How to break into science writing for magazines?
November 26, 2008 1:10 PM   Subscribe

How to break into science writing for magazines? What are the strengths/weaknesses of using a traditional vs non-mainstream approach (eg, a blog).

Sorry for the length/but I'd like to find a way to do this, if extraneous info helps provide a solution...

I asked a similar question a few years ago, and received great suggestions. After implementing those tips, I did break into medical education communication agencies and worked at such agencies for 2 years. A month from now I will go freelance but will will have very targeted products and clients (journal articles for medical journals in the area of oncology for investigators, pharma companies, and/or med ed agencies).

However, I am still enamored by the idea of writing for the popular press. More specifically, I used to teach a "Biology of Social Issues" course to non-science major college undergraduates and had a blast -- everything from stem cells, genetic engineering, to whatever seemed interesting to me or my students. I would use a story as a "hook" and teach a bit of science. Ultimately, I would like to write similar information and use a graphic providing a variety of "what is possible" pictures to pull the reader in followed by science information and explanations.

I know how to try to get published in mainstream magazines (eg, write a pitch letter, send off and wait a few months, get a response or no response, rinse and repeat). This process, however, takes months. Moreover, when I was given the chance to write something, I was required to write something that fit the newsletter , I wrote something that was just...boring (so the clip I have for consumers is boring and I don't want to write something like that). Also, when I study the model -- use sample A to get an opportunity to publish in a better magazine, it would take years to finally get into an interesting magazine.

For now I do not and probably cannot get access to the pre-embargo Euraka alerts. If my goal is to get good clips that I can later use to write for magazines of my choice, would these other approaches work? Why or why not and what would be unintended negatives?

Basically, if my goal is to write an interesting article about some of the new oncology drugs for Scienfic American, for example, which of these approaches would be better or more likely to succeed?

1. Doing the traditional "build clips", and build those to get into better magazines, etc.

2. A blog - publish the equivalent of a kids magazine for science on a blog. I would submit the blog in addition to journal articles for my "clips." I could write something like this in a matter of weeks (although there may not be many readers).

3. Just wrting an article and sending it off to Scientific Amercan with a letter asking if they are interested in the article? If they say no, send it off to another publication that is similar.

4. There is another model that I am sure would work and I will probably do this on the side -- contact university PR offices with science news paper type publications and offer to write something. Some of these publications do seem to hire people with my background so I am assuming they will let me write an article or 2, even if they are for free. I would have more to gain from the sample, however. But I wonder if a blog could help me get to that point faster or give me more options?

Tips, suggestions, or real life examples would be great. Thanks
posted by Wolfster to Writing & Language (3 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Everyone uses emails now-- so the "wait months" on responses to pitches is no longer really an issue. Never send a full article to a magazine-- it's a sign of an amateur and I've never heard of one being accepted that way.

Also, sadly, you are picking a truly bad time to try to start-- literally thousands of experienced journalists have been and are being laid off in the last few months or so and many of them will try freelancing and they already have the contacts and the experience.

Blogging is a good thing to do, however-- if you can show people that you can write and you can get them to pay attention, that will help you get clips. The PR/university stuff can also be a good thing.

Also, join the National Association of Science Writers (don't worry about the having to get sponsored by existing members thing-- you can join their email list before you become a member and ask people on there to sponsor you and it will be fine). And join, which has "how to pitch" things that have names and emails of editors and what they are looking for.

Further, don't worry about Eurekalert access etc either.--breaking news tends to be covered by staffers and on-contract freelances. And besides, the best stories are your own ideas from reading and what you know and scientists you know that are not tied to specific news. For example, a while back I started to see "apoptosis" in a lot of papers when I was writing for the late, lamented HMS Beagle on BioMedNet. So, I was like, OK, what's going on here? And so I wrote about that.

More recently, I saw a cool paper about a theory of autism that I didn't think was getting enough attention-- did that one for New Scientist. One of my favorite pieces-- also for New Scientist-- was about why we need sex research to understand drugs. I had that idea because I was like, why do people go on about drugs "hijacking the brain" when we don't even know how the areas they supposedly hijack do the stuff they are supposed to do (ie, get us to have sex and eat)?

Specializing is also a very good thing because then you get to know the scientists in the area. Very few people can touch me on addictions ;-)

About me: I specialize in neuroscience, addictions, psychology and psychiatry and have written for New Scientist, Scientific American Mind, Cerebrum, MSN Health, Psychology Today and general pubs like NYT, WashPost and Elle.
posted by Maias at 6:03 PM on November 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yes to your #1, #2, and #4 but don't be too shy about negotiating for-pay projects if you already have some writing experience to your name, and the editor of the PR/news office isn't just letting you write for him/her as a 'favor' to give you clips.

Maias' advice is great! -- perhaps I'd also add:

1) seeing if you have a local NASW chapter to join for some in-person networking

2) networking via your blog -- don't just pile a bunch of clips onto a website and let it fester in isolation -- keep it up-to-date, link to and add commentary on topics you read about on others' websites.

3) take some science journalism /straight-up j-school courses or consider a masters -- this would be good for learning how freelance journalism is conducted now (indeed, a big NO to "waiting on months" for a reply to a pitch! :)) and again, meeting people with like-minded interests, potential networking contacts, etc.

Good luck!
posted by NikitaNikita at 8:22 PM on November 26, 2008

I think I asked this question at a bad time (preholidays) and did not get as many answers as I normally do in Ask Metafilter.
Nonetheless, I posted a similar question on a forum for writers; forum participants replied, and here are a few of the most helpful responses that I received:

- Magazines such as The Scientist have a front section called the notebook with 700 word narrative (as a useful place to acquire experience and get clips for other magazines)

- Try to write press releases for markets such as university hospitals. Samples of press releases are found here.

In that other forum for writers, a few posters reported that as a result of their blogs, they have been offered writing projects by editors, so it seems like a worthwhile investment. Moreover, when I wrote this question and thought about it a bit later, I think I came to the realization that I really don’t like science writing in the mainstream media (as someone who reads a lot of the journal articles in peer reviewed journals, or still keeps tabs on some of the researchers); most of the material in magazines is dated (as in it was originally reported a few years before), too simplistic, and/or doesn’t offer the useful piece of information such as where the story was originally reported (in Journal X 2 years ago).

So, in conclusion, in addition to ideas suggested in the other forum, I think I need to write a blog so that I could make something that I would happy with in the end. I have nothing to lose as I already have a few markets that I can use to earn an income in the meantime. Thanks again.
posted by Wolfster at 6:06 AM on December 27, 2008

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