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by Kimberly Moynahan
When I tell people I am a freelance writer, their minds usually turn to journalism and they respond with “Who do your write for? Maybe I’ve read some of your work.”
And while every fibre of my body would love to be able to respond with a casual, “Oh, you know, Scientific American, the BBC, National Geographic … the usual places,” that hasn’t happened for me.
Not everyone is cut out to pitch ideas, cover a beat, write on spec, conduct interviews, travel to faraway places and write long feature stories.
However, it turns out there is a world of work out there just screaming for people who have strong writing skills and the ability to convey STEM subjects in a clear and engaging way.
It’s not all glamorous work; most of the time your name won’t even be associated with what your write. At times it may not even be “science writing” per say. But it does one thing that freelance journalism sometimes fails to do – it pays a professional hourly rate.
So I thought I’d share some of unexpected jobs that have crossed my desk in the last few years. My thought is that, if you are struggling freelancer, there may be things here you didn’t know you could do with your science communications background.
And even if you are in journalism, some of these might provide income between commissions. They all require specific skillsets and writing styles, but you might be surprised at what you’re already good at.
I know I was.
Professional web writing doesn’t mean turning out mass-produced blog posts to build up someone else’s content. While there is a market for that, it pays pennies. No, I’m talking about working with web developers and designers to write high quality pages for commercial sites.
Not much different from translating science, it takes a certain skill to wade through all of the corporate-speak the company typically provides and make it crisp, enthusiastic, and web-friendly. And if the topic is scientific, that’s icing on the cake.
Researching and Writing White Papers
One thing people with scientific backgrounds are often able to do well is parse large volumes of information and tease out central tenets and truths. That combined with good research skills can make science writer an ideal candidate for turning out white papers.
I have to say, this is my favourite freelance work by far. Interpretive writing involves writing informational panels and labels for museums, science and nature centres, zoos, and the like.
It can also include writing audio scripts and screen text for digital interactives. I’ve even been involved in developing a storyline for an educational video game.
Interpretive writers work with experts who provide the core material and graphic designers who make it all look good. In some cases, I’ve served as both science researcher and writer, making the work all the more interesting and fun.
Marketing and Advertising Copy
I thought I had left this field 20 years ago, but recently was contacted by an marketing firm that needed someone with a science or medical background to write copy for pharmaceutical products. I took the work and I like it because the projects are quick (2-4 hours over a couple days) and I can fit them in between bigger jobs.
I’ll start by saying I don’t get paid money for this work. I exchange writing projects with a group of fiction authors for the purpose of professional critique. Part of my contribution is keeping a sharp eye out for scientific errors or misunderstandings in their work.
They are never surprised to see things like, “Salamanders are amphibians, not reptiles” in the margins of their manuscripts or a complete description of how the nervous system works in their written critiques. In fact, this work was the impetus for my “Friday Fiction Facts” blog series.
In return, these fine writers provide invaluable feedback on my creative writing projects. I can safely say, I have learned more about how to clearly communicate scientific ideas from these sometimes “science-averse” people than I have at any workshop. As a result, I consider my work for them as paid work.
A whole lot of other opportunities have crossed my desk over the years, most of which I’ve passed over due to the insultingly low pay being offered. I write for a living so everything I’ve listed above has paid at my professional rate.
Finally, I want to mention that several of the contracts I’ve enjoyed were a result of my CSWA membership. More interestingly (and tellingly) one came through PWAC and the client told me it was “impossible” to find good science writers.
So yes people, there is a market.
Now I’d be interested to hear from you about unusual or unexpected freelance work you’ve picked up.
Kimberly Moynahan writes on the natural sciences and reflects on that uneasy space in the Venn diagram where humans and wildlife overlap, both physically and emotionally. Her work can be found on her blog, Endless Forms Most Beautiful.
By Barry Shell
“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” — Octavia Butler
Every now and then people ask me: “What ever happened to that novel you were writing?” My last blog post for the CSWA was about my NaNoWriMo project. National Novel Writing Month is an annual project that brings people together from all over the world with a common purpose – to write a novel in a month. The blog post was written on day four of the 30 day project and I was very optimistic about the process. It ended up being a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Every writer should try it, and yes, I did finish the novel.
But it’s a first draft. As we all know, editing is probably the most important part of the any writing project, but another VERY important part is just getting a first draft down on paper—especially when that draft has to be at least 50,000 words. Mine ended up totalling 50,940, but the ending still needs a bit of work. Actually the first page needs work, but that will happen during editing.
