Sunday, November 2, 2008

More on scientific writing/editing (thoughts from a novice)

Jennifer said in a comment to my last post: I am interested in pursuing science writing, but am not fortunate enough to know anyone in the field. Do you have any advice on starting to freelance without such connections?

Okay, I’m not an expert, but I’m going to give this a try….

Getting the first gig.

(1) Cold-calling/cold e-mailing

There are a number of online editing services geared toward the needs of non-native English speaking scientists. Off the top of my head, I can name ScienceDocs, EquityEdit, BioEdit, Bioscience Writers, Write Science Right, etc. etc. Just Google “science” and “editing” and you’ll see what I mean. These companies recruit postdocs with good English skills to edit the manuscripts and grant proposals of international scientists. Although some companies may ask for an editing sample, many others will simply give you a test sample to edit as a way to evaluate your skills. So this can be a relatively easy way to get some freelance experience under your belt. These companies will often advertise open positions on their web sites. Even if they don’t, try e-mailing them anyway to express your interest.

You may also find other types of companies with which you’d like to do freelance work. Be aware that there are many many different types of science writing and editing jobs—from medical education/communications to more “newsy” science journalism. If you come across a company site you find interesting, don’t be afraid to shoot off a cold e-mail inquiry. If you have a really great news idea for The Scientist, don’t be afraid to pitch it! And please read Maddox22’s post here for some advice to freelancers, from a science editor (She works in K-12 science educational publishing).

(2) Advertised jobs
Science writing/editing jobs are also advertised on a number of sites, including the Council of Science Editors and the American Medical Writers’ Association. More on these organizations in a little bit.

Building your writing portfolio.

Of course, it’s easier to get a job when you have experience. You need to start accumulating samples or “clips” of your writing. It doesn’t need to be paid writing. If you are still a grad student or postdoc, there are great writing opportunities right there in academia. See Cath’s great post on Finding the Alternative in Academia. Offer to help your advisor with a grant, write a review, or copyedit a manuscript for a colleague who needs help with his/her English. And by the way, if you are editing a colleague’s paper remember to turn on the “track changes” function in Microsoft and save drafts of both the original and edited versions! You can use these as “editing samples” if you apply for editing jobs. (I’m still kicking myself because I didn’t do this after I copyedited a postdoctoral colleague’s twenty-page review).

Other ideas: your university probably has a press office. That press office probably publishes a newsletter spotlighting faculty research and other university news. Contact the press office and volunteer to contribute a piece on some university research you think would be of general interest. Or submit a story to your local community newspaper/newsletter/trade journal. At the beginning you may get paid very poorly or not at all; you want the experience, and you want to build up your portfolio. Have clips to show, and they can help you land paid jobs
Network, network, network.

This is so critical. Read Cath’s excellent post on networking. And read my post on networking within professional science writing societies. And don’t forget your grad school’s alumni database—my grad program has an excellent alumni website that tracks and profiles graduates by career outcomes. Because you have a built-in connection, fellow graduates are often happy to respond to someone with serious questions. Much of the advice I’m giving here was actually first passed on to me by a writer I “met” through my school’s alumni website!

Keep reading, keep researching (I think is an excellent place to start). Keep talking to people. It’s all intertwined—the networking, the pitching, getting experience that leads to more contacts and yet more jobs.

And last of all, follow this link to Emma Hitt’s site for a nifty video interview on freelance medical writing. (Emma Hitt also maintains the HittList, a weekly updated list of medical writing jobs)


Mrs. Comet Hunter said...

I, like the original question writer, am thinking about going into writing, but don't have any contacts in the field. So, thanks for sharing your tips!

Kate said...

Thanks for the shoutout for ScienceCareers! I would just add to your cold-call/e-mail advice(from my experience as a science editor and journalist)to be sure you convey an understanding of the publication -- the types of articles/stories they run, the audience they target, etc. Nothing sends an editor to the delete button faster than an e-mail from a prospective writer who appears to have no idea what the publication is about!

You linked to it in your original post, but here's our package from 2005 on getting into science writing:

Best of luck to all!

The bean-mom said...

Thanks so much for your input, Kate! Valuable advice. ScienceCareer's 2005 package on science writing is terrific, as are your articles on other "alternative" careers!

Mrs. Comet Hunter said...

I have another question about this topic. Do you think getting a technical writing certificate would help me break into this career path? Or do you think the experiences during graduate school is enough?

I was considering the certificate, but my university does not allow graduate students to take other courses toward other degrees/diplomas/certificates without being demoted to part-time status. However, it's something I might look into after I finish.

Does anyone have a technical writing certificate, or opinions on whether they're worth the time?

The bean-mom said...

Mrs. Comet Hunter,

I don't know much about technical writing certificates. I, too, would love to hear someone's opinion on this. Anyone out there?

Bill Hooker said...

I would urge would-be freelancers to consider applying for a spot on the 3QuarksDaily roster:

My reasoning here:

Jennifer said...

Thanks so much for the great advice!!

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

"if you are editing a colleague’s paper remember to turn on the “track changes” function in Microsoft and save drafts of both the original and edited versions! "

I do this for my own use at work, but hadn't thought about doing it to demonstrate editing experience. Are there any issues about having to get permission for using someone's (possibly unpublished) manuscript / grant in this way? If I ever seriously consider freelancing I will probably have to start while still in my current job, and would probably not want to advertise what I was doing to colleagues!

Great post BTW!

The bean-mom said...


Hmmmm, I think that it's always better to get permission from the author before submitting parts of a manuscript as an editing sample (especially if it's unpublished!) That said, the companies involved keep things confidential, and also (in my experience) do not actually ask for any proof of authors' permission. Still, ethically speaking, it feels better to do this with the authors on board. ... Do you know any authors who would give you permission and also keep mum to others about your freelance aspirations? Surely a postdoc or grad student would be sympathetic...

Cath said...

Students and postdocs is a great idea, thanks! I don't interact with them as much as with the PIs, but it does happen occasionally, so I'll make sure I keep both versions next time.