What do you do when your dream publication offers you an assignment you can’t turn down — and don’t know how to start?
Early in my career, I targeted national political magazine Mother Jones. Policy and politics are often affected by science, and I sent pitch after pitch I was sure would appeal to their audience. They never bit, but, after a number of “this doesn’t quite work for us but please keep us in mind in the future” rejections, an editor there emailed out of the blue asking if I was available to handle a quick turnaround story. Me, available? Of course!
The problem? It was a quick turnaround story about tax policy. Not only am I primarily a science reporter, I can barely manage my own taxes. (Seriously – I filed for both 2011 and 2012 on April 14 this year. If you want advice on the business side of freelancing, you want Anne Sasso (bio) and Emily Gertz (bio), authors of the ‘Minding the Business’ chapter in our book.) In my case, the editor would have had a hard time finding a subject I felt less equipped to tackle.
If you come to science writing from a general reporting background, you’re probably laughing. After all, this is what reporters do: get an assignment, research the story (aka report), and then write. However, if you’re coming to science writing from a background as a scientist, or if you’ve written primarily in a field in which you have some expertise, you may have some sympathy. At least, I like to think I’m not alone in finding the prospect of writing authoritatively on a subject about which I know absolutely nothing to be just a little bit daunting.
However, I’m also not alone in doing just that. In fact, it’s something most writers find themselves doing at some point, especially when they’re starting out.
“One of the first stories I did as a freelancer was about swimwear for Muslim women — it was actually a story an editor at Nat Geo News asked if I’d be interested in,” says SciLancer Jenny Cutraro. “Absolutely, I was interested, but also terrified. What business did I have doing this story?”
When I brought up this topic on SciLance, other members reminded me that tackling a science story outside one’s normal beat can be just as challenging – and rewarding – as tackling taxes or religious swimwear. Jessica Marshall, who normally covers just about any science beat except for space and physics, found herself assigned to cover a space story—one of the Voyagers reaching a milestone on its way out of the solar system–for New Scientist.
In this case, she felt her training in science was helpful. “It wasn’t that I knew more about it,” she says. “It was more that I had a better sense of where I might screw up, that the terms might have specific meanings, or that I might get some detail wrong, because I had a sense of how those details matter in fields I’m more familiar with. I just called the researchers back lots of times until I got things right.”
As it turns out, just like Jessica, Jenny and I also had the skills needed to cover our out-of-the-blue stories. We just had to remember the basic rules of reporting:
- Call someone. Unless the story you’re doing is pegged to a specific paper, when you need to get up to speed in a new area quickly, start with a person, not a literature review. Google the subject and your sources to get a quick feel for the story, but then get on the phone as quickly as possible. Hopefully, your editor gave you a key source to start with – if not, Google some more, and ask your friends. You need an expert guide.
- Admit your ignorance. This is Reporting 101, but it bears repeating here. Once you find a good expert, admit how new you are to the field and ask for help getting oriented. This is when you can get some reading suggestions, and, more importantly, names of other folks to call. (Don’t forget to ask the person you’re talking with who disagrees with him or her.) As I wrap up my first call with my new guide, I usually remind the person of my ignorance and explain that I’ll probably be calling back with more questions.
- Over-report. At this point in my career, I normally try to focus on noticing when I should stop reporting. Even when I’m confident I’ve nailed the story, I’ll often find myself making yet another phone call, usually in order to put off starting to write. However, when I’m reporting in a new field, I fully indulge the “I’ll just make one more call” impulse. The further you are from your normal beat, the more true it is that you don’t know what you don’t know. So take the time to call that extra expert or three to make sure you’re not missing any important details.
In my case, the editor from Mother Jones gave me my primary expert: Joe Bankman, a Stanford tax lawyer who’d pioneered a California program that made filing easier for low-income residents, many of whom were due refunds. I spent an afternoon on campus with Bankman getting a one-on-one tutorial on the problems facing low-income taxpayers. He gave me contacts at the California Franchise Tax Board, and the name of a former IRS commissioner who liked the program, as well as the folks who hated it (Intuit and HR Block, both of whom stood to lose clients). I Googled Bankman to find experts who’d co-authored papers or been on panels with him and called them up, too. In the end, I did far more interviews than I could fit in the short piece my editor had assigned. However, I was confident I’d nailed the story.
Apparently, the editors agreed. After that, they even let me write about science.
Image credit:powderruns on Flickr