I’ve barely looked at the novel since it was finished. It sits under the coffee table, a half-ream of double sided print in a red 3-ring binder. That’s something the NaNoWriMo people recommended we do at the end of the month: make sure to print out your novel. It’s wonderful to hold the physical artifact in your hands and know that, yes, you did it. Parts are great. Other parts — Ouch. But some bits are quite good. Inspiring, even.
The month of steady writing was intense. Being retired, I had loads of time to devote to the project. But many participants I met were students taking a full load of courses, or young mothers with families. All types of people of all different ages were writing novels last November. It seemed that most of them were writing fantasy, horror or some other classic genre and most of those who came to the organized events and write-ins were women in their 30s.
The local VancoWriMo group gathered numerous times throughout that month. Collectively, the Vancouver group produced almost 24,000,000 words during those 30 days. That works out to about 480 novels. But at most only 30 – 50 people ever showed up to any of these events. Usually we met at Vancouver coffee shops or bars and just sat there writing. One of the veterans might suddenly announce, “Word war in 5 minutes.” You would try to get yourself ready, maybe get another cup of coffee, or a beer. Then there would be a count down like for a rocket launch. You would note your word count at that moment and start typing. Word wars typically lasted 20 or 30 minutes. At the end, everyone would yell out how many words they just wrote. When the goal is quantity not quality, this is a great way to write. And it’s perfect for doing that initial word dump for a first draft. It certainly gets the creative juices flowing. At times we would take a break and order food and chat about our plot holes and other things.
There were meet-ups in the suburbs but I only went to the ones in Downtown Vancouver. These were coordinated via Facebook and twitter. One time, we met at 10:00am on a Sunday morning at the Waterfront Skytrain station. There were about 30 of us. Everyone got a ticket and we headed down to the platform. We passed up the first skytrain as it was one of the old ones, and we all wanted to be in one of the newer cars. The idea was to write as we rode all the way to the end of the line—and all the way back again. From Waterfront you loop around through Burnaby and New Westminster, then back around to VCC/Clark station. That takes an hour. Oddly a skytrain car half filled with people typing away madly on laptops did not get as many curious stares as we’d expected. It’s simply uncanny how fast time goes by when you are immersed in writing your own novel on Skytrain. You put your head down and when you look up you are already at Metrotown. At VCC/Clark everyone got up for a stretch. The car sits there for about three minutes. And then we were off for another hour of writing. Indeed, I did get some inspirations from a few of the real life characters and random conversations overheard on the train that day. It worked. At the end we all went for lunch in the food court just outside Waterfront station.
Most days I spent about 3 hours physically writing, sometimes a bit more, usually at home, once in the woods in Stanley Park, but most often in various coffee shops around town. Yes indeed, I was one of those idiots nursing a coffee for two hours writing a novel in a cafe. I managed to keep ahead of the daily word count targets to the point that I built up enough of a surplus to take a day off once in a while. But most days I wrote. It was very different from the kind of writing I used to do as a staff writer at SFU—each day was an adventure. I’d go to bed at night wondering what would happen next in the story. More than once I surprised myself with a plot twist or a new subplot. Other times I could see the whole thing unfold and just slogged through the process of getting it all down.
I did not look at the novel for the entire month of December. I didn’t even print it out until Jan 15. Then in February I began to rework it into a stage play for a sort of musical/opera. In fact, I knew this was a possibility when I began the project in November, so I purposely created Phil, a character in the novel who was a struggling artist/musician. During the course of the novel Phil wrote five songs—not the music, just the words, but it was a great way to force myself to write some songs. I’m now in the process of learning Sibelius, a musical notation program so I can write out the melody and chords for these songs.
In discussing the stage play with my musical collaborators we have simplified the plot and improved the story, making it more realistic by including deeper, more subtle interactions and relations among the characters. These ideas will eventually drive the novel editing process, which, as one NaNoWriMo veteran recommended, is best done when the Spring rains end and you can spend hours in the sun, perhaps at the beach, editing. With any luck, some day I will reach a point where I feel comfortable letting others read it.
Congratulations to this year’s CSWA Book Award Winners!
The Canadian Science Writers’ Association/ Association candienne des rédacteurs scientifiques is pleased to announce the winners in the 2014 Science in Society Book Awards competition. The winners will each be presented with a certificate and $1000 cash prize during an awards dinner held in conjunction with the CSWA ‘s 44th annual conference in Saskatoon, SK, hosted by the University of Saskatchewan 18-21 June 2015.
