Tips from three freelance science journalists
After we described in Monsoon Episode 1 what we do as freelance science journalists, Dyna, Sandy, and I talk about taking the start of our careers in this episode. We share tips and strategies for others who wish to report on science in Southeast Asia.
Episode 3 cover photo by Denny Aulia; arranged by Yao Hua on Canva.
Because there is no accreditation for science journalists, there is no set path to become one. You can have degrees in science, journalism, or writing. Or none of that. Some form of formal training in sciences or journalism helps, of course, but as long as you plan and persist, you can succeed through trial and error in the field itself.
Sandy went to journalism school
Sandy took the journalism degree path. She was a medical writer in London until the job bored her. She looked for “something new” that would marry her science training with writing. She discovered science journalism and enrolled in New York University’s graduate course in Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP). This is a reputable program that has produced many esteemed journalists.
Sandy says the course was 16 months of hard work but it helped her learn the field systematically. “Entering a new field can be really overwhelming and daunting,” says Sandy. Journalism school gave her a structure to ease into her new life.
It was also “super helpful” in terms of networking. Reputable writers, journalists, and editors give guest lectures, and they mingle with the students over tea and coffee.
(That’s much more effective than emailing editors out of the blue, no?)
Many journalism programs also get students into newsroom internships. That means practical experience, networking, and bylines in those outlets for the student before they graduate.
Sandy, for example, interned at Newsweek. She wrote a few pieces for them at the start of her freelance career, which gave her portfolio a critical boost at the time.
Still, journalism school is arduous and expensive. It “puts off a lot of people,” says Sandy. But if it wasn’t for SHERP, she thinks she wouldn’t have become a journalist.
Dyna had a mentorship boost
Dyna was a science graduate who decided to try science writing. She has written a few opinion pieces in Indonesian newspapers before she began to send editors unsolicited pitches for science stories. It was a slow start for her (she describes in Episode 1) as she was learning journalism on the job and her network was small.
Then in 2014, she was invited to join SjCoopAsia, a science journalism mentorship program organised by the World Federation of Science Journalists. Dyna’s assigned mentor was an editor of a top-tier science magazine.
The mentorship provided modules in many languages, including Bahasa Indonesia. Dyna learned to find the science angle in events. The mentorship also introduced Dyna to reporting controversies in scientific practices — a beat that would become a feature of her career.
“The great thing” of the SjCoop experience was that she connected with science journalists in Indonesia and across Asia. “Networking is very, very important if you want to be a freelance science journalist,” says Dyna. Her new acquaintances then connected her with other journalists and scientists. Before that, Dyna had struggled to convince sources that she was a credible journalist.
Yao Hua learned as an intern
For me, I jumped from research into science communication. At the end of 2013, I began to consider alternative careers outside of academia. When my first few stories were accepted in The Scientist, I was so pumped up! “I can do science writing!” I thought.
So, in March 2014, I resigned from my lecturer post and signed up as an intern in a local radio newsroom. There, over several months, I learned how to find stories and sources and run interviews. Parallel to the internship, I continued to pitch magazine editors out of the blue.
I was extremely fortunate that my first two stories were accepted quickly by editor Tracy Vence of The Scientist. In fact, for my first story, I skipped the pitch and sent her the complete draft in my first email. That must be the most naive and ridiculous move of my career.
The smooth success of those first two stories led me to think that freelance science writing was easy. Hard truth: I didn’t get my next story into The Scientist until 8 months after. Still, they kick-started my journalism career.
Sandy returned to Singapore in 2016 from New York to build her freelance science journalist career in Southeast Asia. She recalls her first year as “lonely and anxiety-inducing” — a time when she was finding her footing in a new work environment.
She gave herself a year to see if she could make it. “You need time to build up your reputation and portfolio”, she says. “You can’t expect to be successful straight out of the gate.” Though doubts lingered in her mind, she survived her first year.
