How to break into science and medical freelance writing?
January 19, 2006 5:39 AM   Subscribe

How to break into science and medical freelance writing? High background in science, little background in writing

I would like suggestions as to how to break into freelance writing, more specifically, science and medical writiing.

For example, can anyone suggest a class (how to write articles) in the New York city area? I do not have time or money for an entire degree. Alternatively, can this material be learned via a really good text?

How did those of you with no experience (clips) break into the field? Are there local publications that are easy to break into that need science or medical information?

Is a brief internship suggested? Any other suggestions would be appreciated.

More about me - I have an undergraduate degree in biology and psychology. I have a PhD in neuroscience. I feel very comfortable learning material (ie., genetics, stem cells, pharmacology, health) quickly and seeing the big picture. I've taught non major undergraduates the applications of these new fields and they becamse excited about material, so I think I could write an article that would interest the public/and be of interest to the general public. I do love the material and would like to stay up to date - what's new in these fields.

My big weaknesses - I am in my 30s. I also do not have training or a background in writing. I have no 'clips'

posted by Wolfster to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
I have a friend who just finished a master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism. Now he's living and working in NYC. It was the perfect path for him (undergrad English major who had worked in various capacities for a science journal). I know you said you don't have time or money for a degree, but if you're really serious about it, maybe you should look into it. Degrees aren't the solution to everything, but having one does tend to encourage others to take you serious (that effect wears off if your work isn't up to par, of course).

As an English instructor, I'd say the only way to learn to write well is to read and write as much as possible. You might want to take some writing classes at a local college. Or you might want to find other who are interested in writing non-fiction and form a writer's group where you submit and critique drafts. Having deadlines to meet really helps.

What is your educational background? Is there anything there you can draw on? Being in your 30s isn't a big drawback. Lots of people (my friend above included) go back to school in their 30s.
posted by wheat at 6:14 AM on January 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

Honestly? Start a blog. Hear me out.

I imagine that, being into science, you love learning about new stuff, reading about new discoveries and theories, and riffing on your own ideas about how things work and tie together.

You need to become confident at writing, you need feedback, and you need a way to market yourself and get your words in front of people. So start a blog.

I know a lot of people online are interested in science, but don't really understand it. You say you have the gift of being able to see the big picture, so start a blog, give some insights and break down complex science into stuff that us laymen can read.. and you'll have a hit on your hands.

Shortly thereafter, you'll have a ton of material which you can use as a portfolio to get you proper work, and you might even get editors visiting your blog and asking you to write for them. You need to make a name for yourself, and in a field like writing, blogging is a great way to start.
posted by wackybrit at 6:18 AM on January 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You could start working at a medical education/communications agency or as a medical writer at a pharmaceutical or biotech company. Both of these often rely heavily on freelancers/contractors, and don't, in my experience, require clips; rather, they may ask you to take a writing test -- probably consisting of writing a summary of an article, or a slide set from lecture notes, which you should have no problem with after earning your PhD!

I'm a medical writer now and started out as a copyeditor for a medical communications agency. At that point, my background was a BSc (Neuroscience) and not much else, other than "Uh, I write good?" I got my first job by doing really well on the copyediting test -- they had analogous tests that they gave to writers, who were mainly PhDs (or MDs or PharmDs).

Since the audience is not consumers, the writing gets to be more "sciencey," yet with a focus on the "so what?" aspect that is important in journalism.
posted by tentacle at 7:02 AM on January 19, 2006 [8 favorites]

Best answer: A membership at costs about $30 per year and is well worth it. Here is what I would do:

Get a book on how to write query letters.

Brainstorm a bunch of ideas to write articles on. Pick 3 and draft query letters for them.

Search writer's market's database of nonfiction publications and pick ones to send your query letter to. Ideally you should have read the publication so that you know what sorts of stuff they publish. If you're interested in this sort of stuff you probably already have some familiarity with the publications.

Breaking into nonfiction is a lot easier than breaking into fiction b/c most of what is sold is nonfiction. Honestly I think you can do this with very little outlay of time or money. If you can write reasonably well, and are willing to start out with dinky local publications you can amass clips pretty quickly.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:14 AM on January 19, 2006 [5 favorites]

What wackybrit said.
There's literally a plethora of high-quality medical blogs that you can use a research if you're interested to seeing what's out there. I know at least on person has managed to get book deal out of their blog...
Blatant self-link. (Admittedly it IS a thread on Metafilter.)
Should help you to get started.
posted by slimepuppy at 7:30 AM on January 19, 2006

Best answer: I am a newspaper reporter, and often write about science and medical issues. I haven't spent a lot of time freelancing, but I can give you some general tips on developing your writing and how to get your foot in the door.

