Creative Lightning

Instagram has broken me. And I barely use the site.

“Oh, here’s a lil’ something I cobbled together the other day. [heart eyes emoji] [star emoji] [multicoloured hearts x3] [hashtag-artist] [etc],” People post captions like this next to photos of what are clearly intense art projects requiring lots of skill on the part of the creator.

One of the reasons I’m jealous is because I have a creative pursuit – writing – but it’s not very ‘Gram-able. I can take selfies of me sitting at my laptop, or screenshots of text…but I don’t think that’s comparable to showing off your latest finished portrait.

I think I’m also jealous because I do have an artsy streak…and I’ve repressed it. During my PhD I drew birthday & going away cards for other lab members. The tradition wasn’t started by me, but I kept it going after our original undergraduate artist left. My colouring pencils have sat untouched in the corner of my apartment for over a year now.

In a recent birthday/Xmas package from Scotland my mother enclosed a wad of old pencil & watercolour sketches I must have created when I was 15 or 16. I imagine she chuckled once she uncovered them, because my cartoons/doodles were ridiculous: made-up ads for imaginary (useless) products, lampoons of school social groups, fantasy compositions. But here’s the thing…when did I last draw a bunch of stupid, pointless shit for my own entertainment?  Those paintings served no purpose, but I can tell they were a blast to make.

Why does it matter? Instagram incites me to jealousy on many counts: people showing off exotic holidays, vibrant social lives, exquisitely-crafted salads. I’m allowed to accept that I can’t have/do everything.

***

Colouring in book

This is the current extent of my creative activities: join-the-dot puzzles. They can be almost meditative.

Well, there are some reasons I think I should move to action. The first is over the past year I’ve realised that in a professional sense, I fall into the category of a ‘Creative’ as opposed as ‘Technical’ or a ‘Scientist.’

I’m a healthcare copywriter, a job requiring a scientific background. However, it’s a job handled by the ‘Creative’ wings of recruitment agencies. I’m contacted by recruiters hunting down graphic designers, creative project managers and marketers. Those recruiters don’t network at scientific or healthcare-focused events; they’re involved with design and marketing professional societies. Their educational background is in the arts. Obviously my crunchy chemistry background and PhD make me an attractive candidate for healthcare copywriting roles…but I’ll still be assessed through the prism of ‘Creative.’

Since coming to this realisation I’ve created a portfolio website, and changed my resume to make it fit the norms of ‘Creative’ resumes (gratuitous colour, flashier layout). There’s still more I can do to convince others that I’m a bona-fide, successful Creative.

The other reason is I have to channel lots of creative energy in my line of work. I don’t just mean that the act of writing is an act of creativity. I have to think creatively about managing projects on deadline: if I can’t schedule an interview with my first choice source, who should I contact instead? How do I come up with new ideas? If I start a conversation with a source expecting that they’ll say X, Y and Z…and they tell me something that (i) contradicts my key assumptions about the piece I was planning to write, or (ii) is surprising in a totally cool way I was not prepared for…how can I change my line of questioning mid-conversation?

For me, creative pursuits are synergistic. If I start pumping imaginative energy into drawing, it makes me a more imaginative writer. Even when I’m mindlessly colouring in a sketch, I’m thinking about other stuff on a mental back burner. It’s rare I’ll come up with a good work-related idea while staring at my computer screen.

***

So…in 2020 I’ll try to be more artsy and creative. Draw and paint. Indulge in silly projects and develop new skills. It can’t hurt: will see how it helps.

 

Years of Thunder

Americans get kinda schmaltzy and saccharine this time of year (i.e. Thanksgiving). A British person’s “I’m fine, thanks” is equivalent to an American’s “I’m doing fan-TAS-tic!” and I think I came to the USA too late in life to adjust. Still, I want to highlight some of the things I am thankful for, since it’s been a long year.

