As a researcher, we spend a lot of time online.
Whether we’re looking for peer-reviewed papers, updating our LinkedIn or ResearchGate profile or simply browsing through the latest science news – exploring the world wide web is just a click away.
I bet you’ve seen these headlines on a daily basis: “How Minecraft is helping children with autism make new friends”, “Scientists deliberately gave people COVID — here’s what they learnt”.
Deep inside, a lot of us wish we could publish one of those news articles, and we just can’t help but click on it to learn more. Part of it, I think, is the lure of learning something amazing. And in the back of your brain, you’re probably wondering if you could ever write something like that! Maybe, just maybe, about your own research!
But few scientists or PhD students ever dare to venture into the realms of science news publishing.
I am one of those scientists. During my PhD I ventured into the realms of science news writing, and never looked back. Today, 10 years and 400 articles later, I still spend most of my time writing science and health news stories. Long and short, complex and plain. A bit of everything.
Below I share a few pearls of wisdom that I picked along the way.
To write or not to write
When I started writing science news articles, I had one golden rule: I write for money or glory. But early on I discovered that all the top journals and news outlets are the same ones that pay, so you get both glory and dough!
In practice when I started writing, I always aimed for the best news outlets I could find. I would avoid anyone offering me 0.10 cents per word, or $20 for a 1,000-word article. Yes, that’s what some news outlets pay their writers.
Unfortunately, I’m sure many writers agree to these terms. But, you don’t have to. With a bit of work, you can get your story published, and get a decent, well-deserved, rate. In my mind I don’t bother writing for less than 0.50 cents per word, unless it is a major journal or outlet, and they are inviting me to write a cover story (Remember… glory). Here’s a website with some examples of what magazines pay their writers, and here’s another. If you google a bit, I’m sure you’ll find more examples.
There are thousands of science news website, I presume. I don’t know, I haven’t counted them. But, I’m sure there are a lot of them, so there’s a lot to choose from. Not all of them pay well, some target small audiences, some are very niche. In some cases, I’m sure you could easily publish your article. In others, it could take months before your pitch gets accepted. But for me, the most important thing is that you learn something out of the experience.
That’s where writing for a top news outlet is the way to go.
But, as scary as this might look, this is good… this is what you need, this is how you learn…
You need to find the one website, or magazine, that publishes stories on topics you like. Mind you, you don’t need to be an expert on those topics. It’s enough if you like it. As a scientist, you have (or should have) the gift of researching which entails, of course, finding stuff in the web.
Once you found a news website you like, write to the editor. Personally, I always try to find out the name of the Editor in Chief, I find their email somehow, and write to them asking if they work with freelancers. That’s the first step. If they don’t, don’t waste your time.
Once you’ve found a magazine or website on topics you like and confirmed from the editor that they work with freelancers (and pay a fair rate), you have one foot through the door.
Now you need to focus on the next big step: the pitch.
There are pitches and pitches
The pitch is the single most important group of words you will ever write to an editor. The pitch will decide if you are seen as a clever writer, or as too much of a newbie, who is just wasting their time.
OK, so what’s a pitch, anyway?
The pitch is how you sell your story. Assuming you are aiming for a short (under 500 words) news story based on a single research study, a pitch should be around 2-3 paragraphs, and should explain:
What your story is about
Why it is cool (important, relevant, etc)
Why they should publish it NOW
Why you are the best person to write it
If you can’t summarise everything in 2-3 paragraphs, you’ll need to go back and work on your writing skills. If you need some inspiration, have a look at The Open Notebook. This is a great resource for aspiring and current science writers, with everything from a list of 255 pitches, to a myriad of articles on different topics aimed at helping you in your path to science journalism. Fun to read and you may learn something too.
OK, but where do you find ideas?
Click here for your exclusive science news idea
Much like highly coveted treasure, a good story idea is hard to find. Unfortunately, there isn’t a secret website where you can find a list of stories your editor will love. At least not when you’re just getting started.
But, I can say this: it gets easier with time, to the point that you can have a successful pitch with just a 1 line email.
Now I won’t sugarcoat things – this only happens once you are an established writer with that particular magazine and editor. Eventually, the editor may even send YOU ideas… yes, that happens too.
But, for a new freelance science writer, life is tough. You need to find a good piece of research that is published where no one has seen it yet. On top of this, the research must be interesting, with sexy findings that at least some people will care about, and, it must be good science too. Maybe a good place to start is your own research, or that from colleagues. Just be sure to ask first if it is OK to pitch it for a news story. Sometimes it is, sometimes it is not.
Avoid these places like the plague (initially)
First off, here’s a list of places where you shouldn’t waste your time searching for story ideas:
1. Most press releases from major institutions.
2. Research articles from Nature, Science, PNAS or any other big shooter.
3. Already published science news stories.
Basically, to get your pitch accepted, you need to beat established science writers, staff science writer and the editor.
Let’s imagine you want to publish a story through New Scientist – one of the world’s biggest outlets of science news. If you are pitching a story for these guys, you should know this:
New Scientist staff work full-time looking for new stories.
They already know about all the big research articles coming up in journals like Science, Nature, PLoS, The Lancet, PNAS, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London and many others.
Bear in mind that Eureka Alert and all major journals send so-called ‘embargoed content’ of their top upcoming publications to a long list of journalists. Yes, including the staff at New Scientist.
