Career Advice

How to Get a Byline in Popular Science

By Jordan Teicher July 27th, 2015

If magazine feature writing is the major league of journalism, then the front-of-book (FOB) market is more like Triple A. It’s where writers get print credibility with short clips that usually don’t exceed 800 words, and even though online pieces often come with bigger word counts, FOB stories get you one step closer to a publication’s top editors and generally pay better. In fact, if you land enough FOB work, there’s a decent chance you’ll make more money than an actual Triple-A baseball player.

For freelancers interested in science who are pursuing print assignments, Popular Science‘s FOB is a good place to start. The magazine has been around since 1872, making it one of the longest-tenured publications not named Harper’s. To put that history in perspective, the magazine was 52 years old when The New Yorker published its first issue.

PopSci‘s editorial mission is to take scientific topics that are esoteric, the ones that we might vaguely remember from high school through a haze of chemical smoke, and tie them to current events in ways that a wider audience will find engaging and accessible. For journalists, that combo of culture and academia has the potential for some really rich writing opportunities.

I asked Breanna Draxler, who runs PopSci‘s front-of-book section NEXT, about what it takes for freelancers to get their stories in the magazine. Draxler came to the magazine after working as a writer and editor at Discover, and when she told me she had “a penchant for the Oxford comma,” I immediately knew she was a smart person who could give our readers important insight. Over email, she discussed why it’s important for writers to deal with a three-month production cycle, what NEXT stories typically pay, and how FOB pitches can lead to feature work.

How does a front-of-book pitch differ from a feature pitch?

An FOB story can’t afford to be meandering or flowery, so the pitches tend to be more explanatory and to the point. Show that you can break down complicated science in a clear and fun way. The hed does a lot more heavy lifting in the FOB, which can be a good test for a pitch, too: Can I sum up the awesome/important takeaway in hed form? FOB is a different beast, and I think it’s a wonderful challenge to be able to tell a complete story with colorful details and a compelling narrative arch in 200 words rather than 2,000.

Can you describe what NEXT is? What topics do you cover? What topics are off-limits?

NEXT is about the people, ideas, and technologies that are shaping the future. Every story offers an optimistic, solutions-oriented perspective on a science or tech topic relevant to readers’ lives today.

For those interested in contributing, are there any prerequisites related to experience, clips, etc. that writers need to have if they want to get a pitch accepted?

We only require that people are strong writers, have a compelling idea to pitch us, and are willing to work through edits as we go.

Are there certain topics or types of stories you’re more likely to accept from freelancers who you’ve never worked with before?

Every story, whether it’s from a new writer or a go-to contributor, comes down to how good an idea it is and how dedicated the writer is to seeing it through. If the story idea is half-baked, the execution of that story won’t be successful (or fun) for any of the parties involved. The editing process is really collaborative, and usually involves a lot of back-and-forth to iron out the details of a scientific concept or process. We really need to break things down, which is sometimes pretty involved.

What are some common errors you’ve come across when evaluating pitches?

Writing about science for the sake of science doesn’t fly here. We put equal weight on the two words in our name—popular and science. Every story has to have mass appeal, and it needs to offer a unique perspective. Also, since our production cycle is three months long, we don’t pretend to be able to cover news. Story pitches need to go beyond coverage of a paper that was just published or a finding that was just announced and offer some real context or analysis or a different angle.

If writers don’t hear from you, how long should they wait before following up?

I’d say a week. Sometimes, when we’re closing an issue, everything else has to go on the back burner for a few days. But I always encourage writers to shoot me an email if they haven’t heard back. I find it helpful rather than annoying. Your time is valuable, and I don’t want to waste it!

What’s the best way for writers to reach you? Do you care if someone attempts to make contact over social media?

Email is best. I am a big fan of talking through things on the phone, but it’s much easier to set that up via email ahead of time. You can certainly try to reach me on social media, but I’m not an active user, so it’s not your best shot.

What percentage of work in NEXT comes from freelancers?

Our content tends to be split pretty evenly, so probably about 60 percent freelance and 40 percent staff-written. Sometimes we come up with the ideas and assign them out to freelancers, and sometimes the ideas come from freelancers’ pitches.

What’s an example of a recent story from a freelancer that turned out well?

This was a fun one from our May issue: “Is It Time to Phone E.T.?

The writer came to me when she heard about a meeting that was being organized by the leaders in the field of SETI [search for extraterrestrial intelligence], in which they wanted to finally decide if and how to communicate with extraterrestrials. We shaped the story idea together, she attended the meeting, and then we were able to come up with a fun and approachable way to put the story on the page.

How much do you pay for NEXT pieces? I know rates may differ depending on certain factors, but is there a baseline number you offer the average story?

Every story in the NEXT section is different, but on average, they tend to run between $600 and $800.

Have freelancers who’ve written for NEXT gone on to write longer features for the magazine? If so, what does that path usually look like?

The FOB is a good place for a writer to break in. It gives you a chance to prove your pitching/researching/writing skills. Then, if you’ve got a great feature idea, and we can vouch for your ability to execute a strong story, we can put you in touch with the right editor. We definitely have writers who do both FOB and features, or who started in the former and have since moved into the latter more exclusively.

Do you have any final advice for writers who want a Popular Science byline?

Science stories should be fun, so make sure any story ideas you’re pitching are ones that you (and your roommate, and your uncle, and your neighbors) would all be intrigued to read.

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