 

  • Home territory

An introvert’s home is their fortress. The primal Safe Space. Of course we go out into the world and socialise, but that’s only because we’re secure in the knowledge that our home (AKA our recharging point) is waiting for us when we need a break. That’s why it’s important I live in my own apartment (no roommates), and it’s a space I enjoy spending time in. Back when I was a coffeeshop hobo I wasted hours in coffeeshops because it was preferable to spending time on that depressing council estate in a run-down apartment I shared with 2 shift workers (Note: you couldn’t have found 3 people with less overlap in their working hours. I was out the door at 5am, the roomie who guarded the nearby construction site didn’t get home until 7am, and by the time I got home at 4pm the third roommate had left for his afternoon/evening work. That was one of my favourite roommate set-up).

I live in a good place, one that stabilises the rest of my life.

 

  • Doing work relevant to my PhD

I hoped I’d never regret my Chemistry PhD. You sink 5 years of your life into obtaining that one qualification, often denting your health & wellbeing in the process. During grad school you constantly ask yourself, if the PhD is worth it. Could you have spent those 5 years doing something else and getting to the same place career-wise (if not better)?

That’s one of the reasons I like being a healthcare copywriter. You don’t need a PhD to be one..but it helps. Recruiters and hiring managers see it as beneficial (“you have a strong technical background”), which in a way is even nicer than seeing it as a requirement. I get to live out my fantasies of being a science generalist, taking on new challenges and absorbing whatever interesting snippets of science/medicine I come across.

 

  • Books

I come from a book-ish family. The only rooms in the house without full bookshelves are the second bathroom and laundry room. I’m surprised when I see inside other people’s homes and they use bookshelf space for displaying photographs and ornaments. Or — to my great alarm — they put books on the shelves but then place ornaments in front of the books, declaring that the likelihood of them randomly pulling down a book to leaf through is close to nil.

It’s hard to amass books when you’re transient. Where can I put them in shared apartments? Buying books seems reckless when you know you’re going to have to move in the next couple of years, paying a moving company for each kilogram they shift. My Target-value shelves broke in transit, so I piled them on my bedroom floor.

But there is redemption! I’m within walking distance of a library. First time in a long time. I didn’t realise how hungry I was for the written word until I started returning from the library with 5 borrowed books at a time. The more books I borrowed, the more I needed. Books about commercial archeology, Jack the Ripper’s victims, the evolution of Christianity: why wouldn’t I take them home with me? I may be going to bed earlier and earlier, but because I’m getting a few hours reading in, my life feels more rich and expansive.

Science Writing Meta: The Story Behind My Stories (4)

In late 2018 I got my first feature assignment. I felt suitably pleased with myself.

Most editors aren’t hostile to receiving feature pitches from less-experienced writers. Nor have I encountered any editorial policy of refusing to accept pitches from writers with < x years experience.

It’s a hard sell, though. Feature articles come with a higher rate of pay…so from the viewpoint of an editor they’re more expensive, thus fewer opportunities are available. They take time to research and write, and it certainly takes an editor more time to comb through 3,000 words and provide comprehensive feedback. An editor doesn’t want to assign a story to a new writer, wait 1 month for them to deliver the piece (during which time they may have to decline or delay other pitches) only to wade through 5 pages of text and realise there’s serious problems.

Having those 3-5 clips is not just about establishing your experience; from the perspective of the editor it’s risk mitigation. You (the writer) are arguing that you can deliver what you are promising.

For this reason, my advice when pitching your first feature: be unimaginative and disingenuous.

You may be someone like me who is crackling with ideas of varying quality but excessive variety. Or you’re desperate to break out of your boring wheelhouse. However, your first feature pitch should be on a topic well within your expertise. Either it’s on the same topic as something you’ve already written about as a short news article or opinion piece; or it’s a solid part of your education background (“I have a PhD in this/I did research on this”). I don’t mean that the idea should be unimaginative and disingenuous, only that your argument to the editor about why you should write it must be. Once you succeed at the first assignment you can pitch more imaginatively, because now it’s clear you can write features.

