Science writers research, write and edit scientific news, articles and features. They write for business, trade and professional publications, specialist scientific and technical journals, and the general media.

Writers need to be able to understand complex scientific information, theories and practices. They also need to be able to write in a clear, concise and accurate language that can be understood by the general public.

Science writers are sometimes known as science or scientific journalists. They write for the media, reporting on scientific news but can also take on a more investigatory and 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.

Responsibilities

The particular activities that a science writer undertakes depends upon the nature of the role and who they are writing for. Common activities may 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;
  • occasionally reading page proofs from printers and checking colour proofs.

Salary

Salary level depends on the type of work the writer undertakes, the type of employer and how much experience the writer has. 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 make even less until they have established themselves.
  • 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 NUJ Freelance Fees Guide.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours vary. Science writers may have to work long hours to meet deadlines. A flexible approach may be needed to accommodate breaking news.

Part-time work is an option and career breaks are a possibility.

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. In these instances, work may be done from home or the writer may travel into the company's offices if they have been contracted to do 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.

Qualifications

Broadly speaking, there are two routes you can take to become a science writer:

  • move from a science career into writing; or
  • move from journalism into specialist science writing.

Many 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 to distil complex information to a level that the general public can understand.

There are also degrees in science communication. This course prepares you for a variety of roles 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.

The field of science communication is generally thought to be growing, while science journalism roles are fewer in number.

See the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres (ASDC) for a list of Postgraduate qualifications in science communication. It is important to check each course and what topics are covered, what graduates of the course go on to do and what work experience and networking opportunities (if any) are incorporated.

For those wanting to get into science journalism in particular, it is important to investigate if the course is accredited by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ).

Alternatively, a trained journalist or reporter can become a specialist in the area of science writing. Entering the journalism industry can be done in a number of ways. This may include taking an undergraduate degree in journalism or completing a degree in a different subject and then studying for a postgraduate qualification in journalism.

Most journalists will start as a trainee and will undertake the NCTJ preliminary and then National Certificate Exam (NCE) qualifications. For more information, see newspaper journalist and magazine journalist.

Search for postgraduate courses in journalism.

Skills

You need to be able to show:

  • excellent written and oral communication skills;
  • a strong interest in science;
  • ability to think logically and understand complex ideas and data;
  • good organisational and time management skills;
  • ability to work under pressure to deadline;
  • resilience, determination, flexibility, persistence and motivation;
  • good keyboard skills and a sound understanding of standard computer programs.

Work experience

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 - write for your university as a whole or target societies, departments or halls of residences. Aim to get your work published in newspapers, newsletters, websites or blogs;
  • professional bodies, e.g. the Royal Society of Chemistry - 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 - as for professional bodies, you could submit a proposal to relevant publications or apply for work experience or an internship.

You could consider starting your own blog; this will enable you to compile a ready-made portfolio of work, which you can show to prospective employers.

There are also science writing and communication competitions which you could enter, and many are advertised on the Psci-com Mailing List.

Winning any type of writing award or prize will help you to stand out from the crowd and could help launch your career.

Employers

Science writers are employed by national and local newspapers.

Many titles are owned by large newspaper groups at international, national or regional level. Recent years have seen many takeovers and acquisitions; so to check the latest facts and figures and lists of daily and weekly newspapers within the UK, see News Media Association.

Other opportunities for scientific writers come from the specialist magazine sector. Typical publications include:

For more ideas 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.

Look for job vacancies at:

If you are interested in freelance science writing, send your article proposal to a science editor at a relevant publication along with a copy of your CV. It is important to address your correspondence to a named person.

Get more tips on how to find a job, create a successful CV and cover letter, and prepare for interviews.

Professional development

Training differs greatly and depends on the organisation. Trainees within 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.

Once a journalist has worked for 18 months, they then usually take the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) National Certificate Exams (NCE), which qualifies them 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:

  • reporting;
  • writing;
  • proofreading;
  • sub-editing;
  • layout;
  • design and production.

Writers working for smaller and non-media organisations will largely receive informal, on-the-job training. This includes receiving feedback from editors, colleagues and clients, and learning from more experienced colleagues.

In general, writers need to have an open mind and be able to accept criticism and suggestion and be willing to make changes to the way they write. Writers also learn to improve their own writing through regularly reading the work of other good scientific communicators.

It is important to keep up to date with any advances in the science industry. Attending science-related conferences and becoming a member of any relevant professional bodies are a way of maintaining an ongoing knowledge of the industry.

Career prospects

Many trainees begin their career 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 is 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 on the American equivalents the:

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.