Over the last few decades, the field of science writing has undergone a subtle but important change. Instead of coming from the journalism field, many of today’s top science writers hold a PhD in the subject they write about. By combining their expertise in the field with strong writing skills, New York Times science writer George Johnson, bestselling author Oliver Sacks (Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), science journalist Alan W. Dove (Nature, Biotechnology) and Pulitzer Prize winner Debra Blum, have built names for themselves. And, as the public’s hunger for science understanding continues to grow, MDs and life sciences PhDs can use their rich science backgrounds and writing ability to shine as science writers.
Science writing is an excellent way to use your life science background to realize a new level of success. If you have a knack for quality communication and enjoy writing, your science credentials make you a much sought-after commodity in the media as well as research facilities, hospitals, universities and pharmaceutical companies. Science writing is a broad term that encompasses a number of domains.
Science journalism, medical writing, technical science and science marketing writing are the main categories. Naturally, within each domain there are a number of areas of special focus. Some writers are able to straddle more than one topic, while others stick to writing about one topic for a number of different audiences. For example, a writer fresh from the field of genetic research may write for a general interest magazine, a medical digest, and/or a university research office. Science journalists may work as “staff writers” or “science reporters” for consumer magazines (e.g. Newsweek) or as reporters for newspapers, covering current science news in both cases. Openings for this type of position are usually posted on the specific magazine, newspaper, radio or television station website. Staff positions are hard to come by, because science news competes for space/airtime with so many other news items. Therefore, many science journalists make a living working on a freelance basis as “contributing writers,” for a number of different publications. They like the opportunity to write for a variety of audiences, the freedom to regulate their own work hours, and the greater chance of seeing their name in print. Writing on a freelance basis gives you a chance to develop professional acumen at your own pace, and to “try on” science writing before committing to an intensive job search. Freelance science writers sell their work to local newspapers, syndicates, magazines, and electronic media outlets. The pay for freelance science journalism can range from $.25/word to $1.50/word. If you choose to go the freelance route, you’ll need to find markets for your work. The Writers” Market is the “bible” for freelance writers; it lists book and magazine publishers, their manuscript needs and contact information.
You can also subscribe to the online version at www.writersmarket.com. The National Association of Science Writers website (www.nasw.org) maintains a job bank for members, and is a great resource for keeping up with trends in the field of science writing. There are also a number of good books available that will guide you through finding clients and other business aspects of science writing (see bookstore). The medical writing field offers many of the same scenarios as science journalism. A medical writer may work for hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, government agencies, medical schools, non-profit organizations or publishing houses. Usually, science writers in these venues are called Public Information Officers (PIO). The PIO or Senior Medical Writer may ghostwrite articles or research papers for doctors or create in-depth presentations based on materials provided by the client. Other types of medical writing projects include educational booklets for patients, clinical study protocols, regulatory documents and brochures for investigative drugs. Technical science writers, as the name implies, write and edit highly specialized material for biotech, pharmaceutical and computer companies.
Job titles include Policy/Procedure Specialist, Technical Editor, and Senior Technical/Documentation Specialist. Technical writing requires an ability to break complex tasks into clear, simply stated steps. Great precision is required to create effective protocols for in-house staff or customers (physicians and/or scientists). Producing accurate specifications and user-friendly product instructions also fall into the realm of technical science writing. This type of science writing is “bare bones,” in that ideas must be communicated in the most spare form, without a lot of “fluff.” Successful technical science writers tend to have very strong organizational skills and a keen eye for detail. Writing for marketing purposes, on the other hand, requires a solid command of how to best use the power of words in the art of persuasion. Science marketing writers produce sales materials-press releases, web content, catalogs, etc.-for biotech and pharmaceutical companies. While these companies have marketing professionals, the insight a science writer brings to the marketing process makes the end result more effective.
Typical positions for an MD or PhD are Consumer Relations Specialist or Senior Manager of Corporate Communications, In order to write successful marketing pieces, the writer must be able to understand the perspective of the targeted reader. In some cases this will be doctors and administrators, in other instances it may be people with little science background. A science marketing writing specialist must also know the science behind the product. This allows the writer to efficiently produce copy that sells products. To prepare for a career in science writing, you should spend some time assessing what kind of writing you like and do best. Technical writing is a more formal, structured craft, while science journalism and marketing writing requires using words persuasively to communicate a point of view. Each appeals to a different personality. Even with excellent writing skills, obtaining a supplementary credential in science writing will sharpen competitive edge. MIT offers a one-year Graduate Program in science writing, as does the University of California, Santa Cruz, Johns Hopkins University, and Boston University.
Job websites such as monster.com, guru.com and elance.com will help you locate both staff and freelance science writing opportunities. Networking with established science writers, via forums like those on nasw.org can help you create a path to success, as well as being a good way to keep your finger on the pulse of job openings. Science writing offers MDs and life science PhDs a golden opportunity to further science by communicating needs and results to the world at large. With a deep science background, a passion for writing, and the knack for seeing things from the reader’s point of view, you can leave your mark on the world through a science writing career.