Which brings me to my “safe topic.” I’d started my science writing career at a student newspaper, and I knew I wasn’t the only one. While a postdoc I became Editor of the university’s Postdoc Science Writers Magazine. I was 100% qualified to write about student newspapers. The Open Notebook explicitly asked for pitches about breaking in to science writing (so I knew I was pitching an article that fit the venue).

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My pitch to the editorial team. 

The pitch (above) was accepted. With hindsight and a bit more experience, it would have been better if I included the names of people I planned to interview as sources. Source-chasing is the hardest part of the article development process. People are flaky. Experts in the field have crammed schedules, weeks of international travel and 30 minutes availability for a phone call at what turns out to be 2.30am on a Monday morning in your time zone (Australians are great…just don’t make me interview them). Many publications want a minimum number of sources per feature, so your great article idea will fail/be delayed if you can’t get enough people to talk to you. Having a list of source email addresses ready to copy and paste into messages the instant your pitch is accepted will make the deadline so much easier to meet.

Screen Shot 2019-10-05 at 15.33.35That’s a digression. My feature article got through development, editing, fact-checking and copyediting. It may not be a viral sensation or accumulate heavy website traffic, but for a small audience it hopefully will prove to be useful.

Science Writing Meta: The Story Behind My Stories (3)

Third instalment. And this is about a piece of science writing that’ll never see the light of day: an editor killed it. This shouldn’t be taken as a knock against the publication or the editor (if you can deduce their identity), since it was a vital learning opportunity for me.

The idea for this story came out of an interview I conducted with a physicist for a different story. They made an offhand remark that intrigued me. Science journalists are encouraged to ask their sources “what’s new/cool/exciting in your field?” as a way to find story ideas. That’s worked for me several times.

So, I’d come across an idea. I found an online science magazine whose remit easily tied in to the theme of my piece. The editor was amenable, approved of my plan & source list, and asked if I could write them an opinion piece.

I mentioned in my last article that opinion pieces are a good starting point for new writers. I was hoping for a feature, but figured it would work out the same. I started lining up sources to interview. As soon as I got my first draft in the problems started.

I’d been trying to write a feature. You know the kind of great stories that are expansive, reflective and nuanced? Doesn’t work when your editor is expecting an opinion piece.

Opinion pieces have two things: an Outrage(TM) and a hot-take solution.  The writer has to be Outraged(TM) at something/someone, and that emotion fuels their story. It doesn’t have to be wild raging at an injustice, it can in fact be a mild displeasure. And you have to propose a solution. I call it a hot-take because it doesn’t need to be brilliant, popular or even correct. Your goal with the Op-Ed is to provoke discussion in other people, not necessarily showcase your own cleverness.

I was able to reflect upon this after the fact. I went through several rounds of edits and rewrites. My original idea may have worked as a feature, or maybe it was too broad to ever succeed. It involved interviewing scientists in 4 or 5 countries; I was making both data-driven and “human interest” arguments. It was the first time I’d worked with the editor, so I didn’t pick up on the warnings they were about to kill my piece.

Got the verdict while I was at a large conference, so I moped when I should have been at my professional A-game. A killed article is going to sting, even when they pay you some of the agreed-upon fee.

***

But here’s my main bit of advice: I continued pitching to that magazine and editor. Despite the hurt to my pride. Not all my future pitches were successful, but I was able to adjust my pitches based on the article that failed. Tighter scope. Built-in Outrage(TM). Throw in some hot-takes. Later I got a popular, well-edited article published with them.

When you’re starting out as a science writer, a lot of your pitches will be ignored or rejected. That doesn’t mean you’re forbidden from pitching to that editor again…as long as you learn from your mistakes and incorporate feedback the editor gives into your next attempt.

Stay tuned for the fourth instalment: my first feature article.

Science Writing Meta: The Stories Behind My Stories (2)

Part Two – The leap from non-paid to paid science writing via opinion pieces.