Your credentials and background are good, as are your instincts: what you need more than anything else is clips. A degree won't mean anything without them, and great clips will trump one. So the challenges for you will be to learn how to put together a news piece, and how to get assignments.

From my experience, newspapers would be an ideal place for your to cut your teeth. Local newspaper staffs, especially medical sections are perennially under-staffed and are often written in large part by freelancers or with wire copy. Therefore, you probably will be able to wrangle an assignment or two without much trouble: especially with some background in science issues.

I'd suggest getting in contact with the editors in charge of the medical and health sections of your local newspaper(s), and pitching a few stories. This is where your background in the field will come in handy: keep abreast of new and developing topics in your field, and pitch a story about that topic as soon as there's a study published or a major announcement about it.

You want to be able to approach an editor with something to offer: time is short in newspaper offices, and you don't want to waste his time. If you come with three ideas for stories in hand, you'll be much more marketable. Here, as with all freelance gigs, the best advice is this: know your market. Read the publication, as many issues as you can get your hands on. Know what type of stories they publish, and how they write them. Are they focused on personal and consumer health issues? Research findings from local universities and hospitals? Do they use personal anecdotes from patients often, or do they rely on experts and researchers? Do they use a straight news lede or start the story with a feature-style introduction?

Once you know what they publish, think of ideas for stories, and especially, how 'gettable' they are. A great idea for a story is nothing if you can't get access to a source for the interview. Do you have local research institutions? They are a great source for medical experts and local health issues. Most newspapers will tend towards medical or health issues rather than basic research that doesn't have clinical significance. That is, unless the paper has a dedicated "science" section, but that's somewhat uncommon these days.

Also remember the gaping divide between what is important scientifically and what is newsworthy. New research results, no matter how amazing or fantastic in that field of research, are unimportant to newspaper readers (and therefore editors) unless they have some significance in those readers' lives. Of course, a captivating, well-researched and engaging piece can open a reader's eyes, even about things that are purely scientific (astronomy, for example), but those pieces, and editors willing to take a chance on them, are few and far between.

Likewise, while your expertise in the area will be a boon in some ways, you should realize it can also be a hindrance in others. Good science reporting is more about good reporting and good writing than it is about science knowledge. Everything you write has to be informed by sources, and not your own expertise. Likewise, it can be hard to avoid technical language and a clunky amount of specificity when writing about complex issues. It's a real challenge taking an issue you've studied for years and explaining it clearly, simply, directly, and in a tiny amount of space.

So, as for suggestions for how to develop your writing, the best advice I can give is this: write for an editor. While writing for a blog or for your own benefit is sometimes helpful, it won't help you improve your craft, and won't give you clips of any value. The real challenge will be persuading someone to give you an assignment.

In the meantime, read your target publications religiously, especially paying attention to style and presentation. If you plan on writing for a newspaper, get a copy of the AP Style Guide and check out an introductory news writing and reporting textbook from the library. If you learn more comfortably in a classroom setting, find an undergraduate introductory newswriting class, that should give you some of the basic skills necessary to write clearly and concisely. Don't worry about finding specifically "Medical Writing" or "Science Writing" classes or topics, the important thing to do is learn the craft of writing for a mass, lay audience in limited space. Classes and books can help to some degree, but the only sure way to do this is to write and collect clips.

One little tip from science and medical writing: EurekAlert, a service of AAAS, which is sort of a clearinghouse for medical press releases, news, and experts available for comment. The real value, however, is the embargoed news. For journalists, they offer pre-release research findings news releases that are embargoed until the date of release, so that reporters have time to report and write a story for day-of publication. If you can convince them you're legit, it's a great resource for story ideas and pitches.

