Some talented and lucky folks can make the leap from science to science writing without any formal journalism training in-between. Convincing a publication to trust you to write for them is one issue, what to do once you’ve gotten an assignment is another. Here’s what to do for the latter.
I have to interview people? But I know stuff!
It’s super common for scientists-turned-science-writers to initially want to write about their own subject matter. Which makes sense: It’s both the topic you like, and the topic you know the most fun-facts about.
But the catch is, working as a science writer, your role is journalist, not expert. Even if you know all the things, you kind of have to pretend not to know all the things and do your due diligence “reporting.” Cite papers and other good sources, and talk to experts in the field. Use your expertise to ask the people you interview extra good questions! But get them to talk about the subject.
The length of the piece and your editor’s expectations are what will dictate how many different people you should talk to. You can, of course, talk to as many people as you want for any story, but that will take up a bunch of your time and offer diminishing returns.
For a short (600-1,000 word) web-only story, for various publications, sometimes 1 interview can suffice; 2 is better, but 3 is approaching too much time spent for the money. Some editors will specify a number of sources they expect. For a longer story, or a story for a print magazine, or a story that pays really well (say, $1/word or higher), that’s when more interviews will start being a thing.
OK, I’ll interview people. …Who?
Good old-fashioned Google and Twitter are good ways to find people, but I’ve had the best luck perusing Google Scholar for recent papers that look interesting and relevant, and then finding people from the author lists. This is also a great way to find diverse sources — skip the old white guy PI and hunt down that nice person third on the list.
Don’t interview friends, family, former colleagues, current colleagues, co-authors, or your favorite conference happy hour buddy. People you “know of” and/or have met before are fine. And Twitter acquaintance buddies are fair game if you ask me — use your discretion to decide if and when someone crosses the line into “real friend” territory.
OK, I have located my target. How do I talk to them?
If you’re in a rush you can cold-call a source, but scientists are hard to get a hold of (their office number is on their website, but are they sitting in their office?) I like to have a week or more to write a story, and send the “can I interview you?” emails immediately after getting an assignment, to maximize the amount of time they have to reply. “Can I interview you sometime in the next week?” is way better than “Can I interview you sometime in the next 4 hours?” for obvious reasons.
Some things to include in your email: Who you are, who you’re working for, when you’re free to chat, and when you need to hear back from them by.
I like to cc someone in a source's media relations office, because 1. Those folks like to know when their people are being interviewed by the media, and more importantly for me, 2. They will help hunt down the person and/or make sure they don’t ignore you. To find these people, I just Google “media relations [institute]” or “press office [institute]” — they’re never called the same thing. If that doesn’t work, I’ll go to the university’s “news” page and see if there are any names or contact info there, like at the bottom of a story.
By the way, if you’re working with, say, 4 or fewer days till your deadline, go ahead and throw an “Urgent” in the subject line.
Here’s what I typically say in my first-contact email:
Subj: Reporter seeking [X] expert OR Subj: Urgent: Reporter with quick [X] question OR Subj: [Publication] interview request
Hi Dr. [Name],
Anna Funk here, science writer on assignment for Publication. I’m working on a story about [X topic], and I’d love to chat with you about it to answer some of my questions. [Optional: I found you through your recent paper/work on X.]
I’d love to speak with you for 20-30 minutes about this—I can keep it shorter if you’re swamped. My story is due soon, so the catch is it would have to be before [hard cutoff time AT LEAST 24 hours before deadline, preferably earlier].
I hope we can connect! My schedule is flexible over the next few days, so if you name a time or two that might work, I can send a Zoom invite. I can also do a phone call if you’d prefer.
Thanks so much!
[Super pro email signature here.]
Email sent! But umm, they didn’t reply.
Bother them! Follow up every 48 hours. If you cc’d a specific person in the press office, loop in a second person. (Maybe the first person is away.) If you have to talk to this person, get creative. Call, DM them on Twitter, do what you have to do to hunt them down. If it doesn’t have to be them, reach out to an alternative ASAP so you have enough time for them to respond.
