A writer’s life among the volcanoes
Kent Ratajeski chats with Robin George Andrews about his path into science journalism and recommendations for aspiring science writers.
With many scientists looking for careers outside academia, an increasing number of people are using their scientific training in the growing field of science journalism. Robin George Andrews, an award-winning science writer whose work has been featured in the New York Times, took his first steps on this career path when studying the physics of erupting volcanoes as a post-graduate student.
“Even during my PhD, it became quite clear that I enjoyed telling non-scientists about the really interesting stuff that was going on in the field more than actually doing the science,” Robin said. “I love science, but I was finding it very hard to focus on one thing. I’m interested in many, many things, so I had a lot of journalistic characteristics that I didn’t even know about.”
Robin hasn’t looked back since he decided to transition from academia to freelance journalism in 2015. His first attempt to get something in print was to email editors at National Geographic and Gizmodo, pretty much out of the blue. His pitch? “I said, ‘My background is in volcanoes. There’s a lot of focus on Yellowstone, but there’s so much more to volcanoes (than Yellowstone),’ and they let me have a go. It just sort of spiralled from there.”
Ideas and pitches
Living on our volcanically active planet has provided Robin with plenty of ideas for stories. Like the volcanoes he writes about, some of those ideas seem to erupt without warning. “You see scientific papers coming out, see a scientist on Twitter, you may get an email from a scientist, or you may be looking over a conference abstract, and you think, ‘Oh, that sounds interesting!’”. Often, geological forces operating within Earth itself determine Robin’s next assignment, when he receives an email alert heralding another eruption or earthquake occurring somewhere in the world.
At the beginning of his writing career, Robin pitched nearly all his story ideas to editors. Now, after seven years of experience, hundreds of published articles, and the book, Super Volcanoes: What They Reveal about the Earth and the Worlds Beyond (2021), he receives about a third of his project ideas from the editors themselves.
Following his interests in Earth, planetary, and space sciences, Robin has created a niche for himself in science journalism, and building working relationships with editors has been key to his success. “As far as I can tell, the trick is (knowing) multiple editors,” Robin recommends. “So even if one editor doesn’t want a story, another publication will.”
Writing the story
Once he has the go-ahead from a particular publication, it’s time to get down to work and write the story. The number of articles he writes per month varies widely. “I think the most I’ve ever done in one month was fifteen articles,” Robin says, but it’s often less than that when he is working on a book project.
“Writing a book – I think most journalists or writers, or even a lot of scientists, think, ‘that would be a cool thing to do one day,’” Robin says. But it wasn’t until 2019, when Robin was contacted by a few literary agents about a possible book project, that he seriously considered doing that. Over the next few months, he worked with an agent from the US (“because there is more money in the American book market”) to put together a proposal for a book about volcanoes, his favorite subject. It contained chapter outlines and twenty sample pages.
He signed the contract for Super Volcanoes with publisher W.W. Norton in the spring of 2020, right at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The timing was kind of great,” Robin explains, since it gave him just one project to focus on during the worst of the lockdowns.
Developing a unique style
As a journalist with scientific training and academic credentials, not only does Robin get the science right, but he portrays the sometimes strange and unpredictable process of scientific discovery and captures the reader’s interest right from the title. Some of his greatest hits include articles entitled How to Close the Gateway to Hell, Meet the Cyberpunk Albatrosses Scanning for Secret Explosions, and Volcanoes are Cooler than You.
Robin’s stories often bring his readers along on mind-blowing rides into strange or mysterious corners of the scientific neighborhood. For example, one of his first stories to get noticed widely was a story published in The Atlantic that made the case that metal mined from ancient shipwrecks was being used by physicists in their search for dark matter.
Robin often interviews and quotes graduate students in his articles, a habit not often seen from science journalists, who seem to prefer approaching senior researchers for quotes. Robin knows that graduate students are often the best source for what is happening within emerging fields of research.
