Debdutta Paul Interview: Science Writer

Debdutta loved mathematics and wanted to become an astronomer as a child. To that end, he studied physics in college and later got a PhD in physics, specializing in astrophysics.

Debdutta’s journey into science writing is a fascinating one. In his own words, “Writing started as a medium for documenting but soon became a full-fledged passion.”

To learn how he became a science writer and what advice he’d offer to aspiring science writers, dive into the following interview.

Debdutta Paul

1. Let’s start with your background… What did you want to be when you were young? And how did you end up becoming a science writer?

I wanted to be an astronomer, and I ended up becoming one.

As a child, I didn’t know that one would have to study physics to practice astronomy, but when I figured that out, I went to college to study physics. I always loved mathematics in my childhood, but physics had become my first love by the time I had completed schooling, so the choice also aligned with the bigger goal. After a bachelor’s, I went for a master’s + PhD course, mastering first in physics and then completing my PhD in astrophysics. I carried on as a postdoctoral researcher. So, what does this have to do with writing?

Well, the answer is a long and complicated one. While growing up, I was shy and didn’t talk well. But a kid needs to vent. So, I was writing beyond my school hours. There was a phase when I had thought of writing seriously, that is, to go into literature. Eventually, I found science more interesting, especially physics. But, can a writer ever put down their pen? I kept writing personal stuff through college, during my PhD. In school, it was poetry, and then it was prose. I wrote about science and academia on Quora and started running my blog. I started and ran a student blog in my institution during my PhD for two years.

It was at the fag end of my PhD that I wrote something professionally. I wasn’t hoping to earn; I was really writing to write. These were a couple of articles on academia, mental health, and PhD. That opportunity led me to a survey very close to my heart that I kept conducting during my postdoctoral work.

I got another boost during the end of my PhD. I got feedback on my thesis: it was written well, and it told a coherent story. I believe the aspect of telling a story was ingrained in me. I had read enough scientific papers and theses to be disillusioned with the kind of scientific writing that most astronomers practiced. So, I could quickly appreciate the well-written papers amongst them and analyze what made them interesting. I tried to emulate these practices in my scientific writing, through my papers during the PhD and, at the end, in my thesis. That really paid off. Firstly, when scientists write well, they think clearly and eventually do better science. Secondly, my writing was never dull. I did not like my writing to be dull. Even amongst the scientific jargon, there was always a story. I wrote a layperson summary of my thesis and loved doing that.

By the time I was working on the survey and reporting independently on it, I had made up my mind that I wanted to write professionally in the long run. So, I quit my postdoctoral research. To be clear, I wasn’t sure what exactly I wanted to focus my writing energy on. I wanted to be a journalist, and I did end up doing some journalism as a freelancer. It was incredibly hard to break into mainstream journalism. Parallely, I tried science journalism, and it worked better. I think I had a skill set that not many had — knowing how scientific research works, how to read scientific papers and get the gist of it, how to talk to scientists, as well as the ability to tell stories. The mix of these two was fascinating, and that’s how I got into science writing.

2. Anyone who wants to build a career in science writing, how do you suggest they get started?

If I thought hard before I shifted to science writing, I would not have done so. It is an incredibly difficult field to get a stable income in. Let’s face it: no matter how passionate you are about your work, you still want to get paid for it. Unless you are incredibly privileged, you cannot work for free.

Science writing in India hasn’t taken off. There are a few science writers. Although science communication earlier meant only science writing, it means much more than science writing now, for good reasons. So, although there are many professionals in science communication, there are not many science writers. And, the number of people who can write about more theoretically inclined subjects like physics and mathematics than, say, chemistry and biology — you can count on your fingers. While that’s a good thing for someone like me, that’s also a big red flag.

My long-winded advice would be to think hard before jumping into science writing. Maybe freelance actively for a while before taking a call. One should get a sense of how things are in this field. I was fortunate as well as privileged to be able to break into science writing. Although the space is a little more accessible now, there is little funding. One hopes that with changing winds, the situation will improve. But there is no guarantee.

I don’t wish to dampen the spirits of people interested in the field. I want to state the facts. And then answer the question.

There are some online resources to learn the craft. Not many, but if one is sincere about honing their skill, they can. My biggest learning in this has been that one really learns science writing while science writing. No matter how many courses one takes or books one reads, the biggest learning happens through pitching to editors, receiving their feedback, and working on them under deadlines. There is no better way to learn science writing. Run your blog, sure. Take courses, sure. But do not delude yourself to think that is enough.

As with all forms of writing, one learns while editing. So, go pitch, pull yourself up from rejections, build your contacts, learn how to track science stories, learn the craft of reporting science stories, and write and edit. Be professional. If you are not trained as a scientist, you must learn to read scientific papers, learn scientific concepts, and learn how to talk to scientists. It isn’t easy, and one learns the most by doing it.

3. Any tips on how to improve one’s writing and job skills?

Read. Write. Edit.

If you have to write well, you have to read regularly.

If you have to write well, you have to write regularly.

If you have to write well, you have to edit regularly. Probably the most among the three.

You have to read on writing well. You have to look for flaws in your writing and strive to do better the next time you write.

Is there any other way a writer improves their writing?

4. How did you find your first writing gigs? And any tips on finding work as a science writer?

Great question. Short answer: I was both desperate and lucky.

Long answer: The pandemic was breaking out. It was an incredibly hard time, as I had just moved back to India, leaving a career in academia without a clear path ahead. And then, we were locked down.

