Science Writing Was Worth It. It Just Took Longer Than I Thought.

By Sheeva Azma

This article first appeared in The Xylom on December 26, 2020. Read the original version here.

illustration of a slot machine
(Image by Unsplash/The Xylom)

What is 25 dollars worth to you? A pair of slides? A Roku?

25 dollars was what I’d get after days of hammering out an article about anything from being a cat owner to brain science — even writing Facebook quizzes about cheese.

Every day, in my small D.C. apartment, I would scroll Elance, now Upwork, and get to work applying to freelance writing jobs. I had just graduated with my Master’s degree in Neuroscience and was trying to get a federal government job nearby. I was also training for my first marathon, the Chicago Marathon, which I ran on October 13, 2013, during a U.S. government shutdown. So I filled my time with something I really liked to do and that perhaps I could get paid for — write.

photo of mit stata center
The Ray and Maria Stata Center is a landmark building on the MIT campus in Cambridge, Mass. (Steve Pancrate/Unsplash)

Growing up, I wanted to be a brain surgeon, but I also really liked writing. In high school, I won several Scholastic Art and Writing Awards for my short essays. I even published a high school term paper about the transcendentalist poet e.e. cummings in a professional literary journal. Yet, the writer’s life was not something that I chose purposefully. I was stunned in high school when I was accepted to MIT for college — to pursue a career in science, I guess? — and rejected from my dream Ivy League schools (I’m looking at you, Harvard). Getting accepted to any of these schools was indeed more of an art than a science. Nevertheless, I felt confused about how I could apply my writing skills as a science major. To me, science and writing seemed like two different worlds.

Getting accepted to any of these schools was indeed more of an art than a science. Nevertheless, I felt confused about how I could apply my writing skills as a science major. To me, science and writing seemed like two different worlds.

As an MIT student, I learned of the challenges of science communication as a student member of the MIT Subcommittee on the Communications Requirement (SOCR). SOCR oversaw the undergraduate communications requirement, which, according to the MIT website, “developed out of the belief that MIT students, regardless of their field of study, should learn to write prose that is clear, organized, and effective, and to marshal facts and ideas into convincing written and oral presentations.” Serving on SOCR meant that I would wake up at 7 a.m. a few times each semester to attend a meeting with professors, eat a catered breakfast, and discuss how to improve young scientists’ and engineers’ communication skills. The communications requirement included both humanities courses as well as helping students improve technical writing and presentation skills. Many of my brilliant classmates, skilled tinkerers and builders, complained that they were not good at writing. On the other hand, I relished the opportunity to work on essays — whether for my science and engineering courses or for my humanities electives — as a break from tedious problem sets and lab projects.

After college, I worked in a brain imaging laboratory studying decision making. After that, I spent several years working towards a Ph.D., making it through my qualifying exams. As a Ph.D. candidate, at one fateful meeting with my advisor, I was asked what I wanted to do with my life. I stated that I was considering a career in science policy, and wasn’t really interested in academia. That did not go over super well, but then again, none of my (super interesting to me) research projects had, either. So, I left with a Master’s degree and, ironically, a lot of decisions to make: What am I going to do, where am I doing it, and how am I feeding myself? Weirdly, around the time this was all happening, I had just read an article about how financial scarcity reduces brain function by 13 IQ points — equivalent to the loss of a night’s sleep. I felt the cognitive effects of scarcity hard as I applied for unemployment, sought out job interviews, experimented with a career in writing, and tried to make it all work.

photo of sheeva azma's workspace decor
Sheeva’s workspace decor. (Courtesy of Sheeva Azma)

I spent my days writing, baking new recipes, and, since I no longer had a stable income, searching for clearance items at my favorite D.C. shopping hotspots. I had no idea what I was doing, but I did manage to pitch a few articles to some of my favorite publications. I grew up in the era of AOL and had good memories of a finance-related feature on there called The Motley Fool, which eventually became its own website. I pitched them an article about brain training, and they liked my idea. At the same time, I published an article in a science policy publication based on my Master’s work studying the neurocognitive effects of poverty. These articles became the backbone of my science writing portfolio.

I spent my days writing, baking new recipes, and, since I no longer had a stable income, searching for clearance items at my favorite D.C. shopping hotspots.

