Re: Scientific Journalism

Subject: Re: Scientific Journalism
From: Kat Nagel/MasterWork <katnagel -at- EZNET -dot- NET>
Date: Wed, 18 Nov 1998 12:00:07 -0500

At 11:48 PM -0500 11/17/98, Michael Michalchik wrote:

I have a BS in biology. Four years of Doctoral Study in Neuroscience (No
Degree). I have spent the last 2 years working odd jobs in computer science -
Programming, Computer Repair, and I wrote the textbook for a class on Database
Design for the New Horizons Corporation. They paid me 1,300 dollars for 35,000
words and 40 diagrams. My wife says they took advantage of me.

She's right <smile>.

Ideally, I'd like to start writing and reporting short science news summaries
for a magazines like Science News, Discover, Newspapers or some Online
Service. IMHO I think I also could do a descent job writing the various Made
Simple, Idiots Guides, Dummies Books. Perhaps "Genetic Engineering for
Dummies" ;-)

You might also consider writing for newsletter articles for scientific
research organizations. What about the university where you took your
doctoral courses? Do they have publications where they bludgeon alumni
with the wonders performed by their research faculty? Do they send out
press releases on faculty honors and significant research grants? These
can be good opportunities to get a foot in the door.

2) How should I approach prospective employers?

A) Should search for want ads, or go after the organizations I want?

The latter, in my opinion. Oh, check the want ads, especially those in the
back of professional journals in the fields you're interested in. Buried
in the heap of post-doc listings, there is occasionally a gem for a
'communications officer' or some such title. It can be a useful way to put
food on the table while generating clips (the journalistic equivalent of
writing samples---they don't count for diddly unless they've actually been
published somewhere).

B) Do magazines and online news services accept work on a contract

Some do, some don't. Before you tie up with one, take a look at the
National Writers Union Guide to Freelance Rates and Standard Practices.

C) Should I approach the Editor or Human Resources?

Oh, the Editor---usually the Features Editor, but the title varies from
publication to publication.

D) My resume is pretty weak with regard to writing. Should I send
samples with it? Ask them to assign me a short topic that I'll do
for free?
Just send a cover letter and a writing sample?

Cover letter pointing up your areas of expertise that align with the
interest areas of the publication. Resume, ditto. Several short samples
(maybe the ones that were too flashy for techwriting <smile>). Include the
TOC and a short descriptive section from that text you wrote, if you're
proud of it.

3) Does it make sense for me to join the STC?

Yup. Make sure you send along an extra $5 to join the Scientific
Communication SIG. It's full of folks who've never written a lick of
software documentation, and quite a few of us who are eclectic in our
choice of projects (a little software here, a little hardware there, here a
little museum study guide, there an environmental impact statement,
everywhere a... Oh, never mind <sigh>).

4) Anything else I should do to improve my prospects?

Find out who writes science articles for your local and regional newspapers
(might be staff, might be freelance stringers). Take 'em out for a beer
and wings and pump 'em. Offer to sub for them if they want a week off.

If no paper in your area publishes good science stuff, offer to write a
weekly column or scientific background sidebars for news stories. Pick a
couple of articles from the last few months that could have used a good
scientific explanation and write the sidebar that should have accompanied
them. Why did they have to evacuate two square blocks after that tanker
went off the road? Just what sort of defect caused the product recall?
What accurate information would help people make an informed decision about
a local zoning issue?

really appreciate any help you can give me. My wife thinks I am nuts, so tell
me if I am.

Nope. Not nuts. You -will- need something to pay your share of the rent
while you build up a stock of good published-for-peanuts articles to
support your claim of expertise to impress a publisher who can pay you a
living wage. A newsletter or PR job (grit your teeth) can help with that.

Good luck!
Please use the email address in my signature. The address in the header
(used for auto-reply) will bounce.

/K@ ____________________________________ katnagel -at- eznet -dot- net
Kat Nagel, MasterWork Consulting Services Rochester NY
Technical writing/Editing/Document design/Web site planning

"The transformation of calories into words, of words into money,
and of money into calories again are the three basic cycles in a
freelance writer's metabolism." /Mary Kittredge, _Poison Pen_

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