communication course who were sent out to do some reporting. While most of the class simply paid a visit to researchers down the road, a couple industrious ones flew to Mexico and interviewed scientists on site and were back with their story within two days. This kind of effort attracts editors' interest.

New York-based Rayiba Tuma freelances for The Economist and the New York Times. She secured her first New York Times piece "because a past editor liked the idea and recommended that I contact her editor at The Times."

Assignments like this, however high profile, do not necessarily mean financial security. Tuma says, "there can be a trade-off in pay and profile of the publication, especially newspapers don't pay well." Nevertheless, she sees the work "as investments in improving my credentials and experience." She balances out this type of work by writing for trade publications which provide steady work and good pay, even if they aren't well known in the general public.

Periodical and Specialist Magazines

Science writers write for scientists in the news and feature pages of the highest profile scientific periodicals. Eliot Marshall, International News Editor for Science magazine, explains that the magazine mainly relies on staff writers and established, regular contributors. Though they do sometimes use first-time freelance writers. "The competition," he admits, "is pretty intense."

Marshall is sympathetic to the unknown writers' predicament. "Beginning writers face a challenge getting story ideas considered." His advice? Your scoop may be on your doorstep, "Sometimes the best proposals are about ideas that come out of direct experience or research," explains Marshall.

Another market for a (broadly) academic audience is newsletters of learned societies, funding agencies, and science policy organisations. German national Michael Gross is a freelance science writer based in the U.K. who has newsprint experience in heavyweights like the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, and the U.K.'s Guardian. Gross, however, became dissatisfied with the decreasing copy space science was getting in newsprint. One of his current regular -- and favourite -- gigs is with Chemistry World , which is published by Royal Society of Chemistry. Chemistry World allows him to publish longer feature pieces and some shorter news items.

U.K.-based engineer and science writer Charles Butcher has worked with organisations like the Royal Society, producing conference proceedings. Another interesting client is the European Commission (EC), which, according to Butcher "appear[s] to have an endless appetite for material." The EC's online science and technology information service Cordis is one means through which EC science communication is disseminated, and it needs plenty of writers.

Trade Press

Probably the largest market for science writers is in the so-called "trade press," publishers of material intended for various professional groups. Butcher has 15 years experience writing for trade magazines such as the U.K. publication Chemical Engineering. "The great advantage of the trade press is you can [often] enter without experience." Butcher was hired as an assistant editor for his engineering background even though he was an inexperienced writer. He says the trade press is not perceived as being as glamorous as mainstream journalism but needs good writers all the time. Many trade press publications pay good rates. He suggests that new science writers take a look at the Willings Press Guide to see what publications may be relevant to their technical background and interests.

Getting your foot in the door of the trade press as a freelancer may require accepting some unpaid assignments. Biochemical engineer Ph.D., Merlin Goldman gained most of his early writing experience working for a sector of the trade press where the publications have no subscriptions and generate revenue with advertising. Many of these magazines welcome contributions. Goldman got his first writing gig when an acquaintance who wrote articles -- frequently scientific ones -- for Young Company Finance--needed someone to take it over. He has also written for Bioprocess International. Neither assignment was paid, but, says Goldman, they gave him excellent experience working with strict word counts and deadlines. This experience boosted his confidence. Goldman recommends that new writers approach those trade magazines where you believe you can offer a relevant story. Take a look at the TradePub Web site for an overview of this specific (non-subscription) trade press market.

Technical Writing

Klara Belzar describes herself as a "freelance writer and medical communication generalist." With a Ph.D. in biochemistry and haematology, she gained her first writing experience in a biotech firm where she did a postdoc. Five years ago, she decided to go out as a freelance writer. She admits, "I didn't have a clue where to start."

Now Belzar works primarily for the pharmaceutical sector, where she writes, for example, reviews of the biomedical literature for medical consultants. Previously she did some journalism work, but she was disheartened when she realised that for some assignments she was offered more for the accompanying photos she took than the piece itself. The turning point came when she wanted to work part time and found that technical writing was the most viable option. "Add a zero to the [science journalism] pay rate," she says. Belzar recommends joining the European Medical Writers Association to network and get exposure.

One Story, Told Several Ways

One means of widening your market using the same basic material is to write stories for several publications. "Really look at the market," says Gross, and "think about all potential audiences." In Gross's case, one obvious advantage is that he can write a story both in English and German. But, he uses other strategies, too. For example, after recently investigating the Cuba's biotech scene (in person), he wrote one piece for a chemistry publication, another for a biology publication, and still another that focused on science policy aspects of the subject.

Geographical Markets -- Get out on Location

Former GrantsNet editor and Next Wave alumna Melissa Mertl has more recently been working as a freelancer, first in Paris and then in London. Mertl says she already had the advantage of networks to tap into. She encourages writers to take advantage of their location as a selling point. When she moved to Paris, she made sure that all the U.S. editors she knew were aware of her new location. Editors are often interested in a fortuitous and "free" foreign correspondent.

A good example of getting work by being in the right place at the right time is conference reporting. Mertl recommends finding out what conferences are on the horizon, then going carefully through their programmes and contacting senior scientists involved in the meeting to hear what the hottest topics are. "I'm always amazed how helpful and generous these people are with their time," she says. Armed with this homework and bona fide expert opinion, get in touch with an editor about the meeting, pitch some ideas, and say: "I'm going to be there anyway." This self-sponsored approach offers no risk for an editor and can be very effective for the writer.

And as a bonus, networking at conferences can open more markets. Tuma has found that "working in a press room at a science meeting is a great way to meet editors and writers, and that leads to jobs." Attending conferences doesn't have to be costly either; just plan in advance, book cheap flights, and stay with friends. Goldman points out that freelance writers often get into conferences free of charge, so make sure the conference organisers know why you are there and who you represent.

The Human Aspect of the Market

Tuma maintains that getting into any science writing market as a freelancer "is only partially about your writing skills. A lot of it is about relationships -- with editors, scientists, and colleagues." She cites a science writers workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and "joining and attending annual U.S.-based National Association of Science Writers (NASW) meetings" as instrumental in allowing her to make contacts.

Mertl is also a strong believer in getting yourself out there in person. In her case she advocates knocking on editor's doors. "Call up [and] say you will be in town and have some ideas (but make sure you have well-researched ones) and pitch in person." Admittedly this a "nerve-wracking experience," says Mertl. But in her experience even if the editor doesn't commission there and then, they are more likely to remember you the next time you contact them.

Know Thy Readers and Market

Irrespective of the market science writers aim for, Goldman stresses doing your homework before sending in your piece: "Get examples, look at them carefully, pitch style correctly and get it right the first time."

The next phase? "The key, then, is to try to parlay these into regular gigs, some of which I've been successful at and some I haven't," says Tuma.

But whatever markets you work, Murcott's most pressing advice is "produce what is required: it is the people who are reliable and work to deadline and length" that will be commissioned again.

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