One thing I did like about freelance writing was being able to work from home on my own terms. However, I could no longer afford to pay $1200 a month for my D.C. apartment when I worked from home and rarely ever did any fun tourist stuff, so I moved back to Oklahoma which has a much lower cost of living. Over the next few years, I continued to build my writing experience, in various ways that were not focused on writing but did involve various types of writing. To make money, I also started selling old clothes online — something I also did in graduate school — and I did some research to figure out what types of description text in product listings could help boost sales.

photo of the united states capitol building
Sheeva completed an unpaid science policy internship on Capitol Hill. (Caleb Perez/Unsplash)

Over the next few years, my career took another detour when I decided to try to move back to D.C. to work on Capitol Hill and finally be able to do science policy. After six months of applying for unpaid internships, I finally got an offer. So, I packed all my belongings into a small SUV and drove 20 hours to pursue my dream internship. As a Congressional intern, I wrote emails welcoming constituents to the office, how-to guides for new interns, and would often attend briefings and summarize them quickly over the next hour. Writing in a busy Congressional office is difficult because people are always coming and going and the main goal is to make the office as welcoming to constituents as possible, so I did not spend too much time on these. I operated by the principle that “done is better than perfect.”

I found that it was too expensive to do an unpaid internship in DC. It didn’t help that I couldn’t find housing in DC during my Capitol Hill internship so I had to live in a hotel for two months, but ultimately, I moved back to Oklahoma again with the goal of ramping up my freelance endeavors. Over the next four years, I worked to grow a steady clientele, slowly improved my visibility in science writing and paid off my student loans.

In February 2020, I finally launched my own science writing company, Fancy Comma, LLC. This was just a couple of weeks before the entire world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet the pandemic was actually a great time for me to expand my business operations as suddenly, everyone needed someone to explain the science of COVID-19 and best practices to them.

photo of a cat sitting on a notebook
Sheeva’s cat, which passed away earlier in 2020, sitting on a stack of notes for her client. (Courtesy of Sheeva Azma)

Because freelance science writers (and all freelance writers) work by themselves, it can be difficult to think of oneself as part of a larger community. My career path has involved science research, policy, and freelance science writing, which are not exactly related (although they all involve a LOT of writing). From chatting with other freelancers, I have learned that my career path is not unique.

The science writing and science journalism communities have also evolved over the past decade or so. When I was a graduate student, science communication did not really exist as a concept. There were a few graduate students interested in what is called “outreach” which is usually hosting science projects for K-12 students, but science writing was not really considered a formal career path. These days, one could launch a successful career just by working in the field of science communication. I guess this is because as science advances, it has gotten more complicated — a recent study just showed that scientific papers have become more difficult to read over the past 25 years. On the other hand, there are still nuanced differences between science journalism and science communication, though the demarcation line is rapidly blurring. Science journalism is a form of journalism, which typically involves reporting science or a story with many scientific details, in a way that is informative and impactful for the reader. While the goal of science communication is often to communicate the joy of complex science in an easy-to-understand way, the goal of science journalism is to report on or shed light on the murky underbelly of science. The two — science communication and science journalism — are symbiotic and one can’t live without the other.

While the goal of science communication is often to communicate the joy of complex science in an easy-to-understand way, the goal of science journalism is to report on or shed light on the murky underbelly of science.

Perhaps that is why as I’ve been able to gain more experience in science writing, I’m dipping my toes into journalism also. Most recently, I wrote an article about the social impacts of video games and game dev culture for LifeWire as a tech reporter. I can say that for scientists interested in writing, science- and technology-focused journalism is a great opportunity to exercise your curiosity to reach out to people and learn about something interesting that you can then explain to readers in a straightforward, easy-to-understand way.

These days, I don’t write articles for $25 a pop anymore. My clients have included Fortune 100 companies, tech startups, major CEOs, and other thought leaders in the world. I also see writing a lot differently, especially science writing. In grad school, writing was just a way to communicate science. Today, I realize that knowing how to write effectively is a foundational aspect of science communication — and life in general.

I never imagined that I would pursue a science writing career, but now I can’t imagine doing anything else.

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3 thoughts on “Science Writing Was Worth It. It Just Took Longer Than I Thought.

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