The Chem Coach Carnival!

It’s National Chemistry Week! I’ve decided to honor the 25th year of this most sacred event by coming out of baby-induced blog hibernation. Don’t expect it to be permanent.

What prompted this head peek back into the land of the living was See Arr Oh and his blog carnival. I missed the last few, so that’s why I’m procrastinating paid writing and doing this instead. He’s collecting posts on what people with chemistry backgrounds do for a living. People who maybe want to be science writers ask me about it a lot. So here’s my story.

Your current job: Freelance science writer, part-time. Also, stay-at-home mom. With no childcare. My work hours: naps, nights, and weekends.

What you do in a standard “work day.” Oy. Very little of what I do is standardized. The kid is now seven months old, and a lot of what I do during the day is try to entice him to sleep so I can work. (That usually goes very poorly. His unofficial motto: Nunquam Dormio!)

But, it depends on what I’m working on. I mainly write/edit for the ACS at the moment. So a lot of what I do is reading chemistry papers and try to glean out the essence/important bits of what the research is, then writing about it for about a chemistry student’s level. Scope is a very important word for me. Why is this research important? What are the main ideas/directives/reasons behind the research?

Most freelancers spend a lot of time looking for story ideas, and pitching them to editors. I don’t do this. I wait for editors to assign stories to me. Lazy? Maybe. But since I have very little work time during the day, I have to minimize the bullshit and maximize the actual writing time. Looking for stories and pitching can be very time consuming. And if you can’t get anyone to pick up your idea, that’s potential earning hours wasted. Plus, I rarely write stories where I have to interview anyone right now. That’s due to the no childcare thing. I can’t schedule the sprog’s naps (or even if he’ll take one), so I can’t usually schedule an interview. That will change when he goes into daycare part time in January. But for now? Research synopses and editing for me!

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped you get there? I have a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry, which is required for most of what I do. I also started writing early on in grad school, first for my university paper, then as a AAAS Mass Media fellow, then some freelancing, then blogging for CEN, then as an intern at Reuters Health. I couldn’t have gotten to each step without the one before. And most of what got me to the first step was just talking to people and writing. (My first column for the university paper was on National Chemistry week, actually.) I got to know some people at CEN through Jyllian Kemsley, who was a friend of my PI’s wife, so he asked if she would talk to me about being a science writer. And a lot of the work I get now came though knowing people at CEN.  Other work I’ve gotten from friends I made though the AAAS fellowship. Network, people. Seriously.

How does chemistry inform your work? Since I write about chemistry research, I of course use the six tons of chemical knowledge that I acquired in grad school on a regular basis. But probably the most valuable skill I learned was how to read the literature, and how to become well-versed in a topic I only have marginal knowledge of in a short period of time. And talk about it in an intelligent way. Yay for all those lit talk group meetings.

Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career.  A really important tool as a science writer (especially a freelancer) is being able to jump around between different ways of writing, depending on what you’re doing. An encyclopedia article requires a different voice than a research spotlight for a chemistry audience, which is different than a blog post, for example. I left the lab to intern at Reuters for four months, where I was writing about medical research for the general public, then came back to write my thesis. When my adviser saw an early draft, he was so disturbed that he pulled me outside to talk about it.

“It’s just, the way you’re writing is so…so…” he trailed off and scowled at the side of the building.

“Conversational?” I suggested.

“Yeah!” he yelled. “That’s really bad!*”

So I added more passive voice and threw in as many long words as possible. Then he was happy as a pig in shit. Voice matters.


*That thumping noise? That’s the sound of a thousand science writers banging their heads on their desks.

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