Ep 125 Can you be a successful freelance writer with a pen name? And meet science writer Sarah Keenihan.

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podcast-artworkIn Episode 125 of So you want to be a writer: Can you be a successful freelance writer with a pen name? Submission tips from Curtis Brown agents; Discover which six of Roald Dahl’s words are now in the dictionary and find out what’s happening in Allison Tait’s world. Meet science writer Sarah Keenihan. Plus: the one marketing move authors get wrong, and much more.

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Review of the Week
From MarieJSJS from Australia:

Thank goodness I stumbled onto this podcast via the Australian Writers Centre. I was hooked from my first download, and initially tried to work my way through the back catalogue during my morning walks. But I ended up binge listening for an entire week recently – listening to back to back episodes all day, every day – while I painted my daughter’s bedroom. Your interviews and writing tips certainly made assembling a room full of IKEA furniture more interesting! I’m pretty much up to date with the episodes and I’m enjoying listening to your current content. I feel I can now even look at those show notes you’ve been telling me about – it was a little daunting to investigate show notes while binge listening to you with a paint roller in my hand. Binge listening did however, have a major benefit. Hearing you both tell me to ‘build my author platform’ several times every day encouraged me to do just that. I subscribed to the Australian Writers Centre online course – build your author platform – and found it very useful. I’m nearing the end of the course and I find it amazing that this particular social-media-shy girl has now got her own website, learnt how to blog, and begun to plaster her smile all over Facebook. After a much earned breather, I will take on the remaining online course suggestions and grapple with Twitter and Instagram and whatever else the helpful information advises me to do… Thank you so much Al & Val for giving me the social media push that I needed. I enjoy listening to your podcasts and I’ve learnt so much from you both over such a short period of time. mariemclean.com

Thanks MarieJSJS!

Show Notes
Can You Be a Successful Freelance Writer With a Pen Name?

Submission tips from Curtis Brown agents

Scrumdiddlyumptious to Oompa Loompa: Six of Roald Dahl’s splendiferous words have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary

New A.L. Tait Series Coming Your Way

Writer in Residence

Sarah Keenihan
Sarah Keenihan science writerSarah Keenihan is a freelance science writer, editor and copywriter based in Adelaide, South Australia. She has a passion for science, not just because it’s useful and can solve problems, but because it’s full of wonder and stories of human endeavour and discovery. She finds it immensely satisfying crafting scientific content that can be enjoyed by a broad audience.

Sarah has a Bachelor of Medical Science with honours, a PhD and a Graduate Diploma in Sciences Communication, and established her writing business in early 2012 after 15 years working in immunology research and science communication in Australia and Indonesia.

Follow Sarah on Twitter

Platform Building Tip

The One Marketing Move Authors Get Wrong

Competition

WIN a ‘Figgy’ book pack (FIVE to be won)

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

Connect with us on twitter

@altait

@valeriekhoo

Email us

podcast at writerscentre.com.au

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Interview Transcript 

Allison

Sarah Keenihan is a freelance science writer, editor and copywriter, based in Adelaide, South Australia. Sarah has a Bachelor of Medical Science with honours, a PhD and a graduate diploma in Science as Communication and established her writing business in early 2012, after 15 years working in immunology research and science communication in Australia and Indonesia.

 

Sara works for many different clients across the academic government and private sectors, including writing news stories and feature articles, creating copy for brochures, newsletters, websites articles and annual reports and running writing and social media workshops for scientists — a very, very busy lady.

 

Thank you very much for your time today, Sarah, and welcome to the program.

 

Sarah

Thank you for having me, Allison.

 

Allison

Alright, so let’s start at the beginning, you’ve got off to uni and you’ve done your Bachelor of Medical Science, with honors, and then you’ve done a PhD, so you’ve obviously been very, very busy at uni. What made you then decide to do a Science as Communication diploma?

 

Sarah

It wasn’t a decision that I made at the end of my PhD really, I was always interested in writing. I loved it at high school even. And I was lucky enough that my supervisor for my honours year, who is professor Sarah Robertson, also based here in Adelaide, she is a fantastic communicator and great at writing and talking about science, not just as a scientist, but for the general public as well.

 

So, she sort of got me thinking about it, right back in my honours year. And at the end of honours I applied for a PhD scholarship, but I also applied to study journalism, because I had become motivated enough to really think seriously about writing.

 

And I was offered both. Sarah advised me, “Why don’t you take the scholarship, because writing is something you can always go back to, but a PhD scholarship doesn’t come up every day.” So, I thought, “Right, that makes sense.”