Most advice I’ve seen for aspiring/newbie science writers recommends they start pitching short “front of book” news stories. The kind of work where editors require a quick turnaround and the articles are straightforward to pull together. Writers therefore don’t need an extensive portfolio of paid work, just samples that show they’re familiar with the genre.

I stumbled through another entry point: the Op-Ed.

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The Source.

Okay, another useful bit of freelance science writing career advice I have: Twitter should be your weapon of choice. Plenty of online media have Pitch/Submission Guidelines on their main website (once you’ve scrolled to the bottom), but Twitter is where a lot of editors call for pitches. Heck, you can even find the names, email addresses and remits of editors, if they aren’t listed elsewhere.

Anyway, in August 2017 I saw Nessa (@SuperScienceGrl) – a fellow #ChemTwitter citizen, at the time fresh out of grad school and starting her industrial chemist career – write an op-ed/humour column for Chemistry World magazine [1]. After reading her column I was slightly jealous: deservedly so, because it was a great read. This piece marked an directional shift in ChemWorld’s ‘Last Retort’ column: its editor Kit Chapman[2] was steering the column away from “interesting historical tales” to “fun everyman slices from scientist life”.

I saw Kit’s call for pitches (see above) right after Nessa’s article was published. Since hers was the first column under the new direction I had the advantage of being able to pitch almost anything knowing it hadn’t already been taken…but with little guidance from previous columns about what was acceptable/expected.

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The Pitch

It didn’t take too long to come up with an idea (lack of raw ideas is rarely a problem for me, but I need to get better at refining & targeting them to the right publications). I was aiming for a universal experience that every chemist – be they a research professor, industrial scientist or student – could relate to. But it also had to be something humorous that no one had written much about before. I went with thesis acknowledgements.[3]

I’ll talk in my next blog post about what you shouldn’t do when writing opinion, but this ~700 word piece was easy to fill out and didn’t require straining to meet the word count.

Perspectives and opinion pieces are a good entry into science writing. They’re less competitive/elusive than full-length features, and background expertise with the subject matter is often an acceptable substitute for paid writing clips. From what I’ve seen, pay for an opinion piece is on par with pay for a similar-sized news story. Editorial oversight and journalistic rigour vary between outlets, but some publications (e.g. Undark) put their opinion pieces through the same fact-checking wringer as their Features and News. All you need is an opinion and evidence to back it up. The Open Notebook has a guide to writing opinion you may wish to consult.

Anyway, the Last Retort column was where I landed my first paid writing assignment. Now I could angle towards writing features…

 

Footnotes

[1] Nessa is still going strong at the science writing and is now a Chemistry World featured columnist. I’m not the only one who used this route!

[2] Kit Chapman has since moved on from Chemistry World. Check out his debut book ‘Superheavy: Making and Breaking the Periodic Table‘ – it’s an excellent vehicle for his writing and wit.

[3] This was an idea I had to sit down and think about (“Hey, why don’t I write…”), then I needed to think some more about what I’d include and its structure. In contrast, I wrote a particularly sassy entry in my private diary about an eventful group dinner at a chemistry conference – several months later I converted that diary entry into a Last Retort column with minimal adjustments.

 

 

Science Writing Meta: The Stories Behind My Stories (1)

I remember the mix of confusion, panic and pride I felt when an aspiring science writer first approached me for advice. My postdoc was in a tailspin, and “failure” was the only adjective I could slap on it. Yet here was someone (who knew nothing about my research sphere failure) who’d identified me as being a couple of confident steps down their desired career path, wanting to emulate me. The moral of this story? Your perceived failures can be interpreted by others as success.

Perhaps I can help. Here is the background on a few of my freelance science writing pieces, charting how I went from a portfolio of zero to my first paid feature. Hope it’s useful!

 

Story 1. Feature Article (Unpaid): Rutgers Daily Targum. 

