By Susanne Masters, who is working on PhD research at Naturalis Biodiversity Center, writes articles for assorted publications, and taught a Calderwood Seminar on public writing at Bard College this spring.
Extending an invitation to the realm of science or getting a paycheck for writing. Either of these motivations or others might lead a scientist to write for non-academic publications. Regardless of your motivation, in the first place I would recommend that you approach writing with humility; remember that journalists spend years studying and learning on the job how to write articles that appeal to their readers. And in that the second important consideration is demonstrated; you are writing for the readership of the publication.
As an ethnobotanist or ethnobiologist the obvious writing niche in which you have particular knowledge and expertise is ethnobotany and ethnobiology. You might branch out into other topics when you have more non-academic publications in your writing portfolio, but as an initial step use to your advantage what you already know well. Being an expert on an area can be a great asset when you are asking that first editor to take a chance on someone without published features. Because when you pitch a story idea to an editor you are also pitching why you are the best person to write it.
Getting your foot in the door
You wouldn’t expect to walk into a University ask for a tenure track Professor position and get it – there are steps you follow to build up to it from undergrad to postgrad, and onwards. An editor needs to be able to trust that you can deliver the story you are proposing. This is helped by seeing articles that you’ve written published by other places.
A manageable way to start scaling that mountain is to write an article about something within your realm of experience for example fieldwork or visiting an economic botany collection for a special interest publication or science group that you are affiliated with e.g. the Society for Economic Botany newsletter Plants & People.
Publications that are operating as special interest or educational often don’t have funds to pay for writing. And as organisations that aren’t operating on a commercial basis it is reasonable to share information with their readership without being paid as a writer. Additionally if you have had funding that enabled you to go on fieldwork writing about it is a great way to help other people find out about that funding body, as well as giving thanks to your collaborators in the field. For example, my PhD research is on trade in wild harvested orchids. Several times I have written about fieldwork and orchid conference attendance for RHS Orchid Review. It has been a great way to share what I’ve learnt with an audience who is really interested in orchids.
However, commercial publications and organisations should pay for your work, whether it is the first article you have written or the 100th. Even if you don’t feel that you need the money, by writing articles for free you are taking work opportunities away from people for whom writing is their day-to-day job. You are also tipping the balance towards never getting paid for writing as you undervalue the role of a writer. Furthermore commercial publications that don’t pay writers will also skimp on copyediting, picture editing, fact checking and all the other things that go into making a great article.
Publications to pitch to
Having advised you to not write for commercial publications for free, I am also happy to signpost you towards some publications that pay writers, and whose readership may be very interested in what you have to write about. These are also publications that share the Society for Economic Botany’s ethos and are actively fostering diversity of voices and narrative perspectives in writing.
A magazine that covers “…women and gender in the history and popular culture of science, technology and medicine.” Furthermore, they strongly encourage writers from marginalized and minoritized backgrounds, newer writers, and writers transitioning out of academia to pitch to them. Their pitching guidelines are on the website, but I recommend that you also follow them on Twitter so you know when they are putting out requests for pitches and keep up to date on the kinds of articles they publish.
This publication is dedicated to publishing nature writing by writers of colour. Their submission guidelines are on the website. Follow them on Twitter to see their calls for submissions and other opportunities that they highlight.
High country news
Focused on the western states of the USA. They have a dedicated tribal affairs desk centered on Native voices for an Indigenous audience, details are included in their submission guidelines.
In 2020, a year that is noted as the 400 year anniversary of the Mayflower, this publication is seeking to highlight the revitalization of Native American cuisine. They are also hoping to have these stories written by people from within these communities and in their call for submissions on this topic asked, “If you are Native American, please feel welcome to email gastro-pitches (@) atlasobscura.com with your name, some information about yourself, including where you live and writing samples, and if you’re available to write for us. We are keen to commission stories from American Indian writers, and we may email you a story idea we are looking to assign.” On their FAQ there is a link to their pitch guidelines.