Deon Visser, freelance science communicator on Kolabtree, describes the five most important skills to look for while hiring a freelance science writer.
Despite the advances in audio-visual communication scientific results still are transferred by the written word. Whether this remains the status quo is unimportant because language is the alpha and omega for science. Antoine Laurent Lavoisier wrote in 1789, “It is impossible to dissociate language from science or science from language, because every natural science always involves three things: the sequence of phenomena on which the science is based; the abstract concepts which call these phenomena to mind; and the words in which the concepts are expressed. To call forth a concept a word is needed; to portray a phenomenon, a concept is needed. All three mirror one and the same reality.” 
Businesses and organizations of all sizes make use of science writers to help communicate research or technical data in a clear, authoritative and reliable manner. The digital age which took away so many jobs from journalists on one hand, opened a far wider landscape for science communication on the other. Science writers populate a new ecosystem ranging from websites, online science journals, blogs and e-pubs to large international pharma and bio-tech companies. They offer skills ranging from writing technically sound press releases and blogs, to writing grant proposals, doing regulatory writing for FDA or EU MDR approval of medical devices and assisting with required documentation in clinical trial protocols and applications for approval to the FDA. Mixed amongst all these, are communication of research results in scientific journals, preparation of scientific content for product launches and writing about public health programs.
There are many reasons why one would consider to hire a freelance science writer, the main one being that you want your technical information to shine through the digital clutter delivered by fake news outlets and other organizations. It is no secret that the internet of things has wiped out the line between independent journalism, public communication, public relations and of course, private interest. One only has to look at how information on the covid-19 vaccines has to fight to stand out from the crowd of misinformation presented by anti-vaccers to get the point. In fact, it is incredible that there is such a mistrust in science by the general public. This is an important fact for companies of any size to keep in mind.
There are other reasons too. The process of writing complex information can be extremely time-consuming; companies may look for external help with preparing documentation that clearly communicates the science. While experts may help companies save time and energy, working with freelance writers is more cost effective as opposed to full-time staff. A reliable expert will always be open to build a long-term relationship with a company, to provide expertise when required.
Now that we have established that excellent communication is important for any business or organization and finding the right communicator amongst all the buzz and confusion is of utmost importance; what should you look for when hiring a science writer?
Skills to look for while hiring a freelance science writer
There are basically two types of freelance science writers, journalists with an interest in science and scientists interested in communicating science. Journalists often excel at producing excellent, error-free work, but they may struggle with content or very technical research documents. On the other hand, writers from a science background may struggle with the writing process itself, grammar, punctuation, flow and understanding who their intended audience is.
Naturally, you would look at the qualifications of the person that you want to appoint. Many journalists are doing freelance work these days (we all know why) and many of them excel at science communication. Still, a journalism degree and a relevant portfolio that highlights their experience in communicating highly technical information in an easy-to-understand form would be a minimum requirement. Having said that, some of the best work I had to evaluate over the years came from inexperienced writers, so don’t look at experience only. One can always present younger writers who are still building their portfolios with a writing task before hiring them.
A PhD and a good publishing record is a must if the applicant comes from a science background, but that alone should not be the only basis of an appointment. Unfortunately, many scientists think they have a grasp of the written word and most of us believe that our writings are clearly communicated when it’s not. All writers, whether they are creative writers or non-fiction writers, struggle to see what exactly in their writing make readers stumble. There is a gap between the author’s intended message and the reader’s ability to grasp it. Good writers are able to bridge that gap, bad writers not. Fortunately, there are ways to find the good ones. Perhaps the candidate has an additional degree or even a diploma in journalism, copywriting or creative writing, or maybe he or she has a science blog where they honed their skills over the years.
It is always good to check a prospects record. Many freelance science writers are still active in research institutes or academia and their publication records can easily be traced on websites like Scopus (https://www.scopus.com/freelookup/form/author.uri) or by tracking their Orcid ID’s (https://info.orcid.org/what-is-orcid/) or even on their profile pages displayed by most institution websites.
2. The ability to communicate complicated data and reach their audience
Now that you have separated the chaff from the grain and are left with fewer candidates, it is time to look at how they communicate complex scientific information, theories and practices in addition to possessing strong writing skills. The only way to do that is to read some of their work in a field that both you and they are not very familiar with. Are they able to articulate scientific topics in a concise manner that can be easily understood by readers who are not experts, especially in works that are directed at the general public?
