The original article I wrote was likely terrible, but I sent it to a handful of scientists and non-scientists alike for comments, and thirty or so drafts later, I had something that was good enough to submit. I ended up winning second place in this competition, and had one of the best days of my life having lunch with Sir David (if you’re interested to see the article, it’s published here). I think I won through a combination of lucky circumstances rather than true talent, but it gave me the confidence to consider science writing as a viable career option.
Around that same time, I went to talk to a friend’s father, who was working as head of BBC Science, to hear his advice on becoming involved in science communication. He gave me some advice that is perhaps obvious, but was likely the most useful advice I got. He told me that if I wanted to become involved in science communication, the easiest way was just to do it. Don’t wait around for someone to hire you or give you ‘permission’, just start. If you want to write, then start writing; if you want to make videos then make some videos and upload them to Youtube. I think having had a fairly structured academic upbringing, it hadn’t occurred to me to just dive in and start doing it. I think this advice can be applied to most aspects of life (probably not brain surgery, but who knows). No one wants to hire someone who says they are interested in something but has nothing to prove it, and the problem can often be circular in that it’s hard to get a job in something you’re interested in if you’ve done nothing like it before. Luckily, with the internet, really anyone can create almost anything they like and someone relevant might see it.
It was towards the end of my PhD, when I was looking for anything to do that didn’t involve writing my thesis, that I decided to seriously try my hand at popular science writing. It had been a few years since my article that had won second-prize was published in the UK newspaper The Telegraph. I think the main thing that had held me back from writing during that time was the idea that I didn’t know enough, and being somewhat of a scientist by this point, I was terrified of getting my facts wrong or accidentally insulting someone who might then decide whether I got a job one day. I was also worried that my PhD supervisor would find out and ask me why I was wasting my time on this when I had a thesis to write.
I started a blog on Wordpress, the aim of which was to write about topics in animal behaviour and cognition (the field that I work in), but in particular focusing on studies that might not have got a lot of mainstream media attention. I also wanted to go into more detail than the average online science news article, to discuss the importance of experimental design, follow-up studies, limitations, and other aspects of the scientific process that I think are often glossed over. A lot of animal cognition studies really rely on watertight experimental design and I wanted to be able to convey the elegance of such designs in my articles. Sometimes finding out the answer is fun, but often the explanation of how the scientist got there through asking a cleverly-designed question is just as interesting. I decided it would be politically smart to only talk about experiments that I thought were done well, and not to write anything critical (I did want to get a postdoc in animal behaviour after all, so now was probably not the time to burn a handful of bridges with potential colleagues). I ran through a few names for my blog, but eventually settled on Not Bad Science, a reference to a blog I’ve always enjoyed reading, Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, which critically rips apart pseudoscience. I wanted my blog to achieve the opposite of his blog, to highlight exciting findings, even those that are published in smaller journals and might often be overlooked.
Even though I knew I wasn’t going to be an excellent writer (I still struggle with grammar a lot of the time and can only dream of having the writing skills of the popular science writers I read as a child), I found it extremely freeing to write for a popular audience. In science today, there are so many rules about how to write that we get sucked into a rigid, formulaic writing style (probably for good reason, although I do enjoy reading the sensationalistic writing of 1920s ethologists where they describe the pernicious attitude of a particular bird). I realised that once I found an experiment that was interesting, the writing came easily. All I really needed to do was communicate the findings in the clearest way I could and the result was an article that people seemed to find interesting. The great thing about this kind of writing is that I didn’t have to do the work to make it interesting – because it already was – all I had to do was make it understandable to people. I would recommend that all scientists try doing this, because I think practicing writing about science in ‘human language’ rather than ‘academic language’ is useful for all kinds of aspects of our scientific career, including academic writing itself. A few general rules about writing I learned were:
Soon after I started my blog, I started ‘advertising’ myself. This is another important part of popular science (or again, most endeavours): if you want someone to notice, then you might have to tell some people. It went against everything I wanted to do as a slightly insecure PhD student trying to find my way in science (also known as a PhD student), but I made a Twitter account and started following other science writers and sending them my articles. Soon after that, a science writer who then wrote a blog for Scientific American called The Thoughtful Animal invited me to write an article for Scientific American. With some advice from him as well as the then-blog’s editor Bora Zivkovic, I ended up writing a two-part article on episodic-like memory in animals (if you’d like to see these articles, they are published here). Maybe six months after this article came out, Bora invited me to become a regular blogger for Scientific American. My blog, Not Bad Science, was moved over to the Scientific American network and I was paid to write four articles a month. I had just started a postdoc on a new system in a new country, and I was already feeling a bit stretched, but I found that I could generally fit in writing, and it was often a nice break from academia.
I ended up being with Scientific American for around five years. I hardly ever kept up with the four articles a month, and on the months when I did I’d probably only be really happy with one of the four articles. However, overall I really enjoyed writing for them and am really grateful for the opportunity Bora gave me as a new writer. I tried to use my blog to promote other people too: I encouraged friends to write me ‘guest articles’ and I did interviews with colleagues in animal behaviour about their work. It was really nice to have the intellectual freedom to do this and choose the topics I wrote about.
In terms of fitting writing into my academic life, it wasn’t always easy. There were months when I was writing a grant, in the middle of an experiment or moving house where I wouldn’t write anything at all. However, overall I’d say it hasn’t had a negative effect on my scientific career, and may have even had a positive one. People have recognised me at animal behaviour conferences from my blog, and I’ve ended up having a few opportunities through it, including writing articles in magazines and being a researcher for a book spin-off of a BBC television show called QI. It’s also been a way to be able to showcase the science I like, and actually build bridges with the researchers I admire. It’s also meant I now think more carefully about how to convey information clearly, something that I think most of us scientists could benefit from.
Felicity Muth is a postdoctoral researcher currently working at the University of Nevada in Reno. Follow her on twitter @notbadscience