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From 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 the Canadian Science Writers' Association since 1996. This article appeared in Science Link Volume 19, No. 1.

Published in Sources, Number 44, Summer 1999.


See also:
The Do's and Don't of Medical/Health Reporting


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