Thursday, November 01, 2007

Science writing for college newspapers

Writing about science and medicine for a college newspaper can be intimidating. How do you make scientific advances and medical concepts interesting to college students? How do you write about things you barely understand yourself? And how do you get people with all those letters after their names to speak English?

But many students who report on science come to appreciate -- and even learn to love -- the intellectual and practical challenges that come along with it. With science writing, you're always learning something new. You get to understand cool stuff, like how the human body fights off invading organisms or what black holes really are.

And experience on a science beat can pay off down the career road. Some solid clips and a line on your resume that says "science writer" or "medical writer" can lead to lucrative and satisfying careers in medical journalism, public relations, government and private agency work, as well as health and science fields. For those thinking about graduate programs in science writing like the one at MIT (my brother Robert Kanigel is the director--tell him I sent you), UC Santa Cruz, Johns Hopkins, and Boston University, experience writing about science will help set you apart from the pack of applicants.

So how do you cover science and medicine? Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Cultivate sources. As with any beat, you're only as good as your sources. You can find them in the laboratories around campus, in student associations of medical or nursing students, in environmental groups, in the student health center, in academic departments. Don't feel that you have to only use top officials and professors. Graduate students who work in a lab and receptionists who work in the health center can also be helpful sources of information.

  • Ask the right questions. In talking to sources, always ask: What's new? The answer may be a scientific advance, a troubling trend, the outbreak of an illness or the launch of a new treatment or product. You should also ask what's not going well. Are scientists frustrated because their funding is running out? Is there a shortage of equipment? Are cadavers being misused?

  • Do your homework.To find story ideas and to educate yourself about science writing, you should regularly read The New York Times, particularly Science Times, the weekly science section that comes out on Tuesday; some of the major scientific journals like Science, the New England Journal of Medicine, and the Journal of the American Medical Association; and whatever other specialty publications you can find about the field you're covering.

  • Milk your public affairs office. Try to get a line not just on upcoming press releases but on ongoing research on your campus. Who are the major players? Who's getting the biggest grants? What kinds of research is your campus best known for?
  • Use online science information services. Regularly check Newswise and Eurekalert, which distribute press releases from research institutions around the nation.

  • Localize national stories. Think about how national headlines apply to your campus and community. If there's a new contraceptive on the market, see if it's available at your campus health center or at local drug stores. If a natural disaster strikes elsewhere in the country, see if experts from your campus will be providing any technical assistance.

  • Explore the science behind the news. Many news stories have a scientific angle -- the injury that sidelined your team's starting quarterback, the earthquake that struck a nearby community, weird weather patterns. Find scientists and physicians who can put these stories into context for your readers.

  • Learn the lingo. Writing about science means translating foreign or complex concepts into simple language. Learn what the scientific terms mean and then figure out how to explain them to a lay audience. If you can find the right metaphor, you can explain nearly anything. But don't just make these up. Science writing is really a partnership between the experts and the journalists -- make sure whatever you write is technically accurate.


Resources

Organizations
National Association of Science Writers

Council for the Advancement of Science Writing

American Medical Writers Association

Association of Health Care Journalists

Books
Best American Science Writing, an annual series published by Harper Collins

Ideas Into Words, Mastering the Craft of Science Writing by Elise Hancock

A Field Guide for Science Writers edited by Deborah Blum, Mary Knudson, and Robin Marantz Henig

2 comments:

Pia said...

Rachele, thanks for mentioning AHCJ. You might remember me from my days at SF State and CIIJ long ago - I'm managing editor/online services at AHCJ now.
Science and medical writing is definitely a growing field and I encourage students to explore it.
If there are students out there with questions about health writing, please feel free to get in touch with me. If I can't answer your questions, I'll find someone who can.

Søren Kjær Vestergaard said...

I totally agree with you that science writting is challenging because you have to think about your field in another and deeper way. I have done some writing myselv and often I remember that professor Niels Bohr is said rewrite his publications many time before publishing. Franklin Roosvelt also started at a very low level but he ended up being the best communicater in the World

I do some of my on writting on http://www.debatcode.com

Best
Søren Kjær Vestergaard