I first met freelance science writer Sharon Oosthoek at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s 2014 meeting in Chicago. She kindly agreed to sit down with me later via Skype and share her perspective on science writing and the life of a freelancer.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How long have you been attending AAAS and what do you find most valuable about scientific conferences?
That was only my second conference; my first one was in Vancouver two years ago.
I think [conferences help with] understanding better the context of certain issues. It’s not like you see a lot breaking news coming out of AAAS, so if you’re going there looking for a news story, it might be a little more difficult. I do more feature writing, so it’s more helpful for me; I do a lot of work on genetics, evolution, wildlife and environmental reporting. I may not know the full picture and going there — hearing three different scientists presenting on an issue around a theme — you get more context for the story you’d like to tackle, and you get the contacts obviously, so that’s valuable.
What’s your general strategy when attending conferences?
I check out the agenda beforehand, see who’s presenting and what topics might of interest and then I try to read their papers before I attend the conference and see if I can’t pitch an idea or two before I actually leave.
Do you have a stable of publications to which you shop stories?
Yeah, for a while I was getting kind of lazy because, before the recession, it was easy: I could go to the same publications and they were open to pitching. But now with the recession that’s getting harder and harder, and I’m having to expand my repertoire.
How did this year stack up? Did you find a lot of story ideas?
I found more in Vancouver, frankly. That’s only because I’m Canadian and it was in Canada, was more Canada focused and a lot of my clients are Canadian. This time around I did sell an idea. While I was there I happened to sit down next to an editor I’d worked with before and said “Hey I just came back from the coolest session and X and Y and Z happened, what do you think about a story?” And she said, “Sold.” So that was great. And I came up with an idea for another story and made at least two contacts who I think will be really helpful in helping me generate stories. The irony, of course, is I went all the way to Chicago to meet two Canadians.
So you sold a story about how bacteria affect animal behavior that was based on research presented at AAAS?
As a freelancer, I’m trying to recycle the idea, but I sold it to Science News for Students, sort of a fun kids’ article: “The bacteria made me do it.” I have a couple editors, one at Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Online and another one at the Globe, who have said “Let me know what ideas you come back with from AAAS.” I haven’t yet put together a pitch that’s adult-centered, and I’ve got to get a couple Canadian researchers, but I’m putting out feelers now. There’s apparently some interesting science going on at McMaster University in Hamilton with respect to bacteria affecting behavior. So if I can Canadian-ize it, maybe give it a slightly different angle, maybe I can sell it elsewhere.
When you’re not gallivanting off to conferences, where do you find most of your story ideas?
I do have a list of websites that I look at once a week at least. They include not only the science pages of various publications — not only in the UK, the US and Canada — but also universities. I find that although it’s helpful to read EurekAlert, the Nature bulletins, PNAS and the Royal Society Journal bulletins, most staff reporters are all over those stories. It’s very hard to pitch those stories as a freelancer because people on the inside are already doing them. So I try to go further afield, to the university or research institute’s website to find out what’s going on there. I also, every few months, will connect with scientists I’ve spoken with previously and say “Hey, what’s up, what are you working on now?”
And of course the final question I have in every interview is “Is there anything I’ve missed; is there anything I’ve glossed over that I shouldn’t have?” And often that feeds you new stories. Things come out that you otherwise wouldn’t have learned about. There are some times when I get really pathetic and desperate and just go wandering the periodical stacks of the University of Toronto. And I pick things out at random. Actually, I came up with a few good stories that way.
I was reading a forestry journal in the library at U. of T. where a Quebec researcher was talking about genetically altering trees, an experiment in a forest in Quebec to see if he could grow bigger, faster, stronger trees. The idea was, maybe we could take the pressure off ancient forests by growing trees as crops. But first we have to get the genetics right so that we can grow them faster and maybe with less lignin, so that if we’re using this for pulp and paper, we don’t have to break down the lignin with all these chemicals and various industrial processes. And I thought, “Cool, that’s a great story: Franken-pine.” And I ended up selling it to The Globe and Mail, and it was well received; it was fun.
You worked at The Hamilton Spectator for many years. How does the world of freelancing compare?
I’m really glad that I started out the way I did, in a daily newsroom, before going freelance. It taught me to write tight, to write fast. It taught me when I was younger and maybe less confident, what a story really is. I had editors to bounce things off, really smart editors, who helped me hone my skill set. So that part was great. But then you can also get lazy as a staffer—I don’t want to say lazy; it’s probably different these days—but assignments come to you when you work in a newsroom. As a freelancer, assignments don’t come to you. Well, they occasionally do if you’ve got repeat editors, but usually it’s you pitching them. You have to be hungrier. You have to be on the lookout for stories all the time.
How do you evaluate the science on which you’re reporting?
I always talk to at least two other scientists who weren’t involved in the studies; I guess it’s sort of the standard way of going about scientific journalism. I forward them the study and say, “So what do you think, is this robust? Is this statistically significant? Are there any problems? What caveats would you give?” I’m not a scientist. I probably know enough to be dangerous, that’s about it. But I like to think I know the questions to ask, so I ask them of people who know more than I do about the subject. And there are some people I’ve cultivated over the years I can rely on to tell me if it’s a good study or not.
What do you look for in an editor?
I really like to work collegially with an editor. I’m not just looking for a copy edit; I’m looking for suggestions about how to approach stories. Now that I’m a freelancer, it’s harder and harder to get an editor’s time to talk through a story. Whereas I’m emailing or phoning them for input, they’ve got someone standing in their face that they have to deal with, so they get priority. So I really like it when I do stumble across an editor who has time to actually talk with me on the phone rather than just send me a short email saying what they want. I’ve been doing this long enough I’d like to think I could deliver, but I like to talk to people. Otherwise I start talking to myself which is not a good scene.
What trends do you see for the future of science Journalism?
I think more crowdsource journalism. With the cutbacks, it’s hard for all media right now and especially for freelancers. You’re seeing freelancers banding together to create crowdsourced journalism platforms, which is quite interesting. I don’t have the chutzpah to do it myself, to go out and say ‘give me money to cover X or Y. I’m watching those from the sidelines with great interest. And I do have a friend whose doing it here in Canada, solo. And he does really good journalism; I respect him as a journalist, I love hearing his stories, but he’s not making a lot of money.
What tips do you have for aspiring science writers?
Be flexible. Pitch widely if you’re freelancing. Don’t rely on just one or two clients, but at the same time—this is going to sound like I’m telling you to play both ends of it, and I guess I am—develop relationships with editors that can be long-term, that can be satisfying, so that they do think of you when they have a story idea. There are a couple editors I deal with now I don’t have to write a full pitch for; I just say “How about something on X? I could talk to Y or maybe Z, so what do you think?” Cultivate a few really good relationships with editors, but don’t sit on your laurels. Make sure that at least once a month you pitch to someone you’ve never met. Pitch cold.