Tag Archives: science writing

Leaping outside of your comfort zone…

If you have the opportunity to do something you want to, but it scares you, do it – especially if it scares you.

This is the kind of advice you frequently find on the internet (and increasingly from annoying Facebook posts/links…). In general I think it’s probably right.

Get out of the house, do something different, try a new sport/activity/food whatever. It’ll be good for you.

It can be some bloody scary magic…

But how does it feel actually doing it?

Fucking terrifying.

As you may know if you’ve been here before, a few months back I officially finished (resigned) working at Mega Corp., and decided to live off of the “fat” I’d managed to accumulate in my time there, and began trying to ‘get a foot in the door’ as some kind of freelance science writer. I knew this was never going to be easy – there’s too many good writers already out there for a start.

I didn’t get right into finding stories, writing and pitching after I finished work, largely as there was another fairly life changing event around the same time.

I’ll not go into details too much here, but let’s just say it involves – like all good stories – having met a girl I find amazing (and who seems similarly keen on me: presumably indicative of some kind of hidden mental instability*). One problem though: she’s just moved back home to Canada to start her PhD.

Fucksocks.

So, I spent nearly a month over there with her, and will be going back again soon for a month or two. In and of itself, this shouldn’t be detrimental to getting some writing done and some articles pitched.

I have managed to get a lead on a few interesting stories, and have made one pitch, which was very graciously knocked back, with a “we liked the idea, though it’s not really for us, but do please keep them coming.”

Don’t worry. I will. And better.

I also got my website/blog built, finalised and live for the actual science writing, once written, which you can find here. Sciencehubb.co.uk – geddit? Not too much there right now, a couple of bits from my uni MSc and one newer one from the other day.

What else have I been up to?

Well, helping to try and organise some kind of science writing course with a group of folks from Oxford Uni and – anxiously – looking at how I can get over to Canada more permanently, which has taken up a fair bit of my time. Time I will gladly spend trying to make it work. But it does eat into some of that “fat” I had ready to keep me fed, housed and clothed, shortening how long it will be there.  It’s worth it though.

The good news is that under the current immigration system I score enough points (just) to be admitted. The bad news is they stopped receiving applications in July, pending a revised system. Something tells me this will probably work against me. Fucksocks again.

This shift in priorities worries me. Moving to Canada is a priority, and I wouldn’t have it any other way; but it does conflict with my previous plans if I can’t get ‘permanent residence’ status.

The fact I don’t have a regular desk/lab bench job anymore is awesome as it gives me the flexibility to be able to shoot off Canada for a few months at a time (where I can at least still find stories and write), but, at the same time, I’m not bringing in any money myself yet. And I don’t know when, or how much I will be able to.

This puts an increasing pressure on me to somehow make money from this enterprise of being a science writer. This was never going to be easy, nor offer short-term to financial stability. I am finding this kinda stressful at the moment; when no one even knows my name right now, and with little written material ‘out there’.

So, immediate plans are thus:

  • Keep an eye out for new/proposed Canadian immigration rules (game changer)
  • Write, write, and write
  • Read, read and read
  • Find as many places to pitch to as possible
  • Pitch!
  • Get clippings wherever and whenever I can to show to editors

And that is what’s going on right now. If you have any advice, please let me have it, otherwise, just cross your fingers for me…

*Sorry if you’re reading this. I have the utmost confidence you are sane. 😀

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A Crisis of identity: Am I a scientist?

When meeting people for the first time, friends of friends, and that kind of thing, one of the questions most people ask, including myself is: and what do you do?

Err.

Shit.

This very question has precipitated in me a sense of dread of late.

I’m no longer a working scientist. So, can I still call myself a scientist? I’ve yet to be published anywhere in print (it will happen I tell you!). Soooo, what am I? Can I call myself a science writer yet? I’m not sure. Do I have to be paid to do something before I can be called that? Where’s the rule book?

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Being Ben Goldacre’d…

Gah!

Retweeted by Ben Goldacre. Destroyer of bandwidth and blogs.

This little blog, which I originally wasn’t going to advertise especially, suddenly went from trundling along at about 20 views/day to a spike of 2.5k…

Do you know what that does to my visitor stats? Do you? It makes my normal stats imperceptible noise.

