How I got into freelance science journalism

At various points people have asked me how I got into freelancing, science journalism, etc. presumably with the subtext of how they could do it themselves. I’ve compiled some responses and resources below.

One-graf summary: I decided to try becoming a magazine journalist just before graduating with a bachelor’s in astronomy. I pitched story ideas to magazines and applied for jobs and pestered friends and people I knew in the industry. It was slow, but I eventually picked up a few low-quality clips in areas ranging from travel to careers to ‘lifestyle’ both online and in print. Eventually I met some science journalists in Cambridge, UK, who more or less tilted me into science journalism and encouraged me to pitch them and colleagues of theirs at Science Magazine and ScienceCareers.org. In short, serendipity, persistence, and luck.

An expansion with links to helpful resources:

I think science journalism is fun because I get paid to ask people about interesting research and write about it. I like the variety. I’ve written about oceanographers who’ve used obscure geology tools and I’ve written about brain injury. I also like the freelance lifestyle and writing for different audiences, from scientists to science nerds to more general readers.

My only real advice for students is to try your hand at it now (maybe there’s a student publication or you can pitch real magazines with story ideas), check out a few online resources, and if you decide you like it, maybe apply for a AAAS mass media fellowship or some other science writing internship if you’re not sure you want to freelance. Here are some resources I’ve found handy: the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (http://casw.org/booklet.htm, which doesn’t really do justice to freelancing–can’t decide if that’s because the author was a freelancer who didn’t want more competition or a clueless staffer), A Field Guide for Science Writers (http://www.nasw.org/bookstore/field.htm), and the National Association of Science Writers more generally (nasw.org), and the Science Careers guide to science writing: http://blogs.sciencemag.org/sciencecareers/2009/02/science-writing.html
Finally, somebody’s compiled a string of links here: http://www.geocities.com/capecanaveral/hangar/4707/journ.html

Other people’s startup stories: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2010/07/29/on-the-origin-of-science-writers/

What science writers want from scientists: http://www.the-scientist.com/2010/9/1/40/1/

I encourage you to try it out and see what you think about it yourself–so far science journalism has been fun for me, but everyone’s different–and I’m happy to answer any more questions as they occur to you.

Another summary as emailed 27/10/09:

My first writing gig (college summers writing travel guidebooks for Let’s Go) turned into postgraduation offers of a few freelance gigs for Let’s Go, and then for a partner of theirs at the time, Experience.com, and some unpaid blogging for 02138mag.com. My 02138 contacts then moved to another startup, Newser.com, and took me with them as a paid part-time stringer. In the meantime, I had gotten an internship with London-based travel & lifestyle startup called Suzannesfiles.com–didn’t use contacts to get that but it only started paying after a couple months of 2 days a week work & even then the work wasn’t journalism.

Before the Newser gig kicked in, I was still knocking on many, many doors in London and Cambridge, where I live, and John Travis at Science Magazine invited me to lunch based on my cold letter. He explained how to pitch the online daily news section, which took my second pitch. John’s wife Kate Travis commissioned me a career profile for Science Careers, possibly in part because I’d written a bunch of poorly-paying career profiles for Experience.com. By September 2007, when trade magazine publisher Europa Science offered me a job as a junior reporter & online content manager, the freelancing from Science & Newser had picked up enough momentum that I could afford to turn down the staff offer. Since then, I’ve had good success cold-pitching new clients, presumably based on my clips elsewhere and my persistent and polite chasing of queries.