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Scenes from Rutgers | Piscataway NJ

To get paid science writing opportunities, you usually have to start with the unpaid kind. My advice: linger at this stage as briefly as possible. Aspiring science writers are often nervous about submitting those first big pitches (100% valid!) so may continue with unpaid writing until they feel more confident.

Yet from what I’ve seen, editors only need 3 clips to support a pitch from a new/unfamiliar writer. You may want a few extra clips you so can mix and match with your pitches, but once you have a portfolio of 3-5 unpaid articles, I think you’re ready to go chase money.

If you have the revelation that you want to pursue science writing while at university (undergrad-PhD-postdoc), then get involved with your student newspaper or a student science magazine. I was a PhD student in my final semester when I volunteered at my primarily-undergrad student paper (Rutgers Daily Targum). For more backstory, check out my WordPlay blog posts (one, two, three).

I wrote 3 feature article that last semester. Two of them came from school press releases the Science Editor spotted; out of the pool of writers I volunteered first. Essentially those features were fleshed-out versions of the press releases, though I spun my own interpretations in there too. I had to interview at least 3 scientists involved with the work, most of whom were used to speaking with student journalists.

The third was an idea I pitched to the Editor. The 2017 Nobel Prizes had just been announced, with the Chemistry Prize awarded to the developers of cryo-electron microscopy. I knew that Rutgers already performed a lot of research with cryo-EM, so my pitch was simply to highlight our research and interview the scientists who did it.

Which brings me to my second main piece of advice: pitch early, pitch often. In the world of freelance science writing the onus is usually on writers to approach editors with ideas.  I also realised that these ideas don’t have to be earth-shatteringly novel: you can pitch an interesting idea to a magazine that hasn’t covered the topic before. At the “news” end of science writing it’s more about being the first to pitch a cool discovery, with insider/expert info helping you spot what is “cool”.

Pitching in a low stakes situation (e.g. sending your idea about a local piece of news to your friendly editor at the unpaid student newspaper) helps get get you ready to pitch for higher stakes (e.g. cold-pitching to an editor you’ve never met before who works for a popular national website).

Last thing to note. Editors at paying science magazines don’t (in my experience) denigrate student newspaper clips. Why would they? Many editors got their first clips the same way. Many of the journalistic rules implemented by student publications mirror those in science magazines.

 

If you want more info on pitching and breaking in to science writing, I’d recommend reading The Open Notebook’s ‘Getting Started in Science Journalism.’ I’ll talk more about that site in a later piece, but check it out in the meantime.

The Bio-Hustle

It’s been a while. Not that I’ve had nothing I wished to say – it’s that I haven’t found the framing, motif or theme to pack the words into. It’ll come.

In the meantime, here are some snapshots of what I’ve been up to in the last 12 months. Uniting theme? Hustle.

(Northeastern) Big City Nights

I don’t need much of an excuse to visit DC. In November 2018 the American Medical Writers Association hosted their annual conference there. I’d yet to visit the National Museum of African American History & Culture, and I had a couple of hundred dollars in my bank account. How many more signs did I need?

DC AMWA Tue1

DC. Washington DC.

I like the grand expanse of the US Capital. It’s a bitch to walk round on a sunny day – sunlight beamed back off marble – but there’s space to pause and enjoy the surroundings, which you can’t do in NYC. Every time I visit I’ll peek into the Library of Congress, I love it as a monument to intellectual power.

This time around I lucked out and found a pretentious coffeeshop near my hostel. They served me a double espresso in a volcano-shaped mug, on a slate tile. Although not pictured above, there were extensive quantities of cacti. The espresso was perfect.

This could be the section of my post where I brag about the AMWA conference: how insightful it was, how many late night revelries I crammed in, the glamour of big meetings in endless hotels. Instead I departed DC with the realisation I wasn’t quite a medical writer. I was hitting ~50% success rate interacting with people at the conference: half the people I had decent chats with and enjoyed their company, the rest I had kinda stilted exchanges with and felt I wasn’t connecting. The workshops and talks were all useful, but there were 3 blocks of attendees (writing academic papers, regulatory writing and continuing medical education) and by then I was self-identifying as ‘healthcare marketing’.