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When you’re a scientist, sometimes, you’re all scientists…

My housemate had a friend over last night. He was a physicist from Oxford uni.

Being of a sophisticated nature I asked what type “think-y or experiment-y?”

This got me thinking. When you’re talking to someone who doesn’t know what you do, and you say you’re a scientist, sometimes, you’re all scientists. At least to some people. And it’s worth keeping this in mind.

At least when you’re speaking to someone who isn’t familiar with science, or the different sciences. It’s not a bad thing, but you have to be careful not to mislead. If you’re really going to “be a scientist” then you need to let people know when you don’t know something, or how certain you are about something.

Specifically I’m a biochemist, but, for example my family and sometimes my friends, would ask me about black holes, lagrangian points, string theory, how deep is the ocean or, memorably from my 6 year old niece, “how much does the world weigh, and how do you find out?”.

The ability to simultaneously demonstrate wonder at something whilst making you realise how little you actually know is a unique gift possessed by young children that you seem to shed as you get older.

(I presume it’s related to their ability to immediately identify weak points and innocently ask devastating questions of people. Ones that make their parents eyes shoot open in sudden horror: “Why do your eyes look in different directions? How did you get that massive spot? Why is your face wonky?”*)

I digress.

Fortunately, I’m a massive science nerd, and can give a reasonable answer to most things people ask me, and, importantly, how sure I am about it, and encourage them to find out for themselves. The nerdism  helps me point them in the direction of where they could probably find out; someone on twitter, or a good blog etc.

One of my favorite scientists, Richard Feynman, once said:

“I have approximate answers and possible beliefs in different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and of many things I don’t know anything about, but I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.”

And I think this is the important thing to keep in mind, not just when you’re talking to someone about some kind of science, but especially when you’re writing about science. If you can communicate what was found, what it means, how it was found, how certain you are about this – without over doing it – , and the unknowns and let people enjoy realising they didn’t know something, finding something new out, you’re doing well.

Science writing shouldn’t be just “Hey! Check out this awesome new fact/thing we found out!”. That’s something different. Science is a process, and so, I think, you should always be careful to try to convey that too in science writing. Which is good, because it lends itself to a narrative.

Putting this narrative together is something some of my favourite science writers (Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer, among others) seem to do with ease. Thye are great story tellers.

Things change. Especially at the frontiers of science. Theories get updated, some stuff is just wrong, but was our best guess at the time. So if you put your words down too definitively you could end up looking foolish. But if you do it right, you can write a follow up piece, an update, and move the story along with your readers.

G

Oh, and my house-mates friend was a “think-y” physicist by the way. String theory.

*I should add, none of these questions apply to me…


One month and one day…

One month and one day…

Exactly one month and one day ago I resigned from my job as a fairly well paid scientist in industry.

I have no other job lined up.

I do however have the, possibly misguided, idea that I’d like to be a “science writer” or communicator in some way.
And so, I counted up all of my pennies and decided I can afford to have a bash at this for a good few months before I’ll have to go begging for my old job back… but I’m fairly confident I wont do that…fairly…
Is it a stupid idea? Well, quite possibly. Buggered if I know right now. I’ll get back to you on that.
This blog is not where all this wonderful science writing and stuff will be. I will link to it when there is some up, but this is more a place to document my ideas, worries, fears and generally sound like a moaning pre-pubescent Twilight reading teenager. (I’m 32  btw)My current plans are:

  • Build and set up a website that’s part online CV, part blog, part showcase for anything interesting I might actually do
  • Start this blog to document my misadventures in science writing/communication (and vent/rant a bit too I assume)
  • Write one news article/week and one feature type article/2 weeks
  • Accompany these with my own spoken voice, a “science writing for the blind / busy person” type idea… my accent may not help (yay, Norfolk…)
  • Work on my contacts in the various nearby universities and start interviewing them about what they’re doing
  • Maybe try and write something science for the local rag
  • Try and find a “voice” for my writing
  • Write, write and write (i.e. try like hell to get better…)

I’m filled with an odd sense of both anxiety and relief…