Writing in General, and Science Writing in Particular: Handbooks (1)

The Science Writers’ Handbook (2013)

That’s right, this handbook is just out, and it’s worth getting your hands on. The contributions are written by members of SciLance, an invitation-only group of accomplished science writers who got together several years ago to share information.

ScienceHandbooksThe premise is that science writing is “about the world around us—what’s in our bones, how stars are born, and why drought scars the landscape—and how new knowledge fits into our society. When done right, science writing can inform, inspire, and even change the course of history. When done wrong…well, let’s not go there.” The Science Writers’ Handbook is about how to do it right.

“While not all science writers are journalists,” Alison Fromme asserts in the first chapter, “the writers of this book believe that all science writers can and should approach their subjects journalistically, with curiosity, an open mind, a healthy sense of skepticism about the material, and transparency about our methods, biases, and sources.”

This book is divided into three sections: The Skilled Science Writer, The Sane Science Writer, and The Solvent Science Writer. In other words, the book covers how to manage the writing itself, how to manage the writing life, and how to make some money. The whole thing is quite practical and readable

We found the following chapters particularly useful in thinking about key aspects of and options for being a science writer.

Chapter 3: Making the Pitch by Thomas Hayden, with boxes (extra info) by Hayden, Monica Baker, and Douglas Fox

The success of a pitch depends upon the story idea, its relevance, its timeliness, the type of piece, extras like photos, and who the author is. Importantly, “You want to build your queries around good story ideas. But you also want to send another message: that working with you will be a low-risk proposition.” This chapter is packed with advice on how to convey that message to an editor.

Chapter 9: Going Long: How to Sell a Book by Emma Marris

Marris points to Rebecca Skloot and The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks as a great aspiration for which a writer should not hold her breath. “Instead, you should write a book for one or, ideally, both of the following reasons: you are so gripped by a story, person, or topic that you just have to write a book about it; or you have a good idea for a book, would like to try your hand at long-form writing, and would like to take advantage of the platform it will give you as a book author to further your career.” But it took Skloot more than a decade to write her best-seller, so do not go into a book project on a whim. This chapter has advice for writing a proposal and getting an agent, editing and publicity, and even co-authoring and doing compilations.

Chapter 15: An Experimental Guide to Achieving Balance by Virginia Gewin, wiith a box by Liza Gross

Gewin “trained—for five long years—to be a scientist” but, after some unexpected career turns, uncovered her real passion: “writing about the important topics I’d studied.” The switch in careers to freelance writing was really a switch in lifestyles. She discusses the advantages of having an office outside the home, the difficulty of establishing time boundaries, the role of the smart phone, how “turning down work can also send a positive message,” how to clear your head, and the benefits of having kids to impose balance on your life.

Chapter 24: Social Networks and the Reputation Economy by Emily Gertz, with a box by Sarah Webb

While not all the SciLance writers are tweeting, many find that social media is a great way to connect with the very people you’d want to connect with even without social media—sources, writers, editors. Gertz offers really thoughtful advice and encourages science writers to remain science writers on social media and create an appropriate, genuine persona in the digital world. She also suggests what not to share: bad mouthing others, money matters, family squabbles, and details about what you’re writing. Of course, if you’re live-tweeting an event, as she also suggests, you’re sharing details—the tweets are what you’re writing, at least in part. Getz also emphasizes the need to manage your social networking time, suggesting that you make appointments to check in, use the platform to present sorted information to you, look into apps that increase usability, and choose which social networks are best for you.

The Science Writers’ Handbook isn’t the only guide to science writing out there. Next time, we’ll discuss A Field Guide for Science Writers, to which several of last week’s instructors at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop have contributed. See that post HERE.


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