Let’s start by clearing something up: I am not a scientific writer in the sense that I get paid per word, finger-pecked on the keyboard.
Althought, I do a fair amount of writing in my work, and I thoroughly enjoy it, thus, I may have some tips on getting started on becoming a scientific writer. As for getting paid for it, that’s further down the line, and for now, you have to start somewhere first.
If you are in a STEM field, then you are almost certain to be reading scientific articles daily, and you might also be writing your own manuscripts, book chapters, or reports. That’s a great start, because to be able to succinctly compose a scientific article, you must understand how it should be put together.
You should know how to entice the reader with the introduction, give a little tantalizing appetizer with the background, then dive into the main course of how it was done, why it was done, what was found, and then finish it off with a great discussion as the dessert and coffee. The promise of future work directions serve as the after dinner mints.
Sounds easy, right? Not really.
I do believe some people seem to have the gift for it. Then there are the rest of us who struggle to convey what is in our head into lucid words on paper. It takes practice, practice and more practice. Furthermore, for many of us, English is not even our first language (I didn’t know what came after the letter C until I was almost 12).
My first experiences with writing had something to do with writing home to ma n’ pa. My first English teacher in high school, for some reason, did not like me or my writing (funny, since I am so awesome!), and that really gave me an inferiority complex about my own writing.
It wasn’t until when my second English teacher came along that I begin to enjoy writing. She was encouraging, and said I had a talent for story telling (maybe she told that to everyone, but it meant the world to me), and I believed her.
So, in these cases where there is a language barrier, or the lack of writing practice, my suggestions are to read as much as possible, pay particular attention on how the authors construct their “story”, the phrases they used, and how they manage the flow of the story from one paragraph to the next. Check up on the referenced articles to understand how the authors transferred the information from references, and this is very important to avoid inadvertent plagiarism.
Sometimes, re-writing certain phrases you’ve read in articles can provide a valuable exercise in interpreting information in your own words, and developing your own style of writing.
Besides reading scientific articles in your chosen field, I would also suggest that you read articles from other fields, as it will provide you a fresh perspective on different writing styles. You can then decide to retain what you like about the new style that you just learned, and add it to your own repertoire.
Once you gain more confidence about your writing, you can start to venture out and test the waters. I consider myself lucky because my current supervisor understands what his team members need in terms of their future career goals. We spoke about my desired career goals, and he noticed my inclination to write. He initially gave me the opportunity to write a couple of abstracts, and an idea for a grant proposal for him, and allowed me to scribble notes on his presentations.
Once I proved myself that I was up to the task, he gave me more opportunities to write. He asked me write a couple of papers with him, which I thoroughly enjoyed and gladly put in extra time for.
Just recently he asked me to co-author with him on an invited book chapter from a well-known author from our field. Whenever I meet with him, I always ask if there are more opportunities for writing, so he always remembers me when opportunities come across him.
Another way to get more exposure is to write blogs, when I was asked to join the Bio Careers Blogs, I was a bit hesitant What do I know about writing? For many of us, our first reaction is “Oh no, not me, I can’t possibly write. No one will like it,” and you are right. If you don’t like what you write, then no one else will either.
Readers can smell the stench of a writer’s disdain for their own writing a mile away. You have to make yourself like your own writing first before anyone else will like it. Writing is like sculpturing: nothing is perfect the first time around. You have to put down a rough draft, pinch a piece off there, add a chunk here, or even smash the whole thing to smithereens and start fresh. Even when you think it’s perfect, it doesn’t mean everyone else will adore it, but someone will, and those are the people you write for.
Finally, I understood that it’s not easy to seek writing opportunities, but if you don’t ask, then you will never get anything. However, if you ask, the worst that could happen is someone telling you “not right now,” and at least you’ve put feelers out there. Maybe your name will pop in the right person’s head when an opportunity comes along because you’ve planted it there.