Traditional science writers work full-time for newspapers, magazines or associations such as the American Chemical Society (ACS). However, these days print publications are employing fewer full-time science writers. Many people blog about science but relatively few earn enough to depend on blog earnings as their primary source of income. Science writing is increasingly becoming a part-time and even unpaid profession. Therefore, one should be well aware of these trends before committing to science writing as a full-time occupation.
Freelance Science Writers
An increasing fraction of science writers are self-employed contractors. Besides writing for magazines, newspapers and websites for these publications, they may also write for companies needing writing services. For example, as a freelance science writer, I have written confidential internal documents for oil companies, oilfield service companies, chemical companies and consumer products companies. Often these “white papers” are proprietary in that the information is confidential and the exclusive property of the organization that commissioned the work. Many magazines, newspapers and websites hold exclusive rights to articles they commission freelance writers to write. So if one writes a document or article, he/she often cannot sell it to more than one organization.
Being self-employed, freelance writers usually do not receive health benefits from the organizations that commission them to write articles. Freelance writers also have to make their own provisions for Social Security Administration payments and other retirement income. Monthly income can vary from month to month depending on the writer’s success in being commissioned to write science articles. Many freelance writers write on a part-time basis in addition to holding a full-time job. Some write solely for the enjoyment of writing about science and not for money.
Some science writers work for agencies. Companies and other organizations approach these agencies when they need writers to prepare documents on specific subjects. These agencies maintain files and recommend writers to organizations needing them. In return for this service, the agency receives a percentage of the writing fee from the hiring organization. Often the agency manages issues such as paying the writer’s income taxes and Social Security fees from his/her income before sending the writer a check.
National Association of Science Writers
The National Association of Science Writers (http://nasw.org) is the professional organization for science writers and includes both writers working full-time and freelance writers who work for various clients as they receive assignments to write various documents.
Technical writers are often put in a separate category from science writers. Many technical writers work for the information technology industry either as professionals employed full-time or as freelancers. They often write operating instructions for IT products such as computers, cell phones and software. This usually pays more than science writing. The relevant professional organization is the Society for Technical Communication (http://stc.org).
Many writers are both science writers and technical writers. Some cover other subjects as well. For example, I write job-hunting and career management articles customized for scientists and engineers that are published as ACS Career Blogs (http://acs.org/careers).
Finding article topics
Finding gripping article ideas that will interest many readers is no problem. Many news services publish press releases on new developments in science and medicine from universities, companies, government agencies and conferences. My favorite is Eurekalert.org published daily by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Another site publishing many European science press releases is AlphaGalileo.org. Many universities publish press releases based on discoveries made in their science departments and labs.
The federal government’s national laboratories publish press releases about discoveries their scientists make. Many scientific organizations such as the American Chemical Society also publish press releases as well as trade organizations such as the Technical Association of the Pulp & Paper Industry.
Incidentally, science writers prepare these press releases. While some are freelancers, most are full-time employees working for organizations such as the ACS.
John Borchardt was a chemist, freelance writer and devoted ACS career consultant for over 15 years, until his sudden passing in January 2013. He was the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” and had more than 1500 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he held 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents, and was the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers. John’s advice, insights and articles helped hundreds of scientists improve their professional lives, and he will be truly missed.