I was desperate to find journalistic gigs. I did manage to find a few. For all the gigs, I was working from home. I was writing for online pubs on reporting incidents, not just science. Only then did I realize that I am more interested in science writing than old-school journalism. I still tracked some angles of journalistic stories, but I started finding a better footing in science writing. And how did I do that? By desperately reaching out to any editor, through any channel, who would be remotely interested in working with me on what I was interested in. I tried all social media channels, wrote to multiple people to understand how the writing world works, wrote multiple pitches, and faced multiple rejections. I got an opportunity to attend a prestigious journalism school in the country, but I did not have enough money to fund that private education, so I focused all my energy on science writing. I was working for pennies, and there was no stable income. My privilege of not having to depend on a stable income — that too during a pandemic — helped a lot. But, I was also sort of getting tired of the uncertainty and the inability to break into international pubs, which pay more, and starting to think of alternate career options. Thankfully, an Indian pub I freelanced with often offered me a job at this stage. They needed me, and I was fortunate that they could afford me. I owe a lot to them, always.

I learned a lot on the job. I was reporting and writing multiple stories simultaneously and slowly turned to editing. I came across a steadily rising number of folks, mostly science graduates/would-be graduates interested in science writing. I think, generally, finding work requires writing better pitches, which is a dawning that I had earlier, but the aspiring science writers seemed to miss out on it. So, my specific suggestion is to learn the craft of pitching.

5. How did you deal with the initial rejections?

I had no other option but to learn from the rejection as much as possible, move on, and apply the learning to the next pitch. Thankfully, I became a part of a group of writers in India who wrote on various topics. Discussing rejections was normal in this group. These discussions helped me a lot to keep going every day. When seasoned writers discussed why their pitches were rejected, their conclusions, and how they improved their pitches, I could see: one, the importance of improving my pitching; two, sometimes, it is not in our hands. So, I felt grounded. And I took every rejection as a learning opportunity to do better in the next. As I said, I learned on the job.

6. How do you maintain a good relationship with clients, companies, or institutes where you work?

Currently, I work as a staff in an international research institute. It is a relatively small and new institution, and it has set up the systems in a relatively modern way. That really helps. A method is in place for most things, and people are helpful. That takes away a lot of the burden. Of course, being a public-funded institution, there is bureaucracy, but the overall environment takes the pain away. I don’t have other ‘clients’ or work with other ‘companies’. My primary colleagues are scientists. The relationship between the scientist and the science communicator has always been tricky, whether they are a writer or not. It is a delicate balance, and one needs to learn this craft. Again, there is no set pattern. I am new to this particular job, and I learn every day. One needs to be organized, professional, and open-minded to learn. Then, the rest come through.

7. Would you say building a website is necessary for beginners?

Absolutely. If not a personal domain, one can make a free portfolio website — there are many options. A webpage showcases your work to the world. Look, a résumé doesn’t say much to an editor, especially in a field like science writing. Your portfolio website, whether in a personalized domain or a free one, does. Go make a website if you haven’t yet!

8. What challenges in your work do you believe aren’t talked about enough?

The uncomfortable relationship between scientists and science communicators is a major challenge. There is so much to unpack about this that I am afraid I cannot do it here. So, professionals in the field, including me, are presently working on projects that will help shed light on these intricacies. We will make concrete suggestions for stakeholders in a few months.

A second and important aspect of the field is the lack of professionalization. The community is small, there is not enough funding, and there is little availability of a formal structure. Most people are isolated, working in different places without a clear sense of community. One cannot make up for some things, like a lack of community, by being active online. I do miss a sense of community, although I am digitally connected with other individuals in this field.

9. How do you think AI is impacting science writing? And what can writers do to future-proof their business?

I think “artificial intelligence” is not affecting science writing in any significant way. Look, science writers do a job that machines cannot do — interact with scientists and find a way to tell a story without dumbing down the science. A machine cannot carry out these human steps in a loop. It cannot decide what interactions are essential, what knowledge is necessary, and what readers need to know. The job has a human purpose. However, AI can help the science writer think about things, summarise concepts, and rewrite drafts. We should not be afraid of that — instead, we should use machines to do routine, monotonous tasks. But can AI tell compelling science stories from scratch? No way.

I would like to believe that the science writing process is knowledge creation. Scientists are not naturally inclined to science communication, and most are uncomfortable doing it. So, most don’t. That is, if you leave scientists with very advanced AI, you may not have science writing. So, sometimes, the science writers’ work is to force scientists to interact with them in the first place. You cannot get around this by creating rules and mandates and making science writing a part of the scientists’ job. If you create the mandate, it will help people like us, who understand both science and practice the craft of telling science stories. We will find increased appreciation of our skill set amongst scientists and, hopefully, more wilful collaborators. In other words, AI is a win-win for science writers.

10. What tools do you use to manage your own time and workflow?

I use an online tool called Workflowy. 😀

Other than that, I use a calendar, Google Drive, and phone alarms.

I am disciplined. I wake up every morning, travel to work for an hour, and get to work early. I work 9-to-5 with a brief break in between. I regularly read back-and-forth work. So, other than some essential tools, I would say I manage time by being disciplined.

11. What are some non-fiction books that helped you in your career?

Stephen King’s On Writing (A Memoir of the Craft). I have read a few other writing books, including the classic Strunk & White (The Elements of Style). While neither is a book on science writing per se, they are both fantastic books about writing well. Anne E. Greene’s Writing Science in Plain English serves as a reference material sometimes. But, On Writing opened my eyes to the basics of writing well.

12. And finally, if you had to go back in time and offer advice to your younger self at the beginning of your writing career, what would you say?

Don’t do this. Writing cannot be a stable profession.

13. Where can we find you online? Various other places, but I have added the hyperlinks to these on my website.

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