If you’re stumped, try SciLine. They’re a team of folks at AAAS who put reporters with science questions in contact with expert sources. (And they’re soo nice.)
OK, got a reply! Date is saved for our interview.
Great! Did you send a Zoom link? I like to set up the Zoom to automatically record (it’s one of the “more options” when you’re setting your passcode and such), and mention it when I send the link. This skips the awkward “do you mind if I record this?” conversation (which, by the way, you have to have legally — in some states it’s illegal to record someone without their permission. Instead of learning which states, just ask every time.)
***This meeting will be recorded.***
Meeting ID: xxx xxxx xxxx
Actually, we’re talking on the phone.
Ah, OK. Well, you’ll still want to record somehow. There are plenty of free voice recorder phone and computer apps, and some paid “record my phone call” apps. I like to put them on speaker phone, set the phone in front of my computer mic, and use my computer’s built-in voice recorder app.
If you’re using a new system, test it out first. For instance, my free voice recorder app on my phone somehow doesn’t actually pick up calls on speaker phone. It just doesn’t work.
And remember: “do you mind if I record this?”
Interview time! What should I say? What do I prepare in advance?
Lately I’ve sort of fallen into a similar script, usually opening with “thanks so much for taking my call” and an “I shouldn’t need to keep you for too long” before diving into questions. For most interviews, I’ll often only prepare 3-5 questions — it’s easy to fill the time with follow-up questions. You’ll also be amazed at how long some scientists will monologue on a single question!
Something to keep in mind is that the interview really has two purposes: 1. To answer any questions you actually have about the topic (which might be many, or might be essentially none) and 2. To get quotes for the story.
For #2, you want to make sure you’ve got them on record saying something personal or that otherwise needs to come from them. Like if your story is “Why is the sky blue?” it’s not adding much if you write: “The sky is blue,” says the researcher. “Here’s a textbook sentence about skies.”
Instead, what you really want are either claims that you wouldn’t want to make yourself — “this is groundbreaking” — or opinions or other flavor text — “I couldn’t believe it when I saw these results” — “I got into this field of work because it’s so rewarding” — things like that.
Quick! I’m in the middle of the interview, and the source asked to see my article before it's published! Is that OK?
Nope, not OK. Sorry! Say no, apologize, and blame your editor. “I’m so sorry, but it’s against Publication’s policy! Is there anything specific you’re worried about?” If they really push back, I like to explain a little bit about why that’s a no-go by giving the example of politics. If this were a story about politics and not science, would you want me, the reporter, to let a politician “approve” all their quotes? To read over a whole article and edit it to their liking before we published it? Absolutely not. That would be bad journalism. Or at that point, not journalism at all.
Phew, OK, interview done. Now what?
I like to transcribe my interviews. I am a bad listening-learner and a great reading-learner — I need to see it to digest it. I’d do this when you’re starting out, too, and take shortcuts later if it feels like it’s a waste of your time.
There are (paid) apps that will transcribe a recording for you with voice-to-text tech. Until very recently, I didn't use those because I’m a cheapskate and a fast typer with no respect for my time. So I would do it manually. But! The KEY for me was listening to the recording at a slower speed. I used VLC Media Player, which is a free download online that’s hopefully not full of ransomware, because it has a “playback speed” option. So I'd listen at half speed, and for all but the fastest speakers, I could type while they talk and keep up. (So it'd take me about 40 minutes to transcribe a 20 minute interview.) I'd also try to throw in timestamps as I type, in case I needed to listen back to something. They look like  this, for instance, at the 4:00 mark. But do what you want!
I just this week finally sprung for an Otter.ai subscription, $100/year if you pay up front. It's already paid for itself in time savings.
OK, then my work here is done. Hopefully you’ve got some good quotes you can sprinkle throughout your article. For formatting tips (is it “says” or “said”?) check other stories from your assigning publication to see what they do. Some will be like “quote here,” person told Publication. Things like that.
Now you’re on your own. Go write a story!
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Musings on science writing, from a scientist turned writer.