sarahkeenihan

Science writing: what, how, why, when and huh?

In February 2016 on February 22, 2016 at 11:17 am

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Sarah: What does a science writer even do? It’s a question I am regularly asked as I meet new people day-to-day. Some scientists are also intrigued about my work, and interested to know how I made the switch from a research career into a communications role.

Recently I was interviewed by Adrian Carter, Deputy Chair at the Early-Mid Career Researcher Forum at the Australian Academy of Science, as a way to provide careers information to members. Originally published here, I’ve reproduced it below in case you too are interested.

What is your current occupation or position?
I’m a freelance science writer, and live in Adelaide, South Australia. I have an office in my home, and travel to meet with clients as required. Occasionally I work in-house with a client if that suits their needs. My work typically includes a mix of: writing news and feature articles for online and printed publications, putting together or editing grants and prize applications for scientists, copywriting and crafting content and case studies for client websites and documents, writing blog posts and other social media outputs, conducting workshops for scientists looking to improve their writing skills, and more. Previously I worked in immunology research in Australia and Indonesia, and in a number of writing and communication type roles.

How did you get into science writing?
It was a field I had been interested in for a long time, although it wasn’t until 2012 that I finally made the decision to become a dedicated freelance writer. At the time, I was employed by Dr Kristin Alford at futures consultancy Bridge8 Pty Ltd (http://bridge8.wordpress.com/). We worked on a range of different science, technology and futures projects, and it became clear to me that it was always the writing work that I loved the most amongst the mix of skills I was applying. I’d been cultivating my science writing capability for many years prior to that, having started a Graduate Diploma in Sciences Communication during my PhD in the late 1990s (I finally completed it over 10 years later!). I did a reasonable amount of volunteer writing work for associations and publications over the years as well, and started a daily blogging project (https://scienceforlife365.wordpress.com/) to improve my writing volume and speed.

What do you enjoy most about working in science writing?
I love that I’m working at the cutting edge of science, across many different specialty fields and that every week is different. Obviously I’m not doing laboratory research anymore (and I do miss it a little), but I have the opportunity to chat with some fantastic people and hear about what they’re doing and what they hope the impact of their research will be. As well as being thrilled by the science, I have a real love of language. I find it very satisfying to craft words, sentences, paragraphs and indeed whole pages that are enjoyable and easy to read, but still accurate. I love the stories of science, and helping new audiences to come into contact with complex subject matter that they may not have encountered before.

What are the most challenging aspects about being a science writer?
Although working alone is a good fit with my slightly introverted personality, at times it can be quite isolating. To counter that, I make sure I mix up my time: I schedule a combination of flat-out writing binges interwoven with in-person and phone interviews, coffee dates with pals and colleagues, and chats about life and work matters with friends and colleagues via Twitter and Facebook. I attend professional events in Adelaide—I’m a member of the Australia Science Communicators and the SA Writers Centre—and travel to conferences or training once or twice a year.

It can also be quite challenging to keep the right balance of jobs on the go. Sometimes offers of work come all at once, and it’s important I make sure I don’t over-commit myself when that happens. However it’s incredibly hard to say ‘no’ to fantastic opportunities, especially when a new client comes knocking. Other periods are quieter, which is useful for administration tasks. Working at home, I do need to make sure I don’t procrastinate in the form of household distractions.

Describe a typical day in your job?
I am an early riser, often before 6am. Some mornings I exercise, others I sit straight down at the computer and get an hour of writing done straight up. From 7am-8am it’s bedlam! My husband and I grapple with breakfast, lunches, uniforms and miscellaneous emotional turmoil for three kids aged 6-12. Once that mob is packed off out the door, I have the house to myself and start on more work. I write best in the mornings, so make sure I use that time wisely to crank out serious words. I aim to schedule phone calls and meetings in the early afternoon when my brain has come off the boil a little. If I have a full day at home, I break it up with exercise (running or swimming) and physical chores around the house. Working from an in-house office is a great way to keep a household ticking over. I recommend it to any working parent. But again, look out for the procrasti-cleaning/cooking/washing!

Between 3.30 and 6pm is taken up with the kids’ after-school activities, although I do pull in help to cover this during busy times when I need to squeeze more hours from each day. If I’m in a particularly crazy patch, I work evenings as well.

Any advice for early-mid career researchers wishing to pursue a career in science writing?
Science writing is not for everyone, and is not necessarily a natural jump from a career in research. The best approach is to take a long run-up and make a slow transition. You’ve really got to know yourself: work out what you’re good at, what conditions you like to work under. You need to be familiar with what makes writing work for different platforms: news, social media, long-form, grants, prizes, website copy and more. You must be able to work fast and to tight deadlines at times. You need great networks in science and media circles, which can be built up over time in other employment and through real life and social media interactions. You should take the opportunity to get extra training if possible, such as through writing courses, science outreach training or media internships. You can also take on volunteer roles to learn new skills: for example, do media or outreach for a science association. Whilst doing that, try and hook up with a mentor or two in the field you’re interested in. Even if you just meet for coffee, it’s valuable. If you have the chance and a bit of spare time, work collaboratively and humbly with them (yes, this usually means not paid!) – it will be worthwhile, as you’ll learn new skills and define your strengths and weaknesses outside of the research environment.

What’s exciting you about science writing?
It’s so exciting living at the intersection of two fascinating disciplines: science and media. Science is so interesting, so diverse and of course incredibly valuable to our society. Through writing, I love feeling that I can help change peoples’ minds about the importance and relevance of science, for example guiding readers to feel less intimidated by climate change, or helping them understand how cancer treatment works. I also feel very lucky to apply my science knowledge at the cutting edge of digital news and communications—the way information is presented and consumed is so fascinating, and changing constantly. Late in 2015 I attended the Storyology conference, hosted by The Walkley Foundation. It was absolutely wonderful to hear from some of the world’s leading media experts, and to be part of such a dynamic field.

How did your PhD or postdoctoral research assist you with a career in science writing?
My PhD training was a fantastic launch pad for a career in science writing. Through many years working with Sarah Robertson—herself a fantastic communicator—and other colleagues, I learnt how to write specifically and concisely, how to organise information, how to tell a story through verbal and written communication, how to reach long-term goals through creating reasonable short-term deadlines, how to manage my time effectively, how to never give up, how to walk into a conference and chat with people I’d never met before…the list goes on! All these skills are so valuable and transferable to many careers outside of research science.

[image thanks to https://www.flickr.com/photos/donnieray/]

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  1. Really nice to read about your experiences in science communication, I agree that it’s such a fun mix of science + media! Will definitely be following your blog along 🙂

  2. This is so inspiring, thank you 🙂

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