Winner for the 2014 Science in Society Children/ Middle Grades Book Award competition:
The first in a series of humorous books about “disgusting creatures”, The Fly is a look at the common housefly. It covers such topics as the hair on the fly’s body (requires a lot of shaving), its ability to walk on the ceiling (it’s pretty cool, but it’s hard to play soccer up there), and its really disgusting food tastes (garbage juice soup followed by dirty diaper with rotten tomato sauce, for example).
Elise Gravel is an award-winning author and illustrator from Québec. She is winner of the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Illustration in French, and is well known in Québec for her original, wacky picture books. Having completed her studies in graphic design, Elise found herself quickly swept up into the glamorous world of illustration. Her old design habits drive her to work a little text here and there into her drawings and she loves to handle the design of her assignments from start to finish. She is inspired by social causes and likes projects that can handle a good dose of eccentricity.
Winner for the 2014 Science in Society General Book Award competition:
Being among bees is a full-body experience, Mark Winston writes—from the low hum of tens of thousands of insects and the pungent smell of honey and beeswax, to the sight of workers flying back and forth between flowers and the hive. The experience of an apiary slows our sense of time, heightens our awareness, and inspires awe. Bee Time presents Winston’s reflections on three decades spent studying these creatures, and on the lessons they can teach about how humans might better interact with one another and the natural world.
Like us, honeybees represent a pinnacle of animal sociality. How they submerge individual needs into the colony collective provides a lens through which to ponder human societies. Winston explains how bees process information, structure work, and communicate, and examines how corporate boardrooms are using bee societies as a model to improve collaboration. He investigates how bees have altered our understanding of agricultural ecosystems and how urban planners are looking to bees in designing more nature-friendly cities.
The relationship between bees and people has not always been benign. Bee populations are diminishing due to human impact, and we cannot afford to ignore what the demise of bees tells us about our own tenuous affiliation with nature. Toxic interactions between pesticides and bee diseases have been particularly harmful, foreshadowing similar effects of pesticides on human health. There is much to learn from bees in how they respond to these challenges. In sustaining their societies, bees teach us ways to sustain our own.
Mark L. Winston has had a distinguished career researching, teaching, writing and commenting on bees and agriculture, environmental issues, and science policy. He was a founding faculty member of the Banff Centre’s Science Communication programme, and consults widely on utilizing dialogue to develop leadership and communication skills, focus on strategic planning, inspire organisational change, and thoughtfully engage public audiences with controversial issues. Winston’s work has appeared in numerous books, commentary columns for The Vancouver Sun, The New York Times, The Sciences, Orion magazine and frequently on CBC Radio and Television and National Public Radio. He currently is a Fellow in Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue, and a Professor of Biological Sciences.
Short List for the 2014 Science in Society Children/ Middle Grades Book Award competition:
Zoobots by Helaine Becker, Kids Can Press.
Starting from Scratch by Sarah Elton, Owl Kids Books.
It’s Catching by Jennifer Gardy, Owl Kids Books.
The Fly by Elise Gravel, Penguin Random House.
If by David J. Smith, Kids Can Press.
Short List for the 2014 Science in Society General Book Award competition:
The End of Memory by Jay Ingram, Harper Collins Publishers Ltd.
Canadian Spacewalkers: Hadfield, MacLean and Williams Remember the Ultimate High Adventure by Bob McDonald, Douglas & McIntyre.
Pain and Prejudice: What Science can Learn about Work from the People Who Do It by Karen Messing, Between the Lines (BTL).
Is that a Fact? by Dr Joe Schwarcz, ECW Press.
Bee Time by Mark L. Winston, Harvard University Press.
By Sarah Boon
Despite many excellent examples to the contrary, science communication remains plagued by two overarching stereotypes that seem to pit scientists and communicators against one another:
1. Scientists often are terrible communicators; and,
2. Communicators often get the science wrong.
These perceptions are slowly beginning to change, however, as people realize that scientists and communicators don’t live on fundamentally different planets.
For example, in a recent article for BioScience, Vancouver science writer Lesley Evans Ogden cited research that found that scientists and communicators are generally comfortable with each other’s worldviews – likely because those worldviews are actually more similar than they think. Evans Ogden quotes COMPASS director Nancy Baron, who says: “They’re two sides of the same coin…Journalists want to dive in, dig deep, kick hard, and move on, whereas scientists delve deeper and deeper into their topic…Because science is slow and ongoing, that difference of time frames makes for tension.”
Another factor in changing the communications’ stereotypes is that scientists are realizing that they must communicate better – and are actually learning how to do it. At the same time, communicators are more easily able to access scientific publications, blogs, and scientists themselves, so are more readily able see and address potential reporting errors.
