First, there is no set route into science writing, nor do you “have to” be a particular type of person or have any particular qualification to be a science writer.
One of the strengths and joys of the job is the variety of people and backgrounds in the science writing community. Some people trained in journalism and later specialised in science; some went from working or studying science to journalism; others have no background in either but became skilled science writers thanks to their passion and interest. Your route into science writing will very much depend on you and your circumstances.
For reference, The Open Notebook has a varied list of background stories.
What skills do science writers need?
Most of all you need a deep interest in science and a flair for clear, compelling writing and storytelling. Basic spelling and grammar for the language you plan to write in is also a given.
But a willingness to work hard, build up experience and contacts, and never losing that interest and passion for science in the first place are far more important than any formal skills or qualifications.
Some degree of numeracy (to what extent depends on the areas you choose to cover) is helpful, as is not being scared off by technical jargon, sometimes turgid academic writing and scientific egos. You also have to be prepared to do a lot of research and background reading at times. But these things can be learned on the job, through doing more writing and reporting and speaking to more scientists.
Writers these days have to be flexible. Journalists work online, in print, radio, TV or other multimedia. Irrespective of the nature of their work, they need to be able to be comfortable flipping between different formats, short/long, and sometimes (particularly if freelance) for different audiences and publications with very different tone, style, needs and expectations.
Freelance science writers and journalists will need to cultivate additional skills such as financial management and an understanding of how to organise and run a business for yourself. Many freelancers pick these things up through bitter experience, but it’s worth thinking about how to set up and run your own business and find specific advice if you are interested in doing so. In late 2021 the ABSW ran a short session on setting up as a freelancer, and you can watch the playback here.
Formal courses and degrees
Many courses and degrees in science writing, journalism and science communication have been established over the last two decades.
Some people prefer to enrol on a course since it provides general skills ranging from basic reporting to news and feature writing, radio production, video editing and media law. Many of the courses are from reputable universities and have alumni networks and work placement schemes that can help trainees gain a foothold in a competitive industry. Most valuably, they provide experience and, through the formal act of doing the work, build confidence.
The big drawback is that fees can be expensive – usually several thousands of pounds a year, and that’s before factoring in living expenses and travel. And they take time – usually a semester for a course, or a whole year for a degree (though some may allow enough time to fit in part-time work alongside it).
Whether a course is right for you will depend on your situation and needs. To reiterate, you don’t need a qualification to work as a science writer. But if you are interested in the option, look at the ABSW courses list and contact the institution providing the course to find out more. It’s worth also speaking to others who have done the course before to see if it is the right fit for you.