Science writers cover fields which are undergoing rapid advances and changes, giving them the chance to report on exciting and ground-breaking developments
As a science writer you'll research, write and edit scientific news, articles and features, for business, trade and professional publications, specialist scientific and technical journals, and the general media.
Science writers need to understand complex scientific information, theories and practices. You should be able to write in clear, concise and accurate language that can be understood by the general public.
You may sometimes be known as a scientific journalist., if you report on scientific news for the media and take on a more investigatory, critical role.
Science writing for non-media outlets involves communicating scientific research to a professional or lay audience, either for journals, promotional brochures and websites or as press releases.
Some science writing jobs might have an element of editing or broader communications responsibilities in addition to researching and writing.
The particular activities you'll undertake depend on the nature of your role and who you're writing for. Common activities include:
- producing articles for publication in print and online according to agreed style, and keeping to strict deadlines
- conducting interviews with scientists, doctors and academics and establishing a network of industry experts
- attending academic and press conferences
- visiting research establishments
- reading and researching specialist media and literature, e.g. scientific papers, company reports, newspapers, magazines and journals, press releases and internet resources including social media
- attending meetings or taking part in conference calls with clients, scientists or other writers
- meeting with colleagues to plan the content of a document or publication
- conducting reference searches
- reviewing and amending work in response to editor feedback
- selecting appropriate artwork to accompany articles
- occasionally reading page proofs from printers and checking colour proofs.
Salary levels depend on the type of work you undertake, your type of employer and how much experience you have. Salaries vary widely between regions and publications.
- Science writers can earn between £15,000 and £26,000 per year in their initial positions. New freelance writers may earn less as they work towards becoming well-established.
- Writers can expect their salary to rise with experience, and senior science writing roles may be advertised at around £35,000.
Internships tend to be minimum wage or bursary supported.
Freelancers are paid for each individual piece of work. Most outlets have standard fees, including set amounts for small articles and per-word prices for longer articles. As a reference, many writers use the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) Freelance Fees Guide.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours vary, although if you're working in-house you'll typically be working 9am to 5pm. However, science writers sometimes have to work long hours to meet deadlines, so you'll need a flexible approach to working extra to accommodate breaking news and in-depth, time consuming projects.
What to expect
- Work is primarily office based but visits to meet with clients or to interview experts may be required.
- Science writers often work on a freelance basis, putting forward ideas for articles to science editors and by getting 'on the books' as a regular freelance writer for one or more organisations. If this applies to you, you may work from home or travel to company offices if you've been contracted for a certain amount of work.
- Jobs are available in cities throughout the UK.
- Travel during the working day is common. Writers may also travel internationally to attend conferences and visit clients.
Broadly speaking, there are two routes you can take to become a science writer:
- move from a science career into writing
- move from journalism into specialist science writing.
Most science writers have a science degree and sometimes even a postgraduate science qualification. A scientist can either start writing immediately upon graduation, or can move into the industry after several years of scientific research.
Sometimes writers with science degrees take on a further postgraduate qualification in journalism or scientific communications in order to further their scientific writing careers. These courses aim to help those from a science-based background distil complex information to a level that the general public can understand.
Degrees specifically in science communication, available from a range of UK universities, will prepare you for a career in science writing by honing a variety of skills, including:
- organising and curating public events and exhibits for science organisations
- broadcasting science on TV and radio
- publicising science through websites and social media
- editing and publishing scientific content.
Jobs in science communication are generally on the rise - fewer science journalism roles are on offer, however.
It's important to research which topics are covered on each programme you consider, what graduates of the programme go on to do and if any work experience and networking opportunities are incorporated, as course structure will vary between institutions.
If you're looking to get into science journalism in particular, it's important to check if the course is accredited by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ).
Alternatively, if you're a trained journalist or reporter you can specialise in science writing. Entering the journalism industry can be done in a number of ways - you could take an undergraduate degree in journalism, or complete a degree in a different subject then study for a postgraduate qualification in journalism.
You need to be able to show:
- excellent written and oral communication skills
- a strong interest in science
- the ability to think logically and understand complex ideas and data
- good organisational and time management skills
- ability to work under pressure to deadlines
- resilience, flexibility, persistence and self-motivation
- a sound understanding of standard computer programs.
You must be able to offer a portfolio of work. Recruiters will want to see as many published examples of your writing as possible as evidence of your ability, and not just a list of your qualifications.
