Bench to blog: Part 2

Bench to blog: Part 2
Image © Reuben Ingber, 2012 (CC by 2.0)
Amanda Maxwell   |   06.05.2016   |   Science Communications

At Talk Science to Me, we receive requests throughout the year from people who are right at the beginning of a career shift from science to science writing. Although we don't have entry-level positions available, we do have experience in making The Switch. In this two-part series (see part 1 here), Amanda, our science writer, gives some insight into why and how she made the move out from behind the bench.

Part 2: Practical tips for making the switch from science doing to science writing

So, you want to switch from programming the PCR or mass spectrometer to creating content at the keyboard?  From doing the science to writing about it? Here are some helpful tips on how to make that transition.

Do you like writing?

Important question.

Do communicating and engaging give you a buzz? Does your heart sing when you realize that the audience understands the complex theory just presented? Do you baffle? Or can you leave an audience entertained, informed, enlightened and wanting to know more? Can you extract the story behind the science, refine it in the simplest terms and not patronize the reader?

Will you leave an audience giddy with the same kind of joy that you have over steric hindrance or post-translational modifications, for example?  Okay-maybe that last one is just a little too extreme...

Learn how to write

Yes, anyone can write-but can they do it well? Consider taking a general communications course that gives the basics of many different writing styles. There's no harm in learning about technical writing, public relations and writing for the web, or learning about the mechanics of the craft in editing, proofreading and indexing, for example. Although that class in magazine writing will show you how to pitch the killer feature of your dreams, you may find that technical writing is more your style. Maybe 500 words or 140 characters is more your niche than 2000+.

Choose a program with an internship/practicum component for value-added content and those handy networking opportunities. One that also teaches the nitty-gritty business of freelancing is worth snapping up.

There are also dedicated science writing and communications courses available, in class and online-why not aim high and apply to the Banff Centre summer school?

Pick your subject and tools

What do you want to write about, and where do you have a marketable expertise? It's easier to use existing knowledge to write yourself into a niche in science communications, where your content will be valued. But it's also important to be open to new subject matter, experiences and transferable skills. Maybe your skill in writing academic papers makes you a natural for nicely rounded blog posts, or perhaps your analytical acumen can be put to good use in reviews? Did your lab manuals wow the behind-the-bench audience? If so, then you may have a talent for clearly articulated technical writing.

Also, it's not just about writing. Communicating science takes on many forms, and not everyone is skilled at PowerPoint, speech writing or webpage design.

Read

While it's obvious that starting to write is the most important step to take, don't forget to make time for reading. Keeping an eye on the science communications world is more than just a hunt for inspiration; learning about different styles, platforms and voices helps develop new skills. There are a number of excellent blogs and aggregators to add to your reading list: use an RSS feed reader like Feedly to automate the process. The more you read, the more styles, techniques and content you absorb. You'll also develop a critical eye (why did that piece fail so badly?).

Put it into practice

Check out volunteer positions or internships in science-based non-profits, in real life and also online. For example, the Canadian science blog network Science Borealis recently put out a call for new recruits to help with their platform.

Don't forget: it doesn't have to be science-based; approach different markets that offer an alternative communications focus. Although not all positions will fit your ideas exactly, learning to engage different audiences is useful, and picking up new skills is always good.

Prepare a portfolio and clips

Don't let all this amazing volunteer work go to waste; use the pieces to build a portfolio so that you have clips readily to hand for potential clients and employers.

While it is easier to collate printed matter, consider your approach to the digital. Start your own blog or website where you can gather online posts, or use a magazine-style service like Flipboard or Tumblr for a user-friendly magazine experience. Alternatively, check out the helpful hints in this piece for Story Board.

You can also automate digital uploads using IFTTT or similar to send portfolio clips into a notebook in Evernote.

Just don't forget to add links or a downloadable PDFto your website.

Network and market yourself

Take every opportunity to network within the industry, whether it's by joining professional associations such as the Canadian Science Writers' Association, the International Association of Business Communicators or a local writing group, or by pushing yourself to interview people doing the jobs that you want to do.

Professional associations often offer helpful workshops or industry meet-ups that can upgrade skills. They can also give access to areas you may not have considered for work.

Most importantly,  keep in touch with contacts. Follow up on any leads. You never know what will be useful in the future, and it's often a mutual benefit.

Keep learning

Add a skill: Can you index a book? Tackle social media marketing? Create a website or an infographic? No?-then take a class.

Especially with digital publishing, life is always moving on. There are always new social media platforms and best practices, so don't go stale. Approach writing from a different perspective to help blow through the stale cobwebs-don't dismiss a creative writing class or two for moving the story along. Tackle a different subject: what do you know about responsible investing, non-profit fundraising, brewing craft beer?

Long form, short form…styles change-stay versatile and keep working.

 

Resources

How did they get started? Advice from other science writers

Careers for scientists away from the bench

From science to science writing

Leaving academia

A note to beginning science writers

On the origin of science writers

Science communication: A career where PhDs can make a difference

 

How to communicate science

A guide to careers in science writing

The Science Writers' Handbook

Secrets of good science writing, from the Guardian newspaper

 

Blogs and aggregators

Kirk Englehardt's weekly roundup

Mosaic

Science Borealis

Scientific American

SciLogs

Talk Science to Me

 

Associations

Canadian Science Writers' Association

Editors Canada

International Association of Business Communicators

National Association of Science Writers

 

Critical analysis

Health News Review

Sources included in these posts: How do I know it's OK? Swimming through the science communications minefield and Do you accept the quest? – Reading and understanding a science paper

 

Online portfolios

Sarah Boon, science writer

Melissa Lau, PhD student and writer

Amanda Maxwell, science writer

Roberta Staley, magazine writer

Hannah Waters, freelance journalist

Ed Yong, science writer

 

Online and classroom learning

Freelance article writing with Jennifer van Evra

Science writing programs in Canada

Simon Fraser University continuing education

The Tyee master classes

University of British Columbia Certificate in Professional Communication

University of British Columbia continuing studies

University of British Columbia professional writing

World Federation of Science Journalists online course

 

Learn something new

Tuts+: mostly design

Lynda: design, Web skills and much more

Mediabistro: various communications-based subjects