AMWA SE-chapter dinner (DC)

The AMWA Southeast chapter.

A disappointing conference isn’t the worst thing life can hit me with. It helped me refine my professional identity: I’m not a medical writer, I’m a healthcare copywriter (that’s totally a thing). There were plenty of good experiences on the trip: I was able to walk into the NMAAHC without a minute of queuing, I spent time with my local AMWA chapter (“local” in this case encompassing Atlanta, Knoxville and chunks of Florida).

 

ChemBros

People don’t come to Atlanta for chemistry. I was surprised to learn that my adoptive city specialises in global health. Atlanta hasn’t been branded with the same strength Boston has as a biotech hub, for example. Global health equates to public health, medicine, epidemiology and the likes…but not chemistry.

So you can imagine my delight when two chemists did visit for the weekend.

Future Leaders Ponce Selfie

Fernando and Peter – selfie afficiandos.

The Future Leaders in Chemistry program sustained me throughout my PhD. It was only two weeks during the summer between my 1st and 2nd year, but when I hit the mid- and late-stage troughs of grad school I remembered that someone had accepted me onto this prestigious program (and no one had questioned my inclusion once I was there). It’s been 5 years now, and I’m not sure I’ve become a ‘Leader in Chemistry.’ But maybe that doesn’t matter.

Anyway, my two FLIC buddies had lunch at Ponce City Market. It’s one of those hipster utopias: ‘industrial’ interiors, expensive shops and artisanal food. I paid $8 for a sandwich smaller than my fist…but was one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth, albeit for all of 5 seconds.

 

While you were partying, I studied THE STICK

TMAC May Sat class (close-up)

 …Well, you probably weren’t partying first thing on a Saturday morning. Nobody does that. As a time for karate & jiu-jitsu classes goes however, it’s pretty effective: with evening classes you have a whole day to accumulate excuses and flakiness. First thing in the morning you’re always fresh. There have been a few occasions when I woke up to the 6.30am alarm I’d earnestly set for myself Friday night…rolled over and went back to sleep. I’m human. Still, I’m more likely to be in attendance than not. It’s an intermediate-plus class, so we go through tricky things like weapons.

With martial arts, it often feels like moving up the ranks just means opening extra avenues of critique. You don’t stop doing technique wrong, instead you access more sophisticated layers of wrongness. It can be frustrating, especially when it seems you’ll never get it right.

However, jiu-jitsu shows proof of my progression. When I first hit blue belt I was thwarted by hip throws. These are (basically) when an opponent’s behind you, and you bump them up and over your back.  Despite drinking many protein shakes, I don’t have the upper body strength to brute-force the throw, I have to apply good technique. And I since I’m a tall woman my practice partners are either women roughly my weight but shorter (which makes body alignment hard because I’ve got to crouch down), or men who are taller than me…but 100 lbs heavier. You can’t hide bad technique: you’ll either do the hip throw or fail. My tolerance for practising the throw was limited – I’d get too frustrated after a series of misses to continue.

Then one class…I performed the throw. THWACK! went my partner. And I realised I was hitting correct the technique more often than I was missing. I still mess up my hip throws, and I’ve now graduated on to its more finicky variants, but it’s proof that eventually things click. There aren’t any showy flashes of insight here, just getting things right. It’s not that I enjoy failing, but I can tolerate it. And to improve at martial arts (and life, I guess) you need to tolerate exposure to your failures.

TMAC May Sat class (close-up)

Party in the dojo – Saturday 9am | Photo courtesy of The Martial Arts Center Atlanta

Lastly, here’s a picture of me and a lizard.

TMAC Lizard 1I realise this photograph raises more questions than it answers. But as we say in Okinawan Shuri-Ryu: ‘Karate is my secret.