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How to be a Science Writer with Carl Zimmer

I’ve admired Carl Zimmer ever since I became a science reporter. Science is complicated and most of the time, hard to explain. But when I read Carl’s articles in the New York Times or on his blog, The Loom, it never felt that way. As a science reporter, reading Carl’s writing is like watching an Olympic figure skater land a triple lutz - beautiful and seemingly effortless, but you know that’s because you’re watching a master.

Apparently I’m not the only one who feels ​​this way, because Carl regularly gets emails from high school and college students who have asked themselves, “What does it take to become Carl Zimmer?” That’s why he’s written “A note to beginning science writers” on his website - a great read for anyone thinking about writing about science as a career. But these days, things change quickly - especially science writing. Carl’s been riding the wave for years, and fortunately, he believes things are looking up.

Lindsay: On your website, you have a letter for advice for beginning science writers. If you were updating it today, what would you add?

Carl Zimmer: Certainly, science writing is changing a lot. I wrote that note two years ago.

One of the main things to say is you may not want to take my advice. I started in journalism in the early 1990s. It wasn’t that long ago, but if you look at how journalism worked back then, it feels like ages ago. We were focused on print. And that was it. It was a very good way to run a publication. Print could really support fairly big magazines and newspapers. A lot of those publications are gone now. They couldn’t survive the transition to where people get most of their science news online.

There was a while, in the 2000s, where I felt hesitant to encourage people to go into science journalism, because the jobs were vanishing. I don’t see why you should encourage people to go into a field that can’t support many people. But I’m feeling more optimistic now, because there are a lot of new, really solid science publications online. I’m starting to work for one called Stat. It’s focused on medicine, and life sciences and so on. There’s no print version. It’s a website. It’s breaking news, doing fun videos, and so on. And that’s just one of many exciting publications. It’s actually pretty heartening.

Lindsay: I’ve been really excited that you can really start something on your own. You can get discovered by organizations like Discovery News and PBS by starting your own YouTube channel. I think that’s a really exciting new model of getting into science journalism - you don’t have to wait.

Carl Zimmer: You don’t have to wait, that’s absolutely true. You can jump into genres that didn’t exist before. There was no counterpoint to podcasts thirty years ago. Podcasts are not radio - they’re something really different. Science podcasts are turning out to be some of the most successful of all, when you look at the podcasts that rank at the top of iTunes, a lot of them tend to be about science. That’s another reason to be optimistic.

One of those top iTunes podcasts is Radiolab, where Carl often plays the role of “guy who explains science in plain English.” If you loved our episode on the world without parasites, check out “In Defense of Cheats” on Radiolab, where Carl really goes to bat defending parasitic wasps. (He also wrote a book on parasites - for students! More on Carl’s books here, which are all worth reading.)

If I could, for a moment, add my own piece of science writing advice, it’s a good idea to be flexible. Try everything, from blogs to podcasts to videos to Vines. It's anyone's guess (or exciting prediction) what science writing will look like twenty years from now.


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