By Bethany Pitchford | STC Student Member

Technical communication students who want to be science writers are often unsure about how to prepare for their careers. We often find ourselves in the same situation as the scientists we’ll work with—encountering more questions than answers. Being one of those students, I decided to dig deeper for answers to some of my questions. Out of my search came ten pieces of advice for science communication students.

  1. Be ready for more than just writing!

Technical writers only spend around 25 to 35 percent of their time writing, according to Janet Van Wicklen in her book The Tech Writer’s Guide for Survival. Other non-writing responsibilities range from coordinating with production teams to working with products throughout the development process. In an interview, Dr. Susan Rauch, a former biomedical writer, explained some of her daily tasks included interviewing physicians about their latest research, looking up unfamiliar terminology related to new drugs, and translating doctors’ handwritten notes. As former technical and scientific writer Dr. Greg Wilson noted, understanding and communicating biological processes is important because biomedical writers must know the effects a new drug will have on a patient’s body. Each of these daily tasks helps science writers gain the knowledge they need to accurately write about a subject.

  1. Understand the media genres of science communication.

A Field Guide for Science Writers (Blum et al.) illustrates how the type of daily writing done depends on the branch of science writing a technical communicator is in. Some of the different areas include newspapers, magazines, science books, and science editing. The book includes stories from different science writers and is an excellent resource for technical communication students who are unsure of which route they wish to take.

  1. Be an effective collaborator.

Excellent technical communication skills are as important as scientific background knowledge. David Smith, a biologist, shares his experience of having to learn to communicate more effectively in his article “One Scientist’s Struggle to Be a Better Writer, and a Plea for Undergraduate Science-Writing Engagement.” To share his research findings, he had to learn better collaboration techniques. In a sense, it’s necessary for science communication students to be bilingual: they must have both a solid understanding of science and the necessary communication skills to explain it well.

  1. Use novice subject matter expertise to guide further learning.

In her book Ideas into Words: Mastering the Craft of Science Writing, Elise Hancock provides key pieces of advice for new science writers. First, Hancock notes science writers must remember it’s okay to be a beginner in a subject. They must allow themselves “a learner’s permit.” She encourages science writers to enjoy the ignorance of beginning, because it helps them know what questions readers will have and leads them to explore new things about the world. According to Wilson, it’s important for beginning science writers to remember that as technical communicators, they already have the skill set to learn new things quickly and find the connections between different pieces of information.

  1. Be willing to continually learn and grow subject matter expertise.

Hancock also discusses how science writers must always stay in “learning mode”. Even if a writer has spent quite a bit of time on a subject, there’s always something new to learn or a way to improve one’s writing. When a writer has found the right niche, this learning process will seem more like fun and less like work. Wilson added “The best part of the job is that you’re constantly learning things” because as science writers, we help explain new discoveries to others and, much like researchers, must be willing to learn and adapt in order to move forward.

  1. Be confident in your writing skills and their transferability to science.

Science writers should not be intimidated by the writing process, Hancock explains, for we already know naturally how to catch someone’s attention. Working with scientists is also something which we should not allow to intimidate us, because the goal of scientists and science writers is the same—sharing science with the world. Wilson discussed how it’s important to balance learning from others with asserting your own professionalism and value. As science writers, we’re the ones who explain how new technology fits into culture, bridging the gap between research and consumers.

  1. Work with a mentor in the profession.

Hancock emphasizes the importance of finding a mentor. Doing this allows beginning science writers to observe someone who’s actually doing the work in a real world setting instead of just learning what to do in a classroom. Mentors can also introduce mentees to their professional network, resulting in more opportunities to learn, and opening many doors for beginners in the field.  According to Wilson, beginning science writers can also learn how to balance the many demands of the job. Having a mentor can help beginning science writers grow in many different ways.

  1. Let your passion guide you.

Hancock asserts science writers must be passionate about their work when she claims “you have to care so much that you can hardly keep it to yourself.” She says this passion takes two forms—wanting to know about science, and wanting to share what you know with others. In order for science writers to help readers be excited about science, they have to write about material that intrigues them. Having that energy and enthusiasm is an essential skill of being a good science writer.

  1. Be flexible.

Wilson also explained another important skill science writers must have is flexibility. Being too rigid can lead to job stress because project timelines and deadlines will change, and unexpected problems arise. Finding a balance between structure and flexibility is essential.

  1. Accept and explore a customizable career path.

Wilson also pointed out “There’s no wrong way to have a career.” Every science writer’s path is different depending on choices like the field of science writing or job location. Beginning science writers must understand that comparing career paths with fellow writers may not be productive.

The pieces of advice offered here may be a helpful starting point to explore science writing careers. Being a technical communication student who wants to go into science writing can be an overwhelming experience when trying to figure out the best way to prepare for your future. Often, it can feel like having many more questions than answers. Certainly, there are numerous other resources available for students to learn more about how to be prepared. Begin by asking the right questions and looking to others who have taken the path you hope to follow.

 

Bibliography

Blum, Deborah, Mary Knudson, and Robin Marantz Henig. A Field Guide for Science Writers, 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Greg Wilson (Assistant Professor and Director of Graduate Studies for the Technical Communication and Rhetoric program at Texas Tech University), in discussion with the author, October 2016 and June 2017.

Hancock, Elise. Ideas into Words: Mastering the Craft of Science Writing, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

Smith, David Roy, “One Scientist’s Struggle to Be a Better Writer, and a Plea for Undergraduate Science-Writing Engagement,” Science Communication, 38:5, 2016. 666-74.

Susan Rauch (instructor and biomedical writer, Texas Tech University), in discussion with the author, October 2016.

Van Wicklen, Janet. The Tech Writer’s Survival Guide. New York: Checkmark Books, 2001. 57-62.

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