In 2016, several high-profile news outlets ran the findings of a study from science journal “Analytical Methods” claiming that a set of art installations displayed at the Tate Modern in 2012 – clear tanks containing dead animals preserved in formaldehyde – may have leaked toxic fumes.
The articles were a discomforting read, even given the controversial history of the artist behind the installation, Damien Hirst – not least because a similar piece of art featuring a cock atop a cow was also displayed for diners at London restaurant Tramshed.
What was much less reported, however, was the subsequent story: namely, that after admitting his data may not have been reliable, the study’s lead author Pier Giorgio Righetti asked the journal to retract his paper.
This all-important, under-reported follow-up was first spotted by London-based freelance science writer Dalmeet Singh Chawla while he was working at Retraction Watch, an outfit that monitors retractions in scientific studies and academic research.
The New York Times was just one of a handful of major outlets to cover the retraction request, and gave Dalmeet’s post a hat tip in their own write-up.
That nod was one of several high-profile scoops and clippings to cement Dalmeet’s reputation in the science journalism community as a leading writer in the niche beat of meta-research and scholarly publishing — or the processes of science.
At the age of 28, just a few years after graduating with a Masters in Science Communication from Imperial College London, Dalmeet’s entrepreneurial and business savvy has helped him create a full-time freelancing career writing for some of the most auspicious science titles in the industry including Nature, Science, Physics Today, Undark Magazine and C&EN magazine alongside general interest publications like BBC Future, The Guardian, The Observer, The Economist, Slate, Pacific Standard and Medium.
He’s also been shortlisted as “Outstanding Young Journalist” at the Asian Media Awards and “Best Newcomer” Science Journalist award from the Association of British Science Writers.
Dalmeet shares his experiences, tips and tricks to making a living as a full-time science journalist.
Becoming a science journalist: How Dalmeet got his start
Dalmeet studied biochemistry at University College London. But he quickly realized he didn’t enjoy working in the lab. In his third year, he took a module exploring biosciences in business and media. It would be his lightbulb moment.
“It clicked straight away. I knew this was exactly what I wanted to do,” he said.
“That was the eureka moment, the clicking moment for me.”
After graduating, he applied to the highly competitive MSc Science Communication program at Imperial College London and succeeded in scoring a spot on his second try.
The masters program would teach him all about the world of journalism, which up to then was a murky industry, so unlike the one he studied. It would also offer him valuable internships at the BBC, The Observer and The Sunday Times.
“That course was absolutely essential. I didn’t know enough about journalism at the time. I was the classic science student: I knew about research and journal publications but journalists have unique skills. I would never have been able to learn them on my own.”
The big break that helped launch his career
While attending a talk on biomimicry (design and engineering modeled after nature and its own biological processes) at the Victoria & Albert Museum with a friend, Dalmeet was inspired to request an interview with the speaker, a designer for sportscar marker McLaren. In the beginning, his intention was to learn how to shoot and edit video with a real subject—a practice run, nothing more. But after playing back the footage, he realized he could pitch the piece as a freelancer. Eventually, several unanswered pitches later, BBC Future would take him up on the query and publish both the video interview and a 1,200 word piece on the site. It would be the break-through piece Dalmeet needed to give him street cred with future editors.
“I was quite pleased with that piece. It took a lot of work in the end, but it was worth it for the byline. For every freelance pitch on, I was able to include that link in my pitches.”
How Dalmeet chooses what to pitch–and what not to pitch
After interning at major daily newspapers in London, Dalmeet quickly realized that science writing at dailies is more about playing catch-up to breaking studies and working off of press releases over original reporting and scoops.
“At a newspaper, you cover stories that every other newspaper is doing. When you’re freelancing, editors are looking for pitches they’re not going to get anywhere else so you get to write unique stories,” he said. “It’s more satisfying to write something that’s not been published in 10 other places.”
Early on, his strategic decision to focus on meta-research and scholarly publishing helped him carve a niche in the industry, making him the “go-to guy” in the area.
“For a lot of stories I try to be ahead of the game. I’ll know about a study a week or two before the press release even goes out.”
