By Aleszu Bajak ’06
Scratch the itch: After a few years working mostly in the animal facility in the gene therapy department at Weill Cornell, I was itching to start a writing career. I started a blog called “Freestyle Science.” It was bad but it got me writing.
There’s always time: Fit writing into the interstitial spaces of life. Sure you have a 9-to-5, or you’re rolling burritos 6-to-3, or you’re giving guitar lessons on the weekends to a savant on the Upper East Side. If you love writing, you’ll make the time.
Emulate: If you want to write a folk song, listen to the best and work off of their chord progressions. If you want to be a science writer, start by emulating those writers you are most inspired by. How would Deb Blum start this chapter? How would Carl Zimmer write it?
Write what you know: I had wanted to be a microbiologist, so I knew a lot about genetics. So I wrote about advances in the field, even if they were minute. What do you know? Play to that strength.
Get structured: Start a spreadsheet or notebook with story ideas plus interesting studies, reports and sources. Stay organized. Your writing will reflect that.
Pick up the phone: It’s scary at first, but one of the joys of science writing is getting one-on-one tutelage from world-renowned experts. If you’ve done your homework, they will love chatting with you – and talking about themselves.
Always be pitching: Start with lesser-known blogs and start working your way up. Pitch something that makes sense coming from a cub reporter. Do an interview, a literature review and some research before you send the pitch. And know the publication and what it tends to publish!
Start small: Plan on writing a bunch of short pieces first. Very few editors will rely on a novice for a 2,500-word feature. As you develop a story idea, pitch it to a friend. They’ll help clarify your direction.
Edit, edit, edit: Every writer needs an editor. Start by being your own. Does the piece make sense? Read it out loud. Read it over the phone to your mom. Make sure everything is substantiated, make sure you’re answering all the important questions, make sure you’re being clear, make sure you’re characterizing the science correctly. Then edit it again.
Read, read, read: The best writers are always honing their craft by looking outwards. Devour literature, journalism, and all other good writing, new and old. Go outside: The internet is great, sure. And social media is full of story ideas, sure. But so is the world. After Science Friday, a dream job producing a radio show for NPR, I went abroad to find stories that weren’t trapped in RSS feeds, waiting to be released. I sat cross-legged with scientists, at cafes with conspiracy theorists, and at bars with carpenters, lawyers, doctors, bankers, and, of course, expats. I learned how to manage deadlines and editors. I found stories under every rock.