Of course, as a brand-new science writer/reporter, you will need to start off small. Don't expect to toss a pitch at the New York Times science section anytime soon. Lay the groundwork at smaller publications, and move up as you feel comfortable. Also, don't expect much in the realm of remuneration right off the bat. Depending on the paper, you may not be paid at all for your first few clips (like an unpaid internship), or at all. The value for you is in experience and clips. Eventually you'll be able to make some money from the writing, but be aware it'll be a labor of love at the beginning. (And don't quit your day job: while very time-consuming, freelance writing won't be a living wage for a long time: full-time freelancers I've spoken to in the past said the rule of thumb was don't even think about quitting your day job or supporting yourself by freelancing alone before you have 10 years of experience and $10,000 in the bank.)

And has been mentioned before, your age is no weakness at all. There's no maximum age to write a good story, and experience is a good springboard to bigger and better things.

Let me know if there's any other advice I can share, and let us know how it goes!
posted by Eldritch at 8:02 AM on January 19, 2006 [9 favorites]

Best answer: Start writing for a local weekly. I did this, and made a living at it. Being able to translate science to a broader audience, and understand what scientists better than the average beat reporter are huge.
posted by atchafalaya at 8:03 AM on January 19, 2006 [1 favorite]

I want to know the same thing, so I'm going to bookmark this and read the answers...

I actually asked some people how they ended up as science editor (the writing kind) and they either had a postdoc in something sciency or started out as a journalist and gained scientific knowledge later to specialize.
I also second the blog suggestion.
posted by easternblot at 8:35 AM on January 19, 2006

Also bear in mind there is a huge range of things that fall under the heading "science writing". Getting a book contract writing about the sexiest, newest topic in biotech probably isn't going to be anybody's first project. However, writing articles like "Why Peanut Oil Keeps You Regular" for little mags like Constipation Monthly is perfectly achievable, may pay decently well, and gets you on the road to greater things.

Also, Wolfster, you have a huge advantage. Many science writers are writers first and science afficianados second. You have a freaking PhD in neuroscience!! Feature that fact prominently in your query letters to editors.
posted by selfmedicating at 8:49 AM on January 19, 2006 sometimes has classes that promise to teach you how to 'break into' a field.
posted by miniape at 9:57 AM on January 19, 2006

Response by poster:
I really wanted to thank EVERYONE for their suggestions Even if this post does not appear to be active (new posters), feel free to add suggestions, as I will refer to this again.

Thanks for your suggestion Tentacle, I should be able to locate medical communication agencies in the area now, and from your description, I am already qualified (and if I fail at such a test, I will return my PhD).

Thank Selfmedicating, that is a plan that I can easily follow now. It really helps to have it broken down into those steps.

Eldritch, I really want to thank you for offering your advice from the field, and you make very good points (i.e., working with an editor would help me the most at this point).

Thanks for the many blog suggestions, I never really even considered that possbility (I am one of the five people in the world who never paid much attention to blogs - never viewed them from that angle).

Thanks again
posted by Wolfster at 5:47 AM on January 20, 2006

I backed into medical freelancing. Here's how -- 13 years ago I took a job with a trade publisher checking postings to Lexis-Nexis & West. After my probation, I switched to editing a looseleaf reference. In 2002, I moved to a newsletter & reference group. I met an editor of medical newsletters at a boot camp last year and began taking assignments.
Simple, but not easy.
You may want to give some serious thought to applying for any job with a trade publisher. It's the "What Color is Your Parachute" career-change model of changing industries first then changing jobs.
Whatever path you choose, Good luck!
posted by Sprubyda at 6:08 AM on January 25, 2006

Best answer: You might be interested in checking out the Medical Writing Blog. Also, consider joining AMWA and/or NASW. Both organizations are full of helpful potential mentors and offer a ton of practical workshops and networking opportunities. Go with AMWA's education program before MediaBistro's if your goal is anything other than journalism. The most money to be made is in pharmaceutical regulatory writing. Don't worry about your lack of writing experience. The PhD is worth a lot.
posted by acridrabbit at 9:58 PM on February 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Long dead thread but wanted to say thanks again to everyone for their suggestions.

I actually am trying many of them now - I will have my first published 'clip' soon and will slowly work on more (the process takes forever).

I also accepted a full time position at a med ed company that blends writing, editing, and meeting the researchers or company reps. Main point is I will have access to info, which is what I truly wanted.

Over the next few years (or after this job, who knows) I would like to try other suggestions on this list, like the newspaper suggestion.

Thanks again for all the tips!
posted by Wolfster at 5:49 AM on November 27, 2006

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