Science Writing Basics: Find your story and hone your pitch with Dr. Czerne Reid
Dr. Czerne Reid from the University of Florida joined us in June 2020 to teach us about finding and writing science stories as well as how to successfully pitch them to editors of science-focused mainstream publications. Dr. Reid is an accomplished science writer: she has written for National Geographic and other outlets including The (Columbia, S.C.) State newspaper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Salinas Californian, Stanford News Service, Stanford School of Medicine Office of Communication and Public Affairs, and University of Florida Health Communications. She is co-chair of the Education Committee of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), coordinating career development programs for graduate and undergraduate students. Here are some highlights from the workshop.
Key points to remember when developing a story.
Inspiration for stories can be found everywhere, so be sure to keep your “story detector” ready. Story structure is something we know innately. When we tell stories to our friends and family, we naturally include elements of narrative:
- Who is the main character(s)? This may be you, a researcher, or even a scientific claim.
- What pursuit, journey, quest, or conflict is the character engaged in?
- What happened along the way?
- What discovery did the character(s) make? What was the resolution?
We examined our pitches through the lens of these storytelling narrative techniques. For instance, I pitched my article-in-progress about zebrafish as a model organism for cancer research. As a zebrafish researcher, they are near and dear to my heart and I wanted to share their fascinating background and their versatility in medical research. Dr. Reid suggested that I pick one main character: the zebrafish or the cancer researchers. Is it a piece about the history of zebrafish? Or is it about how a particular research team uses them to study brain cancer? Once I decide, I can flesh out the rest of my story.
What does a pitch look like?
As a freelance writer, always email a story pitch instead of cold-calling an editor. There is no set formula for what a pitch, or query, email looks like, although some publications have pitch guidelines like Discover and Science. Generally, a pitch email introduces the writer (you), including a link to a writing sample, and explains why you are qualified to write this story. This can be followed by why your story fits with the publication and the beginning of the story itself, keeping it to a concise 500 words or less. Don’t forget to include any initial reporting you have done, photo opportunities, or conflicts of interest. The Open Notebook Pitch Database has a variety of examples of successful pitches.
How do you make sure your pitch is received?
In the subject line, be sure to include “Pitch” and a short sentence about what the story is about. Dr. Reid advised that the initial words are extremely important: some email clients truncate the subject line, limiting you to only a few words to grab the attention of the editor. Name dropping a colleague of the editor’s that you have a rapport with or who suggested you reach out is a great way to catch their attention. Seven to ten days after the initial pitch email is an appropriate time to follow up with an editor if you have not heard back.
From the Q&A:
How do you get an interview?
When reaching out to a prospective interviewee, it helps to already have an assignment. At the very least, say that you are pitching to a publication, like Science Says. Don’t ask for too much time; a good rule of thumb is to ask for 15 minutes, and you may end up talking for far longer if the conversation goes well. If the prospective interviewee declines, follow up for a recommendation to interview a colleague or a student from their lab. Finally, a university or company’s public information officer is a great resource to put you in touch with the interviewee.
- The Open Notebook (TON) has a wealth of information on many aspects of science writing.
- The National Association of Science Writers (NASW) has many resources on pitching and publishing science stories as well as professional development programs.
- The Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW) frequently collaborates with NASW to put together the annual Science Writers conference.
Want to practice pitching and get a story published? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you to Dr. Reid for her time and advice.
Sydney Wyatt is a PhD student at the University of California in Davis. For more content from the UC Davis science communication group "Science Says", follow us on Twitter @SciSays.