So, if you’ve found a cool story about the world’s first flying spider, be sure that New Scientist is already working on it. Aim to publish it on the very hour the actual research goes online.
Once you have started publishing news article you can join these services and receive all the cool embargoed content they offer. It’s fun to read. Not very useful for pitching stories, but fun to read.
So, how do I find new ideas to pitch?
OK, back to you and how to find your first good idea (that no one else knows about).
My first tip is to build a research feed. I use a tool called Feedly. All you need to do is find a journal’s RSS feed and copy the link into Feedly. Feedly will then show you any new articles published by that journal. Simple. I have over a thousand journals listed there, and I receive daily updates of any new research.
The truth is that there are thousands of research articles published every week that no one knows about from journals you never knew existed.
Back in the day, some of my favourite journals were on animal behaviour. In journals like “Behavioral Ecology”, I found this little story about a tiny thrip that builds a house out of bits of acacia trees. Or “African Journal of Ecology”, where I found a story about how carnivores also enjoy a midnight snack of sugary flower nectar. Just by looking through my feed every day (several times a day) I found lots of cool little stories like these that went on to become a news article in Science, New Scientist, or other outlets.
My second tip is to find conference websites and look through the poster presentations and talks. Then, I would contact the authors and ask about their research. If you’re lucky, their work is about to get published and is not getting any attention from media officers.
Then, talk to people!
Don’t be shy. Email researchers and ask about their work and any upcoming publications. You never know, and in the process, you’re building your network. By the way, you should start building a network, like on LinkedIn. Connect with researchers, editors from magazines, and some journalists too.
So, you know where to look, but, who is listening?
Now that you have your database of journals, and a bunch of ideas in your mind, you need to think about one very important question:
Who is your target audience?
That’s whoever is going to read your article, hopefully. This could be a scientist, a PhD student, a cook, a lawyer, or anyone really. But, it all depends on the magazine or website you are aiming for. Once you answer this question, you will be more prepared to identify that great idea that will make up an engaging story.
So, if you are hoping to write a story for New Scientist, how do you know who the target audience is? Just read their guidelines!
“In general, we are looking for science and technology stories from around the world that will intrigue, entertain and inform the widest possible audience, be they physicists, biologists or people with no science background at all.”
So, you know where to look, and who is listening, but what ARE you looking for?
OK, so if you are still thinking on pitching for New Scientist, now you need to ask what is it they and their audience are looking for?
If you keep reading their guidelines, you’ll get your answer.
“We cover fascinating bits of pure science with no possible application as well as high-impact stories such as weapons technology and the psychology of terrorism. Besides reporting the latest research, we also try to find interesting scientific or technological angles on major news events.”
If you keep reading, you will find even more details about the types of stories they are looking for, and littles bits of advice. So, read on, and remember what you read. Make a list of the key points, so you ensure you are on the right path.
In my experience, for any science news outlet there are a few topics that editors like and always fare well. Any stories involving sex, chocolate, weird or quirky animals, beer or wine, food, poop, and, did I mention sex? Anything involving weird sexual things animals (or humans) do is a big seller. Of course, nowadays anything COVID would also be a big seller, but beware, everyone else is also looking for COVID stories…
Again, it all depends on your audience and your target website. When I used to pitch for Australian Geographic, I had to find something with a strong Australian angle like a new species of dolphin or whatever animal, or some new cave art found in the outback. But, when I pitched to National Geographic, I had to think globally, like how elephants use their trunk to do some amazing feats, or how some ancient dino poop reveals secrets from the past.
However, if you try to write for The Lancet, or Nature Medicine, you need to get acquainted with their audience, read several of their recent news article and do a lot of homework to find that one topic they haven’t covered which they might find interesting.
That being said, in my experience, I always find it useful to simply ask.
Dear Editor: what’s in your mind?
Whenever I want to write for a new magazine or website, I never EVER just write to whatever email they give and tell you to write. I always write to the Editor in Chief first. I introduce myself, send my portfolio, and ask what sort of stories they’re looking for. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, that’s all I need, and the editor will even propose a topic for a story. But most of the time, the editor will reply with some suggestions of what topics tickle their bone.
That’s a start.
But, go easy on this new contact, don’t start sending ideas like crazy, MULTIPLE times per day. I did that once, and it didn’t end well. Luckily, I had a patient editor who nicely told me to stop sending him 10 pitches per day, to think more carefully about the ideas and work harder on the pitch. All good words of advice. Quality over quantity.
In terms of words of advice, I can add this: build a solid professional relationship with the editors of your target journals, do good work for them and always be on time with your stories.
Once you’ve got your pitch accepted, you did it! You are in! Mostly. Now you just need to write the article.
This is, like they say, “a whole other chimichanga”, and would take a whole other blog post to talk about how to turn your first accepted pitch into a nice article. But, this also depends on the magazine or website you are writing for, AND the length of the story, AND how many experts comments you need, AND what angle you want. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera…
My best advice is for you to carefully read previous stories from the websites or magazines you are writing for and try your best to copy their style and format. Then, have someone read your piece before submitting it to the editor. This is really helpful. We are very bad editors of our own work.
Finally, if you are interested in making the jump into science writing, but still have questions, I have created a LinkedIn group, which you are welcome to join!
You can post your ideas, pitches and article drafts and I can provide some quick feedback.
Just quick feedback!
Dr Karl Gruber
Dr Tullio Rossi
Dr Juan Miguel Balbin