by Sheeva Azma
I’ve been a freelance science writer since 2013 and am sharing how I got started in this career here.
Becoming a science writer was not an intentional path for me; it was the natural progression of following my interests in science and writing. Growing up before the heyday of the internet, I told everyone I knew I wanted to be a brain surgeon - I was totally obsessed with the brain! In high school, I won national awards for my writing and followed my love of science, taking all the science classes I could. In high school, I won an essay contest by talking about the ethical challenges of science research and wrote a senior thesis on e. e. cummings that I would eventually publish in an academic journal.
I earned two degrees in neuroscience from MIT and Georgetown University, following my passions of understanding the brain’s structure and function. I applied magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to understand the neural substrates of brain function in trauma, stress, and addiction. My master’s work involved studying the neural substrates of both post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the neuroeconomics of addiction.
These days, I do it all in the comms world: I’m a science journalist, science communicator, digital marketer, strategic communications professional, political communications consultant, and more. In 2020, I founded my own science communications company, Fancy Comma, LLC.
A lot of people ask me how they can follow in my footsteps. I recently took to YouTube to answer people’s questions about becoming a science writer. You can check out the live stream archive here.
One of the first questions I got was, “How does one become a freelance science writer?” I enumerated a few steps that one can take in my livestream and have expanded on them here.
1. Figure out what you want to write about.
Decide what you like writing about. Ask yourself, “What are my strengths and interests?” In my first freelancing profile on Elance (now Upwork), I decided I wanted to write about five areas: science, technology, health, business, and policy. That’s a lot of interests, but having a broad understanding of each allows me to write about things at the intersection of those interests. At the intersection of health, business, and science is the biotech world; the overlap between science, technology, and policy is an area rich with opportunities that catalyze change in the political world. If you have a lot of interests, it’s actually a good thing because you can follow your passions and expand your wheelhouse.
2. Have a portfolio of work.
A portfolio can be a website such as a Medium or WordPress site. It can be articles you have published on other websites that demonstrate your writing expertise.
A portfolio shows your potential clients the work you’ve done and helps them understand the work you can do. You can start a blog on Medium, or even pitch articles to a journalism outlet. If you’re a student, you can pitch articles to your institution’s news office or to your school newspaper. You can even write letters to the editor of your community newspaper. As long as it’s your writing, it counts. If you need ideas on how to start your writing portfolio, you can check out my portfolio.
Make sure your portfolio contains writing that is similar to the type of writing you would want to do as a freelance science writer.
Once you’ve decided what you want to write about and have at least a bare bones portfolio, you can start looking for jobs and advertising your services. You can find jobs on freelancing websites like Upwork, via Google Search, or even from other freelance science writers. Make sure to add your title as freelance science writer to your resume and professional profiles on LinkedIn, Indeed, and Twitter.
3. Connect with other freelancers.
Freelance writing typically means being stuck at your laptop all day, and that can be isolating. Take the time to meet other science writers so you can learn from them and feel less alone. For years, as a freelance science writer, I felt like I had a weird job that nobody understood, until a few years ago when I finally started connecting with other freelance science writers.
When I was starting out, I was freelancing to make ends meet while applying to other jobs. I didn’t know one could make a living as a freelance science writer. I only knew one other science writer; she was a “real” science writer, not like me, I thought to myself. My science writer friend was a recipient of the prestigious AAAS Mass Media Fellowship. She had training in science journalism and had interned at a science journalism media outlet. But that isn't the only way to become a science writer.
I knew that it would be helpful to connect with other science writers, but at the time, I didn’t consider myself to be a “real” science writer. I knew about the local DC Science Writers Association, but I thought, “What’s the point of joining if I have nothing in common with these people?” It did not help that some of the members of DCSWA were seasoned DC science journalists who were famous in the DC journalism scene – so intimidating!
Looking back, I wish I would have made more of an effort to connect with my fellow writers. These days, there’s no shortage of ways to talk to other science writers. There’s @SciCommClub on Twitter, which hosts a weekly #SciCommChat. There’s also Boston University SciCommers and The Open Notebook. You can also follow my science communications company on Twitter and Instagram - we provide helpful insight for aspiring and established science writers alike. You can also join the National Association of Science Writers or a local writer’s group near you. I’m part of the Oklahoma Writers’ Federation - while I’m one of the few science writers I know in my circle here in OK, it’s still cool to network with local writers.
I also talk about ways to connect with other science writers in our Fancy Comma book, "How to Get Started in Freelance Science Writing," which is available through Amazon.
Thanks for reading! I hope you found this blog useful. You can read more about how I transitioned from neuroscience to science writing in a previous blog post at The Xylom. If you’re curious about more of my advice, watch this livestream (below) I did for my science communications company, Fancy Comma, LLC. Also check out the Fancy Comma, LLC blog.
Happy science writing!