Look for work experience opportunities at:
- university - offer to write for your university on behalf of societies, departments or halls of residence. Aim to get your work published in newspapers, newsletters, websites or blogs.
- professional bodies, such as the Royal Society of Chemistry - professional bodies may be able to offer work experience on their publications, websites or student-facing networks. Look for advertised opportunities or make a speculative application by contacting the relevant editor.
- media organisations - you could submit a proposal to relevant publications or apply for work experience or an internship.
Starting your own blog will enable you to compile a ready-made portfolio of work, which you can show to prospective employers.
Alternatively, there are various science writing and communication competitions which you could enter to gain recognition - many are advertised on the Psci-com mailing list. Winning any type of writing award or prize will make you to stand out from the crowd and could help launch your career.
Science writers are employed by national and local newspapers, as well as by magazines, journals and websites.
Many titles are owned by large newspaper groups at international, national or regional level. Recent years have seen many takeovers and acquisitions - to check the latest facts and figures and lists of daily and weekly newspapers within the UK, see News Media Association.
Popular science magazines include:
For a wider range of specialist magazines that provide employment opportunities, see media.info.
Science professional associations, research institutes and companies, universities and charities sometimes employ science writers to write for their newsletters and websites.
Start your search for job vacancies at:
- The Guardian Jobs
- Nature Careers
- New Scientist Jobs
- Press Gazette Jobs
- Psci-com Mailing List
- Royal Society of Chemistry - Careers support
If you're interested in freelance science writing, send your article proposal to a science editor at a relevant publication along with a copy of your CV. Address your correspondence to a named person.
Training differs greatly depending on the organisation you work for. Trainees at large newspaper and magazine organisations normally receive formal training. After an initial probationary period, most trainee journalists follow basic journalism training under the terms of a training contract.
Typically, once you've worked for 18 months you'll take the NCTJ National Certificate Exams (NCE), which once you pass qualifies you as a senior journalist.
In order to sit these exams, the journalist must first have passed the NCTJ preliminary exams.
Journalists in larger organisations may also receive structured training in:
- design and production.
Writers working for smaller and non-media organisations will likely receive informal, on-the-job training. This includes receiving feedback from editors, peers and clients, and learning from more experienced colleagues.
In general, writers must be open minded, able to accept criticism and willing to make changes to their writing style. As a writer, you'll also learn to improve your writing through regularly reading the work of other good scientific communicators.
It's important to keep up to date with any advances in the science industry. Attending science-related conferences and gaining membership to any relevant professional bodies are a way of maintaining an ongoing knowledge of the industry.
A common way for trainees to begin their career is through working in local media or publications with a small audience. After building up their portfolio, writers can aim to work for larger media organisations with a wider audience.
Many senior journalists and correspondents freelance across print, broadcast and online journalism and some go on to write science books. After several years, writers can try to move to more senior editorial roles.
Career advancement at all stages depends on ability, performance and initiative. Writers who want to advance should seek out every opportunity to get a good article in front of an editor and preferably published by a respected organisation.
It's vitally important to network with fellow professionals in order to advertise your name and abilities to colleagues, both in person (by attending events and calling people) and online. Many science writers find that Twitter and LinkedIn are useful tools for online networking.
A great source of information for all working journalists is the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), which offers the chance to network with others in the profession. Another useful organisation is the Association of British Science Writers (ABSW).
You might also find good advice from these American equivalents:
Membership can provide access to industry contacts, advice on freelance pay and information on key events and news, which can all help with networking and progression.
A move to other types of science writing is a possibility. For example, science information officers work for universities, private research foundations, government agencies and laboratories, technology corporations, science and technology museums, charities and non-profit science and health organisations. The main duties include preparing press releases and other materials explaining research at their institutions and aiding science journalists in preparing stories on that research.
Science writers can also move into technical or medical writing. Medical writers are a specific type of science writer working for pharmaceutical companies, contract research organisations (CROs) and communications agencies. They document and communicate scientific research for the purposes of:
- getting new research results or products regulated
- promoting or explaining research results or products to health professionals and the public.
For more information about medical writing and communications, see:
Writers may wish to move into production, working on page layout and headlines as a sub-editor. Those with relevant skills can move into related occupations in broadcast journalism, either as a researcher, reporter or presenter. Opportunities are likely to increase as digital media expands, while print media opportunities may decline.
Find out how Rosie became a science journalist at BBC Bitesize.