My Research Adjacent interview

January 5, 2024

A big thank you to Sarah McCluskey for inviting me onto the Research Adjacent podcast. We talked about how I got into science writing, the challenges of life as a writer and more. Interested in a recap? Here goes...

What do you love about marine science writing?

As someone who didn't love science at school (being totally honest), it's so interesting to learn how everything works and the impact of innovative science in the conservation sector. I love being able to grill marine scientists about whatever cool thing they're doing then 'translating' that into English that regular people without a scientific background will understand and find interesting.

What are the pros and cons that you're not a scientist?

There are pros and cons of both, for sure. Writers with a science background have more experience getting into the nitty gritty of papers, data analysis and referencing. For me, not having a scientific background gives me a healthy distance from the subject matter. I'm closer to the reader's point of view. This means I'm more likely to pause at acronyms, jargon and all the science speak that a trained biologist might understand so innately. I think sometimes we assume knowledge in the general public.

For me, as someone working in the sustainability and conservation sectors for several years now, I've got a good baseline knowledge of a lot of different areas. But I'm not so familiar with all the sciencey terms that it stops me getting them to explain what they really mean. When I'm speaking to scientists, I keep reminding myself, would my dad, auntie or friend understand this. If you come from a science background, you might find it a bit less natural to stop and question because you're so comfortable with terms like blue carbon, carbon sequestration or whatever it might be.

So I think not coming from a science background allows me to add value because I can understand these topic but also have enough distance to recognise when things need a bit more explanation for a general audience.

Which stories are you particularly proud of?

I recently had my first byline in The Guardian, which was super exciting. It's one of those publications I wasn't even been brave enough to pitch for a long time. When I finally did pitch them this idea, I contacted one editor and it wasn't quite right for their section. So I tried the environment team and didn't hear anything for a week or two. I nudged them but didn't hear anything for another week or so. These publications are inundated with pitches so I was about to assume they weren't interested and drop them an email to let them know I was going to take the idea elsewhere as I hadn't heard from them. And when I went to my inbox, I had an email from them introducing me to their oceans editor who wanted to run the story. It felt insane.

But the nicest thing about that piece, which is about grassroots kelp restoration in Sussex, is that the guy I wrote about (Steve Alnutt) had donations flying in after the article was published. That's what I love about comms. The science and conservation work is so important. But it's vital to communicate it with members of the public and decision makers so you can have a bigger impact and get support. Seeing how my story inspired people to support this guy was super exciting.

I do bits and pieces for National Geographic online too and I pinch myself every time I write for them. They're such a fantastic publication and I've had some really interesting stories commissioned by them. And the editors are brilliant. So lucky and proud to work with them.

How do you approach big name publications?

I've been published for several years in various places and it wasn't until more recently that I started approaching the bigger publications. That's not to say that you can't go straight for the big guns. If you've got a great story then why not? But editors do often like to see some examples of your work to see you're a good writer before they commission you. That doesn't necessarily need to be for an external publication. It could be showcasing what you can do through your own blog.

When I started out, I initially pitched to smaller publications and I did a fair bit of unpaid writing. I know people have differing views on that but it's something I did do to build up my portfolio (retrospectively, though, I realise I probably did that for too long - once you've got a few nice links in your portfolio, you don't need to work for free anymore).

Whichever route you go, and whoever you're pitching, get to know the publication and its sections well before you pitch. It's easy to have a good idea and say, oh, yeah, I'm really excited about this, I'm going to pitch it to x magazine that I've never read. It looks like it might be relevant. PR people do this as well a lot of the time but I always recommend about tailoring and targeting your approaches. For example, you might have a marine conservation story but the publication is more focused on terrestrial projects. Or whatever it might be.

I always recommend getting a good cup of coffee, maybe a pastry, sitting down and reading. Reading the places you want to pitch is going to help you shape your stories. It's going to help you know what they're looking for. It's going to flag up if they've done the same thing recently. Sometimes it does happen that you miss something but if you're pitching something and they ran it in their last issue, that will be a red flag for the editor.

