Science Writing is a Winding Road: Perspectives from Caroline Simmons

Author:  Joshua Tusin

Date:  June 2002

Students on campuses across the country religiously complain about two things: the cafeteria and writing papers. Seldom does a professor overhear students exhilarated about their latest six-pagers. More frequently, students are burning the midnight oil complaining about the papers they have due the next morning.

So perhaps it didn't shock Caroline Simmons, an editor for the Arkansas Center for Birth Defects Research and Prevention and JYI Feature Article Reviewer, when she was asked, "how do you do it?"

The question did not come from a child or even a new writer trying to catch a break. The question came from her colleague. Her more experienced colleague, who also carries advanced degrees, knew it would have taken her much more time than it took Caroline to prepare the same document.

Learning "how to do it" certainly did not happen in Caroline's undergraduate English course - she earned a "C." Something has to be working in Caroline's favor. "I must qualify [the "C"] with the fact that I passed an advanced placement exam and was required only to take one English class, in which I was undeniably lazy," Caroline admits. So now the truth is out, but that leaves the next question, how can aspiring science writers step up to Caroline's writing challenge?

The answer to this question is not simple. There are many things a person can do to help develop his or her science writing skills. All of them, however, relate to one central theme that Caroline points out: "Find out where people are doing what you want to do, and find out how they got there." This is a key element in pursuing a science writing career in its many possible forms.

The first step to take involves deciding on an undergraduate major. "I want to emphasize that science writing is a part of many different careers," explains Caroline, "and it can be pursued within many fields of study, with a variety of academic degrees." This makes the first step a lot easier; the type of degree is not necessarily a limiting factor. It is also clear that writing experience holds considerable importance.

Caroline obtained a biology degree from Purdue University, but also had concentrations in French and history. This mixture of disciplines was of tremendous benefit in Caroline's estimation, "because I graduated with a very adaptable degree." Caroline continued by obtaining a Master's of Science degree in cellular physiology at Indiana University, and she continued to pursue broad-ranging research experience through her "early post-graduate jobs." It was not until she began taking continuing professional education courses that Caroline developed an interest in writing. "Later I became certified as an Editor in the Life Sciences (ELS) by passing an examination designed to establish and maintain credentials in my field of work," recalls Caroline.

Undergraduate education is certainly not the only experience needed to get these credentials. Caroline feels, "the best training occurs through realistic experience in writing abstracts, papers or reports, either for classes or research laboratory work." This sort of experience can be found in a variety of settings, such as internships, jobs or classrooms. Experience in one's area of interest is invaluable to any rising professional and it is not different for science writers. Caroline goes so far as to say, "instead of a typical student summer job, it might be beneficial even to earn less money in order to gain relevant experience as soon as possible." Although money can be a driving force in selecting a summer job, the long-term benefits of an experiential opportunity are tremendous.

It is also beneficial to use the Internet to search for organizations of scientific writers and even science writing careers. Caroline strongly suggests, "talking to writers and editors and getting involved in the many relevant professional organizations." Caroline recommends a few organizations in which she is involved: 1) the Board of Editors in the Life Sciences (BELS); 2) the American Medical Writer's Association (AMWA); 3) the Council for Science Editors (CSE). According to Caroline, "many such groups have educational or specialized certification programs," which can be very helpful for developing writing skills.

She also adds that it can also be valuable to peruse job listings, taking note of, "the skills, education, and experience required for various career choices." This gives students the ability to hone their educations for the skills necessary to be successful candidates for desirable positions.

For some students, however, science writing may not be a passion (at least not yet). As with many teachers, the "calling" does not necessarily come until one has started down a different career path. This certainly was the case for Caroline, who admits, "I didn't plan on this career path, but I'm very happy to have found it." What impresses Caroline are the people she has met and the diverse backgrounds they have. "Good science writers can come from any number of fields of scientific or technical study, if they are good at writing."

Interestingly, Caroline has been an editor for scientists who have had more formal writing training. Yet writing is a quite problematic task for them. Caroline suggests that perhaps this happens, "when a person dislikes the writing process or finds it very stressful, or if they are trying to write about something they don't know very well."

It is natural to wonder how Caroline developed her expertise in writing, without a base of traditional formal training. Having a broad education and laboratory research experience certainly contributes to a large body of knowledge. Caroline gives much of the credit for her writing ability to "diverse on-the-job experience and acquired knowledge," which she feels "makes up in part for my lack of formal training in composition."

For those who know they want to pursue science writing, taking courses in writing or journalism, in addition to science classes, will be as valuable as gaining experience. Having significant amounts of writing in coursework helps to hone writing skills. It is often equivalent to a major or minor in the discipline area. There are also some graduate programs available that teach science writing. In addition, certain organizations offer opportunities for further specializations.

The bottom line is to not let a "C" in a writing course stop you, nor anything else. Make a point of gaining writing experience and seeking out critiques. Finally, something often overlooked, but nonetheless a key component, is the last thought Caroline wants to leave you with: "If writing is your passion, pursue voluntary or paid opportunities as early and often as possible, and read, read, read!"