Jeanne Erdmann sheds light on how to be a better freelancer

By Siddharth Vodnala

Freelance science writer Jeanne Erdmann has plenty of experience explaining things to people.

A story about furanocoumarins explained why grapefruit juice might adversely affect cancer therapies.

The topic of postmortem genetic testing explained the science behind why thousands of young people suddenly drop dead every year suddenly for no apparent reason.

Jeanne Erdmann talking to the Science, Health and Environmental Writing class at MU. Image credit Siddharth Vodnala.

Jeanne Erdmann talking to the Science, Health and Environmental Writing class at MU. Image credit Siddharth Vodnala.

Erdmann has covered these and many other fascinating topics in her career as a freelance science writer. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, Scientific American, Slate, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and many other places. She is also a co-founder of the Open Notebook, a nonprofit that provides resources and tools to science journalists looking to improve their craft.

Erdmann visited our Science, Health and Environment writing class on April 16th to talk about her writing process and how to make it work as a freelancer.

She has not only written extensively about pathology and immunology but also about the health implications of government policy. She has given special attention to cancer in her work, writing about it from various vantage points, like the genetic discoveries that have impact on cancer treatment, proper nutrition for cancer survivors, how to cope with appetite changes during chemotherapy and the financial impact of cancer treatment.

Her relationship with science is about more than writing: Erdmann actually started out as a bone researcher at Washington University in St. Louis. Even as a scientist, she knew she wanted to explain the things she was doing to the public.

“I took every science and technical writing class I could,” Erdmann said. One day, she went to a talk about the varied careers in science and met some full-time science writers.

As she was walking back to her lab, she thought to herself, “if they can do this, so can I.”

She continued working at the lab in the day, but at night covered city hall and school boards as a Metro desk stringer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Later, she got to write a column on the science of sports for the Post-Dispatch. She eventually pitched and sold her first feature to the science website HMS Beagle.

Using her background as a bone researcher, the first feature she pitched was about what happens to bones in the microgravity of space. It was titled “Heavenly Bodies.” There was no looking back for Erdmann.

That experience also helped Erdmann understand something that she shared with the class: “To find stories, start close to home.”

She advised the class to eavesdrop, attend conferences and troll PubMed for stories. “Think about what you love to read about, or what’s going on with your friends and family. There might just be a story there.”

She offered advice on the process of pitching story ideas to publications, which is important for any freelancer. She emphasized the importance of researching a publication before pitching.

“Try to find the ‘voice’ of the stories that they publish,” she said.

She also talked about structuring a pitch with the proper introduction and making it seem newsworthy. “Write about why this is new or different. Why does this story need to be told now?”

Erdmann also mentioned the importance of selling oneself as a writer. “Show them your clips. If you don’t have many clips, tell them about yourself, why you’re the perfect person to write this story.”

“Finally, take a deep breath and hit send. This is the scariest part,” she said, noting the importance of surrounding oneself with friends who encourage one to pitch and pitch often. “Remember, editors are always looking for pitches. Any news organization is only as good as the writers and editors are,” she said.


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