What are your biggest challenges?

I love what I do. But it is tough. It took me six (or more?) years to be published by the Guardian. One of the things that's really challenging about freelance writing is that particularly if you're going for bigger, more competitive titles, these editors are getting hundreds of pictures in a week or even in a day. Being able to cut through the noise and get a response is challenging. My PR background has given me a fairly thick skin in that regard because we're used to getting a lot of rejection.

I try and reframe things and celebrate when I get a declined pitch. Which sounds really weird, right? But think about it this way: you've sent a pitch to an editor who got 100 emails that day and 20 of them are pitches from journalists. They have this every day on top of the actual work they have to do. If they look at your email and they see you're not worth nurturing a relationship with, they're just not going to respond. And that does happen a lot of the time, for various reasons - you get nothing back. So when you do get a polite no in response, it shows the editor might see some potential there.

Did they give feedback about why the pitch isn't quite right for them? Does that help you learn? Can you use this to improve your pitch and try it with someone else? Does it help you craft a better pitch for that editor next time? It can be disheartening to get a no but I actually find it reassuring when editors take the time to get back to me and explain why something isn't right. Or even just saying "sorry, we're too busy right now". It's one stepping stone to building a better relationship with them.

All writers get rejected

Touching back on my work with Nat Geo, I can't count the number of times that I was rejected before I got my first commission. I didn't just pitch them and get in. First, I pitched something that wasn't quite right. I tried something else and it wasn't quite right. There was a lot of testing things and changing and trying again. I was lucky that the editor was giving me feedback each time until we finally got to a point when she said "yes, let's give this one a go". It's tough being ghosted, particularly when you've got a story you really want to write. Try to have a thick skin, treat it like water off a duck's back and go with it.

Every single writer will get rejections and declined pitches, even the most established ones. I sent a couple of ideas to an editor yesterday and both of them weren't quite right. And that's fine. I'll keep my eyes out for the next thing. It's part of the game, I guess. You have to try as much as you can not to take it to heart.

Is it difficult to balance your workload in a busy news cycle?

It can be. Some stories might take months or weeks before someone gives you an opportunity to write it. With some stories that's fine because it's not particularly timely. Sometimes the opposite can be true. The tightest turnaround I've had was something that I pitched one day and I think they declined at first. Then they came back the next day saying, actually, could you turn it around today? So that was a little bit of a hurricane. You don't always know what your workload is going to look like from day to day.

Often, I try to work on papers that haven't yet been published because, as a freelancer, that gives you time to pitch them, get a commission, write the article, go through the edits and get it live when the paper's embargo lifts.

I was working on a story recently: a marine biologist came to me with a study that had just come out. And the paper was already published but it hadn't yet got any press. I'd recently pitched a different story to my editor who was too busy to pick it up. So I wanted to run it by them, assuming it would be a no but giving them first refusal. They came straight back wanted to run it and, I think, I filed it two or three days later. I was expecting that one to be a slow turnaround - but it wasn't at all.

That does make it hard to to plan things because if you're pitching a story you don't know if they'll reply today want it tomorrow, or if they won't reply for a week or more. It takes a bit of a juggling and that's something I'm always trying to balance.

What should people know about getting into the conservation sector?

That it's possible, whatever your background. When I first moved into the conservation sector, I genuinely thought that a comms person couldn't get into marine conservation without retraining to be a biologist or paying an extortionate amount of money to get involved in voluntourism. I was lucky that I spoke to a shark scientist for advice and he set me straight. "Are you kidding?" he said (or something like that). "We have scientists, we desperately need communications people." I think it's so important to have that visibility and see there are people doing the things you want to do.

Work with me

If you enjoyed this blog and my other published work and need copywriting support for your own projects, let's chat. I'm available for commission from organisations and editors to help with articles, blogs, web copy, reports and more.

If you're interested in commissioning me, feel free to get in touch for a chat - I'd love to hear from you.