With this in mind, scientist-turned-science-communicator Nick Crumpton last month argued that better and more accessible scientific publications are critical given increasingly open access to the scientific literature, and the subsequent need to engage the new audience accessing this literature. In addition, scientists increasingly understand the need to convince people of the relevance of their work – especially in an era of government budget cuts and public mistrust of science. Good communication by scientists is also vital to inform ongoing policy debates around science-related topics such as climate change, vaccination, and GMOs.
Aware of their reputation as poor communicators – and knowing what’s at stake – many scientists are keen to remedy the situation. Ecologist Stephen Heard attributes the dull and unintelligible nature of scientific writing to three factors: a lack of respect for scientists who write creatively, editors and reviewers squashing creativity in scientific articles, and the fact that it rarely occurs to scientists that their writing could aspire to rise above a strictly fact-based writing standard. He champions improved and more accessible science writing, and is writing a book on that very topic to be released in 2016.
Understanding their previous failings, scientists are increasingly reaching out publicly through social media and blogging to share their research. While these efforts are largely attempted on an individual basis, scientists are also taking communications training such as that offered through international programs like COMPASS Online and the Leopold Leadership Program, and Canadian programs like the Banff Science Communications program or the University of Toronto’s Fellowship in Global Journalism.
On the other side of the coin, science communicators increasingly understand the need for rigour in science reporting. In a recent post on the Talk Science To Me blog, Amanda Maxwell outlined some of the methodological difficulties she faces when determining the quality of the science she’s communicating. “Is the experimental design robust? Are the inferences supported? Does the news come from a genuine source? Am I propagating rubbish?”
Her post shows not only the difficulty in interpreting science, but the careful attention paid by many communicators to make sure they get it right. Science communicators are turning to tools like the UK’s NHS Behind the Headlines to help them assess scientific studies, Retraction Watch to show which studies have gone off track, and the unfortunately now-defunct Knight Science Journalism Tracker to assess how studies are covered. Science writers can also connect with professional organizations such as the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, and with media organizations that facilitate fact-checking with scientists – such as science media centres in Canada, the UK and other countries, with one also planned for the US.
This two-pronged approach (scientists improving their communication skills and communicators improving their reporting skills) has had some great results, from active scientists like Dr. Ray Jayawardhana publishing popular science books, to journalists like Jude Isabella winning awards for their scientific reporting.
Unfortunately not everyone agrees with this approach. Some feel that science writing should be left to the experts, rather than relying on scientists to bring their communication skills up to snuff.
For example, editor Iva Cheung suggests that perhaps academic writing should be done by communications professionals – at least in the biomedical sciences. “Rather than forcing academics to hone a weak skill, maybe we’d be better off bringing in communications professionals whose writing is already sharp,” she writes. She also says, however, that “liberating scientists from writing should not absolve them of the responsibility of learning how to communicate. At a minimum, they would still need to understand the publication process enough to effectively convey their ideas to the writers.”
As a scientist and freelance writer for over a decade, I’ve seen the benefits from both sides. Switching between communicating to a scientific versus a general audience isn’t always a smooth process – and I’ve definitely had missteps along the way. However, my communication skills have been invaluable in preparing high quality, readable scientific manuscripts; in teaching students complex concepts in understandable ways; and in preparing conference presentations that clearly engage with existing research while presenting new ideas. As a communicator, my scientific training has been critical in distilling scientific literature to its key components, and ensuring that the focus is on a well-supported story. I’ve also found that science communication has encouraged me to step back from the minutiae of the science itself to gain a broader perspective on the practice and culture of science. This provides excellent context for understanding how various science studies contribute to society – and how scientists themselves view that contribution. I’ve also found that scientists are sometimes more comfortable talking about their research with someone who’s familiar with science and/or academic culture, and can thus converse in a semi-shorthand about scientific methods and results.
I think that – where possible – it’s more effective for scientists and communicators to meet in the middle and learn from each other, thereby benefitting both fields. As Evans Ogden concludes in her BioScience article, the divide between scientists and communicators isn’t as defined as we may think, and both sides have a lot to gain from each other.
For more on the relationship between scientists and communicators, see this recent Guardian article.
Sarah Boon has straddled the worlds of freelance writing/editing and academic science for the past 15 years. She blogs at Watershed Moments about nature and nature writing, science communication, and women in science. She is a member of the Canadian Science Writers’ Association and the Editors’ Association of Canada, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 2013. Sarah is also the Editorial Manager at Science Borealis. Find Sarah on Twitter: @snowhydro