Science writers, like all writers, need to be able to write for the intended audience. Some could write outstanding scientific articles, but fail miserably by writing unconnected popular science articles that nobody wants to read. Believe it or not, but readers have rights; the rights to correct, interesting, concise, organized and fluid writing. Science writers who understand this, also know that their readers mentally trip on acronyms, lose themselves in a labyrinth of incoherent ramblings, get stuck on over long paragraphs and sentences from which they will only be able to free themselves after two or three successive readings.
3. Can they adapt to the required style and voice?
While the number one rule in nonfiction writing is honesty and accuracy, and it should always remain so, there is a definite place for style and voice. A fiction writer may deliberately use style to help convey meaning. For example, one wouldn’t use a formal writing style to narrate an outrageously comic scene unless it is done to achieve some form of satirical effect. Similarly, good science writers would not use highly formal writing styles when writing blogs or popular science articles, or oppositely, use comedy in a technical paper. Just like great singers have a large range of notes which they use to impress audiences, truly great science writers will have portfolios showcasing their array of different skills, from highly technical articles to more informal styled popular science articles. The ability to adapt to the tone and voice of a specific task and environment is a great skill and easy to detect in writing examples. If a prospect only presents scientific articles from peer-reviewed studies, ask for informal articles if your job requires a less formal style. It is also always good to ask whether the writer is on social media. Some writers are active on LinkedIn and Facebook where more informal styles are the norm. In science writing, the best style is crystal clear; the reader sees through the words to the fundamental phenomena and theories. The best scientific writing is concise, precise and clear.
4. How methodical are the facts presented? Is there a storyline?
Any facts, whether they are football scores, elemental analysis data or ic50 results of anti-cancer drugs, are chaos if they are not separated, organized and presented in relation to one another. Meaning is the collection and juxtaposition of evidence.
Imagine a TV reporter trying to present all the available information on a baseball game, from the guy sitting in row three eating a hot dog to the bird that just landed on the roof of the arena. It would be a futile proposition, wouldn’t it? He or she would rather focus on the on-field action and maybe on something happening in the dugout, not on every little detail. Similarly, science writers cannot and should not present all the data on a given phenomenon, even in highly technical documents like clinical trial documents prepared by medical writers.
Methodology will differ from one job requirement to the next. Popular scientific articles should have a clear take-home message, it should preferably set up a human connection and a research question that keeps the reader interested from beginning to end. Research has shown that when it comes to focus, people remember the beginning and end of something, plus a high point in the middle. On the other hand, technical documents or research articles normally have stricter rules with regards methods and methodology. Look for writers who are able to use the facts to tell the story of the research while keeping the work concise and clear.
In my opinion, science writers can learn a lot from their creative counterparts who have to master storytelling by writing strong beginnings that introduce both villain and hero, the world they live in and the problem or question that the hero is facing (the plot). It is here where the normalcy of everyday life is disrupted and a dramatic question is raised which must be answered. This is followed by interesting middle sections where the hero is confronted with challenges that increase the drama gradually while keeping the reader interested. A dramatic end answers the question that was presented in the beginning and brings the whole story together.
Similarly, the main points of the research or technical report should be presented in the beginning, followed up by interesting writing that keeps the work together and the reader interested and climaxed with a strong end that answers the research question.
At first glance it seems strange that creativity is listed as a required skill when hiring a science writer. Maybe I am biased, but the two years it took me to complete a Master’s degree in Creative Writing at age 50 and finishing a crime novel of almost 100 000 words, taught me that science and the arts might seem very different, but the processes that both fields use are very similar. According to Merkle2, the scientific method is a way to explore a problem, form and test a hypothesis, and answer questions. The creative process creates, interprets, and expresses art. Inquiry is at the heart of both of these methods.
There is a very definite trend amongst scholars to present their research in more creative ways, from using videos and social media posts, to sharing and advancing knowledge in uncommon, surprising and illuminating ways. Their stories are of stylish research, its procedures and its results. That is who you want writing for your company, isn’t it?
Business owners and hiring officers of large companies should ask themselves whether they would rather read work that’s flawless and functional but also fun to read, or writing that’s flawless and practical, but nothing more? Elegant sentences, catchy titles, coherent and thoughtful introductions, concise conclusions – these are all nice to look at separately, but on their own they do not tell a good, compelling story. All the parts tell the story. Deeply engaging work brings these elements together and give the reader a sense of coherence.
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1. Favoisier, A.L. Trait; elementaire de chimie, tr, J Lipetz, D E Gershecssocr & D A Greenberg. Quoted in : J Bartlett, Familiar quotations.s (Boston: Little Brown, 1968), p, 474.
2. Merkle, B.G. Writing Science: Leveraging a Few Techniques from Creative Writing Toward Writing More Effectively, Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America, Volume 101.
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