“Only very rarely is a grad student over-confident”, Robin explains. “Also, they just seem so pleased to be chatting (with me). They can’t believe that someone is interested (in their research), and that is a great combination for a gleeful, ‘isn’t this cool?’ kind of thing. And that’s what you want.”
As a long-time computer gamer and science fiction fan, Robin sprinkles his writing with popular references to movies, TV shows, and computer games. In fact, when he was 10 years old, it was Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) that gave Robin a fascination for volcanoes in the first place.
For those considering a career in science journalism, Robin has some helpful advice. “Before doing anything else, practise telling stories. You have to know that you enjoy writing or telling stories about science to people who aren’t scientists.”
His second piece of advice is to write and, at first, it doesn’t matter where. Robin says that beginners can hone their craft writing unpaid blog posts, mainly as a way of finding out if they really like doing it.
Once you are convinced that writing is something you enjoy, Robin advises speaking to other writers. “Reach out to people, writers, bloggers, or anyone that does any science writing at all. Email them and politely ask if they’re interested in the expertise you have,” Robin suggests, “Ask if they can give you any advice on pitching or if they have recommendations for editors.”
Next, it’s time to meet editors. Robin says, “Editors value people who know the science because they know that what you’re saying isn’t going to be just sensationalised silliness. Use the power of your academic background… (even if you don’t) have a lot of journalism experience. Journalists want to be contacted for stories, so they’re not too difficult to find.”
To get started in a career of science writing requires developing the art of pitching your stories, so what would Robin advise new writers about this part of the job?
When starting out in the field, consider pitching to smaller, more accessible publications or websites. “Don’t go straight for the New York Times. There are loads of websites out there that do fantastic journalism (which are) a little bit more accessible to (writers) with less experience,” Robin says.
Importantly, you should also know what a pitch is before you attempt one. Most pitches don’t require submitting a complete story, “normally it’s like: here’s a two-line summary of the subject, two more paragraphs of detail, and a really catchy subject line,” Robin describes.
Finally, find out if you are going to get paid. Some publications have a standard rate for publications and some do not. “I would ask upfront… Eventually it gets to a point where you can say what your rate is,” Robin explains.
Qualifications and qualities
Science writers can more easily break into the field if they have professional qualifications, so is it more important to have a science background or a writing background to be a successful science journalist?
“Some people come from scientific backgrounds, and some people come from journalism backgrounds,” Robin says. “One of the two backgrounds is worth it, and you should do which one you feel captures you personally.” In either case, Robin believes that having at least a master’s degree in science, communication, or science journalism would be helpful.
Are certain personality traits required to succeed in this field? “If you’re a rigid-routine person, it might not be the best career,” Robin suggests, “but if you’re happy to think on your feet and be more spontaneous, then great!”
“Having a good sense of what you actually enjoy helps as well,” Robin says. “I like writing about stuff that’s optimistic-leaning, or generally joyous or wondrous in that kind of ‘wow, nature is crazy!’ kind of way, and I would hate to do anything else.”
Engaging in informal conversation is an important skill for science writers, especially when they are interviewing people for stories. “You don’t need to be as formal as most people think you do,” Robin advises. “Just have a conversation with people and (they will) give you better quotes. I think that really helps (to get) information you wouldn’t expect to get otherwise.”
Ultimately, Robin believes one personality trait stands out above the rest: “It’s more about having relentless curiosity than personal skills.”
A long-term career
Does Robin think he could spend the rest of his career doing this kind of work?
“I’d say so,” Robin replied. “I always thought I wanted to be a scientist. But what I really want to do now is tell people about science. I just didn’t always know that, and I never realized that I might like it, but I’m having so much more fun than I realized I could. Sure, it’s hard work, but I really enjoy it. It’s super-fulfilling!”
Senior Lecturer, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Kentucky, USA
Robin is currently researching his second book, How to Kill an Asteroid, tentatively scheduled for publication in 2024.