Four years later, she’s going strong(-er), and has since expanded her portfolio beyond Newsweek to include YaleE360, Spectrum, and Nikkei Asia. Persistence pays!
Dyna’s first year was very much a walk on durian shells- — thorny side up. The editors at SciDev.Net had accepted her pitch for a story on climate models but she didn’t know how to proceed. Dyna was quite clueless about journalism then. She spoke with a scientist and wrote the draft. Her editor, however, could not understand her draft. “It was a mess,” Dyna recalls.
But Dyna reworked the draft, this time asking her geographer sister to review her writing. The second draft pleased the editor, and it was even republished by The Guardian.
Key tip: We writers can’t catch many of our mistakes and biases. Get a pair of fresh eyes (best attached to a critical and straight-shooting mind) to read your drafts. My first reviewer tends to be my wife who is trained in music but not in science.
Thick-skinned journalists do well
All three of us sent email pitches to editors who have never heard of us. Rejections were (are?) common. Rejections can be rude, nice, or just internet silence. They are inevitable. I think freelance journalists must live with rejections. Thick-skin is a prerequisite for this career, I say.
And dare to aim high. When she began, Sandy cold pitched some big names like New Scientist and The Atlantic. They accepted her stories (I remember being floored by the bylines of this newcomer Singaporean science journalist!).
Sandy admits that if she had given much thought to the top-tier standing of publications, she might have hesitated and not pitched. But at the time, she just went “I would just pitch them, why not?”
That’s the spirit we want.
Who to pitch
We rattle off some outlets which we have written for. We know these welcome pitches of science stories from Southeast Asia: Hakai, Science News, Discover Magazine, Popular Science, YaleE360, ENSIA, Sapiens, BBC Future, SciDev.Net. Check out the “Resources” section above for links. Most of these outlets have submission guidelines.
We recommend strategies for freelance science journalists in Southeast Asia to adopt when they start out. I shall list here bits of what we said. Head to the 25:00 mark to listen to it all.
- Editors just want good ideas. So don’t you worry about rejection — just pitch them.
- Read the publications you wish to write for to know what stories they prefer.
- Reach out to other journalists; seek advice.
- Start small, aim big.
Immediate steps to take
Here’s what we think you can do now to boost your freelance science journalist career in the region.
Contact a science journalist society or association, says Dyna.
Browse the pitch database of more than 200 successful pitches at The Open Notebook, says Sandy.
Contact a local/regional scientist and chat about their work, I say.
And of course, we are open to helping any freelance science journalist (if you are staff, you likely don’t need our help ;)) in the region.
Just contact any of us or write to firstname.lastname@example.org with your questions — we will address them in future episodes.
Resources mentioned in this episode
- Pitch database at The Open Notebook. Over 200 successful pitches here; you can add yours too.
- Robin Lloyd’s mega-list of outlets that accept pitches from journalists. A rich hunting ground, updated periodically.
- Science Journalism COOPeration project, or SjCoop. A mentorship program organised by the World Federation of Science Journalists; the last was held in 2015.
- Some of the outlets mentioned: ENSIA, Hakai, Nature, Sapiens, SciDev.Net, Science, Science News, The Scientist, YaleE360
- Yao-Hua’s first and second science stories. Both published in The Scientist. I submitted the first as a complete draft without pitching, and by a stroke of good luck, began my foray into science journalism.
- Dyna’s climate model story for SciDev.Net. Dyna, then clueless about journalism, even lost her editor with her first draft; it was eventually republished by The Guardian
- Check out FlipScience. It’s an online portal about science out of the Philippines. They also run a podcast called Ask Theory!
- Check out TON’s free Science Journalism Master Class. It’s delivered online via email. I’ve seen others review it positively.
- Connect with journalist societies/groups in Southeast Asia: Society of Indonesian Science Journalists, Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists, Philippines Network of Environmental Journalists, Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists, Malaysian Science Communicators, and the Thai Society of Environmental Journalists.