NAME: Scott K. Johnson
CURRENT TITLE: Freelance science writer
AREA OF EXPERTISE: Geology, hydrogeology, environmental studies
YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: 4+
I’ve been a freelance science writer for about four years now, but I’ve also taught college introductory geoscience courses and worked for state agencies as a hydrogeologist.
EDUCATION: Master’s degree in hydrogeology. Studied geology and environmental studies in college.
What’s your job like?
I write news stories about newly published studies for a (fairly) general audience, primarily for Ars Technica. I read papers, figure out how to explain what the researchers did (while providing whatever background knowledge is absolutely necessary), and try to supply the context to understand the study’s outcome. Does it break with prior research or just clarify a relatively minor detail? Is the subject a scientifically controversial one, or is the conclusion well-accepted? Context is especially important for publicly controversial issues like climate change or fracking. Sometimes I also get to take my time on a broader story, like how the Sierra Nevada Mountains or Washington’s Scablands formed, or what it’s like to attend a conference for climate skeptics. Basically, my job is to help people understand what scientists are learning clearly, accurately, and — I can hope — enjoyably. Science is interesting! But scientific literature is super hard to access and read! I’m here to be a bridge.
What’s a typical day like?
Wake up. Commute 20 feet to my office (working from home isn’t always as great as it sounds… but sometimes it is). While absorbing caffeine, read everything interesting on the internet and flip through recently published studies. Check Twitter, a great tool for the science lover and the procrastinator. Read papers and contact researchers with questions. Then, in painful fits and starts full of self-loathing, get words down on paper, double-checking every detail along the way. The best line ever about writing is: “I hate to write, but I love having written.” Engage with readers leaving comments on your articles, being careful to avoid internet arguments that suck at your time and your soul. As a freelancer, there is no clock to be on or off, so there’s a pretty strong temptation to work into the night because, darn it, you could probably get a little more done…
I get to read about interesting research constantly! I get the satisfaction of digging in until I “get it.” I’m always learning. I get to talk to researchers about their work, which they’re usually more than happy to do. Sometimes, they even send you a complimentary note after they read your article, and you obtain a modicum of self-esteem that carries you for a day or two. In all seriousness, the best is when a reader leaves a comment about how a story captured their curiosity — writing is a lot like teaching in that respect.
You are your own boss, so you yell at yourself a lot and rarely give yourself a raise. Finding an outlet interested in a story you want to write can be quite difficult. And, to be frank, it’s not easy to earn a truly livable salary.
What’s your advice to students?
Everyone always says networking is important, but I think it’s especially important in this line of work. Making contacts leads to getting paying work. There’s also a huge online community of science communicators of various stripes — from reporters to university press officers to museum folks to researchers — that are constantly sharing all kinds of tips and experiences. Connect through things like The Open Notebook, and soak up the wisdom. Learning to read scientific papers is a key skill, and it’s important to be familiar with the way academic science gets done and published. If you want to become a good writer, you have to write. Start a blog, and try writing about specific studies or explaining scientific concepts. Not only will your writing improve, but you’ll have a portfolio to demonstrate your ability.