 

But, then halfway through the PhD I thought, “Oh, maybe I could do a bit of writing at the same time.” So, I enrolled in the grade diploma to do bits and pieces along the way, and it’s actually something that took me over ten years to finish. So, I kept it bumbling along during my PhD and then had a break and then picked it up again, and then finally finished it ten years later.

 

So, yeah, it was something that I nurtured along the way while I was getting my qualifications in research science.

 

Allison

I guess from my perspective as someone who — like, I feel like I’ve seen in the last couple of years, a bit of a rise of both interest and people who are actually involved in this. There seems to be a bit of a push in the sense that science, I guess — first of all, there’s a lot of activity in trying to get kids involved in stem subjects at school. And then there’s this idea of the fact that science is often being seen as this sort of opaque area that nobody understands.

 

Sarah

Yeah.

 

Allison

There seems to be a bit of a push towards, “Let’s get people involved and actually show them what’s happening.” Do you see that? Or am I just imagining that because I’m on Twitter?

 

Sarah

Yeah.

 

Allison

It could be that.

 

Sarah

We see that within the science world as well.

 

Allison

Right.

 

Sarah

I guess it’s a combination of several things. Funding for science on the whole is on the decline. So, budgets for science grants and other activities relating to science have not been increasing where other budgets have been. For example, defense or other things like that.

 

So, scientists are a bit anxious that perhaps we’re going to lose a critical skillset in young people. So, there’s that pushing it along.

 

There’s also major global issues, which are fundamentally founded in science, of course climate change being one of them. Vaccination, dealing with diseases, managing cancer, talking about obesity — it’s a massive problem in Australian and other Western countries. Obesity and then conversely you’ve got nutritional problems and infectious disease problems in the developing world still.

 

So, all of these problems need some fundamental understanding of science, and a research capability to tackle them.

 

So, that’s sort of pushing it along, I guess. But, also technology. Technology is changing at a hugely fast rate. And, we need kids and adults to know basic sort of science, technology, engineering, maths, to be able to wrap their heads and be able to apply advances in technology in all sorts of careers, not just in research.

 

I read an article the other day about the role of technology in fashion. If you want to be a fashion designer these days it’s not just good enough to be able to cut cloth, you have to think about materials that are waterproof and involve nanotechnology and can be manufactured in new and innovative ways. Just science finds its way into all sorts of areas that’s going to be critical for our future, really.

 

Allison

Is being a specialist science writer a relatively new thing? Or is it just that there’s sort of like a group now whereas there might have just been that one person on the paper, you know, years ago?

 

Sarah

Most major newspapers used to have a specialist science writer, and now I believe there’s only two or three in the whole of Australia, for example, and very few left in the states as well.

 

So, I guess… and tucked within a lot of research institutions are specialist writers and sort of the major universities and CSRIO and other institutions used to have specialist writers. But, I guess similar to other areas of writing more and more large institutions are choosing not to employ someone full time. So there’s quite a bit of freelance writing work out there, once you sort of tap into and know where it is.

 

Allison

Do you actually need a degree in science to do what you do? Or is a passion for the subject matter enough?

 

Sarah

I don’t believe you necessarily need a science degree. I know a number of fantastic science writers, and Robin Williams on the ABC, he doesn’t have specialist training in science, he’s just driven by his absolute passion for it. And now he’s highly experienced, of course, so he’s developed his own training in a way. But, yeah.

 

And, in fact, sometimes in-depth knowledge of science can get in the way of great communication. So, if you know the nitty gritty and are used to talking to a highly specialist audience, that’s not going to really help you get it across to ordinary people. So, sometimes it gets in the way to know too much.

 

 

Allison

Right, so you still have to be in a position to where you ask the basic questions so that you can then sort of, like, you nut it right now for your audience.

 

Sarah

Yep.

 

Allison

Do you think that’s difficult sometimes for people, like to bear in mind the audience that they’re writing for, as opposed to, as you say, like, if you’re used to going to conferences and having these conversations with other people who know what you’re talking. Is there a difficulty in, “Well, how much information do I actually have to put in this?”

 

Sarah

Yeah.

 

Allison

And how much can I assume?

 

Sarah

Yeah, I think audience awareness is one of the most important bits of science writing, I would say. So, yeah. You can put in detail, for example, if you picture… imagine a news story online, the detail can be there and available to people who are interested in the detail, but it can’t be upfront because you’re going to scare people away. So, it needs to be interesting and relevant and suck people in early, and then you can link to more detailed information or have it further down in the piece as well, if there is room.

