Recently, a friend of mine raised the subject of my writing process, how I go from receiving an assignment and/or getting ideas to researching the topic, deciding on an approach, and so forth. In short, he said that if I were ever to write an article where I share my personal experiences and preferences, he would happily read it. While I was understandably flattered, my first instinct was to groan at the mere mention of those two words:
I don’t why, but for about as long as I’ve been writing at a professional level, I’ve found this kind of talk both painful and tedious. Maybe it’s the way I’ve grown tired of introspection over the years, or maybe the way I prefer that discourse be focused on material rather than method. It’s like that witty line David Hyde Pierce once uttered on Frasier: “This is boring, yet difficult.”
Still, it’s an important subject and a crucial part in how things get created. For the sci-comm (science communicator), it’s all about taking raw information that is often inaccessible and translating it into an accessible narrative. It’s also about taking discoveries and developments that might otherwise appear to be happening in a vacuum and relating the context in which it happened, and the implications going forward.
So I decided to suck it up and relate what I could about this topic. For convenience sake, I have decided to address it in a Q&A format:
How did you get into science journalism?
It was a bit of a journey and began with a chance meeting with the man who would become my boss. Back in 2010, I was a substitute teacher living in the Victoria, BC, area with my wife and cat. We had moved there from the town of Comox about a year before. While visiting Comox again, I dropped in on a friend whom I knew through Taekwon-Do. She introduced me to her husband, Fraser Cain, the founder and publisher of Universe Today.
Fraser had heard from her that I was an aspiring SF writer and teacher, and we got to talking and Fraser decided to take me under his wing. Everything else followed from that one encounter…
On the one hand, he wanted to mentor me on how I could skip the whole “waiting to be discovered” thing and become an independent author. This included tutoring me on how to utilize self-publishing services, social media, self-promotion, website-building, etc. On the other, he offered me some part-time writing work for Universe Today, writing short pieces for their Guide to Space section (which is the sort of the “Encyclopedia Galactica” section of their website).
After a few years of dividing myself between teaching and writing, Fraser announced that some big changes were in the works. Universe Today was expanding and he offered me a job writing full-time for them, doing regular pieces about news and day-to-day developments. He also extended an offer to write for HeroX, the crowdfunding platform founded by entrepreneur and futurist Peter Diamandis, which was launching at the time.
While I was not formally educated in astronomy or physics, my fascination and passion for science and space is apparently why Fraser chose to keep me around. That, and the fact that I was an educator with writing experience, meant that I could convey space and science-related stuff to people who similarly lacked a formal education in the subject matter. Basically, I was a layperson making science accessible for other laypersons.
A year later, I quit teaching to become a science journalist full-time, which coincided with Fraser promoting me to the role of Curator for the Guide to Space section. By 2016, I was approached by a publisher (Castrum Press) regarding an idea I was working on that explored the future of humanity in space. By 2017, my first novel, The Cronian Incident, was published, which was followed by two more – The Jovian Manifesto and The Frost Line Fracture – in 2018 and 2020 (respectively).
In 2019, I branched out and became a member of Interesting Engineering as an evergreen content writer, which means I write long articles about topics that remain relevant for long periods of time. In 2020, I joined Mars City Design as their Director of Media Communication, where its founder and CEO (Vera Mulyani) and I began working on a podcast series called “The Martian Dispatches,” which will be released shortly (and is available for preorder).
And to think, it all started with a chance meeting!
Where do ideas come from? What percent?
That’s a good question, and one that requires a little preamble. The content I write generally falls into one of two categories: Everyday Content, and Evergreen Content. Whereas “everyday” refers to news items that are transient and time-sensitive in nature, “evergreen” refers to stories that are ongoing and remain relevant for long stretches of time.
While everyday stuff accounts for about 70% of the articles I write, evergreen content accounts for another 20%.
To give you some examples, stories like “NASA declares new policy for lunar exploration” or “China shares its plans for a lunar base” are everyday news items because they represent a sudden and big change or development. They’re also considered time-sensitive because they are subject to change and will likely be updated before long. For these topics, there is a boat, and you don’t want to miss it!
These are generally assigned to me by an editor. It is their job to sort through all the daily developments and find the stories worth telling. This is typically done by editors who test out story ideas and titles via social media to measure the level of public engagement it gets. If it’s high, people are interested and want to learn more. If it’s low, they’re not interested and its probably best to cover something else.
Unlike everyday news items, evergreen content is much more general and historical in nature. For example, a question like “what are the planets of the Solar System?” requires historical context. First, you need to look at how and when the known planets were discovered, how the definition of “planet” has evolved over time, and why this is of significance today. Alternately, a question like “what are quasars?” is more of a general knowledge question meant to clarify terminology.
Beyond these two categories, I would say there is a third – Passion Pieces – which make up the remaining 10% of the content I create. These are the subjects that I am most interested in talking about and want to educate the public on. A perfect example would be “What’s up with Megastructures?” These are almost always things I’ve pitched to editors, and are generally accepted because they also think they’re cool! 😉
Are there any topics you find interesting but can’t write about much because your readers don’t share those interests?
I have yet to find such a topic, but I can definitely say that my own interest in some topics probably exceeds the majority of readers.
Do you have to pitch your ideas very hard to get them written?
Not really. But as you get more experienced, you tend to learn which ideas are more likely to draw an audience. As such, your pitches are likely to have a greater acceptance rate over time.