That’s because he makes a concerted effort to network online via Twitter, building contacts, looking at what leaders and researchers are working on and tweeting, attending conferences where possible, and reaching out to attendees for information when it’s not.
Because he’s already made preliminary contact and expressed interest in their work, scientists reach out to him first when their work is ready to be publicized, giving him the scoop over the competition.
Pitching strategy: Diversify and multiply
After finishing a year-long contract at Retraction Watch covering corrections, Dalmeet returned to freelancing in 2017 a little wiser, a little more experienced. This time, he made a strategic effort to expand his portfolio to as many different media outlets as he could, scoring bylines in publications like Slate, Undark magazine, Quanta and Physics Today among others.
“By doing that, the big advantage is that you get your byline out there, but you also figure out what the rates are and what type of stories go where.”
In short time, Dalmeet knew which publications pay the most, pay on time, and which editors respond quickly to pitches, and which take forever.
In recent years, he’s also expanded his habitual range of subjects to technology, genetics and AI, and experimenting with different formats like Q and As and opinion articles.
“I’m trying to continually progress and know my field the best I can.”
Working for $1/word
“I try not to write for publications that don’t pay well.”
The exception may be a big publication that pays off in name recognition and visibility.
His average is $0.75 to $1/word.
“Once you’ve established yourself, you’ve written four or five good stories for them and establish a working relationship with an editor, negotiate a higher rate. At this point, you haven’t just popped into their inbox and randomly asking for more money.”
Dalmeet regularly consults http://whopayswriters.com/#/results for pay rates at different publications.
Pitch success rate
When he first started out, Dalmeet says his pitching average was one out of every 15 pitches. Today, he’s improved his odds considerably and says one out of two pitches usually gets accepted.
“To be honest, I think over the years I’ve become better at pitching than writing.”
The key? Find the news hook and know you have a story to tell, he says.
“When I was starting out, a lot of editors would tell me, ‘this is not a story.’”
“The best editors are the ones who bring the best out of you. They weed out the story out of your mess of an idea. The best editors help you find the angle and want to look for.”
Dalmeet’s general advice: “For writing and pitching you just have to keep at it. Pitch a number of times until you get the hang of it.”
Lesson learned the hard way
“I’ve calmed down a bit now, but when I first started I was very keen, and enthusiastic. I wanted to be the first at everything and get my name out there.”
One time, when his pitch for a feature went unanswered, Dalmeet decided to message the editor on Twitter at 11 pm, just a few days after sending the email.
The editor fired back saying that his phone was on push notifications and had woken both him and his daughter up. He also berated Dalmeet for not waiting long enough before following up with his pitch.
It was a brutal but important lesson for him.
“Keep calm and have patience, especially if your name is not out there. People will take their time getting back to you. You’re at the bottom of their list behind their regular contributors. The lesson I learned is to be patient and persevere in a firm and professional way through email, and to wait my turn.”
Have a back-up plan
When Dalmeet began freelancing, he had a side gig tutoring privately on the side.
“It’s one of those things I pull out of the bag when I need it.”
Today, he estimates about 10 percent of his income comes from tutoring. But he knows that should the work dry up one month, he can go back to tutoring to pay the bills.
“If there’s one thing readers should take away from this piece, it’s to have a backup plan.
That’s the most important thing I tell people in freelancing, be it fact-checking or copyediting. One shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that freelancing is stable.”
Though Dalmeet lives at home with his family in the Indian tradition, he says he could in theory, branch out on his own with his freelancing income in London.
Freelancing vs a staff job
Dalmeet was offered a staff position a few years ago but turned it down. After having worked both as a staff reporter and freelancer, he says he prefers the life of a freelancer.
“Freelancing allows you to manage your work around your life rather than your life around work.”
You can sort out your own timetable and manage your time the way you want.
It also offers more freedom to parents and caregivers.
“I’m basically living the dream,” he said.
“I just want to become better at what I’m doing now, and do it at a bigger scale and better level.”
Find out more about Dalmeet and his work at https://www.dalmeets.com/
Food, travel editor, appear regularly on @yahoo @CTVNews, @MSN @NYDailynews, freelance bylines in NYTimes, Boston Globe, Toronto Star, MSN