 

Allison

So the process of writing a science feature, I guess the basics would be the same as writing any feature, you need an angle, you need a hook.

 

Sarah

That’s right. Yep.

 

Allison

You need to get the right tone.

 

Sarah

Yes.

 

Allison

I’m assuming then that your sources must also be impeccable?

 

 

 

Sarah

Yes. Over the course of a career, you work out who’s fantastic at — who gets the need to talk at a level that matches the audience that article is targeted at.

 

But, you know, sometimes if I’m doing a particular story and I talk to a specialist, we’ll talk for 30 minutes just to get that golden quote. So, a lot of what they say I understand, and it helps inform me in writing the article and to look for other places for information.

 

And then only one sentence that they say is actually appropriate to be in the article. So, it can take time.

 

Allison

So, there’s a lot of backstory that doesn’t actually make it onto the page.

 

Sarah

That’s right, yeah.

 

Allison

But, you still need to know it to actually be able to —

 

Sarah

Yes.

 

Allison

I remember writing something — there was a quote from someone that you… “If you can’t explain something simply, then you don’t understand it well enough.”

 

Sarah

That’s right.

 

Allison

Would you agree? Is that a lot of what you bring to the page with science?

 

Sarah

Yeah, and I think often that’s applied in a teaching sense as well. If you’re going to teach something you really have to know it inside and out and back to front. And it’s similar to speaking to a non-general audience. The ability to break it down into something that most people can relate to is a really special skill and not everyone has it. Many scientists don’t have it, or they don’t care, you know? They’re so good at what they do, they can put their head down and do the research. And it think that’s fine, they don’t have to speak to the whole world, if they’re good at science let them be good at science.

 

And then there are other scientists who are good at speaking to the general public, well, they are science writers who can help people get it out there.

 

Allison

OK, so is it a competitive field, like the field that you’re in? Where does the work mostly come from? You said there’s quite a lot of freelance work out there, once you know where to look for it. Where does it come from?

 

Sarah

A number of different ways. I am on a number of email lists, CSRIO send out regular emails saying, “OK, we’re putting this together, if you would like to submit a pitch, please do so by…” a particular date.

 

A lot of my work is repeat work from existing clients, and that built up from contacts I made throughout my research career really. So, I guess Adelaide works quite well in that way. It’s not a huge town, just over a million people. So, you can be known amongst the university sector, in particular. So, people know that I’m around and I do repeat work for clients like that.

 

But, also word of mouth. I’ll get random phone calls, “Joe Bob has recommended you, we’re thinking about doing this… can you help?” That kind of thing.

 

Allison

Excellent.

 

Sarah

Yeah.

 

Allison

So, I guess it’s kind of time in the game as much as anything?

 

Sarah

That’s right.

 

Allison

Yeah, OK. To build it up?

 

Sarah

Yep.

 

Allison

Is it competitive? Like, is it a competitive — I mean are there a lot of you competing for the work? Or is it, you know…?

 

Sarah

I think more so in Sydney and perhaps Canberra, there’s a bit of competition. Yeah, I don’t feel like I’m — no, I don’t think there are many of us out there, really. Particularly in Adelaide.

 

So, I feel like I have plenty of work on, and I’m not desperately scrambling around and trying to create quotes that sit underneath other people. It’s definitely manageable and it’s enough to keep me ticking over. So, yeah.

 

Allison

Which is an excellent position for any freelance writer to be in.

 

Sarah

That’s right. Yeah.

 

Allison

What do you think are the biggest challenges of specializing in an area like this?

 

Sarah

For someone hoping to start off?

 

Allison

Yeah, yeah.

 

Sarah

I think building up the networks is the critical thing. Yeah, starting off you need to work out a way to get yourself known, I think is the most important thing, if you’re not already known. And, I would suggest for anyone considering a transition to a science writing career that they take it slowly. It’s not something that’s going to — you’re not going to hit the ground running immediately. You need to sort of start building a few clients whilst you’re doing… maybe you’re in a research job already or in another kind of writing job. Just start taking on one or two clients and then build it slowly and make sure you show your face, physically and through social media and all of the places that clients might be.

 

Allison

That was going to be my next question. When you say ‘show your face’ are there groups or do you need to go to conferences? Or, what kind of… how would you kind of get yourself out there if you were starting again?

 

Sarah

Well, there’s an — Australian Science Communicators is a professional society that exists across Australia, and I’m on the South Australian committee for that. So, they hold a conference semi-regularly, every two years or so, nationally.

 

But, also in every city across Australia, and the world even, there are regular science events that you can get yourself along to. Universities run regular lecture series for the general public. Museums run regular events. There are professional groups, there are networking groups associated with business associations.

 

You can just start to go along to free stuff like that, and take your business card and have ‘science writer’ on that card and start handing it out. Yeah, I would definitely recommend that sort of approach, just to get your name out there.

 

And blogging, of course.

 

Allison

Of course. We’re going to get to that.

 

So, you’re actually producing articles, just looking at your bio, for academic, government and commercial clients. So, quite different writing styles. What do you see as the main differences in style with those three?

 

Sarah

Online news articles obviously, they need to compete with other news. So, they need to be good enough and interesting enough for someone who might be reading about Kim Kardashian one moment and new jeans, and then the next minute they click on… or they’re scrolling through their phone and see a science-y sort of headline.

 

So, that’s what most science is getting into that popular culture type environment. But, I quite enjoy tackling those issues and how can I make this so good that the average person is going to want to read it on their phone or the train.

 

Allison

It’s a challenge, isn’t it? When you are competing with Kim and jeans.

 

Sarah

Yes, that’s right.

 

Allison

Very difficult.

 

Sarah

So, great headlines, killer photos, really great opening sentence, something tantalizing, the hook to get people interested is the key to the news and perhaps even feature stories.

 

But, then when you’re writing specialist science, for example, for a grant application or in an annual report, then audience, of course, is completely different. But, it doesn’t mean the writing can’t be great. I speak to scientists about grant writing, scientists must obtain funding for their research by writing grants. And it’s a review process often involving their peers. So, it’s a crazy time of year. People doing peer review are stuck in a room. They’ve got a pile of grants in front of them, and they may not like to admit it, but really the only ones they’re going to read are the ones that are beautifully written, compelling in narrative sense. It’s got to tell a fantastic story to hold their attention right to the end of this very detailed grant, so the writing is still critical, but the writing is excellent, even though it can’t be pop-y and fun so much. It’s still got to be structured and lead them on a journey that they think, “Oh my god, we’ve got to fund this research. There’s no option here. This looks amazing.”

 

Yeah. So, again, keeping the audience front of mind is absolutely critical, whether you’re working in the broad news environment or within an academic environment.

 

Allison

And do you enjoy them both equally?

 

Sarah

I do, actually. Yeah.

 

That’s one of the best things about it, is that it’s so mixed. So, I’m not churning out formulaic 400-word news story after news story. I do that for a day and then the next day I’m tackling a bigger project.

 

I’ve heard you speak in the past, Allison, about how you mix up — you’ve got your long-term writing projects for you. In the case of yourself, that’s fiction writing. And you keep that ticking over, and then you slide in short jobs in 30 minutes here, and an hour there, and it’s similar for me, I guess.

 

Allison

Excellent.

 

I see that you also run writing and social media workshops for scientists. Is that a relatively kind of new area? Is it becoming more important for them to communicate well, for themselves?

 

Sarah

It is. Yeah.

 

Allison

Is that because of the funding drying up? Or is it —

 

Sarah
Yes.

 

Allison

I mean do you have to kind of be a bit of a celeb in the science world to make it happen?

 

Sarah

Yeah. That’s an interesting topic. It’s… the old-fashioned world of science was a bit weary of the celebrity scientists because it should be good enough that your science is excellent, you shouldn’t have to promote yourself. You shouldn’t have to, you know, go out and flog your wares to the whole world. But…

 

Allison

I hear any type of writer saying this, yes.

 

Sarah

But, in reality being known a little bit is a good thing. If you’re competing… you know, only about ten percent of grants within the health and medical research arena actually get up. So, whatever you can do to get that little bit of an edge over the next person is good, as long as you’re not over-pitching yourself.

 

But, also, I think there are a lot of scientists on Twitter and social media already, and those who are and have been on there for a while realize that the more they hone their skills in writing for a general audience, the better they’re going to be in writing a grant, in speaking to general audience, in convincing people that what they do is important.

 

So, yeah, it’s that old, the more you do it the better you’ll be type of approach. And thinking about, again, the audience, who are you talking to when you’re on Twitter? Who are you talking when you’re blogging?

 

And that skill is something that more and more scientists realise is important.

 

Allison

I can see why some of them are sad about it, in the sense that, you know, when you’re doing important work the fact that you’ve got to Tweet to get your grant application over the line, I can see why that would be kind of discouraging.

 

Sarah

Yeah.

 

Allison

But, you blog yourself. Have you chosen to do that as a way of building your profile as a science writer? Like, the platform is clearly important in this area.

 

Sarah

Yeah, for me it was a really critical step or tool for developing my ability to write about topical stuff quickly in an appropriate way for general audiences. And, I used it… when I first decided I would take the leap into being a freelance science writer, I launched my blog, Science for Life 365, and decided I would blog every day for a year, from one National Science Week of 2012 to the National Science Week of 2013, mainly because once I say I’m going to do something in public I have this absolute…

 

Allison

I’m with you. Why do you think I did Write a Book with Al? It’s all about accountability.

 

Sarah

Yeah. I’m so anal that once I announce it I have to do it. So, I did that, and it was just fantastic in so many ways. Not only was I making sure that I was writing every single day, even when I didn’t have clients on board every single day during those early times, but also it taught me so much about blogging, how to use a blog as a marketing tool, how to build an audience using Twitter and Facebook. And people then started coming along for the journey with me. And by the end of the year I was celebrating with the whole community of people who had been watching along every day.

 

And I think it also… I made sure I had science in every post of every day, but I also talked about things like kids and nutrition and exercise, and just how I used and applied science in my daily life.

 

I hope people found it interesting from the point of view that science doesn’t just exist in the lab, it’s relevant every day. And the way I’ve trained as scientist helps me manage other parts of my life as well.

 

Allison

Interesting. Of course we would have never actually connected were you not blogging and on Twitter and things like that.

 

Sarah

Right.

 

Allison

I wouldn’t have known that science writing was even a thing, except for the fact that I found you and your little posse of science writers there on Twitter.

 

So, it’s one of those things where you start talking to people that you would possibly never find in any other way.

 

Sarah

That’s right.

 

Allison

So, I’m all for it, as you know.

 

Sarah

Yeah.

 

Allison

Anyway, let’s wrap up with our famous top three tips to finish up with. So, what are your top three tips for anyone wanting to be a science writer, Sarah?

 

 

Sarah

I guess I’ll start with, again, reiterating the importance of your network. So, you’re only really as good as the network you build around you, in terms of real life people that you know and your social media network.

 

So, if you’re wanting to start out as a science writer I would say go to events, live Tweet from the events, learn how to use hashtags appropriately to hook up with the right people. Find out who matters in science writing in the place you live, or the kind of work that you want to do, ping them regularly. I did so much live tweeting from events early on that my Twitter handle is @sciencesarah so people would meet me and go, “Oh, you’re Science Sarah. That’s you, the annoying one who tweets like a maniac from public lectures,” or whatever.

 

Your network, I would say.

 

Secondly, I would say if you’re a science writer science is your speciality area, but primarily you are a writer, so you must be good at it. So, do courses. I’ve done that initial grad dip science communication course, but I also did a copywriting course through you guys.

 

Allison

Oh right, excellent.

 

Sarah

Loved it, fantastic. So, train yourself how to write and then write a lot in lots of different ways — so, long-form, short-form, blogging, social media. Review books, I review books for the local paper here.

 

So, the more you do the better you’ll get. The faster and more efficient you’ll be, and that will all work in a business sense, of course. In your favour.

 

And my third tip is that even though you’re a science writer, you can’t just know about science, you must see that science sits within a broader culture. So, as I was talking about earlier with the Kim Kardashian, science has to compete within other parts of life. You have to know what people are watching on TV. You have to know what kind of audiences you might be trying to tap into. So, don’t shut yourself off into a little science bubble, you have to read broadly, use Facebook, watch crap TV.

 

Allison

You heard it here first, people, watch crap TV.

 

Sarah

You have to tap into broader culture if you want science to work in a broader sense, so…

 

 

Allison

Fantastic.

 

Sarah

… know your audiences. Yep.

 

Allison

Well, thank you so much for your time today, Sarah. So, we’ve been listening to Sarah Keenihan. You’ll find her at sciencesarah.wordpress.com So, go over and have a look at some of her work and what’s she’s been up to.

 

And, you will also, of course, find her on Twitter, because she’s there a lot as @sciencesarah

 

Thank you very much for your time today, Sarah. I really appreciate it.

 

Sarah

It’s a pleasure, Allison.

 


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