Do you get sick of explaining Schrodinger’s cat every single #$@#ing time you have to write an article on QM?
Lol! You know, it’s never come up. I don’t handle QM as a topic much, but when I do, I have found I can get away without that allegory.
Do you often wish you could spend more time writing an article or explaining more, but just have to call it done?
Happens all the time!
In the unlikely event you ever quote me, are you willing to write what I obviously meant instead of using a bunch of ellipses, brackets and [sic]s?
Can. Will. Did (look around) 🙂
How do you structure a story? Do you have a few templates that you generally apply?
I do have a template, but it’s not mine. In general, I go with the classic 5 Paragraph Essay structure, though I rarely write articles that short (if ever!) It’s more like the 5 Part Essay, with the number of paragraphs varying depending the breadth and level of detail I think is required. It goes like this:
- Part I – Introduce general topic (“the hook”)
- Part II – Introduce specific topic (i.e., address the headline)
- Part III – Get into the details
- Part IV – Show the significance and present related information
- Part V – Conclusion
At other times, I will do a truncated version of this, where there’s really only four parts and I get into the news item right away. But for longer articles (like Guide to Space or Interesting Engineering articles) I generally go with the labelled approach. In that case, its more of a question of sections, addressing all the pertinent topics related to the subject. For example, if I wanted to talk about something big like the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), it would look something like this:
- Section I – Intro and general overview of SETI
- Section II – Definition and important concepts
- Section III – History of SETI
- Section IV – What are we looking for? (biosignatures and technosignatures)
- Section V – Limitations and the future
- Section VI – Conclusion (will we ever find them?)
How do you research something you know little about? How do you feel when you have to write a story and haven’t got a level of understanding you are happy about?
Glad you asked, because it emphasizes the most important lesson I’ve learned from being a writer. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing as a science communicator or a science fiction author, the rule is the same.
Do your homework!
Regardless of the topic, whether you feel confident or not, you should always be prepared to do background reading and familiarize yourself with what it is that you’re writing about. As for how you do that, it’s not that complicated. It’s good to have trusted sources on lock that will give you a good idea of what you’re dealing with. And always try to find source material that is presented in such a way that you aren’t overwhelmed by the details.
Remember, you only need to understand it to the point where you can explain it to a person with no formal education on the subject. If you find yourself in that same boat to begin with, it works out well! By acting as the “technical translator” who learned how to interpret the data, you’ve effectively shown people that with a little research, complex subjects that seem entirely inaccessible at first glance can be made accessible.
How frustrated [are] you by perfectionism?
Not that much, honestly. I have never been too detail-oriented, which is why my earlier work suffered from typos and errors that (in spite of editing) survived the final draft! However, I am very much the obsessive compulsive when it comes to doing justice to a topic, which means pulling in added sources, doing my diligence on sourcing and attribution, and making sure I got any affirmative claims correct. For example, “there’s plenty of Helium 3 on the Moon.” How sure am I of that? It can be frustrating because it’s a big time-consumer!
What’s the deal with headlines?
I know, right? Those are probably the part I like the least. They need to be succinct, to the point, and attention-getting! Of course, people will naturally accuse you of “clickbait” if they feel the title is the slightest bit misleading, and I’ve found the threshold on that is set very low. Then again, it obviously worked on them!
What do you like most and least about your job?
The thing I like the most about my job is that I get paid to do what I love. I feel especially fortunate for that, and owe many people a great debt for it as well. Sure, I worked hard along the way, but I would never be here were it not for people like Fraser and others who took a chance on me. I also love my job because it means I get to write about things I’m passionate about, relate it to others, and know that it’s actually making an impact.
To quote the old cliche, “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Speaking of cliches, I also learned that there is such a thing as a “silent majority.” For awhile, I was used to getting (mostly) positive feedback from the people I wrote for. The comment boards, in contrast, were not a place where constructive criticism could be expected to happen. Mostly, people posting thoughts just wanted to show how much more they knew about a topic or to criticize my coverage of it.
However, it wasn’t before long that I realized that there were people who read my articles regularly and enjoyed my work. I began to be invited to give talks to astronomy societies, writing positions with other sites, and advertisers started bugging me like I mattered. How strange it is, to be doing what you love, and then someday find out that you actually have “fans.” I guess you could say that the “silent majority” doesn’t stay silent for long!
In terms of what I like least, I would say it has to do with some all-too-common attitudes that are out there. Often, people will respond to articles about space exploration and innovation with a combination of denial, recrimination, and good old fashioned hostility. Seriously, I can’t keep track of how many times people have said “this is stupid, we can’t even live on Earth!” or asked “shouldn’t this money be spent on fixing Earth instead?”
At other times, people have posted comments like “just admit the Earth is flat!” (that actually happened), that climate change is not real, that the government is experimenting with alien tech, and there’s a huge government conspiracy to cover all this up! This is concerning since it raises the issue of how misinformation and counter-knowledge have become so prevalent today and are treated by many as truth. It also highlights the importance of science communication in today’s world.
The only other thing I don’t like (more of a pet peeve, really) is people responding to titles. Oftentimes, we will post articles in the form of a question – i.e. “Why is the Earth round?” The question is asked, then answered, in the article itself. Simple, straightforward, and ideal when it comes to Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Many people, however, post answers to the title. I’m not sure why, but this annoys me. It’s like, “That’s a rhetorical question and the answer is in the article! Read it!”
Okay, that’s me done! Anyone else want to talk about their process?