the Canadian Science Writers' Association
Science Writing for Daily Newspapers
By Eric Squair
While there is no set formula for freelancing to daily papers, a
few questions posed to science editors at Canada's largest dailies
brought up some good advice. The three science editors I spoke to
all emphasized the importance of clear writing, writing to a specified
word count and a demonstration of the writer's understanding of
the science involved. "A good reliable freelancer whose copy
comes in clean, on time, at the right length while properly researched
with more than one source is a good and valuable thing," says
Karen Zagor, the Discovery editor at the National Post. "
I hadn't realised what a rare commodity they were until now."
All three editors are looking for unreported stories that are lively
and interesting. Beyond these basic criteria, they have some specific
needs. "One thing I am looking for is a Toronto based story
that no one else has got", says Doug Marshall, the science
editor at the Toronto Star. "But it has to be sexy."
The National Post is also looking for original science discoveries
and research, both Canadian and international in scope. "A
story doesn't have to have a Canadian angle," says Zagor. "It
is nice, but I will choose a good story over a Canadian story."
She also says that freelancers have to do a little legwork to uncover
the stories that she may not be aware of. "If a story comes
from a press release, chances are that we have seen it.," she
says. One of her favourite stories pitched by a freelancer involved
a nasty case of food poisoning affecting the police officers guarding
the pope on his visit to Canada in the 1980s. "Every officer
who had a roast beef sandwich on a particular day came down with
food poisoning, and they became an ideal study group for the link
between food poisoning and arthritis. One of the universities had
been studying them for 10 years," she says. "That was
a wonderful story that we weren't likely to hear about from other
sources. It hadn't been written about." Zagor warns that pitching
stories from such sources as Science, Nature and New
Scientist is not likely to be successful. "They are so
good at getting the information out that anything a freelancer pitches
we will already have seen and made a decision about."
The Globe and Mail's Colin Haskin is looking for short pieces
of 400-500 words to run on the Saturday science page. "We are
looking for submissions for what we call the "downpager",
the secondary story on the page," says Haskin. "In the
past, we just picked it up from wherever we could get it, but now
we are looking for input for that."Haskin says that story pitches
dealing with original Canadian research are welcome. "We don't
exclude things that are not Canadian, but we look for Canadian research
a lot," he says. "The Americans are forever writing about
their research, so are the French and certainly the British are
as well. Not many people are writing about good Canadian research,
although it doesn't have to be that way." Haskin also says
that the Globe is looking for shorter stories than in the
past, about 1000 words maximum.
No matter how original or interesting a story idea, the writer
still has to do some preparation when pitching to editors. "I
am looking for someone who has read my science page," says
Marshall at the Star. "99 per cent of the people who
pitch me stories haven't, and don't have any grasp of what I would
want. I also like some demonstration of their ability to write the
type of stories that appear on the science page, and finally, I
would like something that has involved some original research on
their part, rather than just pulling together clips."
Karen Zagor at the Post likes to know that the writer has
an understanding of the science involved in the story. "With
science stories it is easy to make stupid mistakes, if you don't
have any grounding or understanding of the science," she says.
"It may sound fairly basic, but it is amazing how many people
will pitch you a science story and will not know the difference
between a sulphide and a sulphate." Zagor also cautions writers
to avoid sensationalizing science stories. "Keep a handle on
the story to begin with, because an awful lot of stories are hyped
on a regular basis," she says.
The Globe's Haskin is looking for evidence that the freelancer
can write in an engaging manner, and that he or she has done some
homework. His ideal is a "one page proposal, because that shows
us the writer can write, and we like them to tell us some of the
people they are going to be talking to. Try and track down a quote.
If you can get it all down on one page, and show us you can write,
that is great." He adds that writers proposing stories should
include any photos or artwork they may have, even if they are afraid
of losing them. "They really help sell the story," he
says. "If they are thinking 'I better look after these because
I only have two prints, make photocopies and send them in."
Freelance science writing for daily newspapers can be interesting,
but you won't pay your bills without lining up some other work.
"The sad thing from a freelancers point of view, and I can't
do anything about it, is that newspapers do not pay very much,"
says Marshall. Freelance fees vary, but not by much. Both the Star
and the Globe and Mail pay a maximum of $450 per story. The
National Post could not give a definite figure at this time.
It is not essential to have a wall covered with science degrees
to write science stories. "I think a good writer, if they have
an understanding of the science behind the story, can turn in a
good story", says the Post's Zagor. "It is a good
time to be a science writer, and I think that will continue because
there are so many interesting science stories, so many breakthroughs,
and I think that will continue for quite a long time."
Eric Squair is an award-winning freelance science writer and
a graduate of the University of Toronto. He has been a member of
Science Writers' Association since 1996. This article
appeared in Science Link Volume 19, No. 1.
Published in Sources,
Number 44, Summer 1999.
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