So you fancy some scientific writing?
- Thursday, 21st February 2013
- 2 Comments
Manchester’s budding science writers were offered the one-off chance to cross-examine Elsevier’s editor-in-chief of Drug Discovery Today, Steve Carney at the chapter’s February science writing workshop. The assembly comprised mostly students, attracted by the exciting career prospects for scientific writers. With the publishing industry outsourcing more work to freelancers, opportunities for scientific writers are available, but the route to these careers is not necessarily straightforward. Here are Steve Carney’s reflections on the field.
Routes into writing
Careers in scientific writing are popularised by their niche, a mix of creativity and the latest up-and-coming science. In contrast to the years required for lab work to evolve into a tangible new therapy, each written piece offers a short term goal which provides instant gratification. There are also opportunities to sample a broad range of scientific areas, as well as the option to branch out into more artistic fields such as photography, marketing and media relations. However, it is crucial to meet deadlines and to be accepting of any criticism. There is always the lurking possibility that the piece one slaves over for hours will be completely remodelled, or worse, binned.
The science writing career market is competitive and most jobs in the industry are not formally advertised. Consequently, networking is essential and one must maintain links to valuable contacts and attain as much experience as possible. This doesn’t mandate taking up an unpaid internship though; there are ways to fit writing in alongside a profession by creating an online presence or seeking freelance opportunities, before deciding to forge a long-term career in scientific writing.
Science writing careers range from full-time authors to managerial roles requiring strong leadership but almost no writing. Steve Carney advised finding a balance that suits the individual as a writer. For example, a meticulous person may enjoy technical writing for product inserts and instructions, a role which follows strict guidelines and bears a lot of responsibility. Conversely, creative types may prefer blogging for a scientific website, although finding a paid blogging position is rare. One thing is certain, a scientific background is critical. It is far easier to alter a poorly written article grounded by accurate science than a beautifully written article which lacks substance.
A bit of background: Steve Carney
Carney’s own story starts in Liverpool where he did his BSc Biochemistry degree before transferring to Manchester for his PhD in medicinal biochemistry and histopathology. Prior to his post at Elsevier he spent six years doing postdoctoral work at the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology, followed by fifteen years as a research biologist at Eli and Lilly in rheumatology, and later neuroscience. Carney is currently based in London and has built up a wealth of expertise as Editor-in-chief and previously as Managing Editor at Elsevier. During the writing workshop he gave excellent advice and suggested avoiding a number of ineffective writing practices:
- Avoid barraging, and hence, losing, the reader with disconnected facts. The best way to keep a reader occupied is by telling a story. Mapping out the article beforehand gives direction to a piece of writing, so that it flows in a logical structure, punctuated with captivating headings and pictures. The writer should feature compelling ideas at the beginning; from there a reader’s curiosity will be kindled and the rest can continue in a story-like expansion.
- Avoid meandering paragraphs that attempt to disguise “bad” science with verbosity. Punchy articles which are rid of clutter and convey a clear message in are far superior. Editors should screen for excessive wording eg. ‘very unique’. As Steve pointed out, one can’t be partly pregnant!
- Avoid writing in a style which does not correspond to the desired audience. A writer ought to reflect understanding of the readership in writing and to use only audience-appropriate jargon with clear explanations when necessary. Finally, tailor a piece of writing to the specific journal by becoming an avid consumer of their published articles and strictly follow any instructions given by the editor.
Manchester’s chapter of OBR thanks Steve Carney for his insightful and inspiring presentation